“So what’s up with the new name?”
This project was originally called Fish Out Of Water, drawing upon a popular Christian image to reflect its origin in the time period around 2004 when I was wrestling with issues steeped in that particular tradition, namely my natural inclination toward the avatar we know as Christ versus my inability to actually be a Christian by anyone else’s standards (covered more thoroughly in my introduction to The Camerado Chronicles).
FOOW was meant as an overarching metaphor to show that a human being feeling lost and forsaken in the universe is like a fish that thinks itself out of the water (“water” in this case being the omnipresence of a divine Reality that we often call God), but never actually LEAVES the water in doing so. This mind trick happens in large part because what we think of as the symbolic “water” in this metaphor is not omnipresent, but rather a political body, aka “religion,” held together by some manner or degree of orthodoxy to preserve a specific rendition of the universal tale of Thirsty Fish’s Quest for Water. A political body is finite and limiting and can indeed be left, in fact in most cases I highly recommend it as a great first step for a “fish” finding its way back to the “water.”
I never felt complete resonance with FOOW as the banner to fly on behalf of this project. It seemed too narrow and provincial in scope for an effort that calls for expansion and universalism. I also haven’t been part of a church community since I was baptized in 2004, so the implication that I was still trying to reform Christianity from within started to feel a little untrue. But that reformer’s zeal remains, based in a deep love and concern for people of all faiths who are buying into political agendas thinking they are tickets to heaven –for fish who are being sold leaky buckets of water while surrounded by the stuff.
While researching book publishers recently, I found a new title from an extremely interesting person I’m now eager to meet named Sera Beak, a San Francisco-based writer who seems to address world religion and spirituality from a similar off-kilter angle. Her latest book is called “Red Hot and Holy: A Heretic’s Love Story.”
That was the Aha! moment I’d been seeking. “Heretic”….it carries such a nasty, edgy connotation, but the etymology of the word suggests something far more innocuous. From orthodoxwiki.org:
“The word “heresy” comes from the Greek αἵρεσις, hairesis (from αιρεομαι, haireomai, “choose”), which means either a choice of beliefs or a faction of dissident believers. It was given wide currency by Irenaeus of Lyons in his tract The Detection and Refutation of False Knowledge (commonly known by the title of the Latin translation, Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) to describe and discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. He described his own position as orthodox (from ortho- “right” + doxa “glory” or “belief”).
Those are the battle lines drawn by orthodox institutions since human beings began forming thoughts on Who and Why We Are: Right Belief (aka “Official Fact” on this site) versus Choice. Not falsehood, mind you, but choice.
I don’t want to contribute to the American deification of choice and all the lowest common denominator concepts that follow. We aren’t living substandard lives if our local übermarket doesn’t carry two dozen varieties of snack cakes, or we can only afford to send our kids to school in Salvation Army gear rather than the latest mall rat fashions.
But a very bad thing happens when Right Belief replaces one’s ability to delve into one’s innermost Truth: we begin to lose touch with almost every faculty that enables us to coexist peacefully with people who are different than ourselves. It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on why this is (better to look here for that), but when Truth is obscured by Right Belief, our deep sense of commonality –the basis for compassion– is lost, and we are left to rely upon the letter of laws to maintain a kind of armed truce. Innermost Truth, you will see, by definition, is common property. It creates topical diversity because there are countless ways to express it, but underneath this surface there is perfect order and uniformity. Orthodoxy creates surface uniformity that is always at risk of dissolving because underneath it is a seething, unexplored realm of chaos, the so-called Dark Abyss of the Soul that is only dark because we stand in the way of the Light.
So systems and societies ruled by orthodoxy tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies full of people who can only be trusted if they adhere to strict rules of behavior prescribed by the institutions in power –fish who are taught that they’ll drown if they don’t catch this life preserver tossed to them from dry land, equipped with a barbed hook for extra security.
Paul of Tarsus said it as well as anyone, in 2 Corinthians 3:6: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (It is downright amusing to watch the Bible idolaters dance around that…)
Into this gloomy picture enters the heretic. Contrary to common misuse of the term, a heretic is not someone who denies the beliefs of the orthodoxy altogether –that, according to Orthodoxwiki.org, is an “apostate.” Neither is a heretic the kind of Lutheresque reformer who is partisan to another set of rules and uses them to challenge orthodox authority –that is a “schismatic.” Apostates and schismatics abound in the modern world; true heretics are hard to find. For they must have the mental dexterity to look at the beliefs of the local orthodoxy and see something of the Truth in it….and then look at another orthodoxy, see past the conflicts it has with the first one on the surface, and see something there too –something pointing back to the exact same Truth.
