The Real Heresy – Part 1
Submitted by Jerry Kvasnicka
The Christian church is in decline, in America and elsewhere in the world. Not only are the numbers of people who regularly attend Sunday services decreasing, but the capacity of churches to be a substantial force influencing public policy, social affairs and cultural life in general is on the wane. This applies to mainline denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians as well as Roman Catholicism. The exodus is particularly notable among those forty and under.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a book entitled BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS in which he laments the decline of traditional Christian religion in the United States. Quoting from the introduction to an interview with Douthat that appeared in the May issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY: “The biggest threat facing America is not a faltering economy or a spate of books by famed atheists. Rather, the country meets new challenges due to the decline of traditional Christianity.” In the book Douthat takes “his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America’s decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.”
Heresy as defined by my dictionary is “adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma” – “an opinion, doctrine or practice contrary to generally accepted beliefs or standards.” And a heretic is “a dissenter from established church dogma.” The terms are generally used in a religious context, but may be applied to any perceived departure from historically accepted thought or practice; i.e. there may be scientific heretics, economic heretics and political heretics. The terms are definitely pejorative, having a negative connotations, and are intended to discredit or stigmatize the deviation from orthodoxy.
Douthat identifies three distinct strands of heresy within the Christian religious milieu that merit his designation of “bad religion.” One seeks a Jesus more congenial to contemporary American culture and is associated with Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown. Another is referred to as “the prosperity gospel,” the idea that God wants you to get rich, and is exemplified by Texas televangelist Joel Osteen. A third strand, associated with such figures as Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and Oprah Winfrey, emphasizes the God within and borders on narcissism (God is there to make you feel happy about yourself).
Lest the reader have any doubts, may I just state at the outset that I am not disturbed or in any way dismayed by traditional Christianity’s decline; in fact, I applaud it and wouldn’t mind if it totally disappeared from the world stage. If this makes me a “heretic,” I’m delighted to accept the label. But where is the real heresy? I would point to Christianity itself!
It seems that the baseline for any determination of heresy would be the life and teachings of Jesus. And when I examine the latter I find no basis whatsoever for the central doctrine of all forms of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, namely that Jesus came to “die on the cross for our sins,” that the blood sacrifice of “the Son of God” was the condition set up by God to pay the alleged penalty for human transgressions, and that professed belief in these things guarantees individual salvation and an afterlife in heaven. All of this is the product of human interpretation and imagination particularly by the early Christian church and most notably by Paul the Apostle and is a gross and I would say insidious distortion of what Jesus actually brought.
Jesus never intended to establish a religion, and I’m sure that were he able to observe the collection of doctrines, assorted salvation formulas, systems of theology, rites, rituals and sprawling ecclesiastical edifices that have been established by human beings in his name he might be inclined to act in the same way he did when he cleared the money changers from the temple. “Jesus called. He wants his religion back.” So reads a popular bumper sticker. I suspect that if Jesus got back the religion that has been constructed in his name, he would rather promptly dissolve it. And so it is a most auspicious development that large numbers of human beings are beginning to see the bill of goods sold in the name of Jesus for what it actually is and to recover the authenticity and simplicity of the original Gospel message.
And it is simple indeed. These words from Emmett Fox’s book THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT beautifully describe something of this simplicity: “Our Father. This simple statement [beginning the Lord’s prayer] in itself constitutes a definite and complete system of theology. It fixes clearly and distinctly the nature and character of God. It sums up the Truth of Being. It tells all that man needs to know about God, about himself and about his neighbor. Anything added to this can only be by way of commentary, and is more likely than not to complicate and obscure the true meaning of the text…. Note that this clause which fixes the nature of God at the same time fixes the nature of man, because if man is the offspring of God, he must partake of the nature of God, since the nature of the offspring is invariably similar to that of the parent…. Do you not see that at a single blow it swept away ninety-nine percent of all the old theology with its avenging God, its chosen and favored individuals, its eternal hell fire and all the other horrible paraphernalia of man’s diseased and terrified imagination.”
“If man is the offspring of God, he must partake of the nature of God.” Yes, and in the opening book of the Bible we read that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” This doesn’t exactly correspond to the conventional Christian understanding of man as a basically woeful and hapless being permanently tainted by “original sin” and desperately in need of redemption. Human beings share the very nature of God and are on earth as representatives of God to “dress and keep the garden,” i.e. to bless and otherwise care for the earth. Jesus did his best to exemplify and communicate this to the people in his sphere of influence but was ultimately thwarted by the religious and political power structure of his day. But here we are in this day with a new opportunity and responsibility to convey this message to the world.
Jerry Kvasnicka, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, has had a varied career as a youth minister, a radio news reporter, a writer and editor for several magazines and journals and a custodian with the Loveland, Colorado school district. He has lived at the Sunrise Ranch spiritual community in Loveland for twenty-four years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.