The book entitled The Fool and the Heretic is a dialogue between authors Todd Charles Wood and Darrel R. Falk, the “Fool” and the “Heretic,” respectively. Their discussion is moderated by Rob Barrett from the Colossian Forum, an organization that works to “transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness.” Wood and Falk are both committed Christians, and both have advanced degrees in biological sciences. They vehemently disagree, however, on the subject of creationism. Many scientists consider Wood to be a fool because of his literal reading of Genesis. To many Christians, Falk’s acceptance of an old Earth and evolution brands him as a heretic. Such Christians hold that a literal reading of Genesis is fundamental for Christianity, and so people like Falk are outside the pale.
Each of these authors strongly believes that the views of the other are wrong and even dangerous, yet they’ve also come to realize that the labels “heretic” and “fool” are misleading and dangerous. They’ve come to realize that while these debates and disagreements are important, maintaining the unity of love among Christians is more important.
Catholics can learn a lot from the interaction between Wood and Falk. The Evolution/Creationism debate might not be as prominent in Catholic circles, but Catholics are currently divided into competing camps by a whole host of thorny issues. Those within these camps don’t see the opposing side as merely wrong, but as dangerous, evil, and fundamentally incoherent. We can easily come to see one another as “fools” and “heretics.”
This book offers a better solution: the challenging path of Christian unity, which doesn’t mean the absence of disagreement, but rather a determination not to let disagreement become division. In the words of Barrett:
We know deep in our bones that we—members of the body of Christ—belong together. It’s inescapable. … When we see members of the body of Christ walled off against each other, dividing the body into smaller and smaller silos, it pricks us. The easiest way to ward off the pain is to deny membership to the other side: Those folks can’t really be Christians. Real Christians couldn’t possibly think that way. Having relieved the tension with that deft move, we sigh with relief. We feel we’ve restored the integrity of Christ’s body by amputating an arm … as new wars flare up, we run out of limbs. It dawns on us that others have cat us off into the waste pile. … As our echo chambers shrink, and Christ’s body with them, we might realize that this way of being is unsustainable.
In general, there’s a lot of hostility between the evolutionist and creationist “camps,” and both Wood and Falk had experienced the effects of this hostility in their own lives. Falk’s embrace of evolutionary theory made it harder for him to fit in with his fellow Christians, and Wood found it difficult to gain the respect of other scientists.
The two authors, however, managed to transcend this surface antagonism. Each came to realize that the other was a highly intelligent scientist and a deeply committed Christian. They describe how their mutual respect developed during a conference hosted by the Colossian Forum. Wood had agreed to speak at the conference, but he was still suspicious; he thought he would be insulted by the mainstream scientists. Inadvertently, Falk did just that during one of the opening dialogues. He realized that his comments had damaged the conversation, however, and publicly apologized, admitting that he’d been wrong. For Wood, that was a turning point; he was amazed to realize that Falk actually respected him as a scientist, and was touched by Falk’s humility. Another pivotal transformation occurred when the group of scientists decided to go around the table and pray for one another. Falk found himself in tears as he realized how much he cared about Wood, not as an opponent but as a person.
The removal of this surface hostility wouldn’t have been possible without a deep commitment to honesty. Too often, such disagreements produce a lack of honesty, as “defeating the enemy” becomes more important than the truth. People often refuse to examine evidence that tells against their position. In this case, Wood, unlike many creationists, actually studied evolutionary theory at an advanced level. He’s willing to admit that there is a lot of evidence for evolution, and doesn’t think that it is easy to disprove, though he hopes to eventually find a theory more compatible with a literal reading of Genesis. Falk was willing to share his struggles with the Faith while he was immersed in the materialistic environment of a secular science department.
The Importance of Truth
In one sense, despite the removal of superficial hostility, Wood and Falk remain enemies. They both care deeply for the truth, and each thinks the other is in serious error. More importantly, each thinks that the other is inadvertently damaging the Church. Falk thinks that by clinging to creationism, Christians will marginalize themselves and lose the ability to shape and direct the culture as it grapples with the effects of new technology. He is also worried that creationism is driving young people away from Christianity. Those who have grown up equating Christianity with a literal interpretation of Genesis are at risk of falling away when they go to college and realize how much evidence there is against creationism. Ironically, Wood feels that Falk’s acceptance of evolutionary theory and an old Earth will end up driving people away from the Christian Faith. He feels that once the literal meaning of Genesis is scrapped, Christians have embarked on a slippery slope that will end with throwing the Bible overboard. He wonders how Falk and others like him can draw the line; if Genesis has to be so thoroughly reinterpreted due to scientific findings, what stops us from doing the same thing with other Biblical narratives?
