Toward a Practical Heresy

Jeff Gundy

I was scraping white paint from the business end of my hammer when it hit me—not the hammer, but the the idea I'd been waiting for all summer. I'd spent the time at my usual odd welter of projects (and some loafing). In May, right after the college year ended, I helped my son tear down the engine of the Volvo we got cheap because it had serious issues. Then I replaced the small, high windows in our family room with a beautiful (if overpriced) bay window so that we could see the back yard and put up some bird feeders. In July I worked on my sister's utility room with my dad and brother, rebuilding a closet and laying a new tile floor, and then put down new floors in our upstairs bathroom and our kitchen. Now I needed the hammer to drive stakes to frame the little patch of concrete I was hoping to pour in the neck where our driveway widens and we always end up driving off the edge into what's supposed to be grass but is usually mud.

In between all these tangible projects, I was reading arcane texts about remote times and places, especially about various heresies and heretics. I found stories of people whose beliefs were often extreme, sometimes touching, sometimes ludicrous, sometimes frightening, and whose ends were often sad, violent, or both: the gnostics, the Cathars, the Free Spirit heretics, the Anabaptists who included many of my own ancestors, many others. My search led me into all sorts of other scattered texts and authors: Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, the poet Antonio Machado and social critics like Raoul Vaneigem and Greil Marcus. In between, I spent a week in the woods at a nature writing workshop and took a little trip with my wife to Quebec, including a pilgrimage to the Lady of the Harbor in Montreal, immortalized in Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." By the hammer moment I was spinning, mind and body, among all these various interests, intentions, demands and desires.

I started pondering all this a couple of years ago when a student turned up one day in a black t-shirt that read "Heretic in Good Company." It listed many great and unconventional men and women—Luther, Calvin, Joan of Arc, Meister Eckhart, Margaret Porette, Peter Waldo, Menno Simons, even Jesus himself. The point is one I've been muddling over ever since: many of the ideas and ideals that human beings now cherish most dearly were first received as the rankest of heresies, their proponents attacked, imprisoned, tortured, even killed. At least one corollary seems equally clear: very likely we are still doing the same thing, deriding as heresy or dismissing as crazy ways of thinking that will prove themselves out over time, and win wide if not universal acceptance.

This is not just some otherworldly, arcane business, although reading the heresy debates of the past can boggle the mind and the spirit. The intensity of the rhetoric, often, seems inversely proportional to the significance of the issue. But while the terms and the sides have changed, the days of religious wars are not over. Even in these post-Christendom times, the ways we organize the human world still often depend on our religious beliefs and assumptions, especially in societies like the United States (and much of the Muslim world) where religion continues to play an enormous, if enormously complicated, role in public life and discourse.

My own Mennonite tradition has been entangled in questions of heresy from its start, nearly five centuries ago, in a set of related groups who came to be known as "Anabaptists" for their practice of baptizing (or re-baptizing) adult believers. These rebels saw themselves as pious believers who only meant to renew the church, but their rivals—not only Catholics but the newly emerging Lutherans and Calvinists and other emerging reformers as well—saw them as threats to both the religious and the social order. Part of the threat was theological; some Anabaptists adapted decidedly unconventional beliefs. While these theological issues generated vast numbers of tracts, pamphlets, and books, however, the true issues had—and have—less to do with abstract theological questions than with their implications.

As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, the real question is who is to be master. Like Calvin, other authorities of Europe saw in Anabaptism a radical threat to the order of things—for the Anabaptists claimed that their first loyalty was to Christ rather than to the State, and that when the two conflicted there could be only one choice. Even the Anabaptist refusal to swear oaths, based on Jesus' "Let your yea be yea, and your nay be nay," threatened social cohesion, particularly the bonds that held peasants in sworn obedience to their masters for labor and as soldiers. The Christian must obey his conscience before all secular authority— the logic was dangerously simple and dangerously lucid, as was the insistence that true Christians must take Jesus' words and example seriously and refuse to take up arms or to kill. If the broad range of citizens came to believe so, who would fight the nobles' wars?

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2006, Vol. 56,  No 1.