It seems as if the calendar pages flip over more quickly than ever and suddenly the prospect of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent rise over the horizon once more.
The catch word for the season, of course, is “Repent/metanoeite” (Mark 1:15)! It is very easy for us to automatically assume that the conversion needed in each of our lives is moral, namely greater fidelity to the will of God in areas of human honesty, self-indulgence, compassion, patience or generosity.
Areas of change such as spending more time with parents and family, figuring out a way to stop smoking or rigorously embracing a diet quickly come to mind for each of us. Regular attendance at Sunday Mass ought to be on a few lists for sure. Those are good and noble resolutions.
The Greek word, metanoia, however, means literally to change our thinking … to think outside the normal patterns of our minds. Almost all of the parables of the Kingdom as taught by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels suggest that it is our thinking about how God really works in our world which demands the most change and conversion. The rest will follow in due course.
Lent is therefore also a time for intellectual conversion. That is worth some further thought. There are some errors so fundamental as to have been called heresies over the centuries.
That label is no small or casual condemnation! The word can be bandied around flippantly, and sometimes is so treated by people who do not understand the true focus of the word and its serious implications. The Greek word “airesis” signifies a faction or splinter group, and then by further application, an opinion which separates those who hold it from the rest of the community of believers.
As a technical term in the church, it implies the deliberate rejection of a truth taught by the church as divinely revealed. Like the traditional definition of serious sin, the erroneous opinion has to be serious, and we must know that it is serious and we must decide to hold it anyway.
Heresy is a church dividing truth which we wrongly embrace with full knowledge and consent. This is serious matter. Many of the ideas which are flippantly labeled heretical are no such thing. Some, however, are.
One of the heresies deeply embedded in our American psyche is that of Pelagianism, namely the belief that we can somehow save ourselves without the necessity of God’s grace! It was the opinion of a fourth century theologian by the name of Pelagius against whom St. Augustine argued vehemently. God’s grace is in fact required for every good human act. We need to remember that.
Usually our American version of that intellectual disease is more modest, namely the conviction that we somehow start the process and then God comes along to nudge us by grace toward completing the project. Deep in our practical American spirit is the conviction that we can solve any problem with more money, more research and more time … even the problem of our salvation. That is a serious error, often labeled “Semi-Pelagianism.”
At the other extreme of the same heresy is Jansenism, a rigorous approach to human behavior taught by a 16th century French bishop who demanded perfection, for example, from anyone approaching the sacraments of God. Frequent Communion declined drastically under that heresy. The erroneous presumption was often that we could somehow do that on our own, with great effort and force of the will.
An earlier heresy proposed back in Augustine’s time as well was that of Donatism which insisted that only morally perfect ministers were able to celebrate the sacraments. The church certainly expects that the ordained will strive to be worthy of the ministry they exercise, but the primary minister of every sacrament is Christ himself. The moral limitations of the minister do not render the sacrament invalid.
Heresies, ancient and modern, about the person of Christ have their labels too. They surfaced in history as early Christian theologians and believers struggled to maintain the correct balance between the humanity and divinity of Jesus in such a manner as to preserve the truth of both.
Adoptianism was the fatal error given to the ancient theory that Jesus was born human, but then became divine at his baptism or at the transfiguration when the heavenly voice announced, “This is my beloved son.” At the other end of that spectrum Docetism was the label pasted upon the suggestion that Jesus only appeared to be fully human and only appeared to die; true divinity could not ever be mixed with the crassness of human flesh and blood. They both denied the reality of the Incarnation, and were condemned by early church councils as fundamentally and dangerously heretical. They may well be subtle diseases of the spirit which still affect contemporary Christians and our attitude toward Jesus the Savior.
Lenten penance is a noble exercise, needed each year by all of us. I will continue my annual practice of cleaning out a drawer a day, and writing a daily letter to some long ignored friend or relative. Checking the accuracy of our faith, however, might be an additional effort well forth the effort. The Lord does invite us to intellectual conversion and repentance too!