Book Note: If This Be Heresy

Yesterday’s brief discussion of You and the New Morality pointed out some ways in which Bishop James Pike’s concerns and approach to religion differ from those of Leary and his fellows, who were explored in previous posts. The contrast between these two camps continues with Pike’s book If This Be Heresy. Unlike the previous authors, Pike doesn’t seek justification for his religious ideals/methods through a pre-existing lineage of “ancestors,” is unconcerned with demonstrating linkages between and correspondences with various world religions, evidences no interest in methodical praxis, and is not seeking to found counter-culture and semi-hermetic spiritual communities. These concerns on the part of Leary, Dass, and Ginsberg arose from their marginal status as participants in a minority religious movement attempting to achieve legitimacy and expand their power-bases.

Pike, on the other hand, writes from within a majority tradition hypersensitive to its own decline. His obsessive concern is therefore with relevance–how must the things of the past be renewed and reinterpreted so that they can speak to new generations and new problems? Some things, apparently, can’t: Pike is on probation from charges of heresy, since he repudiates the dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Birth. He uses the first third of his book to demonstrate that the Bible, the Ecumenical Councils, the Creeds, the liturgies, and the denominational Confessions of Faith are all insufficient sources of authority. He explicitly rejects the doctrine that one’s afterlife is sealed at the time of death, denies traditional eschatology, and even removes the role of God as judge and guide. One begins to wonder what segments of Christianity this bishop actually wishes to argue for.

One thing, surprisingly, that Pike does believe in is the reality of the paranormal. Though Pike doesn’t appear willing to grant God the power to create miracles such as virgin births or resurrection, he does believe in people’s ability to project their thoughts telepathically, to communicate with the deceased, and to reincarnate in future lives. This is one linkage that he does share with Leary et. al.–this feeling that there are forces unaccounted for in modern science seems to be emblematic of religious movements in the 50s-70s. Another type of linkage is the self-consciousness of the times as a break from the past: our previous writers spoke of the “New Age,” and Pike offers us a “New Morality.”

A tremendous ego and self-confidence seem to lay behind Pike’s writings. He never believes that he is anything other than right. He can’t conceive that he could make poor decisions or has legitimately earned the opposition he regularly encounters. His universal prescription that one must rely on one’s conscience apparently derives from the supreme ability he attributes to his own. With a forceful personality, unconventional relationships, dabblings in spiritualism, and a predilection for turning even the most sacred cows into ground chuck, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have been charged with heresy.

These two books by Pike tend to leave the feeling that he doesn’t really want to be a Christian, nor does he want to give up his status as a powerful member of the Christian hierarchy. In fact, Pike basically seems to be a Unitarian in disguise. His God is singular nor triune, his Jesus is a role model rather than a savior, his heaven, hell, and genesis are thoroughly demythologized, he seeks authority in personal experience, reason, and empiricism, he is highly concerned about social justice, his approach is completely intellectual, he views the Bible as allegorical, he makes room for non-doctrinal phenomenon and evaluates non-Christian religions positively, he’s optimistic about human nature and the progress of history, and his morality is entirely situational. A better basic formulation of core Unitarian ideas could scarcely be imagined. Even his paradigmatic contemporary icon is a Unitarian, the civil rights martyr James Reeb. Perhaps if Pike had lived longer (he died in an accident in the Middle East), he would’ve eventually affiliated with the UUA.

None of this is to say that Pike isn’t thoroughly shaped in his assumptions and priorities by mainstream Christianity. Rather than the focus on individual internal exploration characteristic of Leary et. al., Pike is interested in fulfillment through personal relationships, though not necessarily with God. His religious concerns are fundamentally extroversive, and the arena of religious concern, expression, and achievement is the public sphere. His spiritual model is the “man for others,” a saint whose primary religious practice isn’t ritual but a living expression of care for others, particularly those disenfranchised by society or traumatized by individual circumstances. Pike never recommends prayer, meditation, study of Scripture, church attendance, confession, or any other stereotypical Christian praxis. Instead, he locates the crucial heart of true religious practice in the making of choices–choices of belief and of general behavior, which are expressed as dynamic responses to new situations. The ability to choose (the basis of the word “heresy”) is what sets humans apart in the universe; therefore, the exercise of choice is the most human of actions. Anything that impedes choice, such as dogma or conservatism, is evil, as is the refusal to make choices or the abdication of one’s power of choice to an institution or exterior authority. Thus Pike’s status as heretic is conveniently revealed as the proper religious stance for the truly honest man to take.

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Filed under Book Notes, Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

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