Our communities of faith and justice require heretics– without them, we stop learning.
Ralph Waldo Emerson may be heralded among liberal circles now—but in his own lifetime, popularity was harder to come by.
Whereas his writings on nature received a handful of reviews in the first few years, his infamously scathing Harvard Divinity School Address resulted in nearly thirty different reviews in the first few months. His call to Harvard graduates was a warning of the role of the institution of Christianity, the deification of Jesus and the institutionally-enforced separation of the divine incarnated in all from the divine incarnated in only a few was deemed heretical. His commentary on the boring and disconnected preaching of his contemporaries was probably hurtful. His critics bitterly scorned him, his fellow transcendentalists adored him—or supported him quietly.
Ultimately, Emerson would be described by some preachers and scholars as the new liberal infidel—a heretic. It would be thirty years until Emerson would be invited to speak again at Harvard while, in the meantime, a violent polemic against him kept him out of religious pulpits and into academic podiums for the rest of his adult career. His ministerial principles remained at the core of his prophetic witness even outside of formal ministry.
They say one cannot be a prophet in one’s own city—this certainly seemed to be the case for Emerson.
But why not? If not your own city, where else?
Why aren’t we anchoring, honoring and cultivating our own, homegrown heretics?
By heretic I’m not referring to “people who complain” or even people who stand on the sidelines or blog-lines in vehement disagreement —but rather, an Emersonian heretic: the people who prophetically challenge and inspirationally name the theological and social idiosyncrasies and operating assumptions that they see as preventing individuals and communities from cultivating and embodying a vision of the beloved community.
Unitarian Universalism boasts a history of heresy, progressive leanings and harbors remarkable diversity. However, this heretical capital is squandered when the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” becomes a theological “free for all”—when beliefs are adopted willy-nilly and remained unquestioned and unchallenged by the community of fellow believers. More emphasis is placed on the people outside our walls—what “they” believe—rather than a thoughtful, principled but deep questioning of what the people in the pews around us believe.
Perhaps, we like to play nice—yes, we’re diverse but we don’t talk about it explicitly—rather than risk the anxiety that is provoked when we really get asked why it is we believe and do what we believe and do.
Heretics, by questioning these assumptions, can push us out of the shallow waters of half-hearted adoption and co-option of faith and ritual and into the depths of our own theology, causing us to ask important questions about the rituals of belonging and belief that we take for granted—why Jesus, why sermon, why Sunday, why interdependence, why Earth, why justice, why not?
We need to cultivate heresy.
In the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore what exactly makes certain stories, urban myths and tales “stick” whereas others fall apart. One of these factors is the role of the unexpected—that something perceived to be “the usual” starts down its usual plot line and ultimately, the expected plot gets turned upside down. After the idea is upside down, a sticky concept shows the viewer a new way to imagine “right side up.” This combination: expected, unexpected, new-undersanding-of-expected is a recipe for “stickiness.” Without our expectations turned over and new ideas (even if only slightly tweaked old ideas) formed, things don’t seem to stick.
Perhaps heretics help with the stickiness of our own theologies—we need the disruption to help us re-evaluate the beliefs we hold—whether or not we end up changing them. Like those traditions that uphold the archetype of Coyote the trickster—we can see the dual role of Coyote as both, trickster and transformer. Coyote teaches through games and tricks, he surprises those who get too comfortable on the path, she pounces and plays games when the unsuspected stop tuning into the world within them and around them. Coyote teaches us that the moment we stop learning—and living—is the moment we stop paying attention.
Perhaps (and whether or not he would ever admit it) the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School invited Emerson to give the closing address in 1838 because they knew that something needed to be interrupted—they needed a visit from coyote. And I believe, more than ever, we need more coyotes: more coyotes in our congregations and non-profits, in our neighborhoods and social justice movements. Coyotes and heretics among us keep us alive from the real threats to our existence—our own stagnation.
When radical exiles leave other spiritual and social homes that oppress them on the search for a new place to belong, they aren’t just looking for some other safe space that is more “liberal”—they are looking for a place that knows how to stay liberal and how to stay alive. They are looking for places that don’t stop paying attention, that don’t stagnate. They were heretics in their own communities– is it possible they are looking for places where its okay to be heretical now?
Emerson’s life experience as heretic of Unitarianism teaches us that we need coyote in our congregations. Without coyote, without heretics, we stop paying attention—and when we stop paying attention, we stop learning—and when we stop learning, we stop living into the depths that call us together as theological beings.