Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2

In my last post, I used Roger Olson's recent post, "How serious a heresy is universalism?", as a starting point for exploring how heresy should be conceived. I argued that, from many important theological perspectives including Olson's own, we should not expect knowledge or certainty about the ultimate truth concerning God and reality to be available from our terrestrial epistemic situation.

This is not to say that we might not have some forms of guidance or direction in forming our beliefs, but these sources of guidance would be cognitively resistible: they do not demand (on pain of irrationality) acceptance of a particular worldview or belief system, since a rational person could doubt their credibility or veracity (even though a rational person might very well accept their credibility as well).

I argued that Olson's theological basis for rejecting universalism, when considered in the light of what I regard as a rather compelling Thomistic line of argument, entails that we are in just this sort of epistemic situation with respect to God and ultimate reality. That is, if we accept Olson's theology, we must also accept that our acceptance of that theology is not rooted in knowledge of its truth. It is, to use the traditional if ambiguous Christian language, a matter of faith.

But if this is right, then the nature of God and ultimate reality as such cannot serve as our standard for assessing whether beliefs are heretical or orthodox--because such assessment presumes access to the standard, access that isn't available.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't care about getting our beliefs in tune with ultimate reality. This, after all, is the ultimate goal of all inquiry and debate. But that it is a goal does not mean that it is, right now, an accessible standard for evaluating beliefs. If talk of heresy and orthodoxy is to be meaningful to us now, given the epistemic situation we are in now, then such talk should function as part of a broader epistemic project aimed at achieving the goal of bringing us in tune with the real nature of things. Treating the "heresy" and "orthodoxy" labels as identifying deviance from or conformity with ultimate reality amounts to assuming that the goal has already been achieved--and, as such, may actually stifle progress towards achieving this goal (one stops journeying if one thinks one has already arrived at one's destination).

So is there a "standard of orthodoxy" other than the truth about God and ultimate reality that we can meaningfully invoke in Christian discourse about such matters as universalism, and which may actually contribute to our ongoing quest to deepen our understanding of ultimate truths? Two commonly invoked candidates immediately come to mind: (a) the Scriptures, and (b) the authoritative pronouncements of the early Ecumenical Councils that, among other things, gave Christianity the creeds still recited to this day. A third standard might be a particular theological tradition, or the "weight" of that tradition (in terms of its dominant and pervasive teachings).

With each of these candidates, there are at least two questions we might ask: First, is it an accessible standard that can actually function (with greater or lesser degrees of precision and completeness) to distinguish "orthodox" and "heretical" beliefs? Second, does (or can) evaluation of beliefs in terms of this standard contribute to the aim of moving us towards a deeper connection with truth?

I think it is clear that Scripture, the pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils, and theological traditions are more accessible than ultimate reality. And I think it is clear that they can be put to use as a standard against which beliefs are judged--although Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens). A similar problem arises when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition.

The deeper question, however, is the second one: Is there--or can there be--value in the project of subjecting beliefs to such a standard of orthodoxy? My instinct is that there can be, insofar as this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality. But that there can be does not mean that subjecting beliefs to standards of orthodoxy is always or even usually helpful in the situations where it is actually done. As such, I think great care should be taken in properly qualifying claims of heresy and orthodoxy. At a minimun, I one should (i) clearly identify the sense of "heretical" or "orthodox" one has in mind and (ii) be clear about the purpose for which one is making these distinctions.

For an excellent example of doing just these things in relation to the question of universalism, I'd recommend taking a look at Robin Parry's series of posts on the topic from June of 2010. At some point in the coming weeks (my start-of-the-semester schedule permitting), I will consider in a more substantive way the question of whether Christian universalism should be judged heretical based on a standard that is of particular interest to philosophers, and which Roger Olson at least implicitly invokes: the standard of coherence.


  1. Olsen now has since had more to say about "heretical":