Posted by: Gabriel | March 9, 2009

On Heresy

I want to make a distinction in this post which may become a central point to my paper, so any criticism of what follows will be much appreciated.


Theology discusses issues which relate to humanity & humanity’s life in the world. These issues always have their beginning (source) & their end (fulfilment) in God. In working through these issues, orthodoxy searches for the opportunity to acknowledge, accept, establish, & utilise the cosmology which places humanity in its correct position & God in God’s correct position.


Heresy stands apart from orthodoxy because it subverts the relationships of humanity & God in one of four ways. It raises or lowers the position of humanity, or raises or lowers the position of God. Ultimately, however, the status of the human person remains objective & unchanged during the waxing & waning of ideologies. It is only in reference to God that humanity gains a qualitative property. From this, it seems that what is truly important in heresy is the raising or lowering of the status of humanity’s relationship to God. This is what a lot of atheists seem to favour in their heresy; an equating of humanity & God (or even lowering God to dependence on humanity, as in Rilke’s poem which Jenna shared).This raising or lowering (expanding or contracting) of humanity’s relationship with God is heresy because its conceived relationship is not reflected in the ‘true’ relationship between humanity & God (note the ‘true’; this is a subjective truth).


So the real question comes to light: how can we know what orthodoxy is? This question can be answered, I think, only so long as it is not interpreted to be asking: what is the True relationship between humanity & God? The issue, of course, is that the wrong question is being asked. The ‘true’ relationship of orthodoxy is not the objectively True relationship that is sought in the latter question (which is the question which heresy asks).


In one insists on saying that the search for the True relationship is the raison d’être of theology; it must be stressed that this is a search without an end to which one can look forward. Theology is a process; to say that one can ‘finish’ theology would be a nonsensical statement. In the search for the True relationship, one could only ever come to any little knowledge of their own ‘true’ relationship – their personal relationship with God as it exists at that moment. It seems to be that the best explanation for dogmatic statements from the church is that they act as an arrow to such ‘true’ relationships as seem to be universal for all humanity (e.g. that people are universally dependent upon God).


The difference between orthodoxy & heresy, therefore, is that orthodoxy embraces the unending search for the ‘truth’, whereas heresy puts a stop to the search and declares a success. Heresy establishes one or another relationship as True. Even if the relationship established is a ‘true’ one, to elevate it to the position of True & abandon all searching for a better ‘truth’ would be heresy. The difference between the True of heresy and the universal ‘true’ of dogmatic orthodoxy would be that the purpose of the ‘true’ of orthodoxy is to deepen the search and push us farther into holy unknowing.



  1. Gabe, I really love the last paragraph of your post, but can’t help my immediate reaction of thinking, “I wish this were actually the case but it seems to be the opposite.” Maybe it is my uninformed experience with what orthodoxy is or teaches, but I have the impression that in reality orthodoxy proposes the Truth and in the case of the Catholic Church, seems very unwilling to open itself into further holy unknowing and searching. Rather it is tradition which becomes a sort of truth to trump all others and past revelation seems to take precedence over current revelation which calls on one to transcend previous ideas and delve further into that vast, dark, mystery of the divine. Many prophetic voices throughout the Church’s history have been condemned as heretics for calling the Church into a deeper understanding of the divine and wanting to help it transcend its own imposed limitations in discovering the truth that is God and humanity’s relationship with that God. In the Church today it seems heretical to call for women’s ordination within the Catholic Church because it goes against their “Truth” that only men can be ordained because men somehow poses a greater similarity to Christ and God than do women. This to me is heresy but is presented as orthodoxy. To subvert woman’s participation in the divine image and create a hierarchical relationship with God-man-woman is a heresy because it tries to elevate man’s relationship with God while lowering woman’s. Yet this is taught as orthodoxy. I don’t think you are necessarily wrong in your argument, and in fact I really hope that you are right, but I see the lived practice and teaching of the Church being the opposite. Orthodoxy seems to set up the one and only Truth against all others and thus prevents one from delving deeper into the holy mystery, while many heresies and heretics have called for a sort of liberation from the Truth in order to constantly transcend previous thought and ideas of the divine mystery. I would be really interested in how you have seen the interplay between orthodoxy and heresy lived out in the Church.

  2. Hey Jen. We already chatted a little about this; so I’ll just take a moment to expand on what I said and what this post means. As I told you, I vacillated for a while on whether to put a footnote saying that this wasn’t a historiographical study on European religion. Rather, I meant to take this from somewhat of a God’s-eye view of what it means to be orthodox (ortho-doxos – ‘correctly praising/thinking’) versus what it means to be heretical (hairesis – ‘to choose’). If God could make us understand what it means to truly be in orthodox (in line with God) it would be this assumption into Mystery, rather than the [artificial (human)] choices of heresy.

    Your concern is valid, Jen, but also slightly misaimed, since there isn’t one identification of ‘orthodox’. We Catholics are heretics to a fundamentalist Protestant. It’s true that Rome makes stands and identifies doctrines and disciplines as ‘orthodox’, but Rome also recognises that it is fallible on these issues. Likewise, I would never say that Rome is perfect and hasn’t/doesn’t overstep its authority to the detriment of the faith and the flock. Heresy and orthodoxy are things which transcend religious boundaries.

    I will say that I think that the strong apophatic tradition in Christianity (both Eastern and Western) supports the orthodox strands of faith. I hope that we get a chance to discuss apophaticism some more; maybe Monday. Until then!

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