When “none of the above” doesn’t fit

Kate Blanchard, writing at Religion Dispatches, reflects on her spiritual journey and finds that none of the usual labels–religious, spiritual or atheist–fit. She proposes an alternative.

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?

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