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Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

Posted by nebula0 on September 23, 2008


If you start to explore religious studies, chances are you’ll run into this supposed divide between religions which emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) with those that emphasize orthopraxy (right practice).  For instance, Judaism is often touted as a religious focused on orthopraxy, whereas Christianity traditionally focused on orthodoxy.  I’m bringing this up here because I think you’ll find some well educated Mormons embracing this supposed divide in order to promote Mormonism as a religion that is focused on orthopraxy and through so doing escape difficulties.  First I’ll discuss why Mormons would find this approach useful. Next I’ll discuss why this does not work for the Mormon case  I’ll close by generalizing my critique of this classification technique.

So, what might Mormon apologists gain by classifying Mormonism under the orthopraxy heading?  Mormonism lacks a solid, systematic theology by which a serious scholar could pinpoint beliefs.  Those of you who have been in many debates with Mormons no doubt have run into this frustration.  How many times has a Mormon claimed something you thought to be a central piece of Mormon theology to not be ‘official doctrine’?  It’s happened to me often, even when I pull that doctrine in question right out of officially published manuals used to teach Sunday school class.  Ultimately this confusion stems from the fact that the LDS leadership is uneducated in religion or philosophy, generally, and therefore avoids clarifying important doctrines, leaving individual Mormons interested in the topic to their own devices.  Many Mormons embrace this challenge as a freedom and an outgrowth of the initial meeting Joseph Smith had in the grove with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ when he was told that creeds are an abomination to God- they are a result of the Great Apostasy.  But, if things really are so fluid on the level of beliefs, what makes a Mormon a Mormon exactly?  This is where the notion of orthopraxy and orthopraxic religions helps the Mormon apologist, who now claims that being a good Mormon is mostly an issue of right practice, such as obeying the law of chastity, tithing, obeying the Word of Wisdom, activity in the church, holding a calling, and the like.  Furthermore, he may argue, privileging orthodoxy disproportionately privileges the scholar over and above the average Joe, so the Mormon system truly is a superior one on a moral level as well.

On the face of it this seems compelling.  After all, American culture tends to have an anti-intellectual streak and this no doubt resonates with many people.  Here’s the problem though. Mormonism is interested in orthodoxy, at least as much as orthopraxy.  Go to any fast and testimony meeting and one thing you’ll hear from almost all participants who speak is something akin to “I know this church is true, I know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, I know that Jesus is the Christ,” and so on.  “I know” is rather strong phrasing of a statement of Mormon orthodoxy.  Or, how about meet with some Mormon missionaries and allow them to run through the standard missionary discussions.  One of the first things they will do is teach you how to ‘recognize the witness of the Spirit’ which consists of associating good feelings with statements that they argue are true.  From the very beginning the potential convert is encouraged to form an orthodoxy grounded in an epistemology consisting of the formula “good feelings about things which authorities claim to be true= witness of the Spirit of the truthfulness of the said claims”.  In order to be baptized, you have to agree to a set of belief claims, not just promises to obey the Word of Wisdom, the law of chastity and the law of tithing.  Likewise, to go through the temple the Mormon must affirm core doctrines which in practice constitute a sort of Mormon creed.  I argue the only reason this isn’t systemized, is as I said before, due to the Mormon aversion to theological learning, but that doesn’t mean that Mormonism isn’t a religion obsessed with orthodoxy.  It surely is.  It’s just a sloppy theology, which does have the effect of allowing the few to take their belief system in unique directions but remain Mormons in good standing.

Alright, that being said, I further argue that the whole distinction between orthodoxic and orthopraxic religions is a false dichotomy.  Take the example of Judaism again.  It’s true, you can be considered a Jew and an atheist at the same time– but not a good Jew!  There is no way to untangle beliefs from practices and experiences, they are intimately associated for human beings.  Every person claiming a religion has a theology that he or she embraces, it’s inescapable.  As soon as a person begins to think about the divine, theological opinions are formed.  Some are more thought out than others, but they are there.

