Sunday, 2 September 2012

Orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy

640px Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety

What is the relationship between correct belief (orthodoxy) and correct action (orthopraxy) and how much does one matter versus the other? Is it more important what you think or what you do? While this is not a new question, I believe it is still a key one today.

Starting with Jesus, we can see him emphasizing both orthopraxy (also as a means of inferring orthodoxy when heterodoxy may be suspected):
“By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16) and

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
and validating orthodoxy in spite of it’s proponents’ heteropraxy:
“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.” (Matthew 23:2-5)
Looking at Jesus’s teaching, there is a clear preference for orthopraxy (whose absence is an obstacle and which will also be the basis for the questions asked at the last judgement about feeding the hungry, quenching their thirst, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, … (Matthew 25:31-46)) but orthodoxy is valued in its own right as a (non-exclusive) means for engendering orthopraxy (and, by Christians, as a gift from God). In a way it can be seen as being assumed to be present at least implicitly, partially, unconsciously in those behaving orthopractically.

Let me just pick out two examples of where this principle of orthopraxy being taken to assume (implicit) orthodoxy has been employed by Jesus’ followers - a very recent one and a rather ancient one:
  1. Saint Pope Gregory the Great (6-7 century AD) was so taken by the justice that the emperor Trajan (1-2 century AD) has shown towards a widow, who violently lost her only son, and by his virtue that he prayed for the salvation of his soul and it’s promotion from purgatory to heaven. In other words, Gregory was motivated by Trajan’s orthopraxy to petition for his receiving the rewards he thought were only due to the orthodox.

  2. Archbishop Müller, when questioned about his friendship with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Liberation Theology, responded: “The theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, independently of how you look at it, is orthodox because it is orthopractic. It teaches us the correct way of acting in a Christian fashion since it comes from true faith.” This is not to say that all of Liberation Theology is exonerated by virtue of the virtue of its followers (the Vatican’s criticisms of Marxist influences in some of its strands are upheld by Müller), but that the virtue of its followers is a fruit of their orthodoxy.
All of this links rather nicely with Martini’s idea of (non)believers and is another argument for appreciating the orthopraxy of all while also valuing beliefs that can lead to it. I also believe it is a key to reading some Protestant–Catholic differences, to relating the lives of saints and Church doctrine and to appreciating great works of art created by artists who have committed heinous crimes (a.k.a., my roadmap for a couple of future posts :).