In her opening address to our General Convention this year our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, took the American church to task for teaching the "heresy" if individual salvation. It raises questions about her theology of salvation. Does she mean to say that one does not have to have a personal relationship with God in order to be saved? What about all the verses in the Gospel of John that make an individual response to grace essential to salvation? Is she just wiring around that Gospel?
The definition of a heretic is not one who believes entirely differently from oneself. A heretic is one who teaches part of the orthodox truth of a religion and part that is not, claiming to be of the faith, yet not really being so. Equally, every heresy is half a truth that hides half a lie. Perhaps this is the issue our Presiding Bishop is addressing. If so, then I agree with her wholeheartedly.
The half a truth is that a personal response to grace is essential. The half a lie is that this is ALL that is necessary. We in our individualistic culture are quick to emphasize the individual response, but slow to recognize the need for community. How many people do you know who claim to have faith in the Christian God, but are unwilling to be part of a Christian community of faith?
Let me illustrate my line of thought. On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet," along with 43 other such bodies known to science. Officially our solar system no longer has nine planets, but eight. That was not the decision of one scientist, but on a multi-year program to establish a usable definition of what constitutes a planet. When the definition passed Pluto no longer qualified. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. says of this new definition, "I think this will stand the test of time." But you see that the decision was made by an officially recognized community of specialists in the area, not by the whims of one person. Science seems to know what religion has forgotten in our country, that we know what we know about God in community.
In a delightful children's poem about six blind men who go to see the elephant, each one is described as categorizing the whole animal in terms of only the part that they happen to experience. They fall to arguing with one another about the elephant, when each is partly right and all are wrong. The allusion is made to theology, where the God we seek to describe is beyond the comprehension of every one of us, yet known in relationship by all of us. As we humbly share our walks with God we expand our collective knowledge of Him. Individual response to grace is essential for this, but so is community. What is more, the person who exercises their faith only on the individual level finds himself locked in the prison of his own subjectivity, with no correction for errors. In the same Gospel of John that speaks so frequently about individual response to grace, Jesus talks clearly about flocks, not individual sheep. The lone sheep is wolf-bait. The lone theologian will sooner or later become the heretic. To imagine that we can go it alone is to fall into the heresy of our age. If this is what she meant then I agree with the Presiding Bishop.