Heresy of the Free Spirit
Marguerite Porete was a French mystic born in the thirteenth century. She was part of the Beguines, a voluntary, informal, semi-monastic community not unlike the new monasticism popping up in some urban centers. Marguerite, though unknown to almost all contemporary Christians, was influential and controversial in her day. She was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, and her views were later condemned at the Council of Vienne in 1312.
What got her in trouble was The Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite’s exploration on what she calls the seven states of grace. In the fifth and sixth states (the seventh can be reached only after death), the human soul is so united to God that it disappears. Our wills are completely replaced by the divine will, such that we are no longer capable of sinning. All our thoughts, feelings, and desires get swallowed up in the divine. We do not even wish for the comforts of God because we are already one with God.
The liberated soul, according to Marguerite, can freely give in to nature because nature now is so well ordered that it would not demand anything contrary to God’s will. In her estimation, her heart was so united with God’s heart that she had to follow only her own desires.
With such a mystical view of the Christian life, it’s not surprising Marguerite had little patience for the institutional church. She taught a rigid two-tier ecclesiology. On one side (and these were her titles) was Holy Church the Little — a fading institution of non-liberated souls, guided by reason, relying on sermons and sacraments. On the other side was Holy Church the Great — a body of liberated souls freed from organizational shackles, governed by love, relying on contemplation. Her book was written for the enlightened ones set free from Holy Church the Little into Holy Church the Great.
Why reintroduce this long-forgotten, little-known French mystic? Because the same ideas that got her labeled a heretic are alive and well in the twenty-first-century church. Let me mention four problems with her free-spirit theology that seem particularly relevant to our situation today.
The first problem, and the root of all the others, is that she conceived of a union between man and God that is more like heaven than earth. Marguerite insisted we could be like angels, always doing God’s will, living in undisturbed bliss. Such thinking makes us passive and ignorant of the spiritual battles before us. It is the ultimate let-go-and- let-God theology.
Second, Marguerite, like some of today’s young passionate Christians, operated with an unrealistic perfectionism. It seems Jesus could not have passed muster for Marguerite. After all, our Lord was tempted and tried, a man of sorrows and struggles. He had to choose to submit His will to the Father, even though they were in purpose and essence one. If Christ’s soul was not “liberated,” how will ours be?
Third, Marguerite overestimated how much we can trust ourselves. I sometimes hear from well-meaning Christians, “Look, you are a new creation in Christ. The old is gone; the new has come. You are no longer depraved. Your heart belongs to God. So listen to your heart.” There’s some truth here, but such advice grossly underestimates the presence of indwelling sin and the ongoing need for the law to guide our steps. We are not liberated souls that know “neither shame nor honor, neither poverty nor riches, neither joy nor sorrow, neither love nor hate, neither hell nor heaven,” as Marguerite taught. This disavowal of desire is more Buddhist than Christian. No, we are desiring creatures, and our desires, even after conversion, do not always pull us in the right direction.
Fourth, Marguerite’s theology exposes the fundamental flaw in mystical approaches to knowledge: she had no place for means. She claimed her insights could “be understood only by those to whom God has given understanding and by none other; it is not taught by Scripture, nor can human reason work it out… . It is a gift received from the Most High.” This is akin to those Christians who think they can move beyond traditional devotional practices or the humdrum of the local church. But no healthy Christian ever moves past sermons, Scripture, prayer, sacraments, and the organized church. These are the God appointed means by which we grow in Christ. When we reject these ordinary means laid out in the Word, we not only invite the kind of spiritual elitism that flowed from Marguerite’s two-tier ecclesiology, we also show ourselves to be more “spiritual” than the Spirit Himself.