Parson to Person: Perennial heresies
Once people were burned at the stake for heresy — lots of them. Today the Christian church has grown so squirrely that almost anything passes for orthodoxy. Today it wouldn’t be P.C. (politically correct) to find fault with any of its distortions.
A heresy is simply a distortion of an orthodox religion. Today’s prime example is Jihadist Islam, which amounts to little more than a poisonous distortion of a well-intentioned faith.
Christian heresies have been so prolific in history that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we bear any resemblance to Jesus.
However, the thing that has always intrigued me aobut heresies is not their bizarre character but their durability. Once one starts, you never quite see the end of it.
The two first heresies we meet in the New Testament are known as 1)Legalism and 2) Gnosticism.
First, Legalism: Christianity grew out of and contains Judaism, whose mainstay was the law. One obtained salvation or fulfillment by doing good deeds of the law. They actually sang love songs to the law in Psalms. Which, now that I think of it, defines a lot of what I call Old-Testament Christians.
The first Christians were Jews who thought they had found their long-awaited Messiah. And this Messiah said, “Heaven and earth will pass away before one jot or one tittle of the law shall pass away.” He scorned the Pharisees for trying to be more righteous than God.
St. Paul quite outgrew the idea that you earned your own salvation by “doing” and you could build up merit like brownie points. He called Old-Testament Christians “legalizers.”
My point, if you remember, is that once a heresy starts, it never seems to end. How far do you have to look today to find a so-called Christian who thinks the essence of the church is “Do good — get rewarded; do bad — get punished?” Nor does one have to look far afield to find other religions which are reduced to this two-beat rhythym.
Yet there is in the Bible heresy number two, which is alive and well. It is called Gnosticism, from the Greek gnossis — to know. The first heresy came from the Jews, the second from the Greeks, whose mentality dominated Jesus’ world and still does ours.
Gnosticism claims that life is transformed by a rarified spiritual form of knowing. With Gnosticism came the belief that Jesus was really a spirit who pretended to be a complete human, even pretended to die and was a very convincing corpse.
Nothing is more emphatic in the New Testament than that Jesus was fully human — “Tempted at every point the same as we are.”
“How in the world is a thing like Gnosticism still around?” you may ask. The same way the word Mysticism is still alive in the chuirch, often with borrowings from Kabbalah, Buddhism and Sufi Islam.
Poll after poll, especially among young people, finds them saying they don’t care about organized religion or church but they are personally very “spiritual!”
They’d better be, because everything going on between their ears, thought, feeling and will are spiritual — not just electrified meat. But by “spiritual,” they seem to mean something like the romanticism of Wordsworth and William Blake or gee-whiz ecology (oft times glandular).
This is how Gnosticism is alive today. Yes, heresy has a devious and durable history. We seem to live with either people who “obey the law” or intone, “Jesus was not much for organized religion, either.”