Titillatingly Subversive or Clandestinely Orthodox?

Religion — By on March 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

It can be rather exciting to have a minority opinion. You read the forbidden book. You stayed to hear the crazy preacher speak. You worked in your lab late after the wide world went to bed. Everyone thinks you crazy, but no — you are sane and they are the deluded sheep! They rot in the comfort of unchallenged tradition but you flourish in the desert of hidden truth! To be fair, majority opinion determines not what the truth is but what most people are going to do about it — whether or not they know the truth. It should feel good and right to be in the truth, and the horror in the moment you discover that you killed your father and married your mother should be the exception that proves the rule that remaining faithful to the truth from the very beginning is in a way pleasant, no matter what you suffer for it.

Conversely, you can have the perverse thrill of holding a minority opinion while being unsure of the truth, and there is a certain kick that I get from asserting a fourth member of the Trinity no matter what I actually believe. At the very beginning of Heretics, G. K. Chesterton writes about this phenomenon:

In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law—all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, “I suppose I am very heretical,” and looks round for applause. The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word “orthodoxy” not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.

As a result of my own investigations, I have decided that I am not Reformed. Partly this is because I want to buck the Reformed trend that I see around me, and partly because, no matter what affirmative positions I take down the line, I am fairly confident of the negative position that Reformed theology is not the 100% pure doctrine of Christianity. I am talking about single percentage points of disagreement here, and I still find general Christian edification from reading Reformed writers. If I claim loyalty to plain and pure “mere” Christianity, then Reformed influences will start fighting to reclaim seats at the table that they recently had to give up. Should I be Mr. Haha Aimnot-Reformed with an exotic surname and handlebar moustache or Mr. Plainly Recognizable with a known surname but reviled haircut?

This contrast is something to keep in mind for people coming to Christ, also. They should come because they see truth in Christianity, not because they want something exciting and exotic. There are people in China who go to church because Christianity is foreign and fashionable. I have heard missionaries speak of young Muslim men coming and asking to read the Bible, but the missionaries send them back to ask their fathers’ permission. If you want to disagree with everyone, it should be for more than mere contradiction and juicy controversy. It is fun to give Satan a good character reference in order to check whether people are firing on all cylinders, and seriousness and sobriety are not one and the same with mirthlessness and mortification. Unless you did just find out that you killed your father and married your mother, you probably should have lots of things to laugh about as you search for truth. To avoid either inordinate, inappropriate spunk or morbid, mordant dogmatism it is generally best to agree as far as you can with everyone you meet.

With the Muslims we can agree that there is one God. With the Buddhists we can agree that desire, wrongly worked out, causes suffering in the world. With the atheists we can agree that religion abused is abominably evil. Protestants and Catholics can agree that there is one God in three persons, that Jesus is God and the way we have our salvation, that desire is best turned toward God and love for others, and that religion must be relevant to God and not the bilking of believers. At the point I disagree with you, it is because I think I have truth that you do not have or refuse to accept, not because I want applause. At the point I agree with you, it is because I love truth and see at least some of it in you. Martyrdom is an honor because real martyrs love the thing they die for, not because they love themselves and are self-consumed in self-absorption.

One problem that I believe Protestants have is that the Reformation became tradition and not merely necessary history. Martin Luther and John Calvin engaged in a David and Goliath struggle with the Pope and his representatives, but David was working from the understanding that he was going on to found a royal dynasty with God’s blessing. The Reformers tried to restore the teaching of the pure gospel, but they did not restart some sort of apostolic succession with themselves at the head. Luther and Calvin needed hideyholes to carry out the Reformation, whereas today in a church split you have open leaders challenging each other — Goliath and Goliath. The loser does not share in Goliath’s damnation, and the winner does not share in David’s legitimacy. Sometimes it is necessary to speak up in church, but asking good questions is not tantamount to pulling a Reformation.

If you have to play the subversive, be sure to do so with an eye toward an idea of orthodoxy and, if necessary, get officially kicked out rather than linger and build your own fan base. Trying to be like Luther or Calvin today disproportionately raises the stakes for your side and warps your thinking: if you are not going to get burned at the stake for disagreeing with your pastor and European power politics do not give you a wave to ride as they did to the Reformers, tame your rhetoric and do not expect to found a new denomination. What would a new denomination give you anyway: superior currency to exchange in theological debates? Play cloak and dagger with your orthodoxy if you must, but please resist the sexiness of subversion.


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