Some American Heresies

Bad ReligionThis is the second blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy.

Douthat describes a number of streams of thought in American religion that are distortions of Christianity.  He carefully defined heresies, as we saw in the previous blog, as not opposing the truth, but distorting it, or narrowly focusing on one aspect of it in order to make Christianity more rationally consistent and to eliminate tensions which exist in the Bible between various texts.  One such stream of thought he labels as modernism, an effort to make Christianity relevant by conforming it especially to scientific and historical facts.

“The modernists’ goal was to adapt Christianity to the new scientific and historical consensus, and to maintain the relevance of faith in an intellectual climate suddenly grown dismissive of the authority of Scripture.  To this end, they stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings.  Their great project was the Social Gospel, which urged believers to embrace an ‘applied Christianity’ that would put Jesus’ commandments into practice here and now, through legislation as well as conversion, law, as well as grace.”  (p 27)

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

These ideas were embraced by a large number of mainstream Protestant denominations as well as by some in the Roman Catholic Church.   This was a way to try to accommodate Christianity to the truths of science and became the basic thinking in what was to become liberal Protestantism.  It became very popular in the mid-20th Century and at first seemed to result in a resurgence of Christianity in America as more biblical literalist ideas were pushed aside.  It was an unusual moment in American religious history because it was an embrace of intellectualism which has often been spurned by American religionists.

But with this accommodation to science, there was also a growing abandonment of traditional Christian theology,  especially in terms of morality related to marriage and sex.  Douthat writes:

“In the 1960s and ‘70s, though, the heretics carried the day completely.  America in those years became more religious but less traditionally Christian; more supernaturally minded but less churched; more spiritual in its sentiments but less pious in its practices.  It was a golden age if you wanted to talk about UFOs or crystals, the Kama Sutra or the I Ching.  It was a fertile period if you said ‘Christianity” but meant fundamentalism or Marxism or the New Age, the gospel of the flower children or the gospel of health and wealth.  But amid all of this enthusiasm, all of this hunger for the numinous and transcendent and revolutionary, the message of Christianity itself seemed to have suddenly lost is credibility.”  (p 64)

However, not all Christians favored the accommodationists approach to the changing world.  Some tried to resist the changes that were occurring in American religious sentiments.  In the mid-20th Century, Christianity experienced a resurgence and popularity, but as the 1960s and ‘70s came along, Christianity’s influence began to decline.  The changes in the Faith embraced by the accommodationists weren’t sustaining the Church’s strength and church membership and attendance went into a steep decline.

“Amid such sweeping challenges to their faith, there were two obvious paths that the Christian churches could take: accommodation or resistance. . . .  Both approaches were invoked as solutions to Christianity’s struggles, and both were blamed for Christianity’s eclipse.  With every drop in church attendance, vocations, or donations, accommodationists would blame the forces of reaction for preventing necessary adaptations, alienating the changing population of a changing country by refusing to change themselves.  Resisters would retort that the collapse of Christian culture was a direct consequence of accommodationists’ surrender to contemporary fashions.”    (p 83)

ReaganObamaChristianity itself became more polarized between liberals and conservatives, no longer united in a common vision of the Church but antagonistic toward each other’s beliefs, values and direction.   What was happening politically in America was simultaneously happening in the Church.  There was little difference between the culture wars of American secular society and the religious establishments.  The Church was so integrated into society that it no longer was a prophetic voice or able to give people a perspective on politics or to bring to the discussion a viewpoint different than secular politics could offer.  Those who tried to resist the Tsunami of social change sweeping America, turned to more conservative ideas, and yet Douthat points out they too embraced distorted views of Christianity: thus were promoting their own version of heresy.

“Moreover, many of them remained doubtful custodians of Christian orthodoxy.  They were havens for political conservatives, overall, and they tended to be more supernaturalist and stringent about sexual morality than some of their competitors.  But the successes of the neo-evangelical project notwithstanding, their theological conservatism was often still the apocalyptism of the fundamentalist cul-de-sac, or else a mix of prosperity preaching and the gospel of self-help—the Evangelicalism of the Left Behind novels and Joel Osteen, one might say, rather than of bill Graham or C.S. Lewis.  Some of America’s Evangelical churches provided a rallying point for orthodoxy Christians in the difficult post-1960s landscape.  But others provided fertile ground for the heresies that increasingly dominated American religion.” (pp 61-62)

The conservative forms of Christianity confused nationalist tendencies with Christianity and so marched down other side roads.  As Douthat describes it:

