My First Heresy

May 30th, 2018

We were sitting around the dinner table. I couldn’t have been more than five, though I might have been younger. I don’t remember why but the conversation had turned to the idea of the immortality of the soul. I’m thinking that this had to do with a Romantic poet, but really have no idea. We also might have been serving up leftovers from the Sunday sermon. Conversations at the dinner table tended to be wide-ranging. Anyway, as one thought led to another, the idea of the soul’s pre-existence was raised. 

That’s when I committed my first heresy. I said something to the effect that I remembered things from before my birth. I have no idea now what I meant, but I do have the fuzzy recollection that I wasn’t meaning to be silly or pretentious. 

However adventurous and philosophical the conversation had been up to that point among the adults, my entry into the conversation apparently ventured too far. I recall making my comment casually, almost off-handedly. 

I said, “I remember things before I was born.” 

I was promptly sent down from the table, amid harrumphs, cold glances, and a “Never say that again!” for good measure. I think I remember feeling embarrassed and hurt, but that may be a later addition to the story. Well, I was only a little guy. 

Looking back now, I wonder what connection, if any, this incident had to my eventual vocation. Certainly, I saw pretty quickly that there is considerable power in thoughts and words. And, although I hadn’t intended to wield power — I think I just wanted to join in the conversation — I had indeed exercised power enough to affect the digestion of my elders. 

It wasn’t till much later (in college or grad school) that I discovered I had stumbled onto one of the three main heresies of the most brilliant theologian of the early church, Origen, whose teachings were condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543 AD. I have a hard time comprehending how his teachings could be considered erroneous in any absolute sense because no one, him included, can possibly have actual knowledge of the things Origin was teaching. Who, after all, can verify the idea of the preexistence of the soul? It’s beyond our ken. You can have doctrinal and philosophical assumptions, yes, and you can have them by the bushel; you can have strong feelings, okay; but knowledge? Nope. Not on your life. 

I’ve said before that I find it odd Christianity places so much emphasis on holding metaphysical opinions about matters that cannot be known by mortals. According to some people, the nature and fervency of your metaphysical opinions will determine your eternal destination. In some cases, as with Origen, Christians have gone so far as to separate heretics from the orthodox on the basis of a majority vote by a bunch of mortals who know as little as the person being tried for heresy. 

“All in favor of the proposition that the risen Christ could pass through walls but also eat fish, raise your hand.” “The ayes have it! The nays should report to perdition via the most convenient bonfire.” 


Considering the fact that the founder of our faith (Jesus of Nazareth not John Calvin!) was hounded by his own religion’s dogmatic policemen, you’d think we Christians would be hesitant to do unto others what had been done unto our Lord. But, no. 

Our zeal for “right teaching” (that’s what “ortho”- “doxy” means) has been defended and embellished for a couple of thousand years. One brilliant scholar, whom I admire and whose PhD dissertation I treasure in my library, says in his thesis that there are times when even the execution of a heretic can be defended because the church is fighting for its very life.* This view has led, among some Reformed theologians, to the idea that “Michael Servetus had it coming.” But, if that’s true, then it must also be true that (to steal a line from Clint Eastwood in his movie, “The Unforgiven”): “Kid, we’ve all got it coming.” 

This is not to say that theology doesn’t matter. I’m a theologian and I believe theology is relatively important to the life of the church; it’s not as important as loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself; but important. 

Personally, for example, I believe the Trinity is the Mystery of Being Itself, the incomprehensible “as such” forever shrouded in the darkness of the pure love of God, the reality of reality that eternally moves from one to many, from many to one, giving rise to all that is visible among us, and drawing all to itself in eternal harmony, dissonance, and grace. While this doctrine tends only to provoke yawns when preached on “Trinity Sunday,” when contemplated, the reality behind the doctrine evokes unplumbable depths of love. 

I am also not saying that our attempts to be as clear and accurate, as doctrinally responsible, and as biblically well-grounded as possible aren’t important. Sloppy theology doesn’t do anyone any good. However, I simply do not believe that God is magnified when the church’s teachings become a bloody battleground or a cause for divisions in the community. And I cannot believe that the destruction of persons for the sake of so-called doctrinal purity glorifies God one little bit. God, I am sure, doesn’t send folks to hell because of an inadequate conception of the consubstantiality of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

When we tell people, whose ideas about God frighten us, to leave the table, our actions not only alienate them, they also have a chilling effect on all our table talk. Creativity, imagination and love are at least as important to the life of faith as critical reflection and biblical literacy. And neither creativity, imagination nor love tend to flourish in an environment that is more keen to enforce conformity than to encourage adventure. 

I learned a lot from espousing my first heresy, at least enough not to share my more recent heresies at just every table. But, there are some tables where the risk is worth it.

* His thesis is a carefully researched and footnoted two volume treatise with lots of quotes in Latin, French and German from an historic European university. So, it must be true, right?

"My First Heresy" originally appeared on Thinking Out Loud. Reprinted with permission.

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