Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster…The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences. — Daniel Dennett
Science and Philosophy, while not suggesting a specific truth nevertheless seems to imply that there is a truth. Why, then, do humanities (supposedly built upon or making use of these other two disciplines) deny truths exist?
This is, I fear, the nature of modern religion, specifically modern Christianity. There is no truth. There are only matters of interpretations so that regardless of what one believes, it is a personal matter of no importance. Where is the power, where is the human flourishing, in this sentiment?
Orthopraxy, the theme for a while among us United Methodists, is not new. The discussion is ancient. It is old. It will happen tomorrow as well. But, what is it? Is it necessary? Do progressives have a monopoly on suggesting that we need orthopraxy? No.
The only thing they have a monopoly on seems to be arrogance.
Well, not really. Fundamentalists have the same thing.
This summation of St. Thomas on the sanctification of theologians is important.
It is impossible to know God if one is not first known by him. This fundamental tenet of Christian thought summarizes the first half of our remarks. Now we can add: one must do God’s will in order to know if this knowledge comes from him. The practice of theology must cause the theologian to grow in holiness. Not only are theologians called to this as disciples of the unique Holy One, but their profession adds to this call a singular exigency: they should be holy because they are theologians. Their orthodoxy must redound to orthopraxis. Here I have stated four principal points that ought to verify this relationship. Obviously, none of these pertains exclusively to theologians, but their discipline gives them a particular reason to apply these points.1
The author, Torrell, cites St. Thomas several times but this one stands out:
“For just as it is better to illumine than just to shine, it is better to pass on to others the things contemplated than just to contemplate.” (ST Ia-IIae, q. 188, a. 6)
And similarly the doctors of theology are like principal architects, who research and teach how others ought to work out the salvation of their souls. Simply put, therefore, it is better to teach Sacred Doctrine, and more so meritorious, if done in good intention, which hangs the particular care of salvation of this one and that; thus the Apostle speaks about himself, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” [I Cor 1.17]; although to baptize is work most suited for bringing about the salvation of souls; the Apostle again, “Commend to the faithful who will be suitable to teach others” [II Tim 2.2]. Quaestiones de quolibet I, q. 7, a. 2
Jean-Pierre Torrell, Christ and Spirituality in St. Thomas Aquinas (ed. Matthew Levering and Thomas Joseph White; trans. Bernhard Blankenhorn; vol. 2; Thomistic Ressourcement Series; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 32. ↩
Thought I might share a few of these quotes about orthopraxy before I say something.
Catechesis and Life Experience
22. It is useless to play off orthopraxis against orthodoxy: Christianity is inseparably both. Firm and well-thought—out convictions lead to courageous and upright action, the endeavor to educate the faithful to live as disciples of Christ today calls for and facilitates a discovery in depth of the mystery of Christ in the history of salvation.
It is also quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a method concentrating on life experience. “No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience, that is to say, without an adequate explanation of the message of Christ, who is `the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn. 14:6).”
Nor is any opposition to be set up between a catechesis taking life as its point of departure and a traditional doctrinal and systematic catechesis. Authentic catechesis is always an orderly and systematic initiation into the revelation that God has given of Himself to humanity in Christ Jesus, a revelation stored in the depths of the Church’s memory and in Sacred Scripture, and constantly communicated from one generation to the next by a living, active traditio. This revelation is not however isolated from life or artificially juxtaposed to it. It is concerned with the ultimate meaning of life and it illumines the whole of life with the light of the Gospel, to inspire it or to question it.
John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (Apostolic Exhortations; Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1979).
My last post stirred a discussion that made me think. These thoughts are the result.
It is fair to say that Christian tradition has vastly dictated right practice of our faith can only stem from right beliefs within the faith. When I questioned that understanding by suggesting that there must exist a balance between the two – that one doesn’t necessarily spring from the other – the reaction was to recoil to the previous and most widely accepted understanding of orthopraxy coming only from orthodoxy.
Since, I have not been able to shake the idea that our traditional understanding could use a tweak – and necessarily so.
To demonstrate my thinking, I will use three real-life examples where I think things cannot be seen as black and white.
The first example is that of an atheist who has been attending my church. He does this for his family. I couldn’t tell you what he thinks while he is there, but he comes. He participates in the life of the church and does anything else anyone else in the church does. Now, if he were to develop in the faith over time, so that he lives faithfully both in orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy, wouldn’t his right belief have flowed from his right practice?
Second, I am currently walking alongside a family who lost their father last fall. There is doubt, fear, and anger. Their faith – what we would otherwise call orthodoxy – is shaky at times, and that’s just what they’ll admit to me. However, they remain connected to each other, the church, and to the support system offered to them through the church universal. I see very little evidence that they won’t ultimately remain faithful once the storm subsides. Is this not orthopraxy giving birth to orthodoxy?
