Coming Out As a Heretic

Not religious, not spiritual, not atheist—what’s left?

I could very much relate to the recent NPR story about a Christian minister losing her faith. Like her, I once counted myself among the über-faithful but then “fell away” in my twenties. Despite marrying a clergyman and spending lots of time in theological school, I never made it back to the one true way.

But there is a major difference in my story and this minister’s story, which is that she has embraced the name “atheist,” while I cannot bring myself to do so.

This reluctance is not because I have anything obvious to lose. Being an atheist would not cause any new familial strife; and unlike the pastorate, my career does not demand any particular religious orthodoxy. The major issue for me is an aversion to militant secularism, akin to some people’s aversion to “organized religion.” The new atheism, of the sort that has celebrities, conventions, media outlets, or protest marches, is not simply about doubting the existence of traditional deities. It is more often about intellectual elitism, and sometimes even outright racism toward people whom Christopher Hitchens referred to as “semi-stupefied peasants in desert regions.” Orthodox secularism, it seems, is about feeling superior to those poor, deluded souls who still cling to religion—that weird little psycho-social appendix left over from some earlier stage in human evolution.

Other common categories don’t seem to fit well either. The ever-popular “spiritual but not religious” implies a particular type of interior life—one grounded in emotion and experience more than cognition. A Jewish friend of mine calls herself “religious but not spiritual,” but this doesn’t seem to work as well in a Protestant framework, where individual faith is emphasized over ethnicity or outward traditions. The “Emerging Church” is a possible refuge, but it still strikes me as vaguely imperialistic; and try as I might, I simply don’t see myself among the so-called “rise of the nones.”

Thus, for folks who are unorthodox but aren’t atheists, who care about metaphysics but who aren’t mystics, perhaps the good old-fashioned term “heretic” will satisfy. The kind of heresy I’m talking about here is what Thomas Aquinas defined as “restricting belief to certain points of Christ’s doctrine [as determined by the Roman Catholic hierarchy] selected and fashioned at pleasure.” (I would question only the implication that heretics are unique in “selecting and fashioning” their beliefs “at pleasure.”)

I find this name appealing for multiple reasons, not least of which is that it allows me to claim some connection to Christianity. The more I’ve learned about the history of Christianity, the more I’ve come to accept its ongoing diversity. The earliest Christians, as evidenced by both the New Testament and ancient theological writings, did not agree on the nature of Jesus or his work. In the fourth and later centuries, Christians made valiant (if misguided) attempts to unify their beliefs and practices by stamping out what they saw as errors; but Jesus people haven’t agreed since then either, despite centuries of the religious elite claiming otherwise.

Embracing heresy is a way of asserting my place—however tenuous—in this ancient tradition, while acknowledging that most of what I think and do will not pass creedal litmus tests. In a religion of more than two billion adherents, this is hardly a surprise.

I also like “heretic” because it is different, at least in my mind, than secularism, atheism, or “none.” Heresy implies not rejection of or indifference toward religion and its objects, but rather curiosity and engagement. Just because I can’t see or make sense of God doesn’t mean I don’t want to, or that I hate believers; on the contrary, I respect—with fear and trembling—the powerful role that religious experience plays in the lives most humans. Heresy demands a particular religious vocabulary, though it also allows for unabashed syncretism (call it a salad bar if you must). I can be what one of my students called a “Chreaster” who looks to the Daodejing for wisdom, who reads my child Bible stories but also Zen parables, a biography of Muhammad, and Greek myths.

Yes, acknowledging our heresy might be just the thing for non-religious non-atheists. It’s certainly better than opting out altogether, ceding the sacred turf to those lucky enough to have found answers to all their questions. Indeed, we may even be doing them a favor. After all, where would orthodoxy be without heresy to remind it of what it’s not?

Originally posted on Religion Dispatches.

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