When you go to a doctor whose title begins with ortho you expect to have something corrected. If you go to an orthodontist, you are looking for your teeth to be corrected. If you go to an orthopedist, you are looking to have a bone (or two, or joint, etc.) corrected. If you guessed that the meaning of the prefix ortho is correct, well, you are correct!
During this week’s episode, Carol Howard Merritt used two words with an ortho prefix. One is familiar, orthodox, the other is perhaps new to many, orthopraxis. Literally, they mean correct correct thought and correct practice. Taken together, they sound almost like some Buddhist teaching. Indeed, seeking to have correct thought and practice certainly seems like a laudable goal. Sadly, there is historical context that adds to the connotations of orthodoxy, which is what has led to an emphasis on orthopraxis. More than correct thinking, orthodoxy has historically meant correct doctrine. The roots of this way of understanding are in the church councils convened in no small part to give the Roman Emperor Constantine definitive answers to what constituted Christian belief. This was important to the emperor so that there would be a hard and fast measure for who was in (and by extension, who was out of) the church. It was under the rule of Constantine that Christianity went from being a persecuted minority to the majority, and official state, religion. Sadly, we all know that this move eventually had dire consequences for the unorthodox, i.e. heretics.
So orthodoxy, while a powerful tool for unifying, has no wiggle room for doubt, let alone diversity. The history of the implementing correct thinking has been either to compel compliance (too often violently) or to experience division (likewise too often accompanied by violence). Orthopraxis has not been tainted in quite the same way. Sure, there are division over how the faith is to be practiced in its rituals, but that has tended to be more petty than violent. I once served a church that had as its founding story that it was a split from a previous church over the issue of whether the deacons faced the the chancel or the congregation during Eucharist. Perhaps this is why it has been easier to rescue the term orthopraxis in order to emphasize the practice of living out our faith in the world. If orthodoxy is about talking the talk, then orthopraxis is about walking the walk.
Carol spoke eloquently about how our correct practices can help us find the unity that exists at the heart of correct thought. She alluded to Karen Armstrong, who finds compassion at the heart of all spiritual thought and is calling us to that in practice in her Charter for Compassion. I have found the truth of that in my own experience. In that very church that was formed on such a petty interpretation of practice, we took seriously James’ challenge to show our faith in our works. We decided to use our decidedly underused building to house homeless people and feed hungry people. It became a location for many people to walk their talk. And those flavors of correct thought were many and varied. One of the interesting quirks of Salem, Massachusetts is that in response to the horror of the witch trials of the 17th century, modern witches and various neo-pagans have made 20th and 21st century Salem their home. In response to the many covens and other pagan gatherings, numerous fundamentalist Christian groups have popped up to engage in what they see as a spiritual war. Even in the midst of this heated animosity over correct thought, practitioners on both extremes and everyone on the spectrum in between have been lining up to help their needy neighbors for years. One of my favorite recollections is the simple “Thank you, Jesus” prayer I lifted one November day when the witches had just cleared the front door having just dropped off their turkeys as the fundamentalists entered the back door bearing their donation.
While Johnny Carson had his sidekick, Ed McMahon, to regularly and enthusiastically declare, “You are correct, sir!” most of us us are not so lucky. We have to actually walk the talk to discover where we are correct. I have a hunch that the more we seek the Spirit’s guidance to correct our practice, the more we will find those core thoughts that we all can hold as correct. Now that would be a GREAT convergence, wouldn’t it?
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA and chaplain for the Brimfield Fire Department. He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com