Modernization and heresy

In his 1979 book The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, Peter Berger states the premise that all human beings, regardless of their culture or intellectual disposition, live in a cultural and religious context that differs dramatically from the one in which their foundational faith tradition developed.

Yet, in significant ways that foundational faith is still a necessary part of their life today, and all people are required to decide how they will affirm that tradition in this new world. In so doing, everyone has no choice but in some way to become a heretic. “Modernity is the universalization of heresy.”

As a life-long member and long-time historian within the classic Protestant version of Christianity, I have been aware of this tension most of my life, and I am also at ease with many of the devices that churches in this tradition have used to interpret our basic text, which is the 66-book canonical Bible.

Recently, I have started reading about two other faith traditions, Islam and the Latter Day Saints, which also hold the Bible in a position of respect. Each of these traditions, however, has been shaped by one or more books that were composed at later dates and which augment or supersede the Bible and shape the distinctive elements of their religious movement.

In a series of posts, I have reported on these studies, and now have gathered them together into one document. My purpose has not been to discuss the contents of these later sacred writings, although that is something that needs to be explored. Rather, I am interested in the interpretive methods which are used to build bridges that are anchored in both old texts and contemporary life in a western, secularized context.

My goal is twofold: to see how people whose significant books are greatly different from my own develop their respective bridges; and to look for elements in their work that can help me make my own connections between ancient texts and modern times.

The title of this paper is “Living by Old Texts,” and you can read it by clicking on the title.

2 Responses to Modernization and heresy

  1. Joe Culpepper says:

    When I studied Bultmann’s “demythologizing” in seminary, I thought that the interpretive process should actually be “re-mythologizing”, i.e. putting the truths embodied in the great mythic stories of the bible into new myths or metaphors for our day. The “heresy” of modernizing then is to affirm ancient truths embodied in the culture, myth & metaphor of a previous time by “translating” those truths for our contemporary culture with its own myths & metaphors.

    For e.g. the various atonement theologies use different myths/metaphors to attempt to understand the salvific action of Christ. Substitutionary uses a judicial metaphor; Christus Victor uses a battle metaphor; Exemplar uses a hero metaphor. All of those metaphors have a basis in the New Testament. Our task is to discover myths/metaphors that speak to our day to convey the truth of Christ’s saving act. At the same time, we acknowledge that all theology is metaphor & speaks only indirectly of the ultimate mystery of God’s saving love. The greatest “heresy” is to get stuck on one metaphor as the only true representation or right theology. New metaphors can build new bridges between ancient truth and contemporary believers.

    • Joe, thank you for your reply. It’s clear from your comment that you remember Bultmann better than I do. In The Heretical Imperative, Berger discusses three ways to respond to the heretical imperative and he uses Bultmann as the exemplar of one of them. I wrote a paper some time ago on this and posted it in the section of my blog called Writings in Religion. It’s entitled Fluid (online)

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