A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Orthodoxy Versus Orthopraxy?

One of my favorite bloggers, John Meunier, highlighted a quote from John Wesley in a post last week in which John (Meunier) concludes that the real danger with bad doctrine is that it leads to bad practice.

While I find myself in agreement, I want to cogitate a little further on the matter because as one who has spent more than two decades in the field of theology, I find it more than a little disconcerting that there continue to be those who believe that one (orthodoxy or orthopraxy) is more important than the other, that either believing the right things is what is most important and therefore how one lives is of secondary concern (a kind of twisted morphing of justification by faith that not even the Protestant Reformers would recognize), or that orthopraxy, right living or action, particularly on a social scale is what's really important, and what one thinks of the Trinity is not critical (as if the theoretical can be divorced from the practical). I'm not suggesting that either position is the one that John takes. In fact, he deals with the matter in his usual competent way. It's just that his post brought this subject to the forefront for me, since it continues to be a "hot button" issue for me personally.

In the modern West we seem so captive to either/or binary thinking that in many areas of life that we distort the very nature of the issues we face in thinking that such things matters demand a choice one way or another. And in so doing we also often present human beings as having multiple personalities of intellect and heart and spirit. This is not a biblical anthropology. Before I get into orthodoxy and orthopraxy per se, let me comment on John Wesley on the matter.

It is certainly correct that Wesley saw what one believed and how one lived as related. Wesley's terminology of "practical divinity" in itself reveals the importance that Father John placed on both. Unfortunately, some have distorted Wesley's views in their proof-texting of him (and it usually comes from the very same people who decry the proof-texting of Scripture).

How often in United Methodist circles we hear Wesley's quote, "If your heart is as my heart give me your hand," as justification for the irrelevance of doctrine. In other words, what is being said in essence is, "If you love Jesus and I love Jesus, who cares what we believe about the Trinity or the bodily resurrection of Jesus." Let's join hands around the campfire and smile while we sing 62 verses of Kum Ba Yah." (A somewhat snarky way of expressing the matter I know. Sometimes we are all entitled to a little snarkiness.) In fact when one reads the sermon in which Wesley expounds upon the phrase from 2 Kings 10:15, he clearly seems to think that there are indeed some things Christians must believe while arguing at the same time that the peripheral issues of "mode of worship" and connection to the Church of England or the lack thereof can get in the way of the one mission of the church in the world when they are emphasized as essential. In other words, Wesley's concern is the division of the church because it majors in the minors of non-essentials, what Wesley refers to as "mere opinions." Wesley's arguments are clearly more nuanced and more sophisticated than many of his modern interpreters.

Wesley is clear that what he calls the "catholic spirit" is not indifference to the core doctrines of the faith:

For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being "driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine," is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.

Part of the problem here is how Wesley himself defines orthodoxy as "right belief," a common understanding in modernity. The term "orthodoxy" comes from two Greek words-- orthos, "right" or "true," and doxa, which can mean "belief" but can also be translated "praise" as in "doxology". Indeed, in reading any Orthodox account of orthodoxy it is stressed that the term refers not only to right belief, but also right practice and habits. Thus, it is not wrong to define orthodoxy as right belief, but historically the term has meant more. In the words of Orthodox Archbishop Averky: Orthodoxy is not only the sum total of dogmas accepted as true in a purely formal manner. It is not only theory, but practice; it is not only right Faith, but a life which agrees in everything with this Faith.... and where fasting and prayer are disregarded, neglected or completely set aside, there is no trace of Orthodoxy.

So a big part of the orthodoxy/orthopraxy conundrum we face today has been the emphasis on orthodoxy as right belief to the neglect of how it is integrated into discipleship and practice. The rise of the word "orthopraxy" came into vogue in the 1970s and 80s among liberation theologians who were rightly concerned that right belief was being emphasized to the exclusion of right practice. The irony in this is that it further solidified orthodoxy as referring only to notional assent.

John Meunier in a later post quotes UM Bishop Ken Carder:

United Methodist doctrine and beliefs are means of holy living, not guidelines for identifying heretics. The primary purpose of beliefs is evangelization and the formation of Christian disciples, not determining who is inside the acceptable parameters of orthodoxy. The authenticity of beliefs lies in their ability to shape persons and communities into the image of Christ and promote holiness and happiness. Do they promote love for God and neighbor? This is an important Wesleyan test for doctrines and beliefs.

I fundamentally agree with the bishop. I would also affirm unequivocally that the primary purpose of doctrine is not to identify heretics, and historically when the church has gone in that direction, the results have not been good. At the same time doctrine does provide boundary markers for what beliefs and practices characterize one as orthodox. Years ago George Lindbeck and Nicholas Lash argued that doctrine provides grammatical constraints (parameters) for how we may speak of God. In the analogy of a baseball game-- one can hit the ball and play it anywhere between the foul lines in the field of play. It is a large field so there is plenty of room for playing the ball in many different places. The defense and the offense may also play the ball in many different ways depending on the circumstances of the game. But a baseball hit on the wrong side of the foul line is out of play, no exceptions. In the same way, orthodoxy provides a large playing field for theological discourse in all its variety, but at some point it is possible to speak about God in ways that no longer reflect the Christian doctrine of God (such as denial of the Trinity). So, while we ought not to be seeking out heretics, it is possible to move into the realm of heresy which undermines and even denies the character of Christian doctrine and practice. Just as Christians can involve themselves in practices that stand outside Christian orthopraxy (e.g. slavery), so Christians can embrace doctrines that stand outside Christian orthodoxy (Wesley's definition). Neither are acceptable and neither should be exclusively separated in order to justify one or the other and neither should Christians be forced to choose between one or the other.

From the beginning Christians have spent much time and energy reflecting on what constitutes Christianity by its doctrine and practice. Both are necessary for discipleship, and we exclude one or the other at our peril.

The choice is not between orthodoxy and orthopraxy-- instead we need to recover a classical understanding of orthodoxy that includes the mind, the heart, the spirit-- in other words faith as a way of life. As St. Anselm said, theology is faith seeking understanding. We seek to understand more deeply what we already believe because it must make a difference for how we live.

Let us also not forget the old and time-tested dictum, lex orandi, lex credendi, "The law of prayer is the law of belief." Ultimately our doctrine cannot be separated from the God we worship who cannot be exhaustively understood by our doctrine, but who, nevertheless, is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ and in the Scripture that has led to our statements of doctrine.

Doctrine and theological reflection are essential for discipleship; and discipleship gives intelligibility to the theological enterprise. Theology is inherently a practical discipline.


Anonymous said...

You do great honor to my little posts, Allan, by connecting them to your careful, thoughtful post. This is good. Thank you.

Bruce said...

Loved the education on the work orthodoxy and loved the balanced view of Wesley. This post educated me about orthodoxy. I am saddened by a lot of very tough rhetoric about our doctrine with little thought to living out our faith. The words on prayer and worship resonate with my heart and mind. I liked how you made it clear that the playing field is wide, but there are boundaries. Being outside of the lines is not a moral failure to be corrected. It is simply stating that some things are beyond the realm of Christendom.