Well, last fortnight’s coding project is too buggy to make any sense yet, and so, in lieu of those results, (which I promise I will post as soon as I get my code working) I am going to offer a few remarks on a completely unrelated topic: heresy.
It came up as I was assisting one of my tutorees with his theology homework. According to his handout, theology exists to (among other things) protect the young faithful from “the most dangerous path of all: heresy.”
This sentence did not please me. To start with, heresy, although potentially dangerous, is not listed among the seven deadly sins. It is not even necessarily borne out of conflict with God’s law, especially when considered from a post-Reformation perspective.
Indeed, unless one is willing to accept the absolute doctrinal authority of the pope or some similar figure, the validity of any distinction between heresy and dogma varies with the credibility of its author, and that very credibility cannot ultimately be established beyond the scope of those writings universally accepted as canonical, except perhaps by special (visions or messages direct from God) or general (information about God borne out in the natural world) revelation, both of which have historically been subject to debate.
In other words, if I argue that, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus sustains a minor fracture of the left fifth metacarpal in a hard-fought light-saber duel with Emperor Palpatine, I can be canonically refuted by the text itself, as the book of Matthew is almost universally accepted as canon and does not, in fact, contain said duel. And, of course, if I am Catholic, I can accept the word of the Church that no such duel took place, even absent scriptural counter-evidence. But, if I assert that this same duel was spiritual in nature and took place in the astral planes shortly after Jesus ascended to heaven, and I claim that it is widely confirmed by other members of the neo-Benedictine Jedi breakaway sect to which I belong, I cannot be refuted by textual canon, and I will not accept the authority of the Catholic Church’s refutation.
Furthermore, some other (less deluded) member of my sect, seeking to stamp out the Palpatinian heresy, will be hard pressed to offer grounds more convincing than the sincere belief that, whatever revelation I and others may have received, it did not come from God, but rather from some more mundane source, perhaps mescaline or a bad batch of morning glory seeds. Whatever his doubts, however, objective refutation will remain elusive. Indeed, any natural evidence he brings up will be subject to varying interpretations, including my own, and his personal conversations with God, though they may be convincing to him, cannot be any more easily authenticated than mine.
Of course the example is absurd, but the point is that even the most fatuous of heresies resist repudiation, especially among the communities that foster and propagate them. If the most inane philosophies show such resilience, it seems likely that more reasonable departures from canon would be even more robust. Is devoting our time to refuting them really more valuable than say, feeding the hungry or providing impoverished communities with the education and literacy necessary to read the scriptures for themselves?
The straight-and-narrow path is possessed of so many broad, well-paved, and heavily trafficked off-ramps – greed, envy, wrath, bigotry, idolatry… -- that heresy, though it represents a certain danger to the monolithic integrity of the religion, and especially that of any individual sect, cannot be paramount among the church’s concerns. To put it bluntly, heresy can only be considered “the most dangerous of paths” when doctrinal purity supersedes salvation as the ultimate measure of ecclesiastical success, and that path truly is a dangerous one.