The Faith of a Heretic

In the matter of religion, as indeed in other areas of human life and thought…the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs. This fact constitutes the heretical imperative in the contemporary situation. —Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative

The English word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek verb, hairein, which meant ‘to choose.’ Hairesis, then, simply meant ‘to make a choice.’

To be a heretic is to be a person who makes choices.

Within the Christian tradition, however, it holds a much more negative meaning. The apostle Paul warns in Galatians 5:20 against those who engage in a ‘party spirit’ (hairesis)—akin to partisan politics, but not to be confused with a keg-draining frat party. Those with a party spirit divide and fracture the community. In the theological and legal history of the early Christian church, heretics were identified as those who promoted deviant views over or against the authority and teachings of the Church. To be tagged with the term meant to carry a target on one’s back, to suffer denunciation, a quick trial, and sometimes a grisly death. In his The Heretical Imperative, sociologist of religion Peter Berger writes of heresy with straight-faced understatement: “Its etymology remains sharply illuminating.”

One of the major themes that Berger explored throughout his long career as a sociologist of religion who was also a practicing Christian, was the impact that modernity has had on religion and people of faith—not just in Christianity, but in all major religions.

In a premodern society, religion had the quality of objective certainty for most people. The society supported this certainty and enforced it, to a degree, by making it difficult to question the social structures that undergirded its reality. Modern society, in contrast, undermines that certainty by collapsing the assumptions that allow us to take our social reality for granted. It relativizes knowledge and subjectivizes religion.

“If the typical condition of premodern man is one of religious certainty,” says Berger, “it follows that that of modern man is one of religious doubt.” If the background of premodern people was this religious consensus, then that authoritative consensus for modern society has vanished. Heresy—choosing a different religious path—was a rarity in societies in which the questions were settled, the religious and political authority was secure, and the penalties for deviance were dire. Yet, it’s very difficult to follow a consensus that is no longer available. “In other words,” says Berger, “individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact.”

Berger makes the point that the orthodox person defines him or herself as living within a tradition. Traditions, by their very nature, are taken for granted, but this state of taken-for-grantedness is no longer possible in today’s society. “Every tradition consists of frozen memories,” says Berger, “And every questioning of tradition is likely to lead to an effort at unfreezing the memories.” The unfreezing of memories means that every generation questions why the tradition exists and where it came from. On the principle, however vaguely sensed in one’s life, that we cannot inherit our grandparent’s religion, we question in order to understand. It’s a natural and essential process. Through the asking of questions and the testing of traditions we may come full circle back to our starting point, but now we know what we believe and who we put our trust in.

Where the social and religious consensus breaks down, pluralism rises. Modernity opens up choices and narrows down what was considered destiny. In any given city across America the religious traveler has a choice to attend the services of not only most of the major world religions, but also scores of Christian denominations and sects. American religion is a buffet of choices.

But beyond the choices to be made between religions, there are choices to be made within a religion. It’s interesting how ‘heresy’ transmogrified from ‘choice’ to anathema—as if the true disciple would never ask questions, never see differences, never compare, and never step over the lines drawn by authority. In fact, faith requires choice, otherwise it would not be faith but a cramped and reluctant obedience to authority. When the integrity of religious authority collapses, the inward turning to reflection on one’s religious experience is both inevitable and necessary for one’s faith. That is, after all, where the exhortation to develop a “personal relationship with Christ” will lead.

Christ asks for our free choice in faith. The rich young ruler is dismayed because he must choose between identifying with his wealth or following Jesus. The man born blind chooses Jesus over his rigid tradition—and risks the sullen plotting of the religious authorities in retaliation.

What we call heresy may be viewed as making a choice out of what was previously thought to be closed, over and done with. Faith, then, is the continual act of choosing the way we should go. There is less certainty here. But while modernity alienates and isolates us from each other, we are saying that community can be found with others who also choose. Because we are social beings and because we make our ethical and moral decisions to a great extent according to what is affirmed by our communities, we need each other. Because our worship is both solitary and communal our fellowship of faith is a fellowship of heretics, people who continue to make their choices every day about Jesus as they live within the world. To be faithful is to exercise choice and thus to be a heretic.

Berger gives us three ways that people live within their religions. The first is what he calls the deductive approach, familiar to orthodoxy, in which we go on believing as if nothing had changed in the world. The behaviors are prescribed according to law, the rewards are contractually-based, and knowledge of traditions and rules is paramount. Certainty is high because our unquestioning trust is in religious authorities.

At the other extreme is the reductionist approach, typical of liberal theology, in which accommodation to the secularizing force of society is almost total. Religion is reduced to a political agenda and there is little sense of a personal religious experience. Jesus is seen as the great ethicist and the New Testament a compendium of motifs of justice and responses to the oppression of others. What makes religion palatable to a secular person, then, is its emphasis on psychological, political, and ethical analyses of our current unjust society.

Berger’s choice is the third option, the inductive approach, in which we turn from external authorities, both religious and political, and from tradition, to our own experience of God. This is the heretical imperative in which our faith is constantly making choices and our trust in Christ is the experience that lifts us daily. It is not an easy path and uncertainty is high because we are not following well-worn paths of tradition nor are we simply swept along with the crowd. We reason, we “test the spirits,” we recall that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” we revel in Scripture and in the many avenues to the Spirit that we find. We pray and we decide; we seek in order to realize our foundness.

There is much that is good in tradition and the assurance it bears. Tradition gives us stability and it reminds us of the mountains and valleys in the experiences of our forebears; it can be a bright line of consistency when everything else is murky and chaotic. But it may too easily slide from authority into authoritarianism and from guidance into coercion. It substitutes response to God with reaction to religious power.

