Hearing The Heretic

March 2, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


He drew a circle that shut me out -

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him in.

Edwin Markham (American poet, 1852-1940)

When I was a spiritual seeker in my early twenties, a friend gave me a book called The Mists of Avalon.  It was an Arthurian romance, but with a major twist: it was told from the point of the villainess Morgan Le Fey, Morgan of the Fairies, the woman who scandalously bore a son by her own half-brother Arthur – the wicked Mordred who brought down the Kingdom of Camelot.  Do you remember this? You remember the legend of Arthur and the major players, I hope: the truly virtuous and loyal Arthur, his Druid mentor Merlin, his beguiling and eventually adulterous wife Guinevere, and her valiant lover Lancelot (played in the musical version by Bob Goulet – you couldn't forget that!).

I had loved the Arthurian legend dating back as far as an elementary school reading of The Sword and the Stone and viewings of movies like Excalibur, but my friend said, "No, this book is a totally different take. It will change your life."  And it did.  I started reading the book while on a major road trip and I am embarrassed to tell you that I was so into it (it's a big book, 876 pages long) that I would actually try to drive and read at the same time on long stretches of empty highway in Ohio.  Not very smart. But I was that obsessed with the story.  I would pull over and throw myself stomach-down on the grass at rest stops and read about Morgaine the pagan priestess (as she is called in this imaginative re-telling), not a villainess at all, but a worshiper of the Goddess, trying to keep the "Olde Religion" alive against the encroachment of Christianity to the British Isles.  

As the novel opens, young Morgaine is being trained as a priestess of the Goddess on the misty isle of Avalon, and she is the heroine of the story.  Guinevere is portrayed as a beautiful, blonde ninny who has no mind of her own and who is led around by the nose by priests and by the nuns who have raised her in a cloister to be a good Christian girl.  This epic blew my mind!  First of all, the book is wonderfully written – gripping storytelling.  Secondly, and no less important, this was my first experience with an author taking a legend I had known and loved all my life and upending it in a way that wasn't just for sport, but out of respect for another possible point of view: one that history had never considered.

I suppose you could say that for Arthurian purists, Marion Zimmer Bradley is a literary heretic.  Using her own free mind, her own powers of discernment, her own historical research, and her sense that she was un-obligated to tell the Arthur story the "correct" way (a better word might be "orthodox"), Zimmer Bradley used her pen and her imagination and her woman's perspective to tell a story she thought plausible and important to tell.  In the late 20th century, such freedoms were entirely legitimate.  However, had Marion Zimmer Bradley turned her creative powers and her curiosity to another subject in another century – say, had she acted as did Galileo Galilei in 16th century Italy and claimed that, in fact, not every planet orbited around the earth, as had been commonly believed, she might have wound up as he did, under house arrest by the Inquisition.

This is what heretics do, and it why they get into so much trouble.  Heretics have an idea that runs contrary to conventional wisdom and, even at great personal risk to themselves, they feel compelled to live and to speak their truth, to put their hands inside our minds and move them around like a Rubic's Cube. Click.  Totally new perspective.  Because human beings as a species have tended to prefer comfortable, received truths and conformity of belief and behavior, heretics have been unpopular through all ages and cultures.  Yes, some of them have made great art, brilliant theology, raised amazing children, made celebrated discoveries, and become rich, famous and adored.  More often than not, however, they are reviled, silenced, censored, imprisoned, crucified and remembered by posterity as villains or madmen and women.

It is for that reason that I have long had a fondness for the heretics in history and sought them out.  I consider it a religious commitment to ask myself whenever possible: Whose voice are we not hearing in this situation? Whose perspective is missing here? Whose idea was not included here because it was deemed too dangerous, too challenging, or required too much sacrifice on behalf of the people in authority, the ones holding power (even if I myself am one of the ones holding power?).

I am not suggesting that everyone with an alternative point of view is a heretic or even that every alternative point of view is necessary valid or valuable.  Some folks like to think of themselves as heretic prophets, just begging to stir up attention and trouble, but they're not the real deal.  A true heretic never goes about boasting about what a heretic he or she is.  A true heretic does not seek to be rejected or reviled so that he or she can play the misunderstood martyr.  We've all seen that, and we know it by the sense of irritation and just plain boredom we feel when in the presence of it.

A true heretic tends to be someone who is going about their work, thinking their thoughts, going along with the crowd for the most part, and who comes to a point of discovery, a quiet revelation, a "felt-shift" moment of epiphany when they realize they can no longer accept conventional wisdom because the cost to their personal integrity would be too high, and they are not willing to make that sacrifice.   They have learned something, perhaps even discovered something, and it must out or they will die in some spiritual or emotional sense.  For speaking their truth, for writing their manifesto, for composing their opus, for daring to show their shocking new form of art, they are left alone with their truth while backs are turned upon them.  While they may not be literally shunned by their community or burned at the stake, they suffer for their choices.  Heresy is divisive: the very word is meant to hurt, to shame and to assert the accuser's moral dominance over the accused.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had the stuffing kicked out of him publicly in 1838 for writing a sermon that questioned a lot of the conventional wisdom of his day.  His ideas were called heretical and the orthodox religious leaders of the time tried with all the power at their disposal to discredit what he said and to question his basic loyalty to the Unitarian religion.  This hurt him deeply – he felt misunderstood and attacked – and he wrote a little essay soon thereafter called "Self-Reliance" which contains his famous quote, "For non-conformity, the world whips you with its displeasure."