Thirdly, many who will read this know that I lost a son a little less than three years ago. It wasn’t a complete surprise, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less – and we hurt plenty. In the immediate wake of his death, I would say, “Our grief is strong, but our faith is sure.” In hindsight, I knew I was saying that in hopes it would become true, not because it was true at the time. You see, I was a functional atheist for a few months in 2012. Three weeks on from Carter’s death, I had to get back in the pulpit. That was the hardest sermon I’ve ever had to write. Mainly because I was still hurting from the death of my son, but also because I was unsure I could believe some or all of the things I was saying. Eventually, I reconciled myself back into the reality of my faith. However, I was literally faking it until I made it. My practice was the thing that eventually brought me back to my belief.
These examples are anecdotal, of course, but don’t they speak to the issue all the same?
At the very least, I believe we must understand the relationship between these “orthos” as existing along a spectrum, mainly because the linear equation we have traditionally used doesn’t account for reality. Most of the time, ones current state will hover around the center of the spectrum. When things go wrong, we may find ourselves at either end of the spectrum. However, we should eventually work our way back the the center, where there is a healthy balance between our faithful belief and our faithful practice.
I know we like cut-and-dry, but the world in rarely that. In order to survive this world, we should learn how to exist in that tension.
Denny Burk has written a piece that people seem to care enough about to respond to. It has angered people that he dared to suggest that the least of these is not the poor existing outside the church but rather those who face persecution for the sake of Christ. He writes,
This text is not about poor people generally. It’s about Christians getting the door slammed in their face while sharing the gospel with a neighbor. It’s about the baker/florist/photographer who is being mistreated for bearing faithful witness to Christ.
Andy Horvath, writing several months before Burk and without the assistance of the Right’s boogey-man (President Obama), says,
The “least of these my brothers” are the disciples, followers of Jesus who carry his message. Jesus’ “brothers” in the Gospel of Matthew are always his disciples (12:48–50; 28:10). That specific language is used of no one else.
Burk uses Matthew 18 while Horvath uses Matthew 10, primarily. Both of these supposed parallels may provide clues as to Jesus’s original meaning — yes, the Matthew of Jesus is using “least of these” to suggest the Church help its own first (Horvath over Burk) — but what both fail to do is the first Protestant clause: Scriptura Scripturae interpresto understand the passage within the whole of the New Testament.
The New Testament is not only one level of Tradition. It is not that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all wrote independent of one another or of Paul. It is not that the Pseudo- and Deutero-Pauline authors wrote independent of the Synoptics or of Paul. Even Revelation quotes other books of the New Testament. The New Testament canon as we have it is a multi-level Tradition even. It begins with Paul, moves to the Synoptics, then to the extra-Pauline canon, then to the catholic epistles, Hebrews, and on… with each making use of what came before. I am not one who believes the Canon is a political document, rather, I believe it is a logical one based primarily on a literary resemblance.
However, the whole of the New Testament is still Scripture.
So, rather than letting Matthew dangle out there by himself, I think we should see what literary Tradition from within the New Testament has to say.
I think there is a significant parallel in Hebrews 13.1–3
Let love of the brethren continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.
This brotherly love may indeed be limited to Christians, something we will answer later, but as we can see the basic rules in Matthew 25 is here in Hebrews 13. We even get to see the turn of phrase by this author, drawing out Matthew 25.40. Jesus says that when we do these things to the “least of these” we do them unto him. The author of Hebrews says that we should do these things because we may actually be serving an angel. Yes, there is a flashback to the story in Genesis of Abram and the Angels, but I think there is equally the connection to Matthew 25. Granted, Hebrews may have been written first, which means the lesson of “brotherly love” was an initial part of the community or it. Either way, this is meant to serve as an example of how one author deals with a previous author’s work from within the canon.
Is this a solid parallel? We can use parallels all the day long to build our case, but what we need is a good lexicon.
I want to turn to Luke who seems to have at his focus the economics of Jesus. While Matthew seems restrictive with his family terminology, we know from Luke that he was quite the expansionist in his understanding of the mission of Jesus’s disciples.
Simply, when I read Matthew 25, I read it through the lens of Luke 19.25–37 and Mark 12.31. In the first passage, Jesus expands neighbor past that of one’s natural kin and makes it a verb. In the second, we see the rank of neighbor elevated to that of kin! Think of it is this way. Throughout Scripture, we read of houses expanded by taking the stranger in. These adoptions erases the genetic line and made something new. If we first read that we are to be kind to our family (fellow-Christians) then we read we are to love our non-family like we love our family, then what else can we do but see the admonition in Matthew 25 as one that is expanded past the original intent and now includes even those outside the Church?
Indeed, because we see the understanding of the mission of the Church grow past the earliest accounts and into something universal — and all within the same book — we must read the least of these as something more than merely treating the poor of the Church properly. Rather, the least of these are now those we must find and become neighbors to!
And who is our neighbor? The outcast, the poor, the cripple. This is too the commandment of Christ from Luke:
Then he said to his host, ‘When you are having guests for lunch or supper, do not invite your friends, your brothers or other relations, or your rich neighbours; they will only ask you back again and so you will be repaid. But when you give a party, ask the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That is the way to find happiness, because they have no means of repaying you. You will be repaid on the day when the righteous rise from the dead.’ (Luke 14.12–14 REB)
If Scripture interprets Scripture, then we do not merely see Matthew’s passage alone, but through the lens of Hebrews and more, through Luke…though the developing story of Jesus.