“Like the accommodationists before them, the resistance project assumed that Christianity’s chief peril was growing unbelief, when the greater peril was really the rival religious beliefs – pseudo-Christian and heretical…”    (p 131)

Both Christian liberals and conservatives, cultural accommodationists and resistors, made the same mistake of assuming that the threat to Christianity was secular unbelief.  Douthat however proposes that the real threat to Christianity was one growing in the Church: pseudo versions of Christian thinking.  Heretical in the sense that they didn’t deny Christianity, but rather focused on some small part of it and ignored the rest, thus distorting it and reshaping it into versions that suited each person’s own criterion.  Everyone could create their own Jesus, modeled in their personal image and likeness.  Everyone could form their own church, a version of Christianity that suited their sensibilities and certainly didn’t challenge their own values.

Next:   Some More American Heresies

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A Recent History of American Heresy

Bad ReligionEach year around our July 4th Independence Day holiday I try to read a book on American history.  This year I read  BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat, in which he examines recent history and religious trends in America over the past 70 years or so.  I found the book’s first half, a review of American religious history and trends from the mid-20th Century to be slow and not of great personal interest, though it is needed to help understand what happens to American religion in the 1970s and beyond.   Douthat advocates for a reinvigoration of traditional Christian doctrine and adherence to traditional Christian moral values, especially in the face of the rapidly changing philosophical assumptions in American culture and the corresponding cultural ambivalence toward any kinds of ethical norms for the society as a whole.    Individualism has so triumphed in American culture that the idea of “social norms” or cultural mores are commonly seen as completely antiquated and no longer relevant.   Moral values have become so deeply personal that they can no longer be seen as shared values which can unite us together.  Individualism undermines ideas of shared experience let alone a social ethics.

Douthat’s subtitle is interesting:  “how we became a nation of heretics.”  For by Orthodox or Nicene Christian standards America has not just recently become heretical but was conceived and trained in heretical ideas of the 18th Century Enlightenment, individualism, deism and Unitarianism.  Douthat sees America as moving away from some form of traditional Protestant Christianity, but Orthodox might see America as simply continuing on the path on which it started from the beginning as a nation when its adherence to Nicene Christianity was tenuous at best.  How much America can be measured as having been founded as a Christian nation depends on how much one adheres to the ancient standard and definition of what it means to be Christian: the Nicene Creed, the Trinity and the incarnation of God in Christ.

Douthat summarizes the purpose of his book on the last page:

“This book has often made a more instrumental case for orthodoxy—defending its exacting moralism as a curb against worldly excess and corruption, praising its paradoxes and mysteries for respecting the complexities of human affairs in ways that more streamlined theologies do not, celebrating the role of its institutions in assimilating immigrants, sustaining families, and forging strong communities.  My hope throughout has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”  (p 293)

He is concerned about the direction in which he sees the nation as a whole moving, but also about the direction in which Christianity is trending in America.  He offers a very good definition of heresy and shows a good grasp of its effect on Christians.

“Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.  Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they’re just as likely to be problem solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies.  They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity—saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.” (p 12)

“The goal of the great, heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.”  (p 153)

“The method is almost always heresy’s either/or, rejecting any attempt to resolve contradictions or honor paradoxes in favor of a ruthless narrowing designed to make the character of Jesus more consistent, even if this achievement comes at the expense of the tensions that make him fascinating.  Either Jesus was divine or he was human.  Either he was compassionate toward sinners or he preached a rigorous sexual morality.  Either he preached in parables or he engaged in longer theological discourses.  Either ‘all apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda,’ … or else Jesus should be understood exclusively as an end-times prophet.

In the revisionist mind-set, synthesis is always suspect.  We have to choose between Mark’s Jesus or John’s Christ, between the aphoristic Jesus and the messianic Jesus, between Jesus the Jew and Jesus the light to the Gentiles.”  (pp 160-161)

Throughout history, heretics started off by trying to correct something they were uncomfortable with in Christian theology.  Fearing excesses and contradictions, tensions, paradoxes, ambiguities, they tried to fix the problems by eliminating some elements of Christianity to make it more certain, rationally consistent, absolute and monolithic.  They tried harmonizing the Gospels, eliminating the Old Testament, doing away with the troubles caused by the theology of the Trinity, the incarnation, and salvation through the God-man.  They often endeavored to reach their goals by focusing on one idea at the exclusion of others found in Scripture and by rejecting that in the Scriptures sometimes more than one version of an event is presented which leaves us with possible contradictions, paradoxes, ambiguities.  They always wanted to deal with the mystery of God by making the Scriptures completely humanly rational and consistent.

