I recently learned that the word heretic derives from the Greek word hairetikos, which means “able to choose.” Well, if that’s the definition, I’m proud to be called a heretic, and I suspect I’m in very good company.
Of course, “heretic” is still used as a derogatory term, but we’ve come a long way since heresy was a crime and those who did not profess 100% belief in the doctrines of the dominant religion were banished or burned at the stake. We now enjoy greater freedom of belief than ever before in history. Indeed, we are now “able to choose” in both senses of the term: 1) we’re allowed to choose, legally and (for the most part) socially, without fear of retribution, and 2) we are capable of choosing wisely and sensibly, thanks to the vast array of information available to us and our generally high level of education.
Certainly, there is a great deal of religious conformity in society; millions of believers eagerly bow before spiritual authorities, accepting dogma without bothering to question it. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to say that most people in the Western world are not only able to choose but exercise choice to their advantage. In fact, it could be argued that those who do not insist upon thinking for themselves and making independent spiritual choices are missing the boat. To the degree that your spiritual life affects your overall well-being, it had best take a form that’s appropriate for you at every step of your journey, and there are no one-size-fits-all formulas.
Think of it this way: there are an infinite number of spiritual paths, one for each of us. In a sense, the earth is like a giant university with an independent study program in which everyone designs his or her own curriculum. Go to any house of worship and look at the people in the pews. They practice the same rituals, affirm the same beliefs and profess allegiance to the same tradition. But each person struggles with a unique lesson plan and wrestles with his or her peculiar demons, doubts and dilemmas. Those who decide for themselves what to believe and not believe are more likely to matriculate spiritually and to employ what psychologists call positive religious coping.
The value of being a healthy heretic seems especially pertinent this time of year, when families and congregations gather to once again recall sacred stories filled with hard-to-believe miracles and supernatural interventions. As I write this, Jews are about to recount the tale of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage and Christians are preparing to contemplate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. With each passing year, fewer and fewer people regard those stories as literal, historical truth. Many keep their doubts to themselves for fear of being ostracized, or even burning in hell. As a result of the suppression, they risk having anxiety, guilt and dissonant thoughts fester inside them—not a healthy prospect. Others reject the whole package, dismissing the holidays as outdated superstitions because elements of the stories seem preposterous to them. They risk depriving themselves and their families of the enrichment that the springtime rites afford.
Healthy heretics know better than to stifle their contrary thoughts or to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As with other aspects of traditional religion, they decide for themselves how the holidays best fit their personal curriculum. They know that doctrine ought to be questioned and that scripture is subject to a variety of interpretations. They also know that there is value to be gained from religious participation even if you think the stories are as historically accurate as tales of Apollo and Aphrodite. Personally, I find some of the story elements as hard to believe as a campaign promise, and I’m agnostic on others. Mainly, though, I don’t much care whether or not the yarns are literally true. I consider the importance of belief in general to be highly overrated. What really counts is spiritual experience. So, even though I don’t believe everything that tradition says I should believe, I’ll be at a seder on Passover and at services on Easter Sunday, engaging the rituals on my own terms, because I’m always enriched by gathering with others to celebrate the Sacred.
As for the stories, I’ll use them as teaching opportunities. The narratives resonate with the deepest yearning of the human psyche: to break free of all forms of bondage and to escape the shackles of earthly suffering. On Passover, I’ll take the opportunity to ponder how my inner Pharoah is holding me captive and how my inner Moses can lead me and others to spiritual liberation. On Easter, I’ll contemplate what parts of me need to be crucified in order to resurrect the godlike spirit within.
The great religious reformers, from Abraham to Jesus to Buddha to Muhammad, knew that authentic spirituality is beyond belief, and they overturned the stale beliefs of their time. In that regard, they were heretics, and we should be happy to celebrate them and do our best to emulate them.