Over at this outstanding blog, a really interesting discussion is shaping up. The issue is Orthodoxy versus orthopraxis.
Orthodoxy means “right beliefs”. For example, somebody might believe that the orthodox position is that Jesus is connected to God in some unique way.
Orthopraxis means “right actions” or “right practice”. It’s the actions undertaken by a person. For example, somebody might believe that to follow Christ means that we should be giving food to those who are hungry.
There are several unsurprising things about this distinction. These unsurprising things include:
#1) People debate about which is more important.
#2) This debate often comes down with old school traditionalists on one side and the post-modern emergent side on the other.
#3) It’s not really as complicated a debate as all these Latin (Or are they Greek?) terms make it appear.
It seems to me that this is just a dressed up version of the question “What’s more important to Jesus: that we have the right attitude about things or that we do the right things?” All the Catholic Vs. Protestant “Works vs faith” debates are really about this issue.
I know that often people say that our hearts are much more important than whatever things it is we do. I know that they’ve got lots to back this position up. But there’s two things that are worth considering before we jump to this conclusion.
The first is that we have a very different understanding of what it is to know something than Jesus contemporaries did. The modern era has made an idol of a certain type of understanding. The staggering successes of science have lead to us treating rational, logic based, intellectualized knowledge as the king. When scripture speaks about knowing or believing a thing, it’s not the same sort of knowledge that we think of when we think about, for example, knowing that 7 X 7 = 49.
The second is this quote from the Book of James.
“12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
Faith and Deeds
14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”
It seems to me that almost any time the emergents are on one side and the traditionalists are on the other, it’s wise to assume that the truth is probably somewhere between them. There’s some debates where both sides are equally right.
But there are some cases that you can’t have one side without the other. There are some times that one side taken to far becomes an extreme that is wrong. One of my favorite things about Jesus is when he steps outside of an either/or and looks at the big picture. James seems to be following this tradition.
There are some things that we could have orthodox beliefs about which would change our actions. If it turns out that the “right belief” about the nature of the atom is that it’s composed of quarks, this might be interesting. But really, whether it’s quarks or strings or whatever, this isn’t going to change the ways I live my life.
I submit that orthodox beliefs about the nature of Jesus aren’t this kind of beliefs, though. They aren’t abstract. We couldn’t possibly hold orthodox beliefs without engaging in orthopraxy. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that we won’t be able to identify the right practices if we don’t have the right beliefs in the first place.
I love the way that James expresses this. I wonder if he had a sarcastic smirk on his face as he challenged someone to show them their faith without deeds. Because it’s pretty much impossible to do this. We can’t show anybody our faith except by their deeds.
And I love how he uses the story of Isaac. Even thousands of years ago, it was a temptation to sit around and intellectualize these things. (Probably, if they’d had the technology, the people that James was talking to would have had blogs that read distressingly like my blog.) It seems to me the whole point is this: stating beliefs is easy. Acting on them, that’s where we’ll seperate the adults from the children.