Tuesday, May 22, 2007

God the Heretic

Whenever I have come across the word "heresy" in my studies, whether in lectures or books, authors of all theological strains are usually at pains to remind us that the word comes from the Greek αἵρεσις, hairesis, meaning "to choose" (yes, I did CTRL+C those words, italics and all, from Wikipedia). The word "choice" has an almost magical effect on some wistful moderns, inspiring them to become serious and far-gazing, receiving in to their trembling hands the golden tongs of the salad bar of eternity, as they solemnly utter, "Gone is the sweet fable of the past, when Truth was given; now there are many truths, and I must choose." A single tear rolls down the modern face. Cue Oleander's "I Walk Alone".

Indeed, Peter Berger's "The Heretical Imperative" argued precisely this, that whatever one's religion--from traditional Christianity to Mahayana Buddhism, it is a chosen religion and cannot be otherwise. He then proceeds to go on about plausibility structures as if this could be cheerful news for Christianity. Viva la heresy.

A point of analytic philosophy, a mere whisper among the enthusiasm for choice, is: can anyone be said to choose their beliefs at all? That was one of the first criticisms I read when studying William James' famous essay, "The Will to Believe". The very notion of a "chosen belief" seems self-contradictory. Presumably if someone believes something, it is believed for some reason--whether good or bad, or whether well-articulated or not. If I were conscious of having a belief because I have chosen to have it; i.e., that it is born out of sheer will, then I cannot actually be said to believe it, can I? I cannot choose to believe something which I know, or think, is false. And if I don't know, I might have a hypothesis--but the very word implies that it is less (hypo) than a real belief (thesis). One can have entertain contradicting hypotheses; one cannot hold opposite beliefs. Choice alone does not a belief make.

In fact, I recall reading that William James himself acknowledged that this was the case, and suggested that his essay would have been better titled, "The Right to Believe". But that does not change James' point that, even if we do not directly choose our beliefs in the manner I described above, still, desires and beliefs are mixed up somehow. A hint as to how is the bit of text from the Pensees that follows the so-called "Pascal's Wager":
Go, then, and take holy water, and have masses said; belief will come and stupefy your scruples – Cela vous fera croire et vous abêtira.
Whereas some have accused Pascal of committing the error of "doxastic voluntarism", this single line actually vindicates him. Pascal never suggested that we choose our beliefs; we do not come to believe, rather, "belief will come." What we do choose is not our beliefs, but our surroundings, our influences--what we listen to, and what we do not listen to. In addition, it is notable, Pascal does not tell the reader what not to listen to, but suggests rather that one add to one's tributaries of influence one thing which might be lacking--exposure to worship. Pascal himself did not shy away from the company of his secularist peers; indeed, it was they, not he, who had constricted their scope of vision.

Blah, I've hit a block. I don't want to let this essaylet die; I do have a point. Need to take a break.


Br. Thomas said...

Is your point moving along the lines of God is the heretic because God chose us and we did not choose him? There is a choice involved in heresy, the choice not to live what you believe, or not to accept the environment where faith expresses itself.

I love the concept of heresy. The pet concept floating around here, which I would love to credit to myself, though I'm sure it really came from Denis (the Robinson or Areopagite I don't know), is that heresy closes off mystery and defines the object of faith rather than allow God to live and act, come and go, whisper or command, be human and divine, all at the same time.

Derrida was quoting Jan Patocka's Heretical Essays in the former's book The Gift of Death. I got annoyed when it seemed that Patocka's idea of heresy was to break down definitions and allow mystery into our concepts of God.

I love (hate) how people attack the Church by using her advanced theology without even knowing it. People love to attack and become heretics toward a church that is not a church, toward their idea of church.

It is right and proper and wonderful when someone can no longer believe in their childish image of God. Maybe then they can stop looking at the idol and let themselves be seen by the unseen God.

And the graced thing is that even though we have multiple idols without realizing it, God can even speak through these, I think, maybe. At least in my experience the important thing is not to be theologically advanced but to believe what you believe while being open to learn more.

Ok, this comment is becoming my own little post.

Suzanna said...

You can choose not to believe in something. I have a friend who became Catholic and, just as quickly as he was confirmed, he left the church. He chose to stop believing by ignoring the truth or by denying that the truth is truth. But, no, in my own quest, I find that I believe not out of a choice but out of a need to be honest, with myself, the world, and God. Honesty is looking Truth square in the eye and admitting it is there, whether one likes it or not.

aapodaca said...

Heresy. The concept of choosing. An art of the conscience.

By now I will tell anyone that the word has a negative connotation. To be simply here and now, without choice, is a large heresy in my small-town. Somehow it has become ill and backwards to label oneself as without choice, yet my belief in the Lord constitutes a lack of will on my part on Earth. Not to say that I refuse to choose a way, I merely refuse to think I have a choice.

Many sore souls I have met, in a church or in a drug den, have led me into a world where nothing I do is good enough for our Lord. What fools! If something we did amounted to nothing to the Lord then we would be lucky. It is obvious that my choice of belief is mine and could never be heresy in so long as I have an intimate relationship with God.

Do the sore souls really go home thinking that they are right and I am wrong? If so, then they are imperfect too, for laying judgment upon what I have shared with them. If not, then I apologize to those souls, because I am no better than them. We all reach death. To do that we all must live. And life, by my tired definition, is not a choice of our conscience.

But I digress.

Jeff said...

These are all awesome comments and I hope to incorporate them all. :) And Br. Thomas, I touch on the fact that God is the one who choses, but there's more to it than that. This will be a fun post.

Also, aapodaca, welcome. :)

Rusty said...

Well as the "friend that left the church" If I might I'd like to toss my two cents into ring.

As two people got into my head. Truth can be a very relative thing. One can read a long series of arguments, study histories and philosophers intently and read the as many of the core teachings of a Religion an yet unless he knows the proper definitions to go by.

Unless he has the for lack of a better term, rosettes stone of said group. It is all done in vane. Trust me it wasn't arrived at by choice. An I can't begin to describe how terrible and sick I felt when I saw I wasn't standing on a rock, but a very cracked and crumbling stone (to my eyes). Everything well apart from there...

Honestly I was scared to go back. I couldn't bare to face anyone, not until I have this worked out for myself. It is something I have to do alone...

I know for my Catholic friends no answer beside "I'll come back will" be sufficient. The same is true of my Protest friends. My Mormon, Jehovah's Witness and Muslim friends will most likely only accept "okay I'll convert."

An that's how it is...