Love Conquers All
Bridging this sort of fundamental antagonism requires a lot more than just the sort of respect mentioned earlier, though that’s an important first step. Truth is important, but unity is more important. In fact, without unity, we’ll never find the truth.
Wood reminds the readers just how important unity is to Christ. As he puts it, on the night before his passion “Jesus prayed for me and all the rest of us who believe in him. He prayed that we would all be one, even as he and the Father are one. . . . Jesus could have prayed for correct teaching and doctrine, which are important. Jesus could have prayed that false doctrine would be rooted out of the church, which is also important. Instead, Jesus prayed that we would stick together.”
It might seem that we could foster this unity by ignoring our differences and focusing on things we agree on. This isn’t true. Of course, a certain amount of fundamental agreement is necessary. Falk and Wood were able to come together in friendship due to their shared love of Christ and commitment to the Truth. Ignoring contentious issues, however, won’t further the cause of unity. As Wood points out, that is an overly superficial approach. Rather, the Christian way is to debate our differences without giving up on love and unity. We can’t sacrifice truth to love or love to truth: both must remain together.
The approach to theological disagreement depicted in The Fool and the Heretic is very much like the approach of Pope Francis. The focus on dialogue, fraternity, and encounter is very reminiscent of his thinking; he’s remarked on the importance of “walking in another’s shoes.”
Pope Francis has also stressed the importance of discussing problems together in unity, rather than papering things over with a compromise or isolating in hostile groups. In the second chapter of Let Us Dream, he writes:
So we have two temptations: on the one hand, to wrap ourselves in the banner of one side or the other, exacerbating the conflict; on the other, to avoid engaging in conflict altogether, denying the tension involved and washing our hands of it.
Toward the end of the chapter, he writes:
The danger of becoming trapped in conflict is that we lose perspective. Our horizons shrink and we close off paths the Spirit is showing us. Sometimes walking together means continuing to endure the disagreements, leaving them to be transcended on a higher level at a later time. … Discerning in the midst of conflict requires us sometimes to pitch camp together, waiting for the skies to clear. Time belongs to the Lord. Trusting in Him, we move forward with courage, building unity through discernment, to discover and implement God’s dream for us, and the paths of action ahead.
This is why Pope Francis can seem so puzzling to many Catholics. He won’t “pick a side.” He is content to “make a mess.” He trusts in the creativity of the Holy Spirit to guide the process of discernment and development in the life of the Church.
The Way of Christ
Ultimately, this way of Pope Francis is the way of Christ. We’re all very eager to immediately purge evil from the world. We want to disown those who oppose us or who differ from us, to avoid the pain of disagreeing with our own brothers and sisters. Yet Christ came to spread the kingdom in a very different way. He chose weak, imperfect men to follow him, and tolerated the traitor in their midst until the end. He associated with sinners and outcasts because he had come to unify all things. This way of Christ’s is certainly painful; we see the ultimate example of this pain on the cross.
Christ’s parables can help us to understand why this way of painful solidarity is needed. In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, the eager servants wish to purify the field. That is not their task, however. They might inflict great harm on the field by doing this. The Church can only be wholly purified, whether of disagreement or of sin, at the end of time.
This does not mean that no one can ever be excommunicated or expelled from the Church, but it does give a different perspective to such a removal. Such exclusion has to be motivated by a pastoral concern for the repentance of the individual concerned and for the good of the flock, not by a political desire to have a “pure” Church or to score “points.” Removal is for those who, in one way or another, refuse the path of dialogue, repentance, and mutual love.
The damage done by overzealous or political “weeding” is ultimately damage done to our very selves. As Rob Barrett put it, we’ll eventually run out of limbs to cut off. This is why Christ told the Pharisees that the one without sin should cast the first stone. Evil lies in every human heart, not just in an objectified “opponent.” If all error and sin were to be stoned out of the Church, we’d all die in a shower of stones. Thankfully for us, the only one without sin refuses to throw stones, and instead tells us “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” An essential part of that “not sinning” is to bestow the mercy and love we’ve received to one another.
Image: Adobe Stock
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.