Where does bad theology begin to go bad? Are there common origin points for heresies?
In his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat makes the compelling case that heresies often begin with attempts to neatly resolve the inherent paradoxes of the Christian faith, opting for either/or where orthodoxy is able to hold the both/and in tension:
The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.
This is true of how many heresies begin. When there are knotty paradoxes that are hard to wrap one’s mind around (e.g., the full divinity and full humanity of Christ), we might be tempted to choose one or the other (e.g., Gnostics downplaying Christ’s humanity). We see this even with modern heresies. Those who can’t handle a God who is simultaneously loving and wrathful just dismiss one or the other. Those who struggle to see the both/and of sola fide and James 2:17 tend to pit the two against each other.
But sometimes heresy begins not in a place of head-scratching, frustrating paradox. It simply begins with boredom. It begins when the thrill of orthodoxy is simply not very thrilling to us anymore, when our familiarity with faith breeds contempt, discontentment, and a dangerous restlessness. And so we take it upon ourselves to dress up Christianity, modernize it, reframe and repackage it for a new age.
I see it all the time, particularly (sadly) with people who have grown up in the faith.
Boredoms That Can Lead to Heresy
The sort of Christian boredom that can lead to heresy comes in many forms. Here are a few common culprits.
1. Boredom with the Bible
Apart from periodic new translations or clever designs, the Christian Bible hasn’t really changed for 1,600 or so years. Some Christians wish it would. What should be a source of great confidence and thrill for Christians—Scripture’s continuity from generation to generation, and its relevance in every epoch of history—is for some a source of angst. They lament the ancient, old-sounding nature of Scripture. They long for a Bible that fits our modern moods and neuroses. They want fresh revelation, a new movement of the Spirit to fit our changing times.
Bored with tired old Sunday school stories that sound like crazy fairy tales to modern ears, and moral dictates that feel harsh or painfully outdated, they start to lose interest in Scripture and its supposed authority. And that’s where problems begin.
2. Boredom with the Local Church
I see this one all the time, especially among those who grew up in the church and/or attended a Christian college. Reared with low ecclesiology and an approach to church that casts it mainly in “what you get out of it” consumerist terms, these folks naturally disengage from local church life when it becomes inconvenient, frustrating, or uninspiring. Churches perpetuate the problem by focusing on entertainment and keeping church “fresh” and “relevant” by any means necessary. Invariably, though, even the trendiest church with the greatest zing will bore attendees who have been conditioned to love novelty more than continuity and gimmicks more than the gospel.
Sadly, when boredom leads Christians to stop going to church—even if they say they still believe in Jesus—it almost always leads them to theological heterodoxy. And this should be unsurprising to us, of course: Church community is one of the great checks against heresy. Churchless, DIY faith inevitably becomes unorthodox.
Even the trendiest church with the greatest zing will bore attendees who have been conditioned to love novelty more than continuity and gimmicks more than the gospel.
3. Boredom with Christians
This one hits close to home. I grew up in the church. I went to a Christian college. I worked at a Christian university. My full-time jobs have all been with Christian nonprofits. I am an elder in a local church. I’m around Christians constantly and always have been. They can be annoying. The “niceness” can wear on you. The hypocrisy. The jargon. I get why many Christian college graduates long to work in a secular workplace and be “in the world” more relationally. I sometimes long for this myself.
But when boredom leads us to ditch Christian community, it leaves us theologically vulnerable—like the sheep who’s wandered away from the flock. The people who surround us, who we process life with, shape our hearts and ideas profoundly. A Christian life that’s an island is a Christian life bound for theological confusion, or worse.
A Christian life that’s an island is a Christian life bound for theological confusion.
4. Boredom with Long Obedience
Eugene Peterson famously described the life of Christian discipleship as a “long obedience in the same direction.” The “long” part and the “same direction” part can be just as challenging as the “obedience” part, especially in our fast-paced, attention-deficit, insta-everything world. Many Christians grow weary by the long, slow process of sanctification. They want immediate results. When change comes slowly and relapses happen often, apathy sets in. Why even bother with the spiritual disciplines? Day after day, week after week, year after year—do I really want to spend my short life beating myself up for my struggles when I could be enjoying myself and accomplishing goals more attainable than Christlikeness?
The question is understandable. But the minute we become bored and apathetic about discipleship is the minute we start softening on the gravity of sin, which leads to all sorts of bad things.
5. Boredom with Tradition
Church tradition is not inerrant. Let’s get that out of the way. Where it needs to be reformed, it should. But church tradition—orthodoxy and orthopraxy passed down from generation to generation—is a source of guidance and wisdom we should treasure.
Sadly, many Christians today have bought into the chronological snobbery of our age, where “the newer is the truer” and the past is at best undervalued and at worst viewed with scorn. Many Christians are either ignorant of Christian history, bored by it, or both. They are not compelled by the idea of inheriting a Christianity that has more continuity than discontinuity with the faith of their great-grandparents. They are compelled by a “fresh,” “relevant” Christianity that dispenses with all the old, dusty things in favor of new, shiny things. But this anachronistic posture is dangerous and prone to all manner of theological confusion.
Church tradition—orthodoxy and orthopraxy passed down from generation to generation—is a source of guidance and wisdom we should treasure.
Fight Boredom with Wonder
What can we do proactively to avoid these and other types of boredom—and the vulnerability to heresy that comes with them?
We can recognize that all of these things—Scripture, the church, fellow believers, discipleship, tradition—are beautiful gifts to receive, not novelties to reinvent. They are things to steward and cherish, not to use as they suit us and trash when they don’t. They are relevant not because they shape-shift to accommodate the zeitgeist, but because they don’t.
Ultimately when we become bored with things that should actually inspire in us awe and gratitude, the problem is pride. We think our spiritual path is ours to chart. We think when it comes to knowing God and living rightly, “I got this.” But just as pride came before the fall in Eden, so too does this sort of spiritual pride precede our veering away from orthodoxy.
We should see orthodoxy as beautiful because it is bigger than us. It came before us and will be there after we’re gone. We should see its continuity as ballast amid the tumult of life—a source of beauty and stability that is anything but boring.