many years my wife Carol and I have conducted discussion
groups called Heretics Anonymous. As you might expect,
the name is a joke. There is no attempt, as in 12-step
groups who suffix their monikers with "Anonymous,"
to free anyone from their addiction to heresy. We are
quite committed to heresy, because the word "heresy,"
the Greek hairesis, simply means "choice."
It became a theological cuss word when orthodoxy decided
with Luciferian hubris that it could prescribe right
belief for everyone. That one should choose one's own
belief rather than meekly swallow the catechism of the
bishops was deemed the greatest effrontery.
name originated in the halls of Gordon-Conwell Theological
Seminary, a bastion of stale and arrogant orthodoxy, when
a few of the guys (including one who used to do a great
Billy Graham imitation--I once took a picture of him shaking
hands with Dr. Graham) mused with a gleam in their collective
eye that there ought to be a retreat for free-thinkers,
sort of a "Heretics Anonymous"! I became one
of that number, and when I graduated and went on to campus
ministry at Montclair State College, I soon discovered
a similar need among the ranks of those disaffected from
the more straightlaced Christian groups on campus. I worked
for the Protestant Foundation, which had little real student
constituency, and I scheduled a meeting room for Heretics
Anonymous, soon two, as there were too many for one weekly
meeting to accommodate.
those were the days! We would put up posters emblazoned
with slogans like "Read this quick before some bigot
tears it down!" My favorite was the one that depicted
four cartoon characters in the familiar postures of "See
no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil"--with a fourth
praying with closed eyes and folded hands!
groups continued to meet for no-holds-barred discussion,
sometimes with prepared student presentations, regularly
for six years until I moved to North Carolina. And not
long after Carol and I returned to New Jersey where I
was to serve as pastor of a very free-thinking congregation,
we began to feel that reviving Heretics as a church function
might not be a bad idea. It would provide a forum for
free discussion and feedback that simply would never be
possible on Sunday mornings. As it turned out, we were
disappointed to find that there was seldom much overlap
between those who came to Heretics Anonymous on Friday
evenings and those who showed up to church on Sunday mornings.
of the Heretics are people I met through the philosophy
department at Montclair State, former students or colleagues,
folks I met through Adult School classes I have taught
or through Film Series I have hosted, and others still
were invited by friends who enjoyed the group.
man, an advertising writer who's done commercials you've
heard, I met when we were both standing with our daughters
in the Pony Ride line at the local Teddy Bear Fair. I
happened to be holding a copy of a Derrida's Dissemination,
and he inquired about it. He soon confided that he was
"a Jew who prays to Jesus and believes in reincarnation."
I knew Heretics was the place for him and invited him.
regular is an English major with a minor in philosophy.
Like me, he is a devotee of H.P. Lovecraft, and he is
a member of a thrash-metal rock group with its own CDs.
Another is a family court judge in New York City. Another
is a dance instructor, another a singer and actress, another
a writer, another a cabby who has tales to tell of his
chats with Derrida and David Lehmann as he drove them
to lectures. There are two psychotherapists, one specializing
in helping homosexuals accept their orientation. One man
recently returned from a semester in Argentina where he
was robbed by terroristas twice. Then there's one of the
original Montclair State College Heretics, now one of
the most gifted and celebrated kindergarten teachers in
the Montclair School system.
are a couple of writers, and the group provides the opportunity
to share contacts and possible markets. There are two
or three literary criticism buffs. Politically you can
find ultra-liberals as well as conservatives of the most
politically incorrect opinions. The most politically liberal
also happens to be the most theologically conservative,
an articulate evangelical--who also shares the Lovecraft
addiction (and so does the judge!). What a crew! With
a group like this, there is pretty much no way the discussion
is not going to be interesting.
meetings have thrived in the years we've offered them,
some years, twice per month, the first and third Fridays.
Everyone, usually about 15 people, sits around our living
room. Wine, soda, munchies, cheese and crackers circulate
freely--as do ideas. Usually the melee will begin with
someone reading an essay or book review from some source
or other. Then the discussion may ricochet anywhere. Often
the fun lasts till the wee hours, occasionally all night.
we found we had to circulate a list of ground rules facilitating
polite interaction, but no one minded, and it did some
good. One major caveat, though: you may feel differently,
but we have always thought it best to avoid politics.
It is divisive, mundane, and worst of all, there are plenty
of other opportunities throughout the week to air your
opinions on these matters. So why waste rare evenings
when more advanced ethical, spiritual, and existential
topics can come up for review?
the years, I have often been gratified to hear people
exclaim how much they enjoy the meetings, and how unique
they are. But this has equally surprised me! What we do,
surely anyone can do! As long as you have acquaintances
who you think would enjoy it, just make a list of some
topics, clip some columns, choose some book excerpts,
set out some wine, soda, and munchies, and you're on your