Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Finding the Balance Between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

In my last post, I wrote about five reasons that I believe show Christianity is not supposed to be a religion, at least not in the sense that the word seems to have taken in our modern age - in the sense that people are divided by either being in the right religion or the wrong religion and battle lines are drawn around these religions.  This sense of the word is marking one group of people as being favored by God and all others as cursed - and I do not believe God works this way.  But instead, I believe Christianity is meant to be a different kind of religion: a way of life that reaches out to those who are left out; those who are looked down upon; those who are seen as culturally taboo.  This different kind of religion is about love, compassion and empathy.  This is a kind of religion that transcends labels and boundaries.

Towards the end of his life, German theologian, author, activist, spy, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to Eberhad Bethage about a concept he called "religionless Christianity" - he believed a time was coming when people would simply not be able to be "religious" any more, and that somehow Christianity would take on a new meaning within this framework.  Bonhoeffer pondered in his letter what this would be like; what it would look like.  What would Christianity be if it were stripped bare of clergy, religious practices, and dogma?

To explore this question, I want to ponder the true meaning of the word "belief".  Nowadays, the word carries with it the sense of asserting that something is true, as opposed to something else.  It is a claim of knowledge - an acceptance of doctrine into one's head.  But this is not always how beliefs were thought of.  Around the time that the King James Bible was translated, the word meant "to hold dear; to trust."  

When you hold something dear and trust in it, there is a big difference from asserting what is fact and what is not fact.  The latter leads to debates and arguments and generally makes people into jerks.  But to hold a belief dear to one's heart changes how one lives.  

Consider the following analogy regarding what it means to believe - imagine that you and I are on a hike, and we come upon a rope bridge.  You tell me that you do not believe this bridge will hold our weight - I disagree and say I believe that it will.  You tell me "well, prove it!"  If I refuse to cross the bridge, I am proving my own unbelief - I have stated that I believed in the rope bridge, but my actions prove otherwise.  But if I do cross the bridge, I have shown my belief to be a true belief.  It does not matter whether I have other reasons to trust in the bridge - perhaps I know the man who built it, and know his work to be excellent.  This does not make it any less of a belief - the truth of my belief is proven in my action.

To expand on this analogy - let's say that after you said you didn't believe the rope bridge would hold our weight and after I refused to cross it, you come back the next day because you are determined to get to the other side, even if the journey imperils your life.  You cross the bridge, trembling the whole way, believing that any moment the bridge might break and you will plunge to your death.  But you make it to the other side.  You said "I do not believe the bridge will hold my weight", but you crossed the bridge anyways.  Despite your declaration of unbelief, you acted as one who believes.

This is actually very similar to a parable Jesus told in Matthew 21:28-32:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

True belief
The Christian belief is supposed to be a way of life - a framework through which one lives in the world.  George MacDonald - a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister who was a mentor to C.S. Lewis - wrote in one of his "Unspoken Sermons":
Yes; for to hold a thing with the intellect, is not to believe it. A man’s real belief is that which he lives by; and that which the man I mean lives by, is the love of God, and obedience to his law, so far as he has recognized it.
This is not a foreign concept in other religions, either.  In the Dhammapada - a collection of sayings in verse attributed to the Buddha - it says:
The thoughtless man, even if he can recite a large portion (of the law), but is not a doer of it, has no share in the priesthood, but is like a cowherd counting the cows of others.  The follower of the law, even if he can recite only a small portion (of the law), but, having forsaken passion and hatred and foolishness, possesses true knowledge and serenity of mind, he, caring for nothing in this world or that to come, has indeed a share in the priesthood.
Karen Armstrong, a scholar and author of over 20 books on religion in the modern world, once said in an interview:
Religion isn’t about believing in things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.
This is not a concept Karen made up - it is absolutely Biblical!  Jesus said we should do as he has done for us (John 13:15), the Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to "walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph. 5:1-2), and the writer of 1st Peter instructed his audience to follow in Christ's steps (I Peter 2:20-21).  Over and over again, the author of 1st John drives this point home:
I John 2:3-6
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.  Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.  But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
The message of this passage - the message of the whole book of 1st John - is that if you want to know Jesus, you have to live like him.  Jesus showed us what love is by laying down his life, and we ought to lay down our lives for others as well. (I John 3:16)  If you want to know God, you have to live a life of love, for "everyone that loves has been born of God." (I John 4:7)

"Neo, sooner or later you're going to realize just as I did that there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. " - Morpheus, "The Matrix"

Love helps us to find the balance between Orthodoxy (right doctrine) and Orthopraxy (right conduct).  Love is where a person transcends religion.  Cultivate empathy within yourself and you will find the balance.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship:
Human love has little regard for the truth. It makes the truth relative, since nothing, not even the truth, must come between it and the beloved person.
In my next post, I'd like to continue this theme, and explore the idea of guarding against false beliefs.

Next: Finding The Antidote To Poisonous Religion

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