Today’s blog is an introduction to what it means when I say I am a mindful heretic. I first began to think about this idea in 1993, when faced with an assortment of scenarios in my workplace, my church, culture, and family. I wrote about ten pages in my journal at a particularly frustrating moment, needing to express and explore the things that I was experiencing. I was at an odds with the norms for what it meant to be a legitimate member of my profession, what it meant to claim an ethnic identity as a mestiza Chicana with Jewish, native American, Mexican and Basque ancestry. And in those pages, I wrote that I felt I should proclaim a “cry for heresy.” Since a heretic was traditionally someone who could be formally ostracized, and even put to death throughout history, I began to consider what this meant. What if one chose to walk the path of heresy, but simultaneously knew at a very deep level that this was not a challenge to the heart of their membership or identification with the group? What if I didn’t leave or allow myself to be run away?
The orthodoxy of a culture or group membership is the established, authorized, or expected norms of practice, behavior, belief, etc., These can be stated or unstated, but they are commonly known and used as the basis for evaluation of the adequacy, appropriateness, or praiseworthiness of an individual and/or his/her actions. Orthodoxy can include things such as the etiquette for social relationships, rules for dress or eating, codes of ethics, and can range from formally articulated rules to unconsciously held assumptions. But what these norms all hold in common is the shared awareness (by the members of the group) that they exist, and that it’s preferred to be orthodox over unorthodox. Orthodoxy is the defining ideal for group membership. And a heretic violates this.
When I claim to be a mindful heretic, I have come to know this as a result of the fact that I am a member of a group, or personally identified with one–and so intimately connected with it that I do not simply walk away from it because I disagree. Rather, I stay, because the sense that I should have to divorce myself from my identification or membership causes me serious dissonance or discomfort. I’ve come to recognize, over more than twenty years during which I’ve reflected on this, that there is something about the particular group membership or association that is important to me. There is something about that membership or association that I do not wish to give up, because it is an important aspect of what I know I must do or be in my life. Examples of this for me are family, my culture, my role as a university professor, and my identification of myself as a person of faith.
Because of my strong identification with the group, I know these rules and norms, even if I do not agree with them all. I am aware when I am at odds with the dominant norm for the group. It is this knowledge that keeps people in check in normal situations, by preventing too much deviation. We know what it is to be “unorthodox,” and because we are group members, we feel the deep dissonance between what we have come to believe and what we have learned to be required for orthodox association or identification with a group.
As a mindful heretic, I am aware that there are “big” and “small” issues and rules. The ‘big’ ones are the ones that are harder to violate or oppose without seriously challenging the idea that we are “good” members of the group. As a mindful heretic, I have come to recognize that there are some serious problems with the ways some of the ‘big’ items are expected to be maintained in behavior, attitudes, beliefs, etc. I have come to sense that rather than walking away from the group or identification, it is the norm that is problematic–and specifically, the implied necessity to be in agreement or compliance with it.
As a mindful heretic, however, it is not enough to simply know that we are not in agreement with the orthodoxy of the group. Mindful Heresy is not a silent practice of dissent. A mindful heretic comes to realize that closeting one’s beliefs, actions, identity, etc., out of allegiance to a group, or desire for continued group membership, is not tolerable or acceptable. It is not desirable at an important level of principle.
As a mindful heretic, I am aware that there are consequences for violating the norms of conformity and compliance associated with group membership or association. I am aware that it is undesirable to the group and its members, and those who identify with it, for a member to act in ways that seriously or systematically threaten the orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, in a sense, is what holds together the social fabric.
As a mindful heretic, I mindfully, with conscious awareness, choose to act in accordance with my convictions. This may be through speech, behavior, public decisions, demeanor, or proclaimed intentions or statements of values or belief. As a mindful heretic, I mindfully, with conscious awareness, anticipate the difficulties and tensions that this will cause, along with the often strong pressures to conform that will surround me if I am in association with the group whose norms I am violating.
As a mindful heretic, I am not necessarily an activist or leader of others in efforts to change the group. I act out of personal conviction for how I know I must live my own life in order to walk with integrity. In some instances, this may lead to larger movements or actions for social change. Because orthodoxy is at the heart of a social fabric, it could be said, I suppose, that by choosing to be a mindful heretic, even if I am not an activist, there is an inherent strain towards change or adaptation implied by the fact that I do not ‘leave’ or abandon the group.