Considering a question: Praxy and Doxy

In a comment exchange, Erin posed some questions:

Christianity has been much more focused on orthodoxy than orthopraxy for a long time. However, some of us are beginning to say (maybe idealistically) this is a bad thing, because if one doesn’t rightly practice what he/she rightly believes, what value does the belief have?

So anyhow…do you think it’s possible to swing too far the other way; or in your tradition does it work well to be more practice oriented than belief oriented, as you say it is? Do you see too much of either being a problem? Or do you think it really depends on the tradition and what it’s values are, my question is comparing apples to oranges?

I know so little about Pagan traditions, mostly what I’ve learned from books like Drawing Down the Moon and The Druid’s Handbook…and from Phil Wyman, and a couple Pagan blogs I read. (Ironically, entirely knowledge over experience, exactly what I rail against in my own tradition.) So please forgive me if this is an ignorant question, but it’s what came to mind when you said that.

I originally told Erin I’d try to answer her question in a week or so. Well, I didn’t make it. But I figure better later than never, right? Besides, as my favorite math teacher’s favorite poet once said, “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” and I think it’s time to pay up this particular debt.

As I reread Erin’s comment, it occurs to me that I need to be careful in my answer to point out a potential difference in our respective uses of the word “orthopraxy,” lest there be a disconnect and breakdown in effective dialogue. Most notably, it seems that Erin is thinking primarily in terms of “practicing what you preach.” And while I certainly think that practicing what you preach is a really good idea to the point of being essential, it wasn’t exactly where I was going when I brought up the original term.

Originally, when I mentioned orthopraxy, I was speaking in terms of liturgy. In my experience, no matter how formally and complex or simple and straightforward Pagans like their ritual, the act of ritual itself is fairly important. Indeed, I once remember reading an online posting by one of the “big names” in ADF comment that he didn’t care so much whether a given person believed that all gods are indivdual beings (a topic of lively debate amongs some Pagans, actually) when they attended his rituals so much as he cared how enthusiastically they sang the chants and otherwise participated in the rite at hand.

This mentality is much driven by the fact that Pagan religions on the whole tend towards being experiential in nature. Rituals and the liturgy involved in them become important because they offer a way to make contact with and experience the gods. And such contact and experience often becomes far more important than holding a specific, predetermined list of credal beliefs about those gods — or anything else.

Of course, one of the things that I have noticed is that I have noticed about this approach is that as a person participates in these rituals and have these experiences, they start to shape one’s understanding of various things, and certain beliefs begin to formulate as a result. Indeed, it’s not uncommon that many people who practice the same rituals together regularly (and I’ll admit that my bias in favor of traditionalism is showing up in this post) often begin to develop very similar and even identical beliefs as a result. So in the end, there usually exists some sort of relationship between “practice” and “belief” anyway. It simply becomes a matter of which one tends to get focused on.

I’ll also note that this focus on liturgy and practice is not unique to Paganism, nor is it absent from Christianity. As someone who has spoken to friends who are Catholic and Orthodox as well as reading several Epsicopalian blogs (sorry, guys, but there’s too many of you to mention by name), I know that some denominations place a huge emphasis on liturgy and the sacraments (which are even sometimes refered to as mysteries), far more so than the Baptist and pentacostal churches I attended ever did.

Of course, I also think that it’s important to consider the “practicing what you preach” aspect of religious life, too. Erin is right to think of it. And I think it’s unfortunate that far more people (Christian and otherwise) never seem to get around to living out some of the things they say they believe in.

In part, I do think this is based on an overemphasis of credal thinking. We get so heavily involved in going over the mental checklist of doctrines we need to give our assent to that it becomes easy to lose track of what we need to be doing. (And yes, I do think that even Pagans can fall into this trap.)

Of course, I think that part of the problem is that right living really can’t be codified. Life is too messy and too fluid to be neatly governed by creeds, or even properly covered by a commandment-based system of morality. Indeed, I often find the tendency to mix a system of creeds and the whole idea of morality to be almost ludicrous. Instead, I think morality, being based in action, needs to be based on a clear understanding of what we value in life. To me stopping and asking myself how a given action will honor my values of honesty, compassion, courage, and so on is far easier than trying to find the commandment that best fits the situation or asking “What Would Jesus (or Freyja, in my case) Do?”

Now, before anyone accuses me of being too down on Christianity, I’d like to point out that I think that Christianity does offer a way to approach moral living in this way. After all, the Bible has more than one place where it speaks of what virtues should be pursued in life. (Indeed, 1 Corinthians 13 offers a whole discussion of the nature of love that would be well worth contemplating in many moral quandries.) It’s just that I think that very visible segments within the Christian world probably need to make a better effort at putting these passages and the process of pondering these virtues to better use.

As for “What Would Jesus Do,” I will admit that I don’t think it’s a terrible question to ask. In fact, I think the theory is rather solid. The idea is that Jesus was a role model who demonstrated and lived out these virtues perfectly. So asking what he would do in a given situation is simply an attempt to follow his example in demonstrating those virtues. Unfortunately, I think that a significiant number of Christians (and I know I would’ve been a part of that number back in my Christian days) are far better at knowing facts (beliefs) about Jesus and what he did than understanding his nature and character. And for “WWJD” to become an effective moral exercise, that needs to change in a person’s life.