Douthat points out that this heretical tendency has continued down to present day Christianity in America, and has been the cause of much grief for the Church in the modern (or post-modern!) world.  Heretics want to conform God and the Church to their ideas of what is rational or what serves their purposes.

In some ways the polarization of American politics reflects the problems which heresies in American religious thinking have caused.  Or perhaps it is the other way around, American religious trends are simply mirroring or aping what is going on in American politics.  In a media driven culture, all ideas of leadership or leaders whether religious or secular become not only shaped by but even more so driven by the media.

Douthat identifies two tendencies with heretical implications in American religious thinking: messianism and apocalyptism in which either America and its religious leaders are going to save the world by their grand ideas or bring  it all to a decisive end.

“Instead of balancing each other out, the two heresies of nationalism have taken turns in the driver’s seat of both political coalitions, giving us messianism from the party in power and apocalyptism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which.”  (p 268)

So now both religious and political leaders see themselves as the messiah needed to save the nation and the world from destruction by bringing them to their own ideas of Paradise.  Simultaneously they both see all others (especially the “other” political party) as surely leading the nation and the world straight to hell.  But apocalyptical and messianic figures in Christian history have tended to end up badly, usually as heretics separated from the Church because their ideas were fringe, unbalanced and way too focused on a select few ideas.

Next:  Some American Heresies

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The Prophet Elijah: Knowing God by Participation

Each year on July 20 the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Prophet Elijah (9th Century BC).  Elijah is much loved and honored in the Orthodox Church because in his lifetime he experienced theosis in which God “becomes knowable to us by participation” (see 2 Peter 1:4). The Prophet Elijah appears with Christ on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ where Elijah contemplates the God who became flesh in order that we humans might participate in God.

Gregory the Sinaite (d. 1346AD) writes:

“Of old, Moses and Elijah, chosen to climb Mount Horeb [note: also known as Mount Sinai], both were driven to climb it at the proper time – the one, commanded beforehand to enter into the darkness and mist, to receive the Law on tablets, to become a lawgiver and the first of priest, and to be the most mystical witness of symbolic realities, in order to reveal them to others; the other called by a prophetic oracle to go quickly to Horeb, then ordered to go out of the cave, commanded to wrap himself in his sheepskin, and to see the great and mighty wind that crushes those who are led to pursue the way of peace – the earthquake that shakes the heart, the fire that purifies their powers – and finally allowed to contemplate the ‘gentle breeze’ of light, where God, in a way beyond our nature, becomes knowable to us by participation. God, through the consistent fulfillment of prophecy, guides us mystically along from afar and trains us towards knowledge of him.” (Light on the Mountain, pp 330-331)

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Christ the Healer

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 -

At that time, the Lord Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins-then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

 St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) compares how Jesus heals to how a doctor normally goes about healing a patient:

“Not as in the case of a physician, for it is enough that Christ merely utters a command and all distress ceases. And the wonder is not only that He effects the cure with so much ease, but also without pain, causing no trouble to those who are being healed… Christ represses first of all the source of the evil. For the source and root and mother of all evil is the nature of sin. This it is which deprives strength of our bodies: this it is which brings on disease: therefore also on this occasion He said, ‘Take heart, my son your sins are forgiven.’ And on the other He said, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befalls you,’ intimating to both that these maladies were the offspring of sin. And in the beginning and outset of the world diseases as the consequence of sin attacked the body of Cain. For after the murder of his brother, after that act of wickedness, his body was subject to palsy.”  (Christ’s Power to Heal the Paralytic, O LOGOS PUBLICATION, pp 7-8)

Of note in St. John Chrysostom’s comments is that St. John wants to be clear about the miraculous nature of Christ’s healing.  Jesus is not just skillfully using the implements, methods and elixirs of doctors and pharmacologists.   Christ heals without causing any further illness, pain, or discomfort to the sick – no pungent or bitter astringents, no bleeding, no cutting of limbs or piercing of wounds.  Christ says the word, and the healing takes place.  It is much like the Genesis 1 creation story in which God speaks and creation takes form and it is all beautiful, and painless.  And the cures are instant, not requiring long periods of  recovery, recuperation or rehabilitation.

