Orthodox and Heretic

The heretic wakes up to work on his own ideas. He thinks the road is his own, even if he’s traveling it in service to others. His idiom is self-created, for it is his own voice he crafts when he writes and speaks. His pride, in part, is to undermine what others have accepted as true. He is happy to have obtained a secret knowledge or gnosis as the possession of his struggle. The key to understanding him is independence.

The orthodox wakes up to work with what God has done and is doing. The road belongs to the people God has gathered to himself, with whom he shares responsibility for what is said. The idiom is a mysterious outflowing of Spirit, drawing on the individual’s talents but tested and verified in prayer and by the witness of other holy people throughout time. His happiness is a reality of communio: his joy is in you, your joy in him. The key to understanding him is gratitude.

The heretic’s writings, however, blaze alone. Who could really enter his zone? He speaks in his own tongue: at best, to extricate himself from falsehoods he perceived, at worse, to show off his cleverness and advertise himself. If a following formed around him, it would likely end up alienated, confused and swiftly dispersed. And so observers regard the heretic from a respectful distance—perhaps they even marvel at the anomaly he’s made. But heretics also make this distance seductive and so provoke to more hereticism: they encourage others to go their own path, take a maverick’s approach. This, they allege, is more respectable than right belief, which just follows the crowd. So they convince others this is the way to truth–and how attractive: heretics make a name for themselves regardless of where they come out.

The orthodox writer, by contrast, is glad to disappear for God’s sake. He makes a gift of himself without reserve, obedient to the self-giving cause of his being and delight. He does not want his reader to think—Oh, the cleverness and brilliance of this man! but rather—My goodness, the power and majesty of God! It is not compromise that drives one to an orthodox idiom and claim; it is the discovery of a Word and a Spirit of Truth so much greater than anything one could design on one’s own. This is a communal discovery that provokes unending thanks. The orthodox wishes to lead others, not to his own oeuvre and insights, but to this testimony shared by the whole Body of believers. Like John the Baptist, even if he could think he were the “greatest among men,” still he knows there is one–the Holy One–whose shoes he is not worthy to untie. And so his guiding light becomes: “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).

No doubt the heretic may believe that he is only healing the wounds tradition has caused. He may even view himself as a covert servant of perennial truth, attacking its expressions only where it has failed to adapt and alter itself to suit a changing human climate. That role is admirable, and I would never assert it is just in service of ego. However, it is equally true that this role can be fulfilled from within tradition. Indeed, conservative factions of orthodoxy are constantly accusing revivers of heresy and evil-doing! The scale is ever sliding, the demarcation lines can always be shifted.

My concern with the heretic is thus not with his critique of abuse and falsity, but with his method and end-result: he turns away from tradition altogether and leads others away–others who may not be as equipped as he to go it alone. The heretic has little or no interest in healing the tradition–certainly not from inside. (Whether or not it’s possible to understand an orthodox tradition without actively participating in it, is an open question.) When he sees a problem with tradition, “institutionalized religion,” he chooses to tear away from institution altogether, yet in so doing abandons ground-zero of the structure that needs help and rebuilding; and abandons anyone who might have been best healed using the orthodox idiom.

In separating from the flock, the heretic either starts a new tradition of their own (e.g. Protestantism, cults, etc.), or they assume the more Nietzschean position—they yearn to exert an influence (“break history in two”), but they reject anything like a lineage, disciples, tradition, etc. The former crave to head their own new authority structure, whereas the latter (surely the more interesting) encourage others to search for truth on their own, in an idiom exclusive to them. Any acceptance of a widespread belief is portrayed as unthinking, anti-philosophical. But let me be clear: I’m all for individuals searching for the truth and questioning beliefs as much as their spirit needs! I also believe we need to take radical responsibility for our representation of reality–especially of ultimate reality.

I do not argue that we should let a tradition think for us, but that there is value in thinking with and alongside tradition–a value that one loses when one goes off alone. Moreover, the lone-ranger ideal can never really be achieved. There’s only so many metaphysical positions to take. Plus, whether we like it or not, we are always “promoting” some trajectory of thinking (“promoting a resource” in Francois Jullien’s sense)–both its excellence and its baggage. Even how we narrate the history of thought, shows how we’ve been shaped by a chosen heritage. As Derrida also taught, who to inherit and how is the “critical” question–but our answer need not be prejudiced against orthodoxy. Obviously, the philosopher will reignite the inquiry of truth and hold the orthodox claim to the highest criteria. The heretic goes a step farther, however, when he assumes that orthodoxy inherently lacks truth, or stands condemned to wrongness, or can only be approached aversively–in short, that no benefit is to be had in joining the chorus of witnesses. And yet, inevitably he does join some chorus, for the chain of imitation is always tighter on the heels than one thinks. Originality comes mostly in the shaping, not in the substance, of what’s said in the name of truth.

Henri de Lubac writes, There is no authentic spirituality that does not put dogma into action. Nor is there, on the other hand, a mystery to believe in that does not have its translation, its repercussion or even its culmination in the soul. Far from being authoritarian statements invented just to control people, dogmas exist to preserve the Mystery—to prevent it from being exhausted in a set of prepositions and mental concepts (see Maximum Christ). The Upanishadic Mahavakya or great saying “Tat Tvam Asi” is a dogma meant for realization in life. So too are the Catholic dogmas that God is a triunity, that Christ is true God and true Man.

The exemplary “case” of orthodoxy is the saint who has let the dogmas come to life: orthopraxy. The wisdom of tradition, recapitulated in the would-be saint, catapults them into a unique holiness that is not solely of their own making, for it is fueled and inspired by the continuity of centuries and the present faith-community; most importantly, it is driven in love through communion with the Holy One every witness worships and acclaims. Thus the saint’s form-of-life can become a model for the whole Church (or the whole Sangha, or the whole Ashram, or the whole of humanity, as the case may be) without slighting or abandoning either the wellspring of past truth or any future witness. The destiny of tradition is to be steadily purified by its most excellent representatives: those who accept for the Spirit of God to dwell in them and, through them, in the world. They, paragons of Mystery, live in God’s love so that others may so too live.

Tradition thus offers a guardrail for creatives. In the Christian context, Protestantism threw off this guardrail and was led into subjectivist madness and crisis of authority where anyone can interpret the Bible as they wish. Orthodoxy instead ensures that innovation does not slip into subjectivism–which is doubly helpful for the creative, as they are saved many derailments into arbitrariness. An orthodox grounding also prevents one’s effort from being consigned to a paper drawer of one’s own losing. At the same time, the orthodox writer gains no notoriety for himself, for the only thing he wishes to make known is the Mystery his tradition proclaims, the Word of truth it has preserved. Tradition thus does more than safeguard a thought; it gives a real shelter and shaping force of authentication to the life of prayer. Everything in its system is for thanksgiving, expanding and expounding God’s grace.

Orthodoxy no doubt desires to speak with one voice, in “unison,” resounding with all its transmissions in history, but this depends on the holy ones who “live the faith now” (dogma in actu), who keep tradition from losing its salt (Mt 5:13-16) and becoming a dead letter: sclerosis of the body’s arteries, arthritis in its limbs. That is why the would-be heretic is best situated right at the heart of the Church, where the Spirit is so ready to dwell in him, once he lets the love of communion shape his mind. With her help, in obedience to her Source, he will receive and realize and revive the greatest truths. He will give them and himself over to her, for the sake of the King she praises. He will find out who he really is–a child in the Kingdom of God.

By Timothy Lavenz
In conversation with Paul DeFatta
July 17, 2022

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