Friday, June 23, 2006


Heresies is the sort of topic you blog about after someone's said something that has pi**ed you off. Like, royally. Sort of: What is wrong with what that person just said? It pivoted on something, I just can't tell what! And it's driving me nuts!

The Catholic Church is not much use, as I found out from googling "heresy." Sure, they have lists of heresies, all with cool Greek-sounding names, and most accompanied by at least one major slaughter or inquisitional cleansing. But virtually all of these have to do with incorrect perspectives on Jesus' true nature as defined by the Church, or incorrect perspectives on the role of the Church as defined by the Church. There isn't much about plain, vanilla heresy.

And that's the rub with heresies. Because a heresy by definition is relative. It has to be heretical to something. That something is usually a set of doctrines.

But what about just general heresies? Like, heretical to the sense of Jesus' teachings about the nature of God, or heretical to the collected wisdom of spiritual traditions?

This question made me sit down and clarify my notions of heresy in my own mind so that next time I am prepared to speak to them. What strikes me now is that heresy is often disguised in "orthodox" language, which sows confusion and helps imbed heresy into our culture.

Here are my eight heresies. You may be able to think of more.

1. God as Santa Claus

From "God's friends get rich" down to people who pray with shopping lists (I've met some), the people who ascribe to this heresy view God more as a servant than anything else. For them, spiritual life is a means of furthering self-centred interests. For example, going to church is a way of celebrating your good fortune of being "saved" and being chosen by God to be on the fast-track to heaven. God is a source of stuff. God always answers your prayers -- provided you pray them enough. The difficulty with this belief system occurs when God fails to give the stuff demanded. This heresy posits that God can be manipulated or controlled by prayer. God is a weak-egoed being in constant need of praise and adulation, a selfish God who simply ignores those who don't toady enough.

2. God as Bogeyman

This is the flip side of God as Santa Claus. Those who believe that God is Santa Claus for themselves generally also believe that God is Bogeyman for people not like themselves (e.g., for foreigners, for people of other religions, or even for their neighbours who dress funny). They pore through the bible to find curses to fling on others and promises to bless themselves. Belief in this kind of God means believing that God has enemies and that God hates. From this, believers of this heresy determine that they too can hate. They covertly celebrate the tragedies of others, such as diseases and catastrophes, saying, "I told you!" However, this God does not reflect the loving, forgiving, accepting God that Jesus described in the gospels.

3. God as Lord of Hosts

This is the very-old-testament view of God -- that God is a warrior who rains down punishments on enemies. This God is always on our side in a battle, never on the other side. LIke God as Bogeyman, this God has enemies -- our enemies. Unfortunately, this kind of God is useful for justifying any kind of vengeance, from genocides to honour killings. In effect, this God is a projection of our military hostilities and our desire for justification of violence.

4. God of the Gaps

This heresy developed after the theory of evolution became solid science and was hard to run away from. People would point out the "gaps" in scientific theory and declare that that was where God was. God accounted for the gaps in the scientific theory. One problem with this heresy is that it completely opposes science and religion: where there is science, there is no God; where there is God, there is no science. In effect, it also separated religion from truth, and replaced truth with beliefs. These dichotomies do not speak well for religion at all! They just turn God into a polite word for our own ignorance! Worse for this heresy is the lamentable habit of science to keep closing the gaps as new discoveries are made, such that this God always risks being squeezed out entirely.

5. God as Tylenol

In this heresy, God makes you feel good and takes your problems away. This is the "opium of the people" heresy that Marx was so familiar with. Woozy-headed people don't think, so they don't demand justice, peace, equality, or environmental protection. But because this feel-good sedation doesn't consistently occur in real life, the mere belief that it should occur is usually enough to keep people preoccupied with "trying harder" to get it. God as Tylenol combines well with God as Flag to create a very handy state religion.

6. God as our Concept of God

This is a anthropomorphic and semantic heresy, the hubris of thinking that God is what we think God is. In this heresy, God is a fixed, unchanging being and concept, framed by a fixed and unchanging set of words and images. By staking claim to those words and images, a religion can make God copyright. Then the people come to worship the words and images because of the copyright. In somes ways, this heresy is loyalty to the mistakes of the past. It's kind of like painting oneself into a corner with one's words, then realizing one is stuck in the corner and deciding to live there forever (instead of admitting it was a bad paint job and walking out through it).