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24 Responses to “Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy”

  1. Seth R. said

    “This is where the notion of orthopraxy and orthopraxic religions helps the Mormon apologist, who now claims that being a good Mormon is mostly an issue of right practice, such as obeying the law of chastity, tithing, obeying the Word of Wisdom, activity in the church, holding a calling, and the like.”

    I’d restrict it more than that. I’d say the orthopraxis of Mormonism is making and striving to keep sacred covenants with God. It’s a covenant theology. If you are willing to make the right covenants, I don’t think it matters too much if you are secretly a modalist, or a tri-theist or a social trinitarian.

    The problem with this explanation is that Mormonism is actually orthodox on some very basic core beliefs and doctrines.

    The problem I’ve encountered with Evangelical opponents is that they are always demanding that we extend our orthodoxy beyond those core concerns into what we consider peripheral issues. Too often, Evangelicalism to me seems like an attempt to take all the guesswork out of religion. To make everything codified, safe, and predictable. You get this talking to Berean Baptists and other Christian fundamentalists all the time. Change and uncertainty just scares the hell out of them. Try suggesting sometime that their Bible might have more than one reading and let the screeching commence. They like God predictable, safe, dogmatic, codified, and managed. The idea that He might say or do something different is just really threatening to them.

    I essentially see the “Christian fundamentalist” movement as having the unavoidable result of sucking all the fun and life out of religion as they bulldoze God’s garden in an attempt to construct a modern theological Tower of Babel.

    Of course you have to have orthodoxy with some things. But I think large segments of Christianity have really overdone it, and are now whining because the Mormons aren’t just thrilled to follow suit.

    I prefer my relationship with God open-ended and dynamic thanks.

  2. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    At what point is ‘open-ended and dynamic’ really just a code phrase for ‘we have no sophisticated theological thought because Mormonism is biased and suffers from a streak of anti-intellectualism’? I”m not talking about opening up about how we read the Bible, given the difficulties of how sola scriptura is played out in fundamentalism and neo-evangelical circles in America. I grant that and I grant it based on good, sound reasoning. I’m talking about having any kind of basic theology which frames how we conceptualize who and what God is in the first place- what kind of God are we making covenants with, exactly? Mormonism has had answers that way which I’ve noticed this next generation is increasingly wary of and instead of following up with sound theological reasoning as to how one Mormon could be a monotheist in the classical sense, and another be a polytheist in an extraordinary sense and yet still be dealing with the same God, they simply throw rocks and accuse us who point out the problems with simplistically holding this stance of being elitist. I say, it does matter, it affects how you view what those covenants mean, how you carry them out, how you pray and, well, everything.

  3. Darrell said

    If Othropraxy were really paramount in defining whether a religion is “true” or not then wouldn’t Christ have spoken about the Pharisees in a slightly different manner? After all, from an orthopraxy point of view they would be considered more righteous than any of the apostles. They lived the teachings of the law better than anyone. The practiced Orthopraxy at it’s best during their time. We all know what Christ said about them.

    Truthfully speaking, Orthodoxy matters a LOT. One of the paramount reasons the Pharisees were spoken about so harshly by Christ is because they did not KNOW Christ and at the same time considered themselves so righteous BECAUSE of their Orthpraxy. If they would have recognized Christ for who He was I am quite sure He would have spoken about them rather differently.

    Once a person’s beliefs are correct (Orthodox) then the works (Orthopraxy) will naturally come. However, they will not come as a result of a person seeking to work their way to God (as Mormons and other legalistic faiths seek to do). The works will come as a result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit changing a person’s heart.

    God cares about both Orthdoxy and Orthopraxy. The difference between legalism and true Christianity is that legalism teaches works to get to God… Christianity teaches Orthodoxy that will LEAD TO Orthopraxy with a right heart.

    Darrell

  4. nebula0 said

    Darrell,

    I think pointing out what Jesus said to the Pharisees is an excellent example of my post and how orthodoxy is prior to orthopraxy. When things are done with a completely wrong conception, the intent is wrong, and the praxis is bound to go wrong too. This isn’t even unique to Christianity, this is just the way it is. Mormonism is shooting itself in the foot by avoiding defining its theology in any kind of truly thoughtful manner.

