I'm reading an advance copy of Spencer Burke's Heretic's Guide to Eternity, and though I'm not very far into it, I wanted to make a point about language...
There are two great ways to ruin a useful word.
One way is to overuse it.
The other way is to "antonym" it, that is, to begin giving it a meaning opposite to its original (see "stupid" in current colloquial usage...).
Spencer is a bit guilty of both of these in terms of the word "heretic", but mostly the second...
Some guy named Brian McLaren (anyone know who that is???) wrote the forward to the book, and in it, he tries to anticipate (and disarm) any objections to the title: "I imagine that the blogs and maybe even religious broadcasting airwaves will soon be buzzing with scandalous outrage that Spencer and Barry have used the word 'heretic' in their title"
Buzz, buzz, buzz!
In the introduction Spencer says: "But I believe we need heretics today. What's more, I believe heresy can be a positive rather than a negative force in our spiritual journey."
He goes on:"I believe that every age, and partcularly an age like ours, needs heretics- people who will push past and beyond the accepted conventional wisdom of the dominant group and pull us across sacred fences and keep us tied to percieved orthodoxies."
See, I understand what Spencer is trying to say, I think.
I just think there are better ways to say it.
He's talking about being creative with theology, about new formulations and understandings, and to a certain extent, what he says is right on the money.
The problem is, that's not heresy.
It's good theological thinking. It's constantly pursuing the knowledge of God in the understanding that we don't yet know it all, we don't yet "see clearly", we don't yet have perfect knowledge.
And if the danger of defining heresy as good, creative theological thinking isn't apparent to Spencer and others...
The word "heretic" is useful, in the same way any superlative is useful. It stands as the end of the road in doctrinal discussions and descriptions and should be seen as that dead end, that word-of-last-resort that it is.
Scot McKnight in his write-up of Spencer's book defined it this way: "A heretic, in theological discussion, refers to someone who denies the central creeds of orthodoxy."
See, that's heresy- not good, nor creative and not (in any actual sense) theological, because heresy, by definition, leads us away from the God-who-is and towards an altar set with a big mirror right in the center.
Again, I know what Spencer is trying to say- great "heretics" like Galileo pushed us toward new and better understandings... but they weren't really heretics, were they (at least not for the reasons the medieval church defined them as such)?
When the schismatics toss the word heretic around like beads at the theological Mardi Gras to anyone dumb enough to show them their Statements of Belief, it ceases to have meaning. For them, a heretic is anyone whose theology I disagree with and particularly anyone whose theology makes me uncomfortable. Needless to say, this is not a biblical definition of the word, nor a helpful use of the word.
Because when everyone is a heretic, no one's a heretic, if you know what I mean.
By lobbing the word out so casually, they've completely devalued it.
And when someone comes along and (I think for effect) redefines a word like heretic to mean someone who challenges the conventional wisdom, someone who brings new ideas to the table, they do us a dis-service by taking a word which we need, a word like "heresy" and giving it a hip new spin.
See, there are heretics. There are people who come preaching other-than the real Jesus and other-than the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. They want to tie people up with legalism or set them adrift with a Jesus who is less than God. They bring something that sounds creative and innovative and new (or old and erudite and compelling) and they lead people down a path that ends no where good.
And if the word we use to refer to them has now been co-opted to mean "creative theological thinkers" we're in a world of hurt.
So- right off the bat, before even getting into Spencer's book, I'm a bit perturbed at him for continuing the ruination of a useful, a needed word.