So Ross Douthat has a new book which speaks of heresy. I am glad he uses this term—heresy—and he is quite sophisticated in his understanding of the issue. Both Hegel and Kierkegaard spoke of the important role of heresy in the development of the Christian doctrine, and Douthat too seems to see orthodoxy and heresy in some sort of dialectical relationship. After all, in his Confessions heresy plays an important role within which St. Augustine finds his own true spiritual formation.
Douthat is presenting something important when he describes heresy as that which attempts to make the strange mystery of Christian revelation as that which is wholly rational in a way that makes sense for one’s own life. He glibly, but in my mind correctly, uses this definition to define Jefferson’s “Bible” as heretical. Even if we were all to be Unitarians according to the wishes of this great founder of the USA, it has surely not turned out to be the case. Nowadays Unitarians and Trinitarians of various stripes argue for the truth with various polytheists, atheists and agnostics. Yet insofar as each and all want a completely systematic order understood as rational in a way that avoids any tension in thought, conviction and feeling, then it is heretical. Insofar as one is free to make it up without reference to anything other than oneself then it is doubly heretical.
Douthat alludes to the current breakdown of the institutions of civil society that give a sense of being in a community–from the family to small business to the trade union to the local church–even if he doesn’t delve on such sociological matters like Charles Murray and Robert Putnam. But nowadays one could wonder of the serious spontaneity and greater importance of civil society anyway. So the unencumbered self severed from any society larger than itself is not the whole problem.
For Douthat, it is a problem of belief. And belief in God.
- John Presnall
Ross Douthat, Bad religion: How we became a nation of heretics
Bad religion and the American tradition (First Things)