7. God as Flag

I couldn't resist this one. Believe it or not, there are people out there who confuse nationalism with God's will. Yes, it's true. This heresy has been pumped by sharp politicians, who use it to justify war, exploitation, and arrogance. It's also linked with God as Santa Claus and God as Bogeyman. This heresy would regard the writing of the bible and the writing of the nation's constitution as approximately equivalent. It maintains that there is something holy about that nation's every action. It places patriotism above love, rugged individualism above humility, capitalism above justice, and consumerism above spiritual living. Yet, according to Jesus, the former are the things of Mammon, and the latter are the things of God.

8. God as Civilization

This heresy believes that what is primitive is Godless. This applies not only to First Nations and Wiccan spirituality, but also to nature itself. Through the din of modern life, people can no longer hear the whisper of the spirit of the trees; so people can end up believing that there is no whisper or spirit there. They become suspicious of anyone who claims there is. Religion to them can only exist in books, doctrines, and buildings. It can never be simple or otherwise attainable.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


I've been reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I'd read his earlier book, Guns, Germs and, and Steel. This one is even more powerful. It's not bedtime reading, though.

Diamond examines several small and large civilizations throughout history that have collapsed (e.g., Easter Islands, Mayans, Greenland, New Mexico) and discusses the five main scientifically-substantiated causes of the fall of civilizations:
  • overpopulation
  • degradation of the environment
  • loss of trade allies
  • conflict
  • leadership and cultural values that are out of sync with what's happening
He then examines some current situations (e.g., Montana, Australia, Rwanda, Haiti, and China) to explore to what extent some of our civilizations are following the same path toward collapse. The parallels he finds are striking.

Once the land has been cleared so long that the soil deteriorates, once the cities have spread to the point that they cover the arable soil, and once all the trees have been cut down, a civilization is in its terminal phase. The social factors follow: transportation and communication become impossible, trade and alliancing fade away, leadership becomes extreme or absurd, and factions start to fight over the few remaining resources. At this point, the people have choices to make: to keep their culture or change it.

Few people think about how precarious our civilization is. If oil were cut off tomorrow, we wouldn't be able to carry on. I don't want democracy to die, nor modern medicine and education. I don't want the planet to become more desertified. And I don't want the spiritual evolution of religion to stop dead as extremism takes over.

I was thinking last night of the choices we need to make:
  • developing a global, universal contraception program to bring populations down
  • creating awards for nations whose populations are falling to reinforce the idea that growth is not good
  • admiring people who choose not to have children
  • resisting and refusing changes (e.g., Seattle)
  • developing a long-term (a century or two) global reforestation and de-desertification program
  • revising corporate law to remove the need to provide returns on investment at all cost
  • creating "costs" for corporations, individuals, and businesses to ensure compliance with the people's will
  • replacing individual rights with group rights
  • preserving old means of survival, such as heritage seeds
  • replacing as much of the energy infrastructure as possible with non-fossil-fuel technology
  • promoting pacifism in all religions to help create alternatives to conflict as resources dwindle further
I don't know why this book has moved me so much. I have been a member of the Green Party and environmental groups for years. I think of environmentalism as a spiritual value, and I work to place group values above my individual rights. Maybe because this book goes beyond spiritual and scientific values and focuses on a cultural imperative: change or collapse.

It's that simple.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


BOING. . . boing . . . BOING!
. . . boing . . . !

Today, our Meeting agreed that we would move to a new meeting space starting in two weeks.

I can't believe that a year of searching is over! And I can't believe that we are finally FINALLY getting out of that tiny little hole in the wall where we were meeting!

The meeting turned down our last two choices, which were expensive and less than ideal. One church only grudgingly offered their space, adding a hefty rental fee on top of it (nearly four times what they charged every other group that used the space!). The meeting decided it was very bad karma to rent from a group that didn't want us.

I had to agree, but we were running out of options, and I was about the give up on Quaker process. After all, we had minuted the need to move a year ago -- and here we were still not moved! But then our assistant clerk suggested moving the meeting time to late afternoon. I expected an instant thumbs-down, but the members were cautiously accepting of this idea.

I have to learn to trust the process of Quaker discernment, because by turning down our last choices, they helped open the way for a new notion of who we are.

