The Valorisation of Heresy: More on pirates, rebels and tricksters

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(I wrote a short post and reference to a post by Richard Sudworth, a few days ago, and took part in the discussion over there.  Orion Edgar who is a student at Nottingham, read the post here, and at Richard's site, and wrote a response, that another friend sent onto me.  So if you are completely lost with that breadcrumb trail, after reading Orion's response I asked him if we could post it here in full.  I think it adds to the discussion and will give you something that's helpful to engage with.  So Orion's post is below, and you comment will go to him - Jason)

In Kester Brewin's recent series of blog posts entitled a plea for christian piracy, he asks why pirates are popular figures, suggesting that they represent the stirrings of a culture addressing what is truly wrong, 'blocked', in the workings of the prevailing orthodoxy.

His point has an affinity with that I heard made by Pete Rollins in a recent talk linked to his book, The Orthodox Heretic. Both Brewin and Rollins have presented their material in ways that are attractive and stimulating, and they both clearly have significant contributions to make at the juncture of contemporary philosophy and theology, and are voices that have commanded attention among a significant number of people, particularly those associated with the emerging church movement. For this valuable contribution to thought and practice within the church I want to applaud them. But several things worry me about their general position.

First of all, it seems to repudiate concrete content in terms of what is being proposed – rather than commiting itself to any substantive vision of the world, or of Christianity, in the valorisation of heresy or the piratical seems to lie a rather unsubstantial affirmation of a kind of oppositional thinking, a commitment not just to continually interrogate but, further, to rebel against the prevailing authority, come what may.

This position, popular amongst some on the radical left for the last 40 years, is clearly anti-political, since it really commits never to co-operate with others to achieve its goals. Whilst this stance, which has its genesis in a reaction to the horrors which resulted from the organised political projects of National Socialism and Stalinism in the 20th century, might grant its possessor immunity from direct blame for any such wrongs resulting from totalitarian projects, it also makes her impotent to oppose them, and, more substantially, prevents her from enacting any particular vision of justice.

The pirate may rebel against the tyranny of his capitalist masters by turning against them and stealing from them, but he does so at the price of losing any opportunity to oppose them legitimately. He is free to satisfy his greed by his misdemeanors, and even free to justify them as revolutionary acts. But this comes at the expense of the power actually to further the revolution, to actually affect the workings of trade in such a way as to make them more just.

Second, this position is committed to a dualism which seems to me problematic. It takes orthodoxy to be something isolatable and substantive (i.e. conflates orthodoxy with the power structure which lays claim to it), which must be changed from the outside.

Brewin gives examples of radical social change, like the abolition of slavery, in which a view which seems at first to be heretical becomes orthodox. But he does not consider Church history, in which, for Rowan Williams, for example, orthodoxy is taken to be a process rather than a particular power-structure or set of rules. In the early church, orthodoxy emerges as a set of parameters within which Christian thinking operates.

Orthodoxy co-arises with heresy and depends on it; what is made anathema is excluded because the path down which it leads is not consistent with the vision of the world which is held to and maintained by the tradition, but this vision is complex and several, and not easily circumscribed.

It is by pruning it, and losing the bad bits, that we allow it to continue to grow towards what is good. So it is that Chesterton is able to speak so convincingly of 'the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy', which is always making us new, always surprising us as we move towards it.

Third, there seems to be a deep syncretism with consumerism here. There is a long-standing association of 'rebellious' behaviour with a kind of political significance, which arises from Marx's critique of capitalism, and its development in the work of thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, according to which, since the capitalist depends on producing lots of the same thing (mass production), and attempts to conform our desires so that we all want the same thing, and will buy what is produced, so to desire differently is to subvert the capitalist system.

This critique has been very helpful to the capitalist in producing the conditions which allow him to sell something new to the leftist 'rebel' every season. When what is adopted by the rebel finds wider popularity, what is 'cool' quickly becomes mainstream, the capitalist sells ever more of it to the masses, and the 'rebel' must find something new to distinguish him from everyone else.

So is born the cycle of fashion, and so is the complex exchange between 'conformism' and 'non-conformism', which are both subverted to the power of money, which demands that we keep buying new stuff to meet its need of endless growth in economic activity.

Clearly, one of the great concerns with this kind of thinking is that it legitimates the position of some who exclude themselves from the organised church in response to its failures.

I, like many others, have at times almost given up in exasperation at some aspects of the unthinking evangelicalism which prevails in my tradition. Many I know have left the church, having been hurt deeply, often because of a deep sense of being excluded. I cannot blame them. But when those who feel excluded, who feel misunderstood, exclude themselves, how can the church learn to include them? It cannot.

And whatever the motives for such moves, they will often seem to those who remain within the church to carry a sense of arrogance or aloof-ness which, I think, never very well reflects the feelings of insecurity and of not-fitting-in-here which are felt by those who exclude themselves.

Aligning ourselves as individuals with exceptional individuals of some kind or another (like the pirates) risks taking an attitude to what is going on in the church which focuses on justifying one’s own role in it. Jesus’ attitude to such things was not concerned too much with self-justification, but rather focused on announcing the Kingdom of God, both in words and deeds.

He was neither orthodox nor heretic, but rather seems always to be seeking to remain faithful to the God who calls us out of our preoccupations with justifying ourselves and into a life of justifying others – of creating justice where there is injustice, rather than claiming it for ourselves. This call demands that we forego our construction of ourselves as ‘in’ or ‘out’, whether of the church, the mainstream, the cool gang.

This call also demands that we are occupied by a vision of good-ness (which is never fully determinate, but nevertheless has substantive content i.e., feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captive) and the God who is the source of that vision.

Postscript – since writing this Pete Rollins has posted a piece on his blog which addresses some similar points. In particular, he demonstrates that his understanding of orthodoxy is more subtle than what I have written above suggests.