We must be clear that other people’s experience of God, crystallized into tradition and dogma, will never be enough for those of us on the road to Emmaus. We need to see Christ’s hands for ourselves.

The heresy that is faithfulness relies on thinking for oneself, praying for guidance, looking to counsel from those we trust, and finally, choosing our path. It is a path of humility; there is no glory to be gained in side-stepping religious authority that is exercised just to keep one in line.

In the original sense of the word, we may all aspire to be heretics, people who choose daily, with eyes wide open, to follow Christ.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Thomas Young /

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I have found my personal path has never really been a matter of choice. My initial jump into the Adventist church may have been a sort of choice, but even then, it was where my path had to lead at the time. Through the years that path has grown narrower but still not a choice as much as where the arrow points.

Further to this, not only has the path grown narrower, but along the way all my crutches have been falling by the wayside. Thinking about this just the other day, I realized that in the end, the only thing standing is what’s at the end of the road that has beckoned me to take the paths that I have taken - it has all come down to the empty tomb at the end of the road.


There’s much more to it than what I was able to bring to the essay. You won’t be disappointed in reading it!


No wonder I called myself an “heretic” so many times in the past… :wink: :innocent:
The following is an attractive concept:


Cass, you are right, those days were really enjoyable. Something was different, the opposite poles used to be friendly despite the differences of opinion. Yes, sometimes fierce speeches, but good stuff. And then there was merciless Elaine Nelson @ageis711Oxyain with her shot gun(s) used to chase the numb from the neck up… :slight_smile: (I’ll call her tomorrow to check what is going on).

Hey, I am astonished :astonished: with your memory! Just amazing. I am jealous, because my memory was never that great since I was a child.

By the way, there was also our “Interested Friend” @sufferingsunfish who was never much interested in our opinions, and was finally banned for 18 mos to suffer like an ostracized fish. :fish: He is around again, but very quiet, because he knows there are fishermen and fisherwomen around here… :innocent:


Regards to Elaine - we miss her.


Has ANYONE here read the book Education by Ellen White?
Do so on page 17.
She ADVOCATED training our youth to be “Heretics”.
“It is the work of TRUE EDUCATION to develop this power [power to think and to do],
to train the youth to be THINKERS, and NOT mere REFLECTORS of Other Men’s
Thoughts…Instead of educated weaklings, [our] institutions of learning may send
forth men [and women] strong to THINK and TO ACT, men [and women] who are
masters and NOT slaves of circumstances, men [and women] who possess breadth
of mind, clearness of thought, AND THE COURAGE OF THEIR CONVICTIONS.”

Ellen White herself, is ADVOCATING the training of “Heretic” Personalities in our
Grade Schools, Academies, Colleges. In our CHURCHES!
The Academy I attended, one of the Senior Classes was the Study of the Book
Education. Was a whole year course!
NOW, it is probably one of those BANNED BOOKS in our churches.


My Philosophy of Christian Education class final exam (college) consisted of regurgitating a list of “memory verses” from the book Education. My room mate hardly ever went to class and got the highest grade in the class. :grinning:

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What about Elaine? I somehow missed this.

What I found out throughout the years is that there are many people who include EGW as a source of faith & doctrine, but they just to ignore some things she wrote. At their own convenience.

I have always encouraged people (and I mean here on Spectrum) to think by themselves, sometimes being criticized fo doing that. It’s easier to control the crowds when they are merely parroting what others prepare for them.

If we only accepted the principle of Sola Scriptura (SS), most of those conflicting issues would be out of the window! But because we are not a church of SS believers, our theology is always is state of alert, ready for another fight. Most fights are about non-biblical issues. :upside_down_face:

No wonder you mix with people from other denominations, certainly to get some relief from the grandiosity :exploding_head: espoused by the SDAs and the fights about non-biblical issues. Smart! :+1::+1:


She moved to a facility, not sure if it is just assisted living or nursing home. Still could not contact her, maybe today.
Will keep you posted. Unless I forget… :wink:


Nice to see and know that Tichy is such a polite gentleman and that the Moderator does not allow ad hominem attacks.

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IF, what was again the ad hominem attack? Please clarify.

I only posted once, Adventist Women in Leadership Meet To Pray, Reflect, and Praise God, and I don’t see where you see an ad hominen attack there. It was certainly not my intention, and is certainly not written in my post. Let me understand your resentment, please.


Barry, thank you for encouraging us “heretics”…

Heresies are experiments in man’s unsatisfied search for truth.

  • H. G. Wells

And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth.
-Eliot, T. S., 1888-1965. After Strange Gods : A Primer of Modern Heresy; London : Faber and Faber.

Donald Trump speech: “I’m not angry at Japan. They send cars over by the million. We give them practically nothing. You talk about a trade unbalance. They’re up here. We’re down like below that stage. It’s trade imbalance. I’m not angry at Mexico or any of them. I’m angry at our leaders for being grossly incompetent and not knowing. Right?.” (Image Source: Reuters)

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Thanks far a great article. This makes some sense of things I’ve struggled with for my whole life. I hope the book lives up to what you’ve written.

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The book was published in 1979–still remarkably fresh and relevant. You can find used copies on Amazon. Over the years I’ve found Peter Berger has an interesting and enlightening perspective on theology and religion from his sociological discipline. Almost everything he wrote over the course of his career touches on or is immersed in, issues of faith and religion. Great stuff!

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