With the New Year upon us, it’s decision time. What should you do with your New Year? What traits should you work on? What do you want to accomplish? What have you missed out on? In this time of reflection, perhaps you should dust off your heresies and see if they need any care or maintenance. It is, after all, a practice much older than you might think.
Growing up in ancient Greece an aspiring student was expected to look at all of the world’s philosophies and carefully choose one of their own. It was a process of examination and a rite of passage. It was a time of reflection and deliberation ending in the choosing of a worldview and then claiming it as yours—in their words, it was a process of hairesis.
Hairesis, over time, became the English word heresy—and heresy is a divisive term, perhaps one of the most divisive terms. This may be so because the word heresy just drips with judgment. What’s a shame, though, is not that we must avoid the word in polite company, but that we have lost the process from which it came. In this age, few people (young or old) really spend the time to examine the world’s beliefs and pick one of their own to drink in and defend.
The idea that a person would purposely select a poor philosophy, then spend a lifetime believing it and defending it may be bad. But there is a worse possibility. What if someone simply absorbs their philosophy from the culture around them? What if they never get the chance to review the ideas that the world has to offer and then pick the one that they are drawn to? What if they are denied the choice, and must spend their life ignorantly defending a view that they never really chose, and probably don’t even fully understand. Surely, that is the worst possible outcome, and it is clearly the situation many poor souls are in today.
And so, for the aspiring heretic or just someone looking to put a new shine on their worldview, let’s take the time at the onset of the New Year to review the menu of stylish modern heresies one by one.
If you like to raise yourself above the common rabble of society, and feel better when you do, then modernism may be for you. Despite its name, it’s actually a few centuries old and developed largely in England and France from the general idea that society had moved passed irrational beliefs and religious superstitutions. America has its share of modernists, though, because like a good pair of Levis, modernism never goes out of style.
Advantages of Modernism:
You can always rely on the fact that your views are the most up-to-date, because whatever is the most up-to-date is what you already believe.
It’s very European and you’ll fit right in at cocktail parties at large universities or in capital cities.
You can argue at those parties that religion is the cause of all war. (This can get problematic if people point to the modernists who loved these views during the French Revolution barbarically killed thousands, but you should not let this bother you because your views are quite up-to-date. Also see Hitler, Stalin.)
Your Sundays are wide open.
Reason will lead you to all of the answers you need. (This will be particularly useful when you lose your car keys.)
Science can explain everything. And when a scientific theory is tossed aside and updated, it still explains everything, which is a major convenience.
The lack of spiritual fulfillment that you feel can easily be distracted from by putting power, honor, pleasure or wealth first in your life. (Don’t examine this one too carefully, it’s best just to do it.)
You need not be slowed down by miracles great or small, which can now be quickly explained away as magic tricks.
No need to bother with those pesky questions beginning with Why–as long as you can put a label on something and all its parts, then you completely understand it!
Congratulations, you are no longer prejudiced! Why? Because how can someone who complains about his or her own religion/culture/society/race be prejudiced?
Remember the scientific method from high school? The one where you observe, measure and experiment to form hypotheses that can be tested until measurable facts are established? Wouldn’t it be great if that could explain everything? Well now it can! All you need to do is get on board with scientism. Now the universe only includes those things which can be proven and eliminates the clutter of everything that isn’t measurable or testable. It’s undeniable that science has given humanity great benefits and achievements, so why stop there when we can make it into a worldview?
Advantages of Scientism:
Because nothing can exist if it is not physically proven, life gets much simpler without love, faith, miracles, beauty or the human soul.
While great writing, art, philosophy or theology are ways of explaining what’s real, they aren’t really, really real. I mean, really.
Because, with scientism, your direct family now definitely includes apes, gorillas and chimpanzees you will probably get WAY more birthday cards (though they may not be legible).
Your topic for cocktail parties: Galilieo. (Best to stick with a short story saying he was executed by the Church for arguing the plain truth than putting forward the more inconvenient actual facts. Avoid, this for starters.)
Your Sundays are wide open and there’s always something to do, because everything you discover was caused by something else that you can then ponder. (Don’t rush yourself, though, to avoid getting to the fact that behind it all there has to be an uncaused first cause of everything).
Science can explain everything. That statement may not be measurable or provable by the scientific method, but it’s just got to be true.
For millenia the human race has been on a mission to discover the great truths of why we are here, where it all came from, what we are meant to do, what happens when we die and all the other deep issues. People have spent their lives pondering these questions—and that can really cut into nap time. To be a moral relativist, all you really need to do is believe everyone: they can all be right! What could be better than that?
Advantages of Moral Relativism:
Sure, by stating that nothing is always true you are arguing that your claim is always true, but that just makes you quirky and charming.
The passion and drive to discover the great truths of life sounds like it would take so much time and energy, and those energy drinks make you all shaky.
You can’t be wrong if you don’t pick a side. (You can’t be right either, but it’s certainly safest to avoid being wrong.)
Think of all the aisles at the library or bookstore you can skip!
You can claim to be completely objective in all arguments concerning any truth. You aren’t, but you can believe you are, which of course makes you right (relatively speaking).
So What Now?
With all of these marvelous heresies, how do you pick one? First, if the point is to be difficult or rebellious, it’s always good to know what you’re rebelling against. One measure is this: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2089.
It is judgmental and intolerant to say that you must believe this or that—and being judgmental violates one of the cardinal rules of the modern culture. So “standing out” by picking a popular, adequately nonjudgmental worldview that will get you invited to cocktail parties is not really standing out–it’s more like conforming. However, the joy of heresy is that all of these definitions can be changed to your personal liking. Therefore you can consider yourself rebellious, skeptical, rational, elite or progressive, and even stand out from everyone else, by just believing what the culture around you believes. With no irony at all!
Surely by now you can see the many benefits and conveniences of selecting a heresy.
So, while you may have been deprived in your youth of the process of hairesis, there’s still time to partake. Use the beginning of the New Year to reflect on what you believe, and consider anything self-contradictory in your worldview. Then look to the modern heresies and select the one closest to your belief system.
Questions to consider in your process: Who am I better than; What will best support my belief that I am better than the common rabble; What is wrong with my country/my culture; What will bring me honor, power, wealth and/or pleasure; What do I have to believe and say to be liked; Which set of beliefs will get me the farthest in this world?
Some questions to be avoided: What should my highest value in life be if wealth, pleasure, power and honor are not ultimately fulfilling; do I have a soul; what was I created for; if I am an accident of chemistry, why don’t I feel that way; who in human history really represents the truth; is there more to life than what I can see—more than what can be measured; why am I so uncomfortable when it’s quiet, what will happen after I die?
Now, with your eyes open, and knowing that you do have a choice in what you believe, go into the New Year and begin the process of determining what you stand for. Work through the hard questions, look at every option and examine it for truth. Then make your selection.
You may be surprised where you end up, if you actually do it.