In Praise of Heretics

Share this page...

with Rev. Clay Nelson

In Praise of Heretics

Our thank you to Don Solomon will be uploaded as a separate video.

Listen or download

Read below or download the PDF

Clay Nelson © 4 August 2019

The word “heretic” is often thrown around today to denounce someone for espousing an idea deemed “unbiblical” or “unorthodox” or “contrary to the teachings of the church.” It carries a negative connotation, often meant to cast a poor soul out of a community to be shunned, exiled, and sometimes even tortured with words or sharp implements. And in extreme cases, killed and ultimately damned.

But as one looks at the history of heretics, one finds quite a few surprises:

I want to begin with Olympia Brown, the first American woman ordained a minister. As a Universalist she is an important light in our movement, both as a theologian and a suffragist. The Reverend Brown lifted up the value of individual spiritual experience. She celebrated our independence from the dictates of sacred texts. Even today this sounds like heresy to people who hold to a literal interpretation of their chosen text, whether it be the Qur’an or the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. The Reverend Brown reminds us that our faith journey is not dictated by an outside authority. It’s something we develop and explore and reconsider throughout our lives, as “the spirit speaks to our souls.”

However, this kind of independent, free-thinking faith is not a Unitarian Universalist innovation — though we sometimes act like we invented it. No, that honour goes to Gnostic Christians during the first three centuries following the death of Jesus. To call them Gnostics was as pejorative as calling them heretics. These brave early Christians were feeling their way into a new way of being in the world. They were defying the authorities, thinking for themselves, building a new understanding of the Divine even as they were hounded, persecuted, and condemned. The mainstream Christian church eventually suppressed the free-thinking Gnostic Christians as Christianity became institutionalised and regulated.

I want to thank UU minister Norman Allen for this timeline to make sure we’re all on the same page. Here’s a breakdown of events:

Jesus begins teaching when he’s about 30, teaches for just three years, and is a heretic himself, denounced by both Jewish and Roman authorities.

At 33, he is executed.

But, his teachings are too powerful to die. Depending on how you look at it, Jesus is either literally or metaphorically resurrected.

His teachings become the foundation for a new Jewishsect which later expands to include Gentiles – non-Jews.

Eventually this Jewish sect breaks away and becomes known as Christianity.

Over the first two centuries, different “schools” of Christianity develop. Each of these schools uses the name of an apostle to give it credence.

Thus, the Gospel of Matthew is not actually written by the Apostle Matthew but emerges from the Matthew school. The same for the gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.

We know those four gospels because they’re included in the New Testament but there are others emerging at the same time, like The Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas.

These are the GnosticGospels. Gnosis in Greek is Knowledge. These are the Gospels of Knowing. They promote individual thinking, and an individual experience of the divine.

As such, they’re a threat to the developing hierarchy of church authority. If you can think for yourself, you don’t need priests or bishops or popes.

And so, in 367, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in collaboration with church leaders, declares that only four gospels will be included in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Everything else is Heresy. Heresy in Greek means “choice,” so Athanasius and his colleagues essentially remove choice from the people.

And they do so by decreeing that the Gnostic Gospels, are to be burned, all of them, destroyed utterly.

That would be the end of the story except that a bunch of monks saved 52 of those forbidden documents, sealed them in jars, buried them on the side of a cliff, and left them there to be found 1600 years later.

Thus, in 1945 near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi the Gnostic Gospels are discovered – and we were given an entirely new vision of early Christianity. One of the most provocative and most beautiful of those hidden manuscripts is The Gospel of Thomas.

The key difference between the Gospel of Thomas and the four gospels of the New Testament is this: The New Testament emphasises the vast divide between a Divine Jesus and a fallen humanity. You can see this in the Christmas story and the miracle of a virgin birth. Jesus is totally different from us – set apart. The Gospel of Thomas says the opposite. It demonstrates how we are divine, we are the “twin” of Jesus in our shareddivinity. The divine light is within us all.

In language that hints at the work of the great William Ellery Channing and other Unitarians, The Gospel of Thomas tells us: “If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being.” Thomas further suggests that this light shines through all things. “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” All things are pervaded by this divine energy. It’s veryRalph Waldo Emerson, very Walt Whitman, very Olympia Brown.

It’s also very First and Seventh Principle. If we are all creatures of the same divine light, we are indeed of “inherent worth and dignity” and we are indeed an “interdependent web of existence.”