  5. Seth R. said

    “They lived the teachings of the law better than anyone.”

    Um, no they didn’t. Which Christ was happy to point out. In fact, the Pharisees were horrible about living quite a bit of the Law of Moses.

    What Jesus criticized was not the fact that the Pharisees valued orthopraxis, but the fact that they were obsessing over certain minor points of orthopraxis while robbing widows and letting the poor starve.

  6. nebula0 said

    THat they obeyed the letter of the law, not the spirit. THere is no way you can make that kind of distinction without privileging orthodoxy- some kind of right intent- before orthopraxy.

  7. Brad said

    Seth, you missed the point. The Pharisees WERE quite studious about their orthopraxy, but not BECAUSE of their orthodoxy, which was incorrect. Did they believe in living the law? Yes. Did they strive to do it the way they thought correct? Yes. Was their motives for doing it correct? No. That’s what Jesus was talking about – the state of their heart, proving that you can have orthopraxy and incorrect orthodoxy, and still be lost.

  8. Seth R. said

    For a comparison to work, you’d have to find people who were doing all the actions right, but still being condemned because their belief was wrong.

    The Pharisees don’t fit the bill. They were actually NOT practicing large portions of the Law of Moses.

    And you don’t see any other examples of this in the Bible either. So really, all I have is your word for it.

  9. Seth R. said

    To be clear, do I think that correct action flows from correct belief?

    Yes.

    But I also think that correct belief flows from correct action. I know this because I have experienced it personally. While I was stuck in the midst of a particular sin, my mind never rose above it. Certain doctrines never made any sense of became clear until I was able to rise above the “surface clutter” and really understand.

    This seems very much a case of the hand telling the eye “I have no need of thee” – on both sides.

  10. Darrell said

    “For a comparison to work, you’d have to find people who were doing all the actions right, but still being condemned because their belief was wrong.”

    What? Do you actually think it is possible to find people who were or are “doing all of the actions right”? That is the whole point of the gospel. No matter how hard we try we will NEVER do all of the actions right.

    The bible is very clear that orthopraxy is not what gets us to God. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that all of our works are like dirty rags. We can try as hard as we want to be righteous and will never acheive it. A right belief is the BEGINNING of everything. Every time the Savior healed someone he followed with the exact same thought… “Your Faith Hath Made You Whole.” Never once did he say “Your works have made you whole”.

    Once you have the right faith (Orthodoxy) then the works will follow. Orhtopraxy is the result of a correct belief (Orthopraxy). Doing it the other way around is putting the cart before the horse.

    Another example of this… look at all the major world religions. EVERY ONE OF THEM teaches good works. Muslims live some of the most moral lives in the world. They are extremely Orhtoprax from a moral perspective. Has that led them to a correct belief? What about Jehovah’s Witnesses? They are extremely moral… more so than LDS a lot of the time? Has their Orthopraxy led them to a correct belief in God? NO.

    All of our works are like filthy rags. We need a correct belief which will lead to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We are then secure in our salvation and our works (Orthopraxy) will flow out of a love for God.

    Orthodoxy LEADS TO Orthopraxy.

    Darrell

  11. Seth R. said

    Calm down Darrell, I didn’t mean perfect people.

    But it’s pretty apparent that the Pharisees were emphasizing the lesser aspects of the law of Moses while ignoring the most important aspects. They are horrible examples to try and make your point with.

  12. Seth R. said

    I’m tempted to say that orthodoxy hasn’t led other Christians to correct belief either.

  13. Darrell said

    “I’m tempted to say that orthodoxy hasn’t led other Christians to correct belief either.”

    Actually, by definition, if one’s belief is orthodox it is correct…

    orthodox

    1581, from L.L. orthodoxus, from Gk. orthodoxos “having the right opinion,” from orthos “right, true, straight” + doxa “opinion, praise,” from dokein “to seem,” from PIE base *dek- “to take, accept” (see decent). As the name of the Eastern Church, first recorded in Eng. 1772; in the sense of branch of Judaism, first recorded 1853.

