On Being Thought a Heretic
One of my best friends says that when she reads my books or blogs she can’t help but think of the poster for the Liam Neeson film Michael Collins, the revolutionary title character standing defiant in the face of British imperialism and fighting for a free Ireland. I own this description of my Irishness. I have to. I also think growing up during the 1970s in hardscrabble Detroit during the rise of punk rock and under the shadow of the MC5 and The Stooges has something to do with it. But it also the product of my investigations into truth, beauty, and goodness.
More recently, this image has come to my attention due to some concern I've heard from readers of the blogs I’ve written which seem to suggest that maybe some of the alchemists and astrologers, mystics and magicians of the past (my scholarly field is primarily in 16th- and 17th-century religious writing) weren’t such heretics after all. As I’ve written before, my investigation of figures such as Thomas and Henry Vaughan, Jane Lead, Sir Kenelm Digby, Robert Fludd, Jacob Boehme, and others has led me to conclude that, on the contrary, they were hardly heretics. Indeed, every one of them would have described him- or herself as a faithful Christian. And more: they would have argued (as Fludd and Thomas Vaughan did vehemently) that they were guardians of Christian tradition, preserving an integral (and traditional) view of the cosmos as participating in God, which they did in defiance of the theological and philosophical innovations of natura pura theology as well as the Cartesian/Baconian epistemologies proliferating in their times. My admiration for more historically recent figures such as Rudolf Steiner and Valentin Tomberg in no way convinces my critics that I’m not such a heretic after all.
What is a heretic? It depends on who you ask, I suppose. A good many Catholics (ostensibly my tribe) think of the Protestant reformer and militant Gerrard Winstanley and the Anglican poet and priest George Herbert as heretics (technically, from a Catholic standpoint, they are). I don’t. They also view the poet, mystic, and engraver William Blake, one of the most original religious thinkers ever, with deep suspicion. And I won’t even mention posterity’s treatment of the poor, unfortunate Church father Origen, posthumously demoted from the grace of orthodoxy for his views on apocatastasis, or the ceremonial burnt offering of dear beguine mystic Marguerite Porete. And, depending on who you ask, some of my favorite Catholic theologians—Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Hans Urs von Balthasar—are also considered heretics. All I can say is that I would rather burn in an interesting hell with such souls than get bored for eternity in an EWTN version of heaven. Brethren, so stand I.
The figures I have listed here all attested, in their own ways and by employing the idioms of their times, that the universe is an enchanted place; that is, that it participates in God, revealing his Wisdom in all things; that the supernatural is not a supplement to what we think of as the “natural,” but that the two are inseparable and cohere one within the other. The quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm called this “implicate order.” But he’s probably a heretic, too.
What I call “Enlightenment Christianity” (and particularly “Enlightenment Catholicism”) has done far more harm to the world and the human race than have the ideas of Robert Fludd, Gerrard Winstanely, William Blake, or Marguerite Porete. It turned faith into a set of principles and a structure of knowledge, not at all characterized by the fire that descended at Pentecost (if you don’t believe me, check out the bored faces of the candidates at your parish’s next Confirmation Mass). In its internalized Cartesian metaphysics and its idolatry of rationality, Enlightenment Christianity has sold its birthright for a plate of lentils. And pretty dry and tasteless lentils, at that.
The Elizabethan magician and polymath John Dee may have thought he was talking to angels (it was something quite other, actually), but the harm he caused (entirely to himself) was nothing compared to the harm the kind of thinking that disregards the realm of the spirit has wrought. As Tomberg explains,
let us [not] condemn Doctor Faust, our brother, by accusing him of black magic—it is, rather, childish credulity of which he can be accused, if he must be accused. In any case, he was one-hundred times more innocent with respect to mankind than our contemporaries who have invented the nuclear bomb. . . as good citizens and scientists.
There are better kinds of heresy to eradicate.
You saw this one coming.