I am currently reading Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Catherine Caldwell Ames. Reading the book has me thinking about how membership in a religious group is constructed in regards to the creation and maintenance of religious orthodoxy. The construction of religious orthodoxy depends on there being groups or ideas that the orthodox view has disqualifying one from being a member of the true community of the faithful. Defining what constitutes correct interpretation of dogma and also what is incorrect and therefore potentially harmful occupied and continues to occupy clergy members of the three Abrahamic religions today. Interfaith communication depends on the notion that all views are equal as it does not involve evaluating truth claims about the doctrines under discussion, although that can be a part of what is discussed in terms of why one group believes in a certain idea and another one does not. The communication is more focused on what each group or person can learn from the other, or what is shared and what is different, in order to create peace or to solve wider community issues that impact both groups.
What makes one group a heretical movement in the eyes of the orthodox group is that one has deviated from traditional interpretations of doctrines, while the group accused of heresy claims that it is the orthodox group that has fallen away and that they alone represent the return to the correct path. The interfaith or intra-faith aspects of this discussion are that both groups hopefully will have a dialogue about what their differences are as well as what unites them at the core of their beliefs; however, some groups cut off contact with the movements they deem to be heretical to stop the spread of their practices into the orthodox communities. Dialogue is the first step towards reconciliation. For example, consider the rescinding of the mutual bans of excommunication by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that had existed since 1054. Trying to restore the unity of the Church has always been a goal of both groups, although under what terms this would ever occur differ.
Since believing the correct doctrines and performing the right practices is considered by all three of the Abrahamic religions to be essential to one’s life, where does the individual person come in? What if the person feels that group X is the right path for them, even though the orthodox view them as not really Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian? I would say that having a plurality of groups is a good thing, in that it is possible that not everyone would identify with specific practices or feel that a certain theological definition speaks to them more than the standard orthodox interpretation does. If one’s goal is unity of belief and practice, of course this plurality is not good, as deviants cannot be tolerated. All three religions have a long history of the group in power at the time persecuting those it sees as heretics.
The lessons learned from interfaith communication can show us how to build bridges between different sects present in one religion. They can recognize what is common among them and accept that their differences come from sincere belief in the correctness of each other’s doctrines rather than persecute those who do not believe as they do.
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