This picks up on some comments on the previous post, around the nature of orthodoxy. So this time within the vaguely Lenten framework I want to look at giving up orthodoxy – or rather letting go of an unhelpful misconception of orthodoxy in order to recover the good original essence.
We all know what religious orthodoxy is, don’t we? It’s ‘right belief’, right? It’s all about holding the ‘right’ set of beliefs and doctrines, and interpreting the Bible in the ‘right’ way. It’s about sound, ‘biblical’ theology – having a correct understanding of Christ (Christology), of salvation (soteriology), of the church (ecclesiology), and so on. It’s also often about having and obeying a correct moral code.
And (the theory goes) from right belief flows right practice (orthopraxy); by getting our theology and morality right, we get our worship, our mission and our religious service right. In this view, orthodoxy means we can stand assured that we are on the secure, true, God-approved path and others who disagree with us aren’t. We (and we alone) are The True Christians™.
Because of course the corollary of this approach is that those whose religious or moral views aren’t orthodox must therefore be heterodox, or heretical. They are dangerous dissenters and apostates who must be corrected or shunned lest they lead us astray. Orthodoxy then becomes a means to determine who’s in and who’s out, a stick to bash down opponents and to quell pesky questioning.
But what if all this is based on a complete and utter misunderstanding of orthodoxy?
Orthodoxy as a heart attitude
Orthodoxy literally and originally means ‘right praise’ (or glory), not right belief or doctrine or theology (or morality). It could perhaps also be rendered as ‘proper worship’ or ‘due worship’.
In other words, it’s got little if anything to do with holding a ‘right’ set of religious or theological beliefs, or the correct moral code. Where it’s about ‘right’ at all, it’s rather about having the ‘right’ heart, the ‘right’ attitudes, the ‘right’ kind of relationships. And crucially that’s not ‘right’ in the sense of getting a sum right, but rather right in the sense of redeemed, restored, renewed – or at least of being on the journey towards redemption and restoration.
In other words, orthodoxy is about following a way or a path, going on a journey. It’s above all about becoming Christlike through following the way of Christ, which is the way of self-giving love and goodness, of compassion and kindness, of mercy and forgiveness. All the right theology without love is worth absolutely nothing, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13. By contrast, love covers over and makes up for a multitude of wrongs – including ‘wrong’ theology.
A different understanding of truth
Orthodoxy as normally understood relies on a notion of absolute and objective truth which owes more to the Enlightenment than to the New Testament. This kind of orthodoxy seeks to understand, believe and adhere to this perfect truth, which is to be found above all in the pages of the Bible.
Re-imagined orthodoxy (orthodoxy as I’m re-presenting it) is not wedded to this idea of truth. Truth is not something that can be set in stone or expressed in a perfect mathematical formula. We can’t pin it down and point to it, saying ‘this thing is The Truth’.
Rather truth is found in living, and in loving; in following the Way. It is found in relationship, in service, in community. It is found in identification with the Christ who identifies with the poor and the marginalised, the voiceless and oppressed. ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me.’ This is Christian orthodoxy; loving God by loving our neighbour in need, even our enemy.
Too often, faith is seen as a matter of belief in a set of ideas and propositions about God. I’d argue instead that faith can be better understood simply as trust in a person, in a relationship, in the goodness and reality and love of Christ. And this faith is made real in being lived out; in how we treat others and practice forgiveness and generosity, for example.
Does it matter what we believe?
Am I saying that it doesn’t matter in the slightest what we believe? No, not exactly. I do actually think what we believe can matter quite a bit. But I don’t think the reason it matters is because right belief is our ticket to heaven, our exclusive club membership card. Rather, our beliefs are important mainly because of how they affect the way we live and the way we treat others.
The kind of God, the kind of church, and the kind of salvation that we believe in can all have profound implications on whether we treat people with love or contempt, as brothers or as enemies, as fellow-humans or as lesser beings.
For example, if we believe in a coldly righteous and vengeful God who punishes all who disobey or disbelieve with eternal torments, I suggest that that may not lead us to the best ways of relating to those who don’t belong to our group. If we believe that God delights in the death of infidels, and rewards those who are zealous in purging out sin, that’s likely to affect our treatment of those we view as sinful. Such views often lead to dehumanising other people, and that way lies the only real hell I know of.
So I would argue that there are more and less helpful and healthy kinds of belief, and that the better ones are better precisely because they encourage us in the path of true humanity, of Christlikeness, of love, mercy and compassion.
And what of those who follow such a path without knowing Christ? I believe that Christ will say to them ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’. I believe that they are following truth without knowing its name. (Though of course as always, it may be me who’s wrong, not them.)
Crucially, I believe that ‘healthy’ or helpful religious beliefs generally arise from good emotional and psychological health (I’ve argued this out much more lengthily here). So for example we may unconsciously operate according to the feeling that there’s an Authority we have to please by good behaviour in order not to be rejected, probably as a result of our childhood relationship with our parents. That will tend to lead us to particular (and probably unhelpful) kinds of belief about God and sin, and to particular ways of practising religion that arise from that.
Which may mean that the way to a more human and Christlike faith is not always through more prayer, worship and Bible study, but sometimes through a process akin to secular counselling (or spiritual direction). To grow in faith, we may need to undergo a process of facing up to these underlying drives and motivations that lead us to a compulsive, fearful, guilt-ridden practice of religion, or to suspicion and hatred towards outsiders and unbelievers. We may need to face and rehabilitate our inner darkness, our hidden fears and needs and emotions. Sometimes we need to learn to be human before we can do anything else of any value.
Orthodoxy as true humanity
So, in conclusion, I don’t think that orthodoxy is best understood as right doctrine. I don’t believe that faith is best understood as believing the right things (the ‘truth’), or that truth itself is best understood as proposition or fact or formula. I believe that true orthodoxy, true faith and indeed true truth are primarily about a way of living that makes us ever more truly human, more truly ourselves.
For me that way is best understood as co-operating with Christ in having his likeness formed in us, incarnated in and through us. For I believe his is the image both of true redeemed humanity and also of God.
When we die, assuming we meet our Maker or come face to face with Ultimate Reality, I don’t think our theology or doctrine will matter very much. I think what will count will be the reality of our inner selves and what we’ve made of that. We won’t be asked to explain the Trinity or to correctly interpret obscure Biblical passages. Rather I suspect we will be asked what we made of the opportunities we had to show mercy and compassion, to re-humanise rather than de-humanise others, to let love be made incarnate in and through us.
Hang on though, isn’t this just works-based righteousness, salvation by good deeds? I don’t believe so. Salvation by works is essentially box-checking, rule-keeping, hoping that if you’re a good boy or girl and obediently ‘do the right things’ then you’ll be deemed acceptable. Ironically, it’s essentially the same model as the orthodoxy I’m rejecting, which says that if you believe the right things, if you tick the right theological or doctrinal boxes, you’re in. In this kind of orthodoxy, the ‘good work’ we have to do is the work of belief, of mental assent.
By contrast, following Christ is about being transformed from within. This does require long-term work and effort, and is borne out in real living and real actions – ‘works’ if you like. But in no way is it a reliance on good deeds to attain righteousness or acceptability.
And (he says to himself), now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you put them into practice…