When we are emotional about something we may have a tendency to toss words around without paying much attention to their actual meaning. This is especially true in such volatile areas as politics, religion, and sexual orientation. They just come rolling out of our mouths and we move on, not realizing that we may have said something that we really didn’t intend to say.
One of the words that falls subject to this behavior is found in the realm of religious thought. It is easy in the midst of a conversation, debate, or argument about religious issues to declare that someone who disagrees with us is “a heretic.” It’s an easy word to pull up from our lexicon of angry words, but it may not mean exactly what we think it means.
Granted, most dictionaries go directly the commonly-held understanding that a heretic is “a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church.” That is the first definition listed on the online dictionary, Dictionary.com. And, if you check the other dictionaries available to you, that will be the primary meaning set forth.
But hidden down there in the “alternate” meanings is the fact that the word heretic comes from the Greek language and actually means “someone who makes a choice” or “someone capable of making a choice.” There is clearly an overlap of these meanings and the one from Dictionary.com. But there is also a divergence.
Heretic implies that someone makes an intelligent, studied choice about things as serious as one’s faith. It is not just a knee-jerk reaction, but an intentional, consistent choice based upon study, contemplation, research, and…yes…even prayer. It is interesting, for instance, that in the eyes of millions of people Martin Luther is seen as a religious hero. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, however, he was seen as a heretic. One’s perspective is affected by one’s own beliefs and understandings.
A colleague of mine is Harry T. Cook, an outspoken Episcopal Priest who happens to be a Greek scholar and a skeptic when it comes to some of the beliefs and traditions which have defined Christianity for many. He is a very controversial thinker, writer, and speaker. But he is also a devout Christian whose understanding of Christianity depends upon understandings he has developed from his scholarship. He sees no inconsistency between his theology and his practice as a Priest. Just don’t make any assumptions about what he believes without talking with him or reading his books. You might be shocked to discover that some of the beliefs you hold near and dear don’t fit his understanding of the Christian faith.
On the back cover of his book, Sermons of a Devoted Heretic it says this about the author:
Cast in the idiom of contemporary culture, Harry Cook’s sermons make it possible for the rational agnostic to be intellectually comfortable in organized religion. With Cook’s sermons you don’t have to check your mind at the church door. Inquirers and doubters alike find both challenge and encouragement in them.”
I don’t claim to own all of Harry Cook’s understandings, but I have great respect for his scholarship and his inspiration to challenge easy beliefs. I find it helpful for people to question and to choose, which is, strangely enough, the Greek meaning of the word heretic. His understandings challenge literal interpretation of scripture and encourage believers and non-believers, alike, to seek a faith that is consistent and meaningful. Much of what we believe is “story” which has come down to us over the centuries and is significant, as long as we understand it to be “story.” It may inspire passion, but we have to ask if it has credibility. The sources sometimes differ greatly from what we believe to be the actual heritage of our beliefs. The act of “choosing’ is not the same as rejecting; it is putting story in the correct place in our faith system.
Photo Credit: Alan Knox