Heterodoxy, orthodoxy and their overlap

Mary Magdalene. Lime tree wood and polychromy,...
Mary Magdalene by Gregor Erhart († 1540). Lime tree wood and polychromy – Wikipedia

Here’s another revised Think Free entry. Most of the updates result from observations and impressions gathered while a frequent churchgoer prior to the pandemic. — MC

The word heterodox means practically the same thing as “unorthodox,” denoting beliefs and practices opposed to and usually publicly condemned by established figures or leaders. The term is found in religious and secular affairs.

In religion, a heterodox position might be an outright heresy, which counters core doctrines, or it may just be different enough from standard teachings to elicit public condemnation from orthodox leaders.

Historically, both Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity have imprisoned, tortured, and burned people alive for holding apparently Satanic views about the nature of Christ or some other dogma. In retrospect, any reasonable person is compelled to ask who was really behaving like the devil.

Today, the Catholic Church publicly opposes some charismatic preachers of Christianity while accepting others. It makes you wonder why. John Gager might have a partial answer although I suspect politics and economics might also have a role to play in the 21st century.

For Gager, the tension between orthodox and heterodox groups seems to be greatest when they share areas of ideological overlap. As I wrote previously:

Sociologists and religious studies professors like John Gager say that whenever the beliefs and practices of an out-group get a bit too close for comfort to those of an established in-group, members of the in-group get upset. The in-group then wants to better define its boundaries, which may lead to exclusion, condemnation or, as we’ve seen in the often grisly march of human history, persecution.

According to this theory, it’s the similarity of the two groups that riles the established in-group. Radically different out-groups lacking some kind of thematic overlap with an entrenched in-group are usually ignored. But when an out-group hits a nerve by getting too ideologically close to the in-group—that’s when sparks fly.

This dynamic apparently took place between the early Christians and the Gnostics. And a similar kind of dynamic continues to this day.¹

The following is a smattering of historical usage for the term “heterodox” from the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrating different meanings that have existed through the centuries:

1650    J. Row Hist. Kirk Scotl. (1842) 354   Christ’s locall descending to hell, and divers others heterodoxe doctrines.

1658    G. Starkey Natures Explic. 18   Whosoever should dare to swarve from these [Galen and Aristotle]‥being looked upon as Heterodox, was the object of scorn and derision.

1859    W. Collins Queen of Hearts I. 20   The Major‥held some strangely heterodox opinions on the modern education of girls.

¹ See “DVD Review – The Murder of Mary Magdalene: Genocide of the Holy Bloodline” » https://epages.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/


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