Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be.—Mumford and Sons, The Cave
That’s me in the corner
that’s me in the spotlight
losing my religion.—Michael Stipe, Losing My Religion
On October 27, 1553, tied to a pole above a pile of his books, Michael Servetus was burned alive in Geneva, Switzerland. Presiding over the event was a Swiss lawyer turned theologian, whose own books Servetus had attacked as heretical, John Calvin. He’s the guy who popularized the idea that you were predestined to read these words that I was predestined to write. He also said that God chose some people to be saved and chose the rest to be lost: double predestination. Not a damned thing you can do about changing God’s mind on that, either, no matter how unfair it is. The fact that you think it’s unfair means you’re on the Highway to Hell anyway, along with your friends and anybody else who listens to AC/DC. (Most of whom are probably in their late forties, sport a middle-aged paunch and thinning hair, and rag on their own kids for listening to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj.)
The really sad thing about Servetus’ end is that he was a genius. He discovered how the pulmonary circulation system works and wrote extensively about the central nervous system, the brain and the eyes. None of this is what got him into trouble with Calvin and the Swiss Reformers. It was his theology that did it. He was, first and foremost, a rabid Anti-Trinitarian. Though in his books he was as likely to discuss science as religion, it was his religious thinking that got him killed. He was also a 16th century version of an internet troll, and kept sending Calvin long letters ranting about the Trinity and Predestination and Original Sin. Finally, after he showed up in Geneva, demanding to have a public debate with Calvin, he was arrested, convicted of heresy and roasted alive before the whole city. He went to his death convinced he was right and Calvin was wrong. Calvin watched him die without a twinge of regret. (Though he did try, unsuccessfully, to have him beheaded rather than burned, to show how merciful he was. The Court preferred the smell of burning flesh.)
Apostates are people who lose their religion. They just stop believing. They may or not take up another spiritual path, but the original path they were on just didn’t ring true anymore. Heretics, on the other hand, still believe; they just believe things that are not the majority view. They wrestle with faith, trying to fit it into a new way of viewing the world. Apostates have renounced the old faith and gone on to a new one or none at all. In either case, they are sojourners on the road to truth.
Without apostasy, Christianity would never have had a St. Paul, who was an apostate Jew. Without heresy, Christianity never would have had a Martin Luther, a John Calvin or a Michael Servetus. Islam is a Christian heresy, mixed with a healthy dollop of Judaism and an anti-clerical bent: it recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but not the Son of God. It offers salvation, but not through a priesthood or a redeemer: each Muslim must choose individually to submit to Allah. And that’s just the Abrahamic branch of beliefs. The Buddha was a Hindu heretic, as was Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, which is simultaneously an Islamic heresy. Each of them was looking for deeper truth than they had discovered in their own tradition.
For a religious path to remain vibrant it needs constant renewal and change. It needs its apostates and its heretics and they need it—to push against as they dig deeper in the quest for truth.