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Being Formed/Saved: Orthopathy, Orthopraxy, and Orthodoxy

“It is a kingdom of conscience, or nothing.”

Rightly Ordered Order:

Over the last semester, some of my principle considerations have been about the nature of scripture, epistemology, ecclesiology, salvation, revelation, justice, ethics, grace, faith, and works. This may seem like a broad list to consider at once, and that’s because it is. But I do think there has been a guiding theme/question binding these concepts together for me: what counts most in Christian living?

Is it (as I have thought previously) primarily a matter of cognitively believing the right things about Jesus and the content of his gospel? Is it primarily a matter of actually doing right/good actions (not to earn salvation of course but because we are being saved)? Or is it most importantly a matter of having the right desires, intentions, and loves (somewhat irregardless of what acts are actually actualized)? Each of these three options correspond to the subtitle of this post. The first is orthodoxy (right-doctrine [or worship]), the second orthopraxy (right-practice), and the third orthopathy (right-motive).

It is rare that anyone overly disparages one of these three as being concretely lesser or wrong (though orthopraxy gets a bad rep because it is often confused with legalism or meriting salvation). Most traditions in Christianity latch onto one of these as being most valuable (and this creates an implicit hierarchy), yet it seems even more rare that a tradition has put the time and energy into finding a way to hold all three in any kind of explicit order/tension.

Having carefully considered all this for a good while, I have some thoughts on the proper order and relation of these ortho (right) categories. I try to approach this discussion while holding social-science, psychology, and the tradition of the Christian scriptures together, aiming to land at a wholistic, embodied, realistic, and logical conclusion.

In brief, I find that orthopraxy is the seat/core of what is most important for living in God’s Kingdom; and this has an inescapable (and oft overlooked) connection to orthopathy. Last, and mournfully dragging its gloriousness in abject pity, is (my natural favorite but technically optional) orthodoxy.

All of this needs more in-depth explanation… which I will now attempt.

Let’s Talk About Salvation:

Naturally, to begin speaking about salvation, we have to talk about two things first: salvation’s cosmic gospel context, and inclusivism… spooky.

I align with the OG traditional perspective on salvation… which is that Jesus the Christ came to redeem the cosmos and his images (humanity) back from the clutches of death and corruption. In this the King was victorious and is now enthroned at the right hand of the Father. Salvation was thus already achieved in the events proclaimed in the gospel, and now God has commissioned the church to be a living and participatory witness to these events and embody the kingdom that was inaugurated by the Christ.

Subsequently, the forgiveness of sin is not the issue in salvation that required the incarnation (see Athanasius), rescue from death is. Repentance is still necessary, but not in the popular misconception that salvation is from an angry sky god with lightning bolts who saved us from himself by means of penal child abuse. That kind of idea came from well intentioned but ignorant readings of the scriptures and dismissal of creedal catholic Christianity—also a lesson in not having all your theologians start out as lawyers; but I digress. As Christ/King of God’s Kingdom, the only requirement of grace is that we receive it by a new (and divinely-empowered) state of allegiance to and trust in the Trinity.

Lastly, salvation is not a one-time event. There is no “once saved always saved.” As the Eastern Orthodox Church reads St. Paul: we are those who are being saved (1 Cor 15:2). There is an ongoing (dare I say persevering) reality to the church’s pistis (faith/allegiance) that must be maintained—though it mustn’t be perfect.

I don’t think I’ve made a case for it yet on my blog, but I’m an inclusivist. By inclusivism I mean that God will not exclude from eternal life any who genuinely seek after him and do the best they can with whatever their circumstances are. Much of this argument can be seen in Romans 2:9-16:

There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. … it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

In my heart and mind I know/feel that God is faithful and just—and this must mean that there is some plan or caveat made for folks who never have a chance to engage with the gospel or Christianity. (If you’re familiar with C. S. Lewis’ inclusivism, I’m basically the same).

Salvation is of course only through Christ, but it remains less clear on how much we really need to know that truth here and now in order for Christ to save us.

Dissonance About the Cognitive:

I held these Christus Victor and inclusivist positions prior to this last semester, so I had already had some qualifications on orthodoxy/right-doctrine when it comes salvation. But this year the conversation has progressed because of Christianity/Truett’s emphasis on spiritual formation and James K. A. Smith’s arguments about orthopathy.

The order and relation of right doctrine, practice, and motive can be evaluated for both its best and explicitly healthiest possible form (being saved and spiritually formed) as well as its least preferable but implicitly sufficient form (‘just’ being saved and being formed afterwards).