The Gospel of Thomas also hands us the Fourth Principle loud and clear – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The second saying in the book tells

us, “Let one who seeks, not stop seeking until they find. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel.”

But one of the more famous quotes from the Gospel of Thomas is saying #70. “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

These are words to live by! If you have a gift or a talent and keep it to yourself, but don’t use it, don’t let it breathe, don’t let it serve the world, it will eat you up. If you have regret or guilt or shame that you’re keeping hidden from others — or from yourself — it, too, will destroy you.

But these words from The Gospel of Thomas also encompass something deeper than that. If this divine light shines through us — as it does through all of Creation — and we choose to deny or dismiss or ignore it — we are in danger of living limited, proscribed, diminished lives.

And I want to be clear. When I speak of a divine light that shines through all things, I am not excluding any belief system. You can be an atheist or agnostic and partake in such things. We can remove the word divine from this conversation and still be aware of our common miracle — the shared act of being, of existing, of participating in a life force that touches all things, rock and wood and water and quarks and black holes and dark matter.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The beauty of this thinking, this all-encompassing theology, was decried as heresy by the men — and it was men — in power. They replaced the individual experience of the divine with a hierarchy that grants revelation to some and denies it to others, that keeps some people on top and others at the bottom. It is Religion gone wrong.

Thinking about the Gospel of Thomas sent my mind — my spirit — wandering in new directions. I began to think about all the other heretics who insisted on their right to think for themselves, to form their own belief systems, to experience the divine in their own way.

Joan of Arc has always fascinated and moved me. You probably know that she was burned at the stake. You may not know that she was only 19 at the time. Her heresy was her insistence that the divine voices she heard were real, and that her belief in them outweighed the clergy’s insistence that they didn’t exist. She thought for herself. Her other great crime — and a major element in the case against her — was the fact that she insisted on dressing in men’s clothes.

If only her accusers had read The Gospel of Thomas. It tells us “When you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female female . . . then you will enter the kingdom.” A celebration of gender fluidity in a text two thousand years old.

Other heretics: Martin Luther famously nails 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, calling for a debate of church practices and officially launching the Reformation. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake for proposing that the stars were distant suns with planets of their own. Crazy, right? The list goes on — and, of course, reaches far beyond the Christian faith. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza, one of the great minds of the Enlightenment, was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656, at the ripe old age of 23, for the “abominable heresies that he practised and taught.” To Islamic extremists, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, Sufis — the faith of Rumi — are considered heretical and are, today, the target of suicide bombings, even in the sanctuaries of their own mosques.

Rumi, himself, has been called a heretic for his insistence on a direct experience of the divine, and for his love for another man so beautifully expressed in his poetry. Most disturbing, I think, are those who are denounced as heretics but who later become the authority figures who denounce others. We see this most clearly in John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation, who condemns our own Michael Servetus to the flames.

As Unitarians Universalists we have a long and proud history of heresy. Unitarians like William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker were named heretics for rejecting the Trinity. Even I, your humble minister, have had the honour. When my orthodox Anglican colleagues wearied of my notoriety they discovered my past affiliation with Unitarians and began blogging about a heretic in their midst. Noted New Zealand church historian, Peter Lineham, told others I was trying to make St Matthew-in-the-City a Unitarian church. Being the scholar he is, he was right, of course. A group of my colleagues even went to the bishop to demand that I be tried for heresy, for all the evidence was online. In their minds it was important to identify heretics because it strengthens the base. I’m sure the bishop agreed with them, but that was a can of worms he was unprepared to open.

We’re a threat! Hallelujah! We’re a threat to binary thinking. We’re a threat to creeds that serve as gatekeepers, determining who’s in the club and who’s out. We’re a threat to people who want easy answers, because we are the Church of the Open Question, and that scares people. It takes courage to say, “We don’t have the answers but, we do love asking the questions.”

Heretics are those who have the courage to question the status quo, to speak truth to power, to offer a new way of thinking — of being. Thanks to our heretical forebears, we have something called Unitarian Universalism. Thanks to a handful of heretical monks — nearly two millennia ago — we have access to this great, hidden trove of exquisite heresy called the Gnostic Gospels.

Let our forebears and those brave monks be our example. Let us be ready, always, to speak our truth and — just as importantly — to protect the voice that is marginalised, the voice that is silenced. Let us always be ready to listen, to consider, to admit to all that we don’t know. Let us be proud members of the Church of the Open Question. May it be so. Amen.