I might (appropriately enough) be committing grave heresy – even blasphemy – in saying this, but I wonder if Christ has always been more on the side of the heretics and blasphemers than that of the Guardians of Orthodoxy, Correct Doctrine and Public Morals?
To me, Christ is a deeply subversive, even rebellious figure. He routinely (and it seems quite deliberately) upsets the religious establishment and offends the religious authorities of his day. He completely and shockingly reinterprets accepted and beloved theologies, doctrines and interpretations of scripture. He crashes through almost every religious and social convention and transgresses every boundary of race, religion, gender and social class. He welcomes sinners and outcasts, hangs out with prostitutes, and praises those outside his religion – pagans even – while snubbing and insulting the ‘righteous’ and respectable, and rejecting the leading lights of his own faith community. He ‘works’, heals, and picks food on the Sabbath in contravention of sacred custom; he declares all foods clean in direct contradiction of the Mosaic Law. The most orthodox believers of his day consider Jesus to be a heretic and a blasphemer, not to mention a serious troublemaker who needs to be put away.
Crucially, Jesus doesn’t actually preach a whole lot of doctrine or theology. He doesn’t tell people a list of things they need to believe or assent to. The only thing people need to believe, he says, is that he is sent by God; they need to believe him, in the sense of trusting and following him. After that, what really matters to Jesus is people’s heart attitude – to God and to other people – and their life response; what they do and how they live in light of their beliefs. In other words, it matters hugely how we regard others, how we treat them, crucially how much we love – and above all, love practically, in our actions and deeds.
Christ never puts anyone through a test of Orthodoxy; he simply asks them to ‘follow me’; to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. When he tells the story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25), the difference between the righteous and the condemned is nothing to do with their theology, doctrine or even (in a sense) morality; it’s all about how they’ve treated others – the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. This is no liberal cop-out; Christ’s way is actually a good deal harder and more challenging than merely holding the correct doctrinal beliefs.
I don’t really think that Jesus was (or is) on the side of all heretics or blasphemers, of course. I think he would strongly have rejected and opposed any heresies that said it didn’t matter how we lived, what we did with our bodies or our money; how we treated the poor or the planet. In fact, I think the heresies he would most strongly have opposed are probably the heresies and blasphemies that our modern western and, yes, even evangelical churches have most strongly (if tacitly) bought into: the heresy that the planet doesn’t matter because God’s going to destroy it; the blasphemous culture of greed and materialistic consumerism; the idea that Christianity is solely about ‘bums in seats in heaven’ and conversion is just a matter of ‘praying the prayer’; the heresy that the only issues that really matter are sexual morality and doctrinal correctness. Jesus fiercely opposed those attitudes and beliefs in his own day; I’m not sure he’s changed his mind that much in ours.
So I think Jesus calls us to a kind of radical heresy against the cherished beliefs and practices of our culture and even often of our church. I think he also calls us to a radical blasphemy against the false gods that our culture (and our church) holds up, and against the false views of God that our cherished theologies present. For indeed all theologies are only partial; none can ever encapsulate the fullness of God; all fall short and are to a degree false. We need them, but we should only ever hold them provisionally.
Being true to Jesus then almost inevitably means being seen as heretics and blasphemers by many; by all those who feel that it’s compromising on doctrine or conventional morality or tradition or other things which they hold dear, but which Jesus himself held as secondary to radical love and goodness.
So in that sense, I’d be very happy to be a heretic, in the tradition of Christ and all the saints. Sadly though, I think I’m still just far too comfortably orthodox for that…