My friend and (emeritus-) colleague Bram van der Kamp is rather good in remembering birthdays. When we met a few days ago, he had a birthday present waiting for me. It was a collection of poems by Szeslaw Miloz (1911-2004), a Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Bram predicted that I would find phrases in these poems that would touch me. It turned out to be true. The third poem in the collection starts with these words:
I’m not and don’t want to be the possessor of the truth.
Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.
In the past I often heard my Adventist fellow-believers say: “We have the truth.” That was not an exclusively Adventist claim. Many adherents of other religious movements also knew for sure that they had “the truth.” Nowadays churches tend not to express themselves that strongly anymore. But many individual Christians still think that they “have” the truth, and that, if others disagree with them, these people do not “have” the truth. I concur with Szeslaw Miloz: “I am not a possessor of the truth and I cannot (and do not want to) be such a possessor.” Any Christian who says that he/she “has” the truth, suffers from a boundless overestimation of himself/herself. God’s truth is infinitely greater than a person can grasp. Dogmas or Fundamental Beliefs can never adequately express “the truth.” Our speaking about God is at most a kind of human stammering. The reason is that Truth cannot be reduced to human words, because Truth is a Person: Jesus Christ. Therefore: “I am not a possessor of truth,” but am grateful that Truth wants to “possess” me.
I can also agree with the second sentence of Szeslaw Miloz’s poem. It suits me, too, to “wander along the edges of heresy.” In the Dutch language the word “heretic” (ketter) comes from the name Cathars–a group of Christians who in their theology in many ways deviated from the views of medieval Roman Catholicism, and who were often barbarously persecuted. The English language uses the words “heresy” and “heretics”, which are derived from Greek (the language of the New Testament). The basic meaning of “heresy” is “being able to choose” and a “heretic” is someone who has views that deviate from established opinion.
One could say: Heretics are believers who do not simply accept the established ideas of the majority and the ecclesiastical tradition, but ask questions, and thereby search for greater spiritual depth. They want to look at things from a different angle and do not need to know everything for certain. They sometimes come up with proposals that the majority would prefer not to have heard or with criticism that is painful. For church leaders these “heretics” are, of course, a challenge. They form a thorn in the flesh of their venerable hierarchy. But the “heretics” must remember that they always remain co-responsible for the welfare of the Church and that, therefore, they cannot just spout their “heretical” ideas everywhere and under all circumstances.
Johannes van der Ven, who passed away last year, was a long time professor of practical theology at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), and was highly appreciated internationally. He was of the opinion that the church always stands in need of reformation and that reformation does not happen without conflict. If there are no controversies in the church it is not proof that everything is all-right, but rather the opposite. “Heretics” who “wander along the edges of the church” force the church to examine itself and to consider whether these “heretics” may perhaps be right in certain respects. A church, therefore, does well to create, or allow for, channels through which “heretics” can ventilate their insights.
Most “heretics” are not enemies of the church but love their church and are intensely loyal to their church. The church needs them. That is why I don’t mind sometimes being called a “heretic.” The words of Szeslaw Miloz appeal to me: “Wandering along the edges of heresy suits me well.”