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On Heresy

I’ve recently been reading Margaret Barker’s The Mother of the Lord, Volume I: The Lady in the Temple in which she argues that the religion of pre-Babylonian captivity Israel was quite different from what we were all taught in both Sunday school and divinity school (is there a difference?). First-temple Judaism, she suggests, was characterized by an emphasis on what she calls a covenant of Wisdom opposed to the Mosaic covenant based on Law which “looked to the work of God in history, not in creation.” She further suggests that Wisdom, the Handmaid of the Lord, played a significant, divine role in first-temple Judaism, but that the reforms of Josiah expelled her from the Temple and expunged her from scripture (though traces can still be found there and in the Wisdom books as well as in contemporaneous texts such as the three books of Enoch). What Barker, a Methodist theologian, here proposes is, of course, to many heretical.

Charges of heresy have proliferated in the age of (do I even need to say it?) social media and the internet, when even intermural communications like the famed “Dubia” of the four cardinals get “leaked” to an electronic audience and a collection of theologians and upholders of “Tradition” (note the capital T—indicating earnestness) can issue a “filial correction” (which is neither filial, nor correction) in which they imply that the Pope himself is a closet heretic. Well, if Francis is a heretic, so are we all.

But cries of “Heresy!” are in no way confined to those usually identified as adherents of a religious conservatism. My own work in sophiology, for instance, moves into territory some might consider dangerously heretical, but the most vicious attacks on me and my work—-calling both me and it “satanic”—-have come not from those of a manualist persuasion, but from those more aligned with a social justice approach to religious questions (although the manualists and Neo-Thomists have not been my most sympathetic readers, at least they haven’t suspected that I was possessed!).

For my part, I doubt I’d have any faith at all were it not for heresy. As a former Waldorf teacher and a practicing biodynamic farmer, I don’t know who I’d be without having encountered the work of Rudolf Steiner (a guy who will set off the “heretic alarm” in just about any religious tradition) who taught me, among other things, about the centrality of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice for not only human beings but for the cosmos at a time when I was wandering in the desert of postmodernity and consumer culture. Likewise, had I not stumbled across Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ (based on the novel by Niko Kazantzakis) and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal in my late twenties, I doubt I would have returned to the Catholic Church. Likewise, my engagement with the work of Jacob Boehme opened for me a way into religious understanding paralleled in some degree by the radical way Martin Heidegger redefined philosophy for me. There are many other heretics to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but these will suffice.

It may be that these so-called heretics possess something many allegedly “faithful” Christians don’t: a sincere approach to the figure of Jesus, unencumbered by obligations to dogma. Because of such sincerity, Jesus is able to bleed through obscurity and fable. This doesn’t happen with God is not Dead, that glorious celebration of Christian self-centeredness in which heaven is allegorized as a Newsboys concert. (I’ll take the flames, thank you.) At least not for me. It likewise doesn’t happen with the oeuvre of Dan Brown who does not approach Christ with sincerity but with a flaccid and adolescent ideology. It also doesn’t happen, alas, with a significant amount of orthodox theology.

Heresy or heterodox opinions—or just plain old ideas—often frighten people who feel a need to adhere to a covenant of law and not a covenant of Wisdom. Perhaps it is a kind of washing compulsion, a theological OCD. When threatened, many lash out: a very real temptation too easily actualized in the age of social media.

Nevertheless, I have learned much about Jesus from heretics. May they be blessed.

“The only one who knows Wisdom is God, and he knows all things. With his understanding he found her. He established the earth for all time and filled it with all kinds of animals. The light trembled and obeyed when he called. He sent it forth, and it appeared. He called the stars, and they promptly answered; they took their places and gladly shone to please the one who made them. He is our God, and there is none like him. He discovered the entire path leading to understanding and gave Wisdom to his servant Israel, whom he loved. From that time on, Wisdom appeared on earth and lived among us.” (Baruch 3:32–37)

Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer, philosopher, theologian, poet, and musician. He is the author of The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy/Philosophical Essays on Poetry and Theology and The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics as well as other works. He edits Jesus the Imagination: A Journal of Spiritual Revolution and can be reached at mmartin@jesustheimagination.com

Copyright © Michael Martin