But note also that St. John is willing to attribute this illness, and all disease to sin.  He mentions a common idea in the Patristic period from Genesis 4:12.  In the Septuagint version of the story, Cain “trembles” as part of the consequence of killing his brother.  The Fathers generally understood this to be a disease (palsy) that came upon him as the result of committing murder.  Chrysostom like all the ancients did not know of any germ theory of disease.  So in general the ancients did not see disease as simply occurring in nature.  For the Fathers, what is natural is what existed before the Fall – and in Paradise there was no mention of disease.  All disease of the body only occurs after the Fall and thus is the result of sin.  Disease is thus a sign of the World of the Fall – the world we live in is not Paradise, it is not the natural world that God originally created or intended for humans to live in (see Genesis 3:14-20).  Healing, on the other hand, is a sign of the Kingdom of God.  So both illness and healing point to realities beyond the self, and show our connectedness to all of creation and all of history.   There is no such thing as a completely independent individual.  We all share a common human nature, a common human history.  We all live in the same world and experience the effects of sin, and of the love of God.  The “miracles” of Christ are most significant because they are signs of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Their importance is not that one person 2000 years ago got healed, or that someone today can be healed, but that they are signs to help us realize the mystery of creation and of salvation.  They are to make us aware of God.

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Forgive First, Then Pray

“Before you pray,

first forgive all those who have offended you,

then pray,

Only then will your prayer rise up

into the presence of God.

If you do not forgive,

it will simply remain on the earth.

When you pray, be mindful

that you are in the presence of God,

offering a priestly sacrifice.

Would it not be a shameful thing

to offer a sacrifice that was blemished?

So, as you pray to be forgiven,

first forgive those who have offended you.

Bring them to mind and pardon them,

and then you yourself will also know

God’s forgiveness.

(Aphrahat the Persian - d. 345AD, The Book of Mystical Chapters, pp 19-20)


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Prayer for the Love of One’s Neighbor

“Grant, Lord, that I may ever love each of my neighbors as myself, and not be angry with them for any cause, and not serve the Devil in this way.

Grant that I may crucify my self-love, pride, covetousness, incredulity, and other passions.

Let mutual love be our name; grant that we may believe and trust that the Lord is everything to us all; that we may not be careful nor anxious for anything; that You, our God, may truly be the sole God of our heart and nothing besides You.

Let there be union of love between us as there ought to be, and let everything that divides us from each other, and prevents us from loving one another, be despised by us, like the dust trampled under foot.  

So be it!  So be it!

If God has given us Himself, if He abides in us and we in Him, according to His own true words, then what will He not give me, what will He spare for me, of what will He deprive me, how can He forsake me? ‘The Lord is my Shepherd: there can I lack nothing’ (Psalm 23:1). ‘Shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ (Romans 7:32).

And therefore, my soul, be perfectly at rest and know nothing but love. ‘These things I command you, that you love one another’ (John 15:17).”

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pps. 297-298)

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Cosmos, Humanity, God

“The entire Cosmos thus participates by representation in the preparation of the matter used by the Church sacramentally and in other ways. And it in this fashion that the entire cosmos offers its praise.

With specific reference to the Eucharist, the wheat and the grapes are the offering of the community that is the Cosmos, the offering of the dust clouds in space, the stars, the Earth and other planets, of bacteria and fungi, of plants and animals.

This offering is transformed into bread and wine by human labor and skill, and it receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, an offering to God by man, the priest of the Cosmos.







Man depends on the Cosmos for the matter that makes up his and her body and for the matter that is used sacramentally; reciprocally, the Cosmos depends on Man to complete its own offering.

Creation of Adam and Eve

Creation of Adam and Eve

Thus the seventh-century saint Leontius of Cyprus wrote:

Through heaven and earth and sea, through wood and stone, through relics and church buildings, and the Cross, and angels and men—

through all creation, visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the Creator and master and Maker of all things.

For creation does not venerate the Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God; through me the moon worships God, through me the stars glorify him,

through me the waters and showers of rain, the dew and all creation, venerate God and give him glory.

In the Eucharist we offer, in this piece of bread and in this cup of wine, the entire Cosmos and every living creature including ourselves—everything from the tiniest particles of matter to the farthest reaches of space, as well as the fruits of human labor in all places and all times.

We thus come to see that the Eucharist is central to the Cosmos. And it is the Eucharist that enables us to recognize more clearly that the Cosmos is transparent to Christ, who shines through all matter.”

(George Theokritoff, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, Kindle  Loc. 2934-49)

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