Within two weeks, our committee found an ideal and very affordable spot: the local Unitarian Fellowship Hall. It's a compact Shaker-like meeting space on two floors, formerly a meeting hall for a union group. Simple amber walls with airy windows, clean hardwood floors, chairs stacked in a row along the walls, and everything else folding away into neat cupboards. The meeting room has space for us to grow; and the children's area downstairs offers five comfortable rooms (two classrooms, two playrooms, and a lounge, all attached to the kitchen).

I was a bit unsure whether the meeting would go for the 4 p.m. meeting time. A few people did express their dislike of the time change. But then others started talking about outreach. They expressed their hesitations about doing outreach to people in other churches when coming to Meeting means not attending their current services. With an afternoon time-slot, we can feel free to do as much outreach as we want, without feeling that we are proselysing or pushing people into an either/or situation.

Moreover, we can encourage people to come out while they maintain their first commitment to their Sunday-morning spiritual community.

We also felt that clergy from other churches might find our meeting a good space for prayer and spiritual rest, in contrast to their Sunday-morning activities.

Our meeting can now position ourselves not just as a religion that people join, but as a spiritual service to the community, regardless of one's religious commitments. We can bring our Quaker light into their churches, their sermons, their committee work. After all, what does it matter whether someone calls or doesn't call themself a Quaker, as long as they are following the Light? We must bring the Light to them wherever they are.

Hence, the meeting also minuted a need to start doing active outreach into the community to offer the spiritual opportunity of coming to Meeting.

Not only do we have a new space: we have a new mission.

. . . boing . . . BOING . . . !

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Devils and Walls

Last week's arrest of 17 young Muslim males in Ontario who were planning to blow up parliament and (apparently) lop off heads of our heads of state kind of took everyone off guard here. For some reason, it's not something we expected to come out of Toronto. There was a bit of stunned silence from the public, then a bit of high-drama flapping around by the media, then more puzzled silence.

What does it mean?

Of course, there were immediate questions whether we should cut off immigration. But the irony there, and everybody saw it, is that these were Canadian boys, all raised here in Canadian schools. Just like the terrorists who blew up the subway in London, who were all Londoners. And the Madrid bombers, who were home-grown Spaniards.

Terrorism isn't about immigration.

It isn't about borders either. Terrorism flows across borders because it is not people. It's not even in people. Terrorism is ideas and emotions. It's on the Internet and the airwaves. It comes in shipped books, CDs, tapes, music. It comes from here and goes there, and it comes back again. It's like an infection: it spreads, it doesn't walk. It infects some, bypasses others.

If the military campaign in Afghanistan found bin Ladin tomorrow and threw him down an elevator chute, there would still be terrorism the next day.

A line from "The George Fox Song" kept going through my head last week.

"If we give you a pistol, will you fight for the Lord?
But you can't kill the devil with a gun or a sword!"

In other words, you can only kill people with a gun or a sword. The "devil" lives on, moves on.

You can't stop the devil with a wall either. It's like building a wall to stop bird flu. (Or trying to stop the rising oceans with a levee!)

Walls are modern; terrorism is postmodern.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Pope Replies

Well, what was in my mailbox today but a letter from Rome. Notta bene la signatura:

The signature was on the card that accompanied the letter. The letter was really written by someone named Monsignore Gabriele Caccia, but excuse me for a minute while I kind of gloat over this.

The pope sent a letter to l'il ol' me.

Anyway, here's what he said:

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has received your letter and he has asked me to thank you. He appreciates the sentiments which prompted you to share your thoughts with him.

In regard to the matter you raise, I would suggest that you consult a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 2302-2317 (Safeguarding Peace and Avoiding War) will be of interest to you.

Trusting this information will be of help to you and assuring you of a remembrance in the Holy Father's prayers, I am

Yours sincerely,

Monsignore Gabriele Caccia

I googled this catechism document and found a summary on a very nice Catholic peace and social justice website. Article 2302-2317 includes information about respecting life, rejecting violence, addressing causes of war, morality in war, and the criteria for the ol' just war theory (which is, in my opinion, the Trojan Horse of the apocalypse).

So what's come out of this exercise in witnessing peace to other churches? Sigh - I'm not sure. But to badly paraphrase Rufus Jones, an act of love which has completely ambivalent or unquantifiable results is just as much a part of the divine life as an act of love that has measurable success. Because love is measured by its own fullness and takes its sweet time in producing results.