Reading Smith’s work, it became clear that the western/modern church has become enslaved to cognitive and/or quasi-cognitive formulations of theology and biblical interpretation. This was/is an odd reality for me. On one hand, I have always known that knowledge was not the only important part of being a Christian, but in my book it was at least the best part and most often the part that was missing in the church today.

I have not changed my convictions on the value of theology and proper education for ministry, but I have reordered it’s place and value. In doing this, I have relocated some of my prior inclusivist feelings about salvation into the realm of spiritual formation. In an ironic sense my doctrines of salvation and inclusivism have been bolstered by deemphasizing doctrine.

The main reason to reject the cognitive person-as-thinker or quasi-cognitive person-as-believer models of Christian discipleship is because it puts all its eggs in one basket: the intellect. While reason and logic are great, they were not what the scriptures have ‘in mind’ when they say mind. Placing Christianity’s whole program into a single emphasis on content to be understood cognitively is incredibly reductive and unbiblical. Yes we are to renew our minds and our thoughts, but it is our “deep”er and instinctual level of heart/gut/Splanchna (σπλάγχνα) that must be transformed as well. The soul/whole-person must be remade, not just the computer upstairs.

As anyone who has looked after a toddler knows, reason is not sufficient to solve every problem (If only we applied this lesson to adults as well). When we make intellect, doctrinal agreement, and theological precision the bare minimum for entering the church community, we add to the gospel itself and place stumbling block before the “little ones.” Little ones is metaphorical yes, but it is also alarmingly literal. This heterodox cognitive idolatry means that we actively exclude both children and those with mental impairments. If our theology does not take into account “the least of these,” then we have somehow significantly misread the entirety of the scriptures.

Humans are not brains-on-a-stick. We are not ethereal minds or souls stuck in pesky flesh vehicles—that is gnosticism revisited in modernity’s clothes. Imago Dei humans are embodied persons whose existence is inextricably tied to being embodied creaturly icons. And to be embodied means that we have desires, emotions, longings, and wishes that exist within us even before we learn—or in spite of how we have learned—to use our brains manually.

As children we are trained in how to be human by communicative actions, not by words. We can ‘know’ how to do things because we have been conditioned to act certain ways—even though we don’t really know why. I don’t pretend to be versed in attachment theory or childhood psychology, but there is common sense in realizing that babies desire milk and don’t/can’t give a rhetorical argument for why they should get it or even want it.

As adults we often cannot express why we feel the way we do about many of our intentions and motives—they spring up out of our precognitive souls (soul again actually just means whole person btw). Even when we have officially used our brains and will to decide to behave in a certain way, we often cannot easily make a change or actualize our decision as if we were a computer. This is because our loves/desires/motives are formed wholistically by habits, practices, and liturgies more than they are by decisions and logic.

*This discussion also holds true in an exclusivist model, but is doubly true in Christian inclusivism. No matter how it is couched, the implications are immense.

Persons-As-Lovers:

St. Augustine taught about these desires, he called them loves. And by being raised and living in this corrupted world our loves are always disordered. We always turn our gaze on something improper. “We love the wrong things, or we love the right things in the wrong way.” Athanasius talks about our either participating with God or with death—and this participation is always an embodied way of living.

If all humans are first and foremost lovers who have desires, then having rightly-ordered motives/loves/desires (orthoprathy) is universally important. That said, since we are embodied persons and not brains on sticks, orthopathy cannot be separated from orthopraxy—we habitually practice what we desire, and we desire what we habitually practice. As mentioned continuously in the scriptures, it is never enough to simply do certain actions without proper motives—God looks on the heart. Nevertheless it is also worthless to have good intentions that are never actualized—faith without works is dead. Thus it is the combination of right-motive and right-practice which counts as allegiance.

Bringing it all back together, faith (pistis) is foremost allegiance to God; and allegiance is formed by the liturgies we have from the practices we desire and thus do. Therefore, one can be a Christian and join the kingdom of those being saved simply by giving allegiance to God. When we start to read the scriptures beyond the conversation about earning salvation, allegiance and general revelation can be seen in a whole new light.

There is an innate sense of God and basic morality within humans and creation itself that stems from God’s nearness and sustaining work of creative love (Ps. 18; Rom. 1; Col 1; etc.). This means that though the Native Americans never heard the explicit gospel for hundreds or thousands of years, God was still present to them and they were able to offer allegiance to Christ—even if they did not cognitively know who Christ was.

We do