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Heretical about Heresy

In response to:

Confusion among Christians from the May 31, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Cameron’s thoughtful review [NYR, May 31] of my book, The Seduction of the Spirit, raises such a crucial theological issue that it seems a shame to let it drop as casually as he does. He seems sure that my effort to push Christianity beyond its present exclusivistic Christology would make it something other than Christianity. He compares the nonparticularistic Christianity I advocate to Marxism without the class struggle or psychoanalysis without the unconscious.

Just as such dramatically transmuted versions of these recent theories should no longer properly be called Marxism or psychoanalysis, he argues, so any Christianity which does not insist on Jesus Christ as the sole and exclusive way to God would no longer be Christianity but something else.

I think his analogy is misleading and his argument, though plausible at first, is finally mistaken. Although Mr. Cameron believes he has St. Paul on his side (and well he may) he is careful not to claim the whole New Testament. I am glad he does not. Presumably he knows that the New Testament includes a wide variety of different Christologies, not just the Pauline one he prefers. Indeed every recent advance in New Testament studies reveals an early church that is even more theologically disparate and heterogeneous than the one we knew before. In fact the whole question of just what was orthodox or heterodox in New Testament times, and for a couple centuries thereafter, is now very much in question.

During the early centuries of the Christian era, various Christologies contended vigorously with each other. And although the councils finally settled on the one we now call “orthodox,” the others did not simply disappear. They persisted, often finding large numbers of adherents, and have reappeared time and again despite the strenuous efforts of established churches to enforce exclusivist orthodoxy century after century. Nestorians, Monophysites, Albigensians, Socians, Waldensians and countless others have preserved a fulsome variety of options in Christological theology. The debate rages on today and, despite what Mr. Cameron says, is in no way settled.

What Mr. Cameron is suggesting, admittedly in a kindly way, is that my book is heretical. I could recoil at the term or parade the usual argument reminding him that the books of St. Thomas were burned by the guardians of theological orthodoxy at the University of Paris, that Luther was excommunicated, and so on. I think, however, in keeping with the thesis of The Seduction of the Spirit. I would rather retain the “heretic” label, since the book is in part a celebration of the legitimacy and importance of heresy in any vital religion. Heresy is the growing tip at which a religion touches, transforms, adapts to and transmutes its environing culture. It is also the process by which repressed elements within any religion assert themselves, often to become orthodoxies subsequently. In one sense Paul was a “heretical” Pharisee and Buddha a “heretical” Hindu.

My books’ point, and Mr. Cameron has been alert enough to catch it, is that at crucial stages in any religion’s history, its heresies may give it more survival value than its orthodoxies. I think Christianity is now at just such a crisis and that the fact of global religious pluralism renders many of our previous “orthodox” definitions of Christ obsolete. History is strewn with the fossils of religions that died rather than change. Christianity is still a vital and vigorous—and therefore changing—movement. What may or may not be called “Christianity” a hundred years hence is something no one today can safely predict. My hunch is, however, that my preferred future—a deimperialized Christianity—will be more “orthodox” than many people, including Mr. Cameron, now suppose.

Harvey Cox

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

J.M Cameron replies:

I am glad to comment on Harvey Cox’s courteous letter, though most of what I wrote about the “relativizing” of the Christian preaching had to do with things in Mrs. Ruether’s book. But I did think he came under the same criticism.

  1. It seems to me that the New Testament does not contain so much a variety of Christologies as a variety of theologies. I would argue that orthodoxy in Christology is an attempt to do justice to all the elements in the New Testament tradition. I find this attempt in Athanasius’s treatise on the Incarnation and in the Tome of Leo.

  2. I wasn’t talking primarily about Christology but about a relativizing of the whole Christian proclamation. I can find no theological tradition in the New Testament that doubted the proclamation’s being unique and “final.” This belief is as much Johannine as it is Pauline, is present in the synoptic Gospels as it is in the Letter to the Hebrews.

  3. I have a difficulty over Mr. Cox’s concept of heresy. Historically heretics—how we are to pick them out is a question I don’t raise—have always maintained that it is they who are orthodox. This holds good of Arius on the Son, of Zwingli on the Eucharist, of Port Royal on Grace, of Mary Baker Eddy (or the Cathars) on the physical world. The notion of a heretic who delights in the heretical character of his belief seems self-contradictory. What in this field a man claims to be true he claims ipso facto to be orthodox.

  4. I agree that the ecclesiastical historian is bound to see some virtue, intellectual and/or moral, in what, in the light of the maxim securus iudicat orbis terrarum, is called heretical. The orthodox can be very disappointing and heretical beliefs are never simply false. I agree, too, that religious pluralism throughout the world raises many problems theologians have hitherto not seen or have neglected. But how does the fact of pluralism in itself imply that the Christian proclamation has to be relativized? Of course, I believe with Newman that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”; but this principle is, by and large, exemplified in the history of a non-relativized Christianity. I see absolutely no reason to suppose that the Christianity represented by (to be ecumenical) Barth and Rahner, Cullmann and Congar, Torrance and Schillebeeckx, is unlikely to survive. My guess is—and here neither Mr. Cox nor myself is able to do more than guess—that the relativizers will in history have a place a bit like that of Schleiermacher or Ritschl, religious thinkers who really do bring out what it is to be a fossil.

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