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Orthodoxy and orthopraxy

21 January 2009

In a discussion on an interreligious discussion forum someone said:

I think many people conflate religion with spirituality to their own
and society’s loss.

To me religion has two components. One is all the trappings that make
a particular relgion outwardly distinct from other religions. The
other is the inner core of spiritual practices that help the
practitioner to grow spiritually.

I’m not too happy with the terms “religion” and “spirituality”, for various reasons, but it appeared to me that what he was talking about was what Orthodox Christians call “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy”, and I said that for Orthodox Christians they could not be separated. Someone else then asked me to explain this in generic Christian terms, since he wasn’t an Orthodox Christian, and would find a generic explanation easier to understand.

I thought he was asking too much. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different groups of Christians with their own traditions, theologies and understandings. They are pretty diverse, and to get inside all of them, or even a significant number of them would be beyond my capacity. Besides which, they also differ from place to place.

I don’t want to reproduce all that particular discussion here (though anyone, of any religions background, is welcome to join us in discussing that and other topics in  the Religionrap forum). My reason for mentioning it here is to try to order my thoughts (with the help of anyone who cares to comment) on the difficulty of explaining things like this in “generic” terms.

The one who asked me for a “generic Christian” explanation is from somewhere in the USA, of a liberal Protestant background, I think Christian Church-Disciples of Christ. I have spent all of two weeks in that part of the world, attending an Orthodox mission conference, and doing some research for my doctoral thesis in a seminary library, so it’s not a Christian culture I know very much of at first hand.

I once lived for a year and a half with a family who were fairly close to what I think his tradition may have been. They were an American missionary couple from the United Church of Christ working in Natal in the 1970s. I wasn’t allowed to visit the congregations they were most involved in, though I can guess at what went on there, because there is a sort of generic Protestantism developing in South Africa, and so it would be fairly similar to the Anglican equivalents I was more familiar with at that time, but generic Protestantism in South Africa would be very different from the equivalent in North America, where I doubt that the “imvuselelo” (all-night revival service) is very common, and nor, I should imagine, are uniformed women’s organisations (manyanos). The one in the Congregational Church, which my friends were involved with, was called “isililo”, which means weeping, because, as they said, “we are crying for our children”. The Anglican Mothers Union wore a different uniform, but the same kind of thing went on at their meetings.

It has taken me about three years to realise what “emerging church” people were talking about on the blogosphere. They used code words that they understood among themselves, like “attractional” (as opposed to missional), “seeker-sensitive” and many others that either I did not understand at all, or I understood in a quite different sense. And in the same way, they might understand Orthodox terms, like “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy” in a quite different sense, for example in this blog post, where the author appears to interpret them in terms of “faith” and “works”. And they would probably be completely flummoxed by theoria and praxis. The Wikipedia article on theoria probably has more than most casual enquirers want to know, but the introduction should suffice. But it is the Orthodox eqivalent of what the writer quoted above probably means by “spirituality”.

For Orthodox Christians orthodoxy and orthopraxy go hand in hand. One cannot separate one from the other without distorting both. This is illustrated by a story told about a seeker who was interested in Orthodox “spirituality”, and the mystical side of things, and to learn more he approached a starets (spiritual elder) and asked for guidance. And the starets asked him “Are you keeping the fasts of the Church?”

One Comment leave one →
  1. 21 January 2009 8:13 pm

    A good point. There really is no separation between the outward “trappings” and the inner “core.” I assume this truth is lost when authentic practice (prayer, confession, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) is no longer a theotic walk, but is now a menu from which one can pick and choose.

    Is crossing yourself, standing during the service, kissing the hand cross, etc. Eastern flavor or is it an outgrowth of a natural process? I believe these practices are blossoms springing from the Church. You can no more put daisies on a rose bush than you can put a coffee bar in the narthex.

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