Heresy is non-conformity taken to another level.  The word "heresy" comes from the Greek word "hairesis," to choose.   It is the opposite of orthodoxy, which, broken down from the Greek means "right" (ortho) "doxa" (belief).   So to make the obvious point, there can be no heresy without some established orthodoxy -- a person or group or persons who are unutterably certain that their own perspective is, quite literally, "the God's own truth."   A study of heretics throughout the ages will prove that it is almost never the heretic who thinks he or she is wildly off the mark and outside the circle, but others who designate that position to him or her.

(Some of us are considered heretics in our own families for choosing to attend or belong to this church, and it is absolutely accurate to say that both Unitarianism and Universalism are religious traditions that began as Christian heresies.  If you want to hear more about that, please attend UU History and Heritage on April).

In a world where established truths and time-honored institutions have been revealed to be ever-shifting and less trust-worthy than ever, and because mass communication presents us all with an exciting and baffling array of perspectives to consider, I am not surprised at the popularity of the heretic in popular culture nowadays.  I love that the Broadway show "Wicked," which tells the story of "The Wizard of Oz" from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West, is wildly popular with adolescent girls (and a lot of young men, too). 

Now there's a story we hadn't heard or considered -- the wicked witch, cast in this wonderful re-telling as the sympathetic Elphaba, champion of the underdog and opponent of the vain and corrupt Wizard of Oz.  When she becomes aware of the true politics of Oz, and how magic is being used there, Elphaba chooses (again, remember that the root word of heretic means to choose) to ally herself not with the powers-that-be, but to use her own considerable magical powers to right injustices in Oz.  When I saw the show in Boston last year, the theatre was packed with teenaged girls absolutely mesmerized by the brave, bright green Elphaba, enchanted by her integrity and by the possibility that the most rejected and reviled one in the crowd may be the one with the most honor.  A romantic notion but an important possibility for us all to consider.  In a truly inclusive world, there would be no such thing as heresy, just a far more generous allowance for non-conformity.

You must have heard about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas that made the front pages in 2006.  This highly controversial document, a fragile papyrus scroll lost for 1,700 years, says that Jesus' betrayer was actually his truest disciple.  One of the most hated men in religious history (certainly the biggest villain of the Christian sacred story) has had a new outing in the 21st century and a chance at a new reputation.  In this version, a "secret account" that is considered by scholars of ancient texts to be authentic to its era (it has been tested and tested and tested again), was called heretical as early as 180 of the Common Era by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in his work Against Heresies.  "Irenaeus' book was a fierce denunciation of all those whose views about Jesus and his message differed from those of the mainstream church. Among those he attacked was a group who revered Judas, ‘the traitor,' and had produced [what Irenaeus called] a ‘fictitious history,' which ‘they style the Gospel of Judas.' (Andrew Cockburn in National Geographic, "The Judas Gospel, May 2006).

Judas the hero? In the gospel of Judas, yes.  It is written in the Gnostic tradition, a popular viewpoint in the early centuries of the Common Era, which considered sacred knowledge, or gnosis, a personal mystical experience of the Divine that required no mediation by a priest.  You can imagine why the early Church fathers like Irenaeus wanted to stamp this out as heresy immediately.  They were obviously very invested in people's dependency on a priestly class; not just for political power but because, to be fair, they deeply believed that the true Church should be a hierarchical church.

In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus, in true Gnostic fashion, must be released from his body, his material flesh, thereby "liberating the real Christ, the divine being inside." (Marvin Meyer) Judas understands this and is going to essentially do Jesus a favor by killing him.   Jesus tells Judas, "You will sacrifice the man that clothes me." But he warns him, "You will be cursed."  And we know the rest.  Judas went down in history as the baddest man in all the Bible, whose very name is synonymous with "traitor."  What a radical proposition to even suggest that there is another, more sympathetic way to regard the character of Judas Iscariot! Religious people the world over either fascinated by the possibility or absolutely offended by it.

What is the world coming to when we no longer know for certain how to tell the good guys from the bad guys, when to cast out the dangerous troublemakers, and when to invite them to the table to share their point of view?

What is the world coming to? It is coming to just that. 

We no longer do know for certain. 

We have had too many of our supposed heroes and "sheroes" revealed as master manipulators of pathological ego and greed, and too many supposed criminals and heretics– men like Nelson Mandela—stepping out of dungeon cells and emerging as prophets of peace and social change.  Conventional wisdom is not always very wise.  The poet William Butler Yeats, writing at the beginning of this bewildering era of post-modernism where it seems we can know nothing at all for certain, wrote in 1920:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.


                                                ("The Second Coming")

Perhaps it is.  Not a threatening vision such as Yeats had, of something terrible "slouching toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born," as he writes in his poem, but a Second Coming of wisdom when individuals, communities and nations willingly abandon the fantasy of a centre that can hold everything, willingly let go of the "ceremony of innocence," and intentionally make room in their hearts and minds for perspectives they never thought they could dare consider.

Perhaps in this "Second Coming" of radical tolerance we might intentionally reserve a place at the table and within the circle for the outcast, the rebel, and the heretic – those who choose to follow the truth down difficult roads, and who go to great lengths to bring that Truth back as precious cargo to those courageous enough to consider it with them.  

Perhaps in a new era, we might slightly rewrite Edwin Markham's famous poem and say,

We drew a circle that shut them out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and we had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them  in.

May we have the courage to draw that circle together.