Apr 1, 1994

Error and Our Era

3 Min Read

"Truth is great and will prevail, if left to itself." Thus asserted Thomas Jefferson, champion of free speech and enemy of established religion.

I’m not sure that Jefferson entirely believed that. Jefferson did believe that only an educated, well-informed citizenry could remain a free citizenry.

His commitment to freedom of the press was based on a desire to see a citizenry committed to the disciplines of reading, marking, inwardly digesting, and weighing the arguments of works such as Common Sense and The Federalist papers, not Howard Stern or Tina Brown. As Richard Mitchell has commented, Jefferson could not have imagined “monthly periodicals devoted entirely to such things as hair care and motorcycling and the imagined intimate details of the lives of television stars and rock singers.… He did not see a nationwide portrayal of ‘the important’ as composed primarily of the doings and undoings of entertainers, athletes, politicians and criminals.”

In Jefferson’s day, government, armed with the ability to suppress its public expression and pursuit, was the only imaginable social institution capable of being a potent enemy of truth. Tyranny still has the power to eclipse the truth, but triviality poses an even greater threat, with its capacity to soften truth’s demanding character to the point of making its pursuit and defense seem pointless.

Since Jefferson’s day, American culture has abounded with new ways of distracting men and women from a love of the truth. In part because of these novel mechanisms of distraction, the concepts of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” have become effectively unavailable. Modern Americans are more likely to be concerned with being uninterested or uninformed than with the scandal of being branded a heretic.

Jefferson’s reputation is that of the inventor of a peculiarly American form of liberty. Many believe that the liberty to do whatever one wants is the essence of America, and that it is an unqualifiedly good thing.

But the case might be made that a preoccupation with the preservation of liberty, even in the name of the liberty to pursue truth, leads to a social environment that is so radically individualistic that truth itself no longer matters. Individualism is the social context in which relativism makes sense. Individualism and relativism together make for a climate in which it is impossible to stigmatize heresy. Church discipline of false teaching can only function in a setting in which the authority of the church is recognized as being greater than the authority of the individual. American “hyper-Protestantism,” which sustains a view of church authority that would certainly make Luther begin hurling heavy objects, presents a moral universe in which the categories of orthodoxy and heresy are senseless.

This poses a problem for Protestants. Does the proliferation of smaller and smaller denominations, each honestly concerned with the preservation of orthodoxy, ironically add momentum to the individualistic patterns of American culture which make the idea of orthodoxy less plausible?

Whatever the warnings to be raised about matters ecclesiastical, it should be clear that accommodating radical individualism is inevitably self-defeating. Church-growth consultants warn pastors to respect the baby boomers’ desire for “space.” Not the space of ample parking but the psychic space of not being crowded by institutional loyalties. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof, in A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, suggests that it is the individualism of the baby boomers that leads them to their relativism, that encourages them to believe that all religions are equally good and true. Roof notes that baby boomers are relatively unconcerned with the categories of orthodoxy and heresy because of their social experiences: “Deeply influenced by a culture of consumption, boomers have grown up with religion made into a commodity and have looked on it in much the same way as other purchasable goods.”

Catering to this cafeteria-style religion may be an easy route to fuller pews, but it is also a certain invitation to indifference to questions of objective truth. The church can never inculcate a high view of truth if it encourages a low view of its own authority. Some Protestants may believe that the doctrines of sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers mean that orthodoxy and heresy are purely individualistic categories, that I alone am the arbiter of what is true. They ignore that in promoting the doctrine of the Scriptures as the only reliable rule of faith and practice, the Reformers never intended to disparage church authority, because the Bible itself had established such authority.

In recovering a healthy disdain for heresy, Christians must recognize that orthodoxy doesn’t exist in the abstract. While truth is timeless and, in a sense, impersonal, truth only survives as it is affirmed and lived by the community of believers. Perhaps the best way to fight the relativism that fosters heresy is to resist the individualism that destroys this natural habitat for truth.