I spent a lot of time online during what I call the Golden Age of Message Boards. You know, before Facebook went public, long after Myspace was decidedly uncool, and shortly before texting became a global phenomenon? A few years ago, message boarding was how people from anywhere around the world could communicate about any given subject, serious or trivial, for any length of time. On the message board I frequented, most of the heavy traffic discussions were of the headier sort – theology, philosophy, ethics, politics (the latter of which I mostly stayed away from). I learned a lot about other people’s beliefs, I became more certain of my own, and some of mine even changed as a direct result of the conversations I had with people way more intelligent or educated than myself.
In one such discussion, the subject of heresy came up, and I’ll never forget what one friend said: “Heresy is a conversation ender.” It’s like what debate enthusiasts now call the “Hitler fallacy” – when one side of the debate makes a reference to Hitler or Nazism, the debate is over because the other side realizes that rather than trying to prove their point, they now have to prove they don’t support world domination and genocide. There are certain words or statements that, once you bring them up, end the possibility of all future discussion. “Heresy” is one of those words. When you call someone a heretic, or label the belief they are defending heresy, you are saying there is no way you can respect or even listen to what they say. At that point, why keep talking?
Fortunately, very few people use the word “heresy” in the conversations I participate in or silently follow (one of the things I learned from message boarding, actually, was the value of occasionally not participating), which is encouraging because it shows the Church has made some progress in getting along with its minority members in the last 500 years or so. But I do see a phrase emerging in its place, for when one person wants to let another person know that what they believe is either heretical or very close to it, but doesn’t want to come right out and say so. It’s the phrase “be careful.”
I see this when somebody defends a belief that is outside evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity. I see it with nontraditional systems that seek to do away with established hierarchies or limitations. And I especially see it with comments ending in question marks, to the effect of “What if the traditional model of church, or the mainstream interpretation of this Bible passage, or the popular doctrine of this subject, isn’t the correct one?” – “Be careful.”
Why is it apparently dangerous if a person asks questions about their faith, and why does it freak others out to the point that they caution them against doing so? I grew up in a home that criticized other religions for prohibiting critical thinking and questioning the faith, but if that’s not allowed within the Church, how do we differ from a cult?
What is going to happen to a person who gives up the current popular doctrine in favor of one that was commonly held in the early church? They may discover a deeper, more contextually appropriate understanding of Scripture that has been lost to modern readers.
What is so bad about a person trying to understand Paul’s statement “In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free” in a contemporary setting? Two hundred years ago, a lot of people probably told abolitionists to “be careful” lest they upset the God-ordained institution of slavery. A lot of people probably said the same thing to suffragettes and civil rights activists in the 20th century.
Don’t get me wrong; I think we should be careful about many things. We should give careful thought to how we use our resources (Haggai 1), we should be careful not to do good for the sake of our reputation (Matthew 6:1), we should be careful to do what is right (Romans 12:17), we should be careful how we build the Church (1 Corinthians 3:10), we should be careful not to make others stumble simply by exercising the freedom we have in Christ (1 Corinthians 8:9), we should be careful not to become prideful and thus fall into sin (1 Corinthians 10:12), we should be careful to live wisely and make the most of our time (Ephesians 5:15), we must be careful about falling into unbelief or disobedience (Hebrews 4:1), and yes, we must be careful of teachers and teachings that may lead us to hypocrisy or unbelief (Matthew 16:6). In other words, we shouldn’t let any part of our life be thoughtless; we have to pay attention to what we think, who we believe, and what we choose to do about it.
But here’s the catch: that is exactly what a lot of these “unorthodox” people are doing. Having grown up in the Church, having been told from early childhood what to believe and how to think, they – or I guess I should say “we” – have decided that is not a careful way to live. We are reexamining our faith in order to make it stronger, more biblical, and more central to our lives. This involves questions. This involves branching out to different traditions, some old and some new. This may involve reaching conclusions that are different from what we were originally taught. And believe me – it’s just as scary for us as it is for the people watching us do it. So yes, actually, we are being careful in how we go about it.
I started writing this post with the intention of concluding that “be careful” is just as much a conversation ender as the Hitler fallacy or the heresy card. Now I’m thinking, it’s not so much that it’s a bad thing to say, but it’s not very useful. Consider the following scene from my favorite TV show, The Big Bang Theory.
Sheldon is searching for a cricket in the shaft of the apartment’s broken elevator (long story – two long stories, actually). Raj, watching from above, shouts down to him, ” Be careful!” Sheldon replies candidly, “If I were not being careful, your telling me to be careful would not make me careful.”
We have good intentions when we tell people to be careful, but what are we really saying? Do we mean “you are bordering on heresy here and need to stop pursuing this line of thought?” Because not only is that a discussion-stopper, it might actually be you who is wrong. Or do we simply mean “be careful in your exploration to thoughtfully examine what you read or hear, and to study the Bible and pray over what you are discovering?” Because the person you’re saying it to might already be doing that. More importantly, maybe the person you should be saying it to is yourself. “Be careful” – I think we should all take these words to heart.