Yesterday Davidstarlingm made the following statement concerning open theism:
Open Theism is dangerous because it is very attractive and yet wholly heretical. It is attractive because it offers an explanation for difficult questions without openly contradicting any of the surface components of easy-believism Christianity. It is heretical because it produces a man-centered gospel and a man-centered God.
There are a number of terms here that politely say “Please define me”. Among them are “easy-believism Christianity” and “man-centered gospel”. But the most glaring need concerns the reference to “heretical”. Just what is heresy and who decides?
One common definition of heresy defines the term within an ecclesiological framework as follows:
a heresy is a doctrine so fundamentally opposed to certain central beliefs of a doxastic community that holding that doctrine warrants exclusion from that community.
This is an appealing definition because it sidesteps the entire soteriological question. Is Arius or Socinius in heaven? That is not ultimately for us to say. But did they hold to beliefs so errant that it warranted their exclusion from the Christian community? Most certainly.
But the definition has a glitch. On this view a Muslim and an atheist are both heretics because they hold beliefs that are so fundamentally opposed to other Christian beliefs that it warrants their exclusion from the Christian community. Surely this is not right.
I agree this is not right for a person who self-identifies as a Muslim. But the issue is a bit more complex for the person who self-identifies as an atheist. You see, since the 1960s “Death of God” theology had its moment in the sun there have been some self-described “Christians” (some of them episcopal/anglican clergy no less!) who have simultaneously identified themselves as atheists. (Admittedly in many of these cases obscure use of language makes the final judgment of atheism a difficult one. This inevitably occurs when one adopts a definition of God such as Paul Tillich’s “Ground of being rather than a being.” But while we can recognize the obscure cases, all we need is one example of a “Christian atheist” for the argument to go forward. And I can think of a number. Harvard professor and theologian Gordon Kaufman comes to mind as does Don Cupitt.)
Clearly “Christian atheism” would be heretical. So compare:
Atheistic Richard Dawkins
Atheistic liberal Anglican clergyman
Dawkins is not a Christian heretic in virtue of his atheism but it seems right to say that the Anglican clergyman is. This suggests that we need another element to our definition. I think that emendation can reasonably be stated as “one self-identifies as a Christian”. It is no use calling Dawkins a Christian heretic if he wants nothing to do with Christianity. But an Anglican clergyman who is an atheist is an excellent candidate for “Christian heretic” if ever there was one. So a revised definition:
a heresy is a doctrine held by a person who self-identifies as a Christian which is so fundamentally opposed to certain central beliefs of a doxastic community that holding that doctrine warrants exclusion from that community.
This has an interesting result that the same belief, e.g. “God does not exist”, is not a heresy in one case (if Dawkins holds it) but is a heresy in another case (if the Anglican clergyman holds it). Of course saying it isn’t a heresy if Dawkins holds it isn’t saying it is okay or it is right. It is just an observation that the ascription of heresy is always tied to some sort of ecclesiological affiliation.
So now about open theism…