For some, the desire to collaborate between religions may stop there, or stay within a certain comfort zone, such as those who want to see the common ground between Protestants and Catholics to ease the tensions of proximity, or simply to keep their enemies closer than their friends.
But for others, there is no limit to the Right Beliefs they may gather and use to hack their way toward innermost Truth like a miner with a pick ax. This is the path I chose when I left my first and only “home church” in Oregon in 2004, and it has been a fruitful one, if only for my own growth.
This path is enough to liberate the individual from his own mental confines. But it is the belief of this author that as a true public heretic, naturally one will care intimately about the state of the world, and all the people with whom he suddenly has much more in common than he ever knew. To whom the universe is given, universal love is expected, and the best way for the heretic to love is to help others understand that they too have choices, that all these roads do indeed lead to Home. This is not done by selling a new and improved formula of snake oil. It is best done by unveiling innermost Truth as seen from one’s own perspective, then simply offering others a peek inside. Truth will find its own.
This question of the day, then, becomes this: how far are you willing to go to cultivate and bring to fruition a path to innermost Truth within you? Are you content to know intellectually that you are heading Home, as if you read it in a book and accepted it at face value? Or are you ready to dive into yourself and explore that abyss so that one day you may know beyond knowing “the peace that passeth all understanding,” and bring some of that peace to this world?
Fortunately there are some who accept this “higher calling” in every community, and I doubt there is an orthodoxy anywhere that is not thusly infiltrated by loyal heretics seeking Truth in its midst. This is how spiritual communities best stay vibrant and vital. When challenged by apostates and schismatics, an orthodoxy tends to tighten its grip, and political power is the means it must use to the degree that it has repressed its own spiritual vitality –the Christian Right’s battle against modern secularism being the most poignant example locally. But the challenge from within by loyal heretics has an aikido-like tendency of using the orthodoxy’s aggressive momentum to gently force its own opening to new ideas. I don’t want to overstate the significance of what is happening to the Catholic Church now on the Vatican level with Pope Francis’ kinder, gentler views on petty abominations, but it has the feel of the start of this kind of process. It will be interesting to watch where it goes from here.
Back in 2004, I wrote that I wanted to be that kind of loyal heretic to what I called the Western Orthodox Church, the essentially homogenous bloc of Protestant churches that worships the Bible, our de facto state religion in America. The truth was that my three-year experiment with Christianity forever disabused me of the idea that I would find a home in any one faith alone. This has made me kind of a free lance heretic to all, which has actually increased my sense of vocation exponentially over the heyday of FOOW. The opportunities to serve humanity seem that much greater now. You could put any form of Right Belief on the table in front of me, and I reckon that in very short order I could give you both a reason to accept it as a reflection of Truth, and a reason why its adherents are free to choose other paths that say the exact same thing in different words. The personal liberation came long ago, but that isn’t enough for me. I have been given the gift of heresy, and my sole reason for writing now is to share it with others.
So that’s the story behind Heretic Asylum! I hope this will become a place where people feel free to speak their version of Truth, without fear of excommunication or beheading or stake burning or other parlor tricks of the orthodoxies. The exclamation point is there just to make a kickass acronym, a reminder to laugh in the face of terror and never take oneself or one’s ideas too seriously. The image of St. Augustine holding a Bible and trying to whack the little impish character with a stick? That came up on my Google Image search for “heretic asylum,” and I immediately knew it needed to be the lead image for HA! My heroes have always been small people, going back to the very first Helper/sage/awakened character I created in 1992, and right through to Betty and Vera in Birding. I also have a soft spot for those who impart their wisdom through craftiness and trickery, like the “Zen stick beatings” Pedro describes receiving from Nadia. So I identify strongly with the little devilish creature in that illustration. Whether the big stick hits him or not, I suspect he’ll shrug it off and come back for more…..
2013, Non-Prophet Publishing
Originally posted: 10.03.13