Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Today's Heresy Is Tomorrow's Orthodoxy

I started reading Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which will be the third book I've read this year written by a man named Ross, and that's a new personal best in that category. But I'm not writing for any congratulations (after all, three is a pretty low number). Instead, I want to point out a problem with Douthat's definitions of "heresy" and "orthodoxy."

It starts with accepting G.K. Chesterton's misguided view of Christian history. Douthat quotes from Chesterton:

She [the Church] swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles.... To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom--that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (pp. 12-13)

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13-14 that the way that leads to life is narrow, and a narrow way wouldn't have allowed the Church to have "swerved to left and right." In fact, it is "the evil man...whose ways are crooked" (Proverbs 2:12-15). Those whose "feet run to evil...have made them crooked paths" (Isaiah 59:7-8). Or, as Alma wrote, "he cannot walk in crooked paths; neither doth he vary from that which he hath said; neither hath he a shadow of turning from the right to the left" (Alma 7:20).

Douthat says orthodoxy "includes a committment to the creeds of the ancient world--Nicene, Apostolic, Athenasian" (p. 10), but those creeds are from the fourth century. Douthat says that this change of doctrine "seemed haphazard at the time, but in hindsight it looks providential" (p. 11). This is circular reasoning for sure. We define "orthodoxy" as what we have today, then claim the hand of Providence in keeping us orthodox. As the Church veered through the centuries, killing some for what others would later be canonized, and vice versa, we end up at a random destination and then declare, "This must be where we were supposed to be all along."

Douthat's concern with modern heresy ignores that his orthodoxy is the centuries-old heresy of yore. He obscures this by using the term "early Christianity" without defining "early." Surely St. Augustine is "early" compared to today, but not compared to St. Peter or St. Paul, who lived centuries before. From Peter's death to Augustine's birth is a period more than one and a half times longer than what separates me from Benjamin Franklin. Several thousand years from now Franklin and I can both be considered "early Americans," but that doesn't mean that today's Republicans or Democrats qualify as orthodox Federalists or Antifederalists.

Only by ignoring the heretical origins of Nicene Christianity can Douthat write, "if the American religious landscape has long resembled the world of early Christianity, then twenty-first-century America looks increasingly as if it's replaying that story with a very different ending--one in which orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure" (p. 14). What's to say that this isn't just another case of seemingly haphazard doctrinal changes that will appear providential in hindsight? If you're going to allow fallible humans to reason out doctrine in 325, why can't some more fallible humans do the same in 2020? A few centuries from now, these changes that Douthat decries will be the orthodoxy that some future Douthat defends.

I don't have any plans to read a fourth book by a guy named Ross this year, nor do I foresee this three-book record as a mark I'm going to challenge anytime soon.

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