29 July 2010

Some thoughts on what is meant by ‘orthodoxy’

One of the most fascinating (and at the same time most dangerous) aspects of language is that you can have two people or two groups of people using the same lexeme and yet ascribing to that lexeme two different sets of meaning and connotation such that they mean completely different things. When I use words like ‘orthodoxy’ or even ‘religion’, it can conjure up for different groups of people very different assumptions, impressions and images. Sadly, for too many people in the Western world, ‘orthodoxy’ means a set of inflexible, intractable, exclusionary dogmas imposed tyrannically upon a body of believers, and ‘religion’ is too often automatically associated with the most violent, mindless, poisonous and destructive excesses of the Abrahamic faiths, including Christianity. But as someone who considers himself ‘religious’ – specifically Christian – and as someone who tries to be ‘orthodox’, this isn’t what I mean when I use these words. It would probably be best if I first describe some of the connotations I bring to the term when I use it.

1.) Orthodoxy is historical. By this, I mean both that orthodoxy makes reference to its own history and that it has an awareness of the historical conditions in which it is rooted. To use just one example from the Christian faith, in the Anglican tradition, we identify ourselves by the elements of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: the Holy Scriptures, the Nicene Creed, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist and the Episcopate as defined through Apostolic Succession. Through these elements, we can assemble a cogent narrative about who we are as a community, what our role has been through history and what it ought to be moving forward.
2.) Orthodoxy is communicative. By this, I mean that orthodoxy is a dialogue between us believers and our sources of authority, rather than a monologue of inflexible dogmas upon us. This is actually true of any healthy faith – the most valuable insight of religious existentialism is that no matter what we do, we always bring ourselves to the task; no matter what the text is saying, we have to treat it as though it is speaking to us and to our own conditions. Without a reader the text is meaningless; without dialogue between the text and the reader, the text is dead. (What is interesting to note, also, is that the central question within the early Gospels, particularly the Gospel of St Mark, is exactly this sort of existential poking at the reader: ‘Who do you say that I am?’) Though Holy Scripture is primary to our faith, we also require the communicative mediations of Church tradition and our own faculties of reason and personal experience.
3.) Orthodoxy is dialectical. The Gospel provides us with no easy answers to the pressing existential question it poses – even St Peter’s answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, earns him a stern rebuke from the asker. Looking back also at the debates in the Early Church about (among other things) the nature of Christ, it actually somewhat startled me to discover how reluctant the Church Fathers were to leap to the quick and easy answers, to the glib explanations which may have made the faith more palatable or simple to explain. The extremist Christologies were both ultimately rejected in orthodox thinking – that is, Docetism (which denied Jesus’ humanity in favour of his divinity) and Arianism (which denied Jesus’ divinity in favour of his humanity). Instead, Athanasian Christology, with its dialectical emphasis on the both-and, held the day; we are left even today with a Trinitarian belief system which rests on a set of paradoxes which do not lend themselves easily to simplistic answers, but rather to the reflection of the believer.
4.) Orthodoxy is humane. One of the inescapable suppositions of the Gospel, of Trinitarianism and of the Sacraments seems to be that there is the potential for salvation within the world generally, and within humanity specifically. That God was capable of taking on our human existence, able not only to relate to us but to participate fully in our shared experience – even that aspect which most disquiets us, namely death – points to a conclusion that we human beings do have an element of intrinsic value and dignity in our existence that must be encouraged. It is upon this ground, as Jürgen Habermas acknowledged, that such worthy ideals as social egalitarianism, human rights and democracy were built.
5.) Orthodoxy is subversive. Another inescapable supposition of the Scriptures is that, even though we human beings were meant for a more dignified existence, we nevertheless participate in a domination-system which keeps us in bondage, and from which we require salvation. One of the functions of orthodoxy, in its historical communicative dialectical humanity, is to challenge and resist that system. Orthodoxy is a continual reorientation of values: it challenges such unhealthy and broadly-accepted idols as the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of power, and it challenges us to renounce and subvert them where we see them.

Note that these connotations of ‘orthodoxy’ would not seem to lend it easily to the service of its abusers. Oftentimes, fundamentalists and violent exploiters of religion who cloak what they do and how they behave in the language of ‘orthodoxy’ will overlook the humanistic and paradoxical aspects of orthodoxy. From my view, it would be a mistake to think that ‘orthodoxy’ consists primarily in systematically stigmatising and excluding women and homosexuals from the life of the Church.

However, it is also worth noting that orthodoxy doesn’t really lend itself easily to any of our modern political projects or systems, having both radical-egalitarian and conservative tendencies. Though Christian orthodoxy is by nature ‘conservative’ in the sense that it is conserving a historical narrative in Scripture and in Church tradition, it offers grounds for devastating critiques of modern American conservatism (which in its values and priorities is completely oriented toward the idolatrous worship and concentration of power) and libertarianism (which in its values and priorities is completely oriented toward the idolatrous worship and concentration of wealth). However, orthodoxy also offers grounds for a deep, if not as devastating, critique of modern American cultural liberalism, which a.) offers us only a few relatively weak and ‘top-heavy’ means of resisting these dehumanising trends in the culture and b.) has incredibly few safeguards against the debasement of the human body through the treatment of sex in the culture as a mere consumer commodity (or as a means of selling consumer commodities).

Anyway, just a few loosely-organised thoughts here. I’ll likely try to expand on it a bit more later.

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