Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Gift of Heresy: What Western Culture Lost in the Reformation


There were so many lasting effects of the Reformation on Western Civilization, it is no wonder more has been written about Martin Luther than any man except Jesus. Economic, cultural, philosophical and, of course, ecclesial changes swept Europe and were eventually shipped to America. The “Protestant work ethic,” anti-Catholic sentiment and distrust of authority were offshoots of Luther’s originally ideological disagreement over justification with the Roman Catholic Church, and these fiercely independent characteristics are part of what define America. No doubt the Catholic Church was ripe for Reformation; it had been corrupt for centuries, practicing simony, the selling of indulgences, and confusing church and state as freely as any theocracy might.

But at least a little, if not a lot, was lost in the Reformation. Non-Catholic Christians, like myself, lost the ability to claim there was one true church in the literal sense; even though we confess in one “holy catholic and apostolic church.” I assume this means one spiritual church, not one physical one. I have no problem confessing this, but it’s a shame we can’t literally be one, and only one church. We also lost common understandings of the sacraments, and how to achieve salvation. But maybe worst of all, Protestants effectively lost the gift of heresy, the ability to rightly accuse a heretic of false or perverted teachings. Losing an understanding of heresy may have had a further-reaching impact on western civilization than any other consequence of the Reformation.

Let’s quickly define heresy. Here’s a definition I found that sounds about right: “Doctrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter. The opposite of orthodoxy.” Far from the stereotypes of the Church calling anyone and everyone heretics as during the Spanish Inquisition, the Church successfully defended right thinking of the faith for many centuries, usually democratically and nonviolently. These half-truths (as all heresy is in some part truth) were debated, voted down and decided they could not be tolerated for the GOOD of the faithful. After all, salvation was on the line.

But after the Reformation, what institution would Lutherans turn to for a definition of orthodoxy? Worse, just as an example, who do the literally tens of thousands of Pentecostal denominations turn to do today to define what is heresy and what is not? At least Lutherans didn’t fall far from the tree. But today’s Protestants are a whole different fruit, whose doctrinal gears are so stripped they can scarcely determine the difference between historic heresy and historic doctrine.

More practically, and, in a sense, more importantly, western culture lost over time the ability to call any moral behavior heretical, not just bad religious thinking. Of course, we wouldn’t use the word “heretical;” we would call it “immoral,” or “wrong,” or even just plain old “bad.” But we would call it something, and it might even be bad enough that we would willingly separate ourselves from it, by ostracization or even shunning. The Amish understand this, as did the ancient Greeks and many African tribes continue to practice shunning as a way of discipline. I’m not saying we need to adopt those discipline techniques per se, but we shouldn’t dismiss all discipline so quickly either. Guilt plays an integral part in our moral development, and as we have lost the ability to call immoral behavior “heretical,” guilt been put on a back burner so far away, it is hardly in reach of the pilot light anymore.

What else would make teenage girls go on “The Today Show” (with that hardest-of-hitting journalist Katie Couric) and brag (at worst) or feel no remorse (at best) for smoking marijuana, performing oral sex and binge drinking at the ages of 14 and 15? To these girls, their behavior wasn’t wrong. They were behaviors everyone does at some point, just good learning experiences. Or what about the regularity of soft porn or hard porn images in cultural life? No heresy here! Just a moral preference, no more right or wrong than any other!

Is this the result of losing the ability to call heresy what it is? Perhaps my thesis is too far-reaching. Perhaps there is no connection between the historical breaking away from the Catholic Church and western culture’s descent into excused immorality. But something happened. Something has allowed our present culture to feel no remorse for wrong behavior, and something has prevented our present culture for calling wrong behavior wrong. We mocked those who called heretics “heretics” for so long that we have prevented ourselves from using such accurate labels. Goodbye truth, hello disorder, until we reclaim the authority to speak the truth in love for the GOOD of ourselves. Persecuting heresy, whether ecclesial or cultural, is a blessed enterprise if done out of love.

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