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Subtle modern heresies

Council of Nicaea
A sixteenth century painting depicting the First Council of Nicaea, which took place in 325. | Public Domain

We no longer battle explicit Gnostics. Gone are the Arians. Manicheism, Donatism, and Marcionism have passed. Each of these were heresies of a fanatical age, when men sought, in 20th Century author Whittaker Chambers’ words, something to live for and something to die for.

Each of these doctrines was wrong, but they were genuine attempts to find and understand God. In combat against these falsehoods, the energetic wisdom of the Church met men of equal conviction. The heretics they faced were horribly wrong, and they were terribly brilliant. Their creeds were codified, and their conclusions were definite. They were learned. Their doctrines were perverse but clear, wrong but articulate. They were wolves and fierce as such. They had conviction — true conviction. The Church was writing against fanatics, but these fanatics were not simplistic. Their spirituality pointed to darkness, against the Church’s light.

A different spirit characterizes our age. Both virtue and doctrine seem less important. We are slow to think of ourselves as primarily moral beings. The explosion of commerce in the last three centuries (for which we ought to be grateful) has trained us to think that humans can, in fact, live on bread alone. We see homo economicus not homo religiosus. And when occasional pings of conscience do arrive, therapy is the remedy, where guilt is explained without sin, and peace is sought without repentance. We no longer think on a moral landscape, and great character becomes more difficult to develop.

C.S. Lewis makes this very point in a lesser-known appendix to one of his better-known works, The Screwtape Letters. He observes that the great sinners and saints are made of the same substance. A zealot in Satan’s ranks acts, when converted, often retains his zeal, and returns it to the God who first bestowed it, like St. Paul. But this class of human is lessening; true conviction has been replaced by apathy. Mediocrity, which Tocqueville placed among the defining characteristics of democracy, has stripped men of the excellences of the soul making greatness possible.

Lacking fervor, we now slouch toward a sluggish religiosity, where the Church is not firm and heresies are not clear. An uneasy mixture of the two is left, which leaves us unsure what we are to believe, what is right, and what is wrong. Lacking clear moral categories, it is more common for humans to stumble into falsehood, than to stand firm in what they assume to be true.

I here refer to the softening of Christianity. The modern heretic is not zealous but mild, and that is his danger. I have found that those who practice this domesticated Christianity rarely have the intellectual might or will to express their beliefs clearly. Given its undefined nature, I myself struggle to name the modern heresy, but we can at least say: it is the disbelief in firm belief; the belief that it does not matter what we believe.

As Chesterton once said, our ancestors made the error of burning those at the stake who fell outside of what was commonly held to be true. Our error is the opposite, and just as serious. We figuratively burn the man who upholds orthodoxy, perhaps for no other reason than that he holds to a belief. (If I were to speculate, this is a strain of thought that has been with us since the birth of Liberalism at the end of the Religious Wars. Following two centuries of passion and war, Europe sought, in the Enlightenment, a worldview without such zeal. Self-interest, consent, and conscience replaced courage, glory, and moral purity.)

They who propagate a neutralized Christianity are often unclear and rarely learned. Their errors are neither immense nor developed and, therefore, are not doctrinally neat. Often the one explaining them could not do so in a syllogism; they are instead taught with simple tautologies. I suspect that most doctrinal errors of today are not the product of scholarly errors, but mindlessness.

They are not presented in a summa or treatise; they instead bypass both the speaker and listener in vague platitudes and slogans. This ambiguity is their amnesty. Rather than fight on the battlefield in daylight, with clear lines, they sneak into congregations quietly. The Trojan Horse may is filled with lies that are hidden until they enter and burn the city.

Church teaching is becoming less rigorous, less zealous, and less distinct. Messages now slide toward a more general mean, bound together by vague clichés that neither elevate nor disturb. We are led astray, not by persuasion, but by telling us what we already know and keeping us where we presently are. I do not fear the strength of these orations but their simplicity, not their power but their pusillanimity. It is vague moralisms, not strong, developed doctrines that the Church must guard against. Such heresies may be less clear, but they are not less dangerous.

Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism. 

Caleb Knox is a spring 2022 intern at the Institute on Religion & Democracy who studies Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. Originally from Virginia Beach, he has served as speechwriter, columnist, and then Fellow with the Hertog Foundation. He is interested in understanding politics through the wisdom of philosophy and the guidance of history.

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