I’m not very trendy or au courant, so I’m often informed of the latest craze well after it has taken root. I thought I was safe, however, in my general assumption that seriously being accused of being a heretic was in mothballs. Imagine my surprise in the past 4 weeks to encounter 4 people — that’s one per week folks — being either actually accused of heresy or expressing concern that they would be. Two of the people I know personally, two are authors of books questioning traditional interpretations of Biblical scriptures.
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
I originally planned to steer clear of the recent book getting a lot of press about questions of “what is hell” and “is hell real.” If you missed it, there is a good AP story about the book, the author, and some of the fall out connected to his public questioning here: What is hell? Book stirs debate about afterlife – Yahoo! News.
I told a friend of mine who implied it might be good for Esse Diem that I considered it but rejected it as meaningful conversation, as it seems to go nowhere fast. The people I’ve encountered who believe in hell are not moving, and I can honestly see why: It’s a great no-lose position. I actually saw a woman spell it out online: “If I am right, you will burn in hell and I will be in heaven with God. If I am wrong, I’m still not going to hell. Goodnight.” Except I am editing her closing remark. It wasn’t that polite and was closer to a parting comment more common on the street.
You have to hand it to her. That’s pretty solid on the face of it. True, I win. False, I win.
Except sometimes, even the most hardcore not-gonna-change-my-minders open up, and I say better late than never:
The Roman Catholic Church has admitted to erring these past 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining scientific truths it long denounced as against-the-Scriptures heresy.
Pope John Paul II turned up Saturday for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight on behalf of the 17th century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist who was the first man to use a telescope and who is remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists.
Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times, November 1, 1992, William D. Montalbano
So here we go, friends. Let’s be absolutely clear about what the position of the woman who holds onto hell with white knuckles really is: It’s a fear-based insurance policy that claims to be faith-based, but in fact represents an inner terror and insecurity that, to me, is about as far from what God wants for us as you can get.
This does not mean anything goes and nothing matters — far from it. But I think we so often confuse the concepts of being punished by sin and being punished for sin. (A side note for anyone turned off by the word “sin” — I know it has a lot of baggage, but it is the best word for describing what is meant by violating a moral code of conduct decreed by a divine entity. That is all intended here.)
My own understanding of sin in my faith tradition grew exponentially when I started to think as an adult about why a society thousands of years ago recorded some things as sinful and warned heavily against their consequences. I began running informal experiments on my own life, and lo and behold, there developed a reliable pattern of misery connected to violating the principles of the 10 Commandments. Note: Have not tried them all. Not planning to try them all. Rest assured, my “study” is complete and everyone is still alive.
I don’t think God punished me. I think I punished myself by not taking some good advice about how to live a healthy life connected to some core concepts that hold society together. And I think that is what divine influence in this world wants us to understand — we are important to one another. We need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. We need to focus on systems of justice and love and caring and honor in order to live our healthiest and happiest lives. When we fall away from these systems, we hurt ourselves.
I’ll close with why I finally decided this is a good topic for this blog. I believe that what we teach children shapes our world in ways we cannot even fathom. Ask yourself this question: If you had never heard of hell, and one day at age 30 someone told you that you should embrace the idea, would you?
Engraved portrait of Italian physicist and astronomer Galilei Galileo (1564 – 1642) sitting at desk and reading book. Engraved by Samuel Sartain from a painting by H.W.Wyatt. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)