Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics very much dovetails with our recent posts on the subject of meta-theology. It too raises many more problems than it resolves. Moreover, the book is more sociological than theological, such that the author never even gets around to defining exactly what he means by heresy or bad religion. Rather, he just knows them when he sees them. But by what criteria?
Schuon, who is deeper and more subtle than any mere Timesman could ever be, notes that there are two forms of heresy, intrinsic and extrinsic. The latter applies only to this or that religion, while the former goes to religion as such.
For example, it would represent a Christian heresy to regard Mary as co-redemptrix. But is belief in salvation via the divine feminine intrinsically heretical?
Actually, it looks like the idea is only borderline heretical, at least for Catholics; or, it can be kosher so long as Mary isn't on the identical plane as Jesus. But for Protestants the whole idea would indeed be heretical. This only goes to the difficulty of nailing down heresy, both intrinsic and extrinsic.
Also, I have this idea that when a religion declares a cosmic orthodoxy to be heretical, the rejected truth will have a way of returning unbidden and unnoticed. The question of Mary is just one example: you can drive the divine feminine out with a pitchfork, but she always returns.
Furthermore -- and more problematically -- she can return in distorted, grotesque, and deviant ways, as in feminism, Gaia-ism, and the cult of global warming. It is very much as if the Church's focus on Mary allows for a healthy expression of a kind of intrinsic longing, for on the human plane it can't get any more primordial than the mamamatrix. It's gonna come out somehow.
The rock bottom question is how to determine when religion is bad and/or heretical. Again, by what criteria? By what right can a man who believes in the resurrection criticize the man who believes in reincarnation? Surely, he can't just call him irrational, let alone heretical, since reincarnation would be a Christian heresy but Hindu orthodoxy.
In a way, Schuon's entire oeuvre deals with this question from one angle or another "Exoterism," he writes, "puts the form -- the credo -- above the essence -- Universal Truth," while esoterism (or what we are calling meta-theology) regards the form (credo) as a function of the essence (Universal Truth). A deviation from this Universal Truth would represent an intrinsic heresy.
Let's take an obvious Universal Truth, that God is one. A religion that posits, say, two ultimate realities in eternal conflict would be intrinsically heretical. Even -- or especially -- the early fathers had to grapple with this one: how to reconcile God's threeness with his oneness without descending into intrinsic heresy.
Those early ecumenical councils testify to just how seriously they took the matter. Indeed, if the second commandment conveys an intrinsic orthodoxy -- don't worship idols and other false gods -- then everything was on the line in getting it right. Get it wrong and you end up with an intrinsically heretical religion such as Scientology or leftism.
In short, on the one hand they were obviously dealing with questions of extrinsic heresy, i.e., heresies unique to Christianity. But without stating it or even realizing it, they were also dealing with questions of intrinsic heresy, i.e., ruling out metaphysical ideas that are just plain wrong, everywhere and everywhen.
The question is, is the credo -- the particular form -- the criterion of the Universal Truth, or is there a Universal Truth that is the criterion of the particular form? It seems to me that asking this approaches a kind of vertical third-rail. Within a religion, one is discouraged from touching it.
Why is this? Because doing so might relativize the credo, such that it is no longer possible to believe it in good faith. Religions tend to absolutize themselves because failure to do so will result in failure to express and transmit absoluteness, at least to the average Joe.
Just thinking out loud here, but what if we cannot actually separate the form from the essence? This was the big divide between Plato and Aristotle -- that and the question of boxers vs. briefs -- i.e., whether the essence is in the form, or whether there is a "platonic" realm of pure essences above the individual expression. But it's not a crude either/or question, hence the breakthrough discovery of the boxer brief.
Seriously: what if there is no essence except in its expression? In our minds we can divide them, but they are really indivisible -- just as we can recognize a frog, but there is no nonlocal realm of frogginess that exists separately from the Frenchman in question.
"What characterizes esoterism" writes Schuon, is that "on contact with a dogmatic system, it universalizes the symbol or the religious concept..."