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.