    Darrell

  14. nebula0 said

    Seth, the only way to determine that is to acknowledge the importance of orthodoxy and engage in debate.

  15. Seth R. said

    “Actually, by definition, if one’s belief is orthodox it is correct…”

    Rather self-serving notion, that.

    nebula, I do acknowledge its importance. But I think that traditional Christianity has extended the reach and authority of orthodoxy into realms far beyond what was intended.

    Orthodoxy is a useful servant, but a poor master. Catholics and Protestants run into problems when they put orthodoxy on the throne instead of God.

  16. Brad said

    Who says who puts orthodoxy on the throne instead of God? Quite an uninformed, reaching statement, at best…

    My beliefs are centered around God and what He has told us in His Word (the Bible). There is nowhere else I should be going to gain my beliefs, and nowhere else I need to go. Yes, I know, Seth, Mormonism wouldn’t agree with that, and neither would you. Shocker.

    Bottom line, Seth – we believe your beliefs are incorrect. You believe ours are, as well (or at least that they’re incomplete). You won’t admit we’re right, we won’t ever admit you are, and neither of us will change our mind. One of us will find out we’re wrong when we die. Each of us thinks it’s the other. And in that, only one of us is right.

    Why continue with you, Seth?

  17. Seth R. said

    I don’t know Brad. Why do you continue with me.

    If you want to play quitter, be my guest.

  18. Brad said

    Pearls before swine, my friend.

    You can call it quitting – I call it reallocating resources to other productive areas.

  19. Seth R. said

    OK. Great. You done yet?

  20. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    You’re still not getting what I am saying– how do you know what God wants, or who God is, or if something called a “God” exists? Concepts. That’s it. Orthodoxy is simply the fancy term for attempting to get concepts right, that is, concepts which actually correlate to reality. What is your concept of God going to take a back seat to? There is nothing previous to it, it comes first, it is the human condition.

    I have a feeling you’re wanting to say something different, but it isn’t going to make a difference until we hash out this basic premise first: concepts frame our view of the world and are the backdrop of our actions. Orthodoxy is about framing those concepts correctly, as correctly as each individual can get it in his or her circumstances. There isn’t anything more fundamental than that.

  21. Seth R. said

    Mainly nebula, I just want to leave room for exploration in theology. I don’t want all the answers, and I don’t want orthodoxy used as a club to exclude some and include others.

    It’s a fine balance to walk. If you get too far onto the orthodoxy end of things, you shut yourself off to any possibilities – even ones coming from God Himself.

    If you get to far on the heterodoxy end of things though, you end up believing nothing in particular at all.

    So it isn’t really about rejecting any orthodox restrictions AT ALL for me. My concern is primarily with keeping an open mind and a sense of humility about theology and a willingness to go somewhere new, or change when God demands it.

  22. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    I suppose part of the problem is that you’re used to interacting with one kind of Christian: the American neo evangelical with a simplistic faith in sola scriptura. You seem to have a knee jerk reaction to this stance no matter what the topic is- because you’re still arguing with THAT person and haven’t addressed the heart of my argument.

    It’s a taken for granted fact that there is always opportunity to learn more. We are finite beings trying to comprehend an infinite God. Every discovery we make in any other area of study will inform our theology, and should- particularly when it comes to biblical study, study of Near Eastern languages and history and so forth (assuming we’re talking about a Judeo-Christian tradition here). To assume that we have all the answers would be blasphemy because that would be akin to claiming we have knowledge equal to God’s, obviously that is not the case.

    But, again, none of that really gets to the heart of my original post, or any of my responses to you after that. There is no such thing as orthopraxy without orthodoxy, it’s not even imaginable as a possibility in a human religion. That’s my argument.

  23. […] [1] Nebula0, “Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy”, About Mormonism […]

  24. […] [1] Nebula0, “Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy”, About Mormonism […]

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