Why Heresies Fail

As we know the word "heretic" derives from the Greek hairesis (hah'-ee-res-is), meaning choice. But not just any choice although we may refer, often in humour, to a person who does not conform to any established attitude or principles or even styles and tastes as a "heretic". That is not the sort of heresy that makes up today's discussion and nor does it constitute a 'heresy' in the historically understood meaning of the term. A real heresy, religious or political, is a position that challenges an existing totalising system, not just on matters of doctrine, but also its authority. That is why heresies are considered dangerous.

Let us think of *some* of the major religious heresies within the Christian faith outside of the great schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches that we are most familiar with in order of their establishment: Adventists, Anglicanism, Adoptionism, Arianism, Baptists (including Reformed, and Particular Reformed Baptists), Calvinism (both Presbyterian and Reformed branches), Catharism, Congregationalism, Docetism, Donatism, Ebionitism, Gnosticism (including Manichaeism), Hussites (including Moravians), Iconoclasm, Lutheranism, Mennonites, Methodism, Monophysites, Mormonism, Miaphysites, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Restorationism (including Latter Day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses), Sabellianism, and Waldensianism. With perhaps a degree of humility we should recognise that all these heresies have outweighed the Unitarian-Universalists according to followers, churches, and influence. Among these heresies there are scores of others that have failed. It is recognising these failures that perhaps we can better prepare ourselves to prevent failure.

Historically, the greatest cause of a failure in a heresy has been nothing simpler than being conquered. It was from the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics where tens of thousands were put to the sword or burned at the stake where the apocryphal and notorious line ""Kill them all, God will know His own" originates from. It was only by events such as the wars of the Reformation which broke the complete authoritarian power over geographical locations, that many of the contemporary heresies survive.

More contemporary reasons why heresies fail - and this includes remaining insignificant - is that they underestimated the ability of the dominant authority to adapt, and they fail to adopt themselves, remaining trapped on a theological issue, long since resolved, forgotten, or ignored. Others have selected an issue in their heresy that is not reality based and as such, are doomed in a modern world to become nothing but a somewhat weird sect; triclavianism for examples is a heresy that argued that Jesus was crucified with three, rather than four nails (it is Easter, after all). This has been subject to significant debate over the centuries. Other heresies fail because their membership consists of dysfunctional recalcitrants who wear the badge "heretic" simply to be special. Their ineffectiveness is notable; one is only really a heretic if the powers that be bother to declare one as such.

But the main reason that contemporary heresies fail is because they become complacent and comfortable. Heresies fail when they drift away from their original achievable purposes; indeed, such heresies are prone to schisms, or becoming a country club for a small community, or both. In these circumstances, another vector for failure is when heresies fail to ensure that they appoint the best possible people to carry out their historic mission. In fact, the mission has already been forgotten.

A heresy that is reality-based and achievable, is one that can succeed. A heresy that is selected that strikes at the very core of dominant powers, is one that has a historic mission. A heresy that actually has a real plan - to become of one of the largest organisations in its field in the shortest possible time, using the best possible people - is a heresy that can succeed.

Are we that type of heresy?

Presentation to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, March 31st, 2013 for the "All Heretics Day" service