I don’t know if I really answered Erin’s question, but I’ve certainly enjoyed writing down the thoughts she provoked.

8 thoughts on “Considering a question: Praxy and Doxy”

  1. Hey Jarred…no worries about the time it took to respond. It was a loaded question.

    There is a lot to think about here, and I appreciate you addressing my questions. I’m going to take some time to read it more thoroughly later this evening or tomorrow, but initially I would say it seems the balancing act is universal, as far as determining the value of practice (whether it be liturgy or living) vs. belief.

    I feel that we maybe do tend to be far to cerebral about faith, maybe just as modern humans, regardless of what our religious beliefs are. It is the moving from modern to postmodern that I feel is having a great impact on religion in general. The question is, is it really more important to know intellectually WHAT we believe than it is to PRACTICE that belief in our lives? Or is DOING more important than KNOWING?

    Any thoughts you have would be welcome, but I will come back later an think more about it…it interests me.

  2. Erin: how do you mean the word “believe?”

    Do you mean it as in “I give my intellectual assent to certain concepts, such as the reality of the Trinity, even if I have no concrete proof of it?”

    Or do you mean it as in “I put my trust in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”

    There is a difference.

  3. Tracie – I hope I read your question right…you are differentiating between mental (mind) belief and spiritual (spirit or soul) belief?

    I suppose I would say in this case I’m talking about “belief” as intellectual assent to certain things. As in, is it more important to have a list of bullet points that one mentally adheres to than to practice the spirit or meaning behind those bullet points?

    Like, what I’m thinking is what us Christians are so guilty of over the years…for instance the Golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” It’s all well and good to SAY you believe it, but if you don’t actually put it into real life practice, what good is it? If I say this is my core belief, but condemn someone because they are different than I am…then I am a hypocrite, or something.

    I’m just wondering if this issue is universal or mostly just a problem in Christianity. Do Pagans have trouble with people saying there are certain parts of their beliefs which they hold to, but don’t, in fact, actually practice them?

  4. I’d say it’s universal, Erin. Of course, I think a related problem is that people don’t think through what they believe, including all of the implications of what those beliefs actually mean on a practical level. A prime example of this is the very superficial and irresponsible understanding many Pagans have of the phrase from “The Charge of the Goddess” which says that “all acts of love and pleasure” are her rituals. In fact, some people (Tracie included, often times) wish people would forget that line altogether. I on the other hand, simply think people need to stop and think about what it means to hold all acts of love and pleasure as things that are truly sacred.

  5. Interesting discussion! I hope you won’t mind if I butt in as an Orthodox Christian.

    Orthodox Christians regard orthopraxy as an important part of orthodoxy, and they cannot be separated, but are linked holistically.

    The story is told of someone who went to an Orthodox monk and showed off his book knowledge of Orthodox theology, and the monk asked him “Do you keep the fasts of the Church?”

    When we teach people who have had no contact with Orthodoxy before, there are two things that we teach them to begin with: how to make the sign of the cross and how to venerate the ikons. That is Orthopraxy. But it is also orthodoxy, because they hold the thumb and first two fingers together to symbolise the Holy Trinity, and the other two fingers pointed back to the palm as a reminder of the two natures of Christ, divine and human.

    But orthodoxy does not just mean right belief, in the sense of intellectual assent to propositions, or to academic theology. It also means right worship. And for Orthodox Christians “theology” is not primarily an academic exercise, but a relationship with God. “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian”.

    Erin asks “Is DOING more important than KNOWING?” but for Orthodox Christians BEING is as important as either.

    As one Protestant writer once pointed out, the Christian faith is indicative rather than imperative — imperatives like “GO to church”, “DO NOT drink whisky”, “FEED the hungry”, “SEARCH and DESTROY” are not the essence of Christianity. Christianity is a way of life that acts by being, what we DO springs our of what we ARE — you don’t gather figs from thistles.

  6. Hello, Steve! Welcome to my blog and the discussion. (The more the merrier, I say.)

    I find your closing comments most interesting. I have often felt that being is of utmost importance. In fact, I’ve often commented that things go best when what we do is simply a manifestation of who we are. In fact, I often think we as people tend to get that backwards, and try to base who we are on what we do. It’s nice to see that some segments of Christianity might actually agree with me on that point. (Of maybe I agree with them. Hey, as long as we agree…) 😉

  7. Hi Steve – I think you have pulled my thought process together for me. Have you written about that before? If not, you should.

    Jarred – You said “things go best when what we do is simply a manifestation of who we are. In fact, I often think we as people tend to get that backwards, and try to base who we are on what we do.”

    That’s exactly where I’m at. That’s also exactly what I see wrong with much of Christianity…it’s certainly what was wrong with MY Christianity before I escaped.

    Mostly I was just wondering if this is primarily a problem with Christians (the intellectual vs. the innate, or whatever) or of other traditions have this problem, too….but this discussion has been helpful for me in several ways.

    Thanks, Jarred, for fostering this conversation.

  8. You’re absolutely welcome, Erin.

    Actually, I feel like I should be thanking the rest of you. This is the best discussion my blog has ever hosted. It’s a rather nice experience, to be honest with you.

    Oh, and Happy New Year!

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