T.S. Eliot’s Definition of Heresy and the Value of Heretics

EliotT.S. Eliot is one of my favorite poets that I don’t read–at least not his poetry. When reading Scruton I found out he had a lecture series involving the notion of heresy, so of course I was intrigued.  It took some digging to track them down though, because they had been suppressed by Eliot himself due to some unfortunately anti-Semitic content. In any case, I found them and tracked down his definition of heresy and heretics:

Furthermore, the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right. It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything. So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth.

-Eliot, T. S., 1888-1965. After Strange Gods : A Primer of Modern Heresy; London : Faber and Faber.

In other words, heretics are usually never totally wrong. In fact, they often-times grasp a vital truth more profoundly than others, but let it distort their thought when it becomes a focal point dominating all other truths. For that reason, sometimes interacting intellectually with heretics, or distorting teachers, is helpful–albeit in a negative way. One thinks of the way that Calvin’s interactions with Osiander on the issue of union with Christ which forced him to clarify his own thought on the matter. This doesn’t excuse heresy or mean we shouldn’t strive to avoid it and cling to the truth any less. It does mean that sometimes it’s good to try and understand what motivates it in order that our orthodoxy might be all the stronger. If I can understand the repugnancy of the absolutist dogmatism that drives some towards relativism, I can learn to present truth in a more gracious and understanding manner. If I can understand what would motivate a panentheistic denial of transcendence, I can know better how to communicate the beauty of a God whose transcendence is the ground for his immanence.

In other words, in the sovereignty of God even heretics can teach us something about the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot’s Definition of Heresy and the Value of Heretics

  1. Good stuff….This principle is laid out in Corinthians 11:18-19, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order tthat those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Heresy challenges us to get off our duffs, do the research, and articulate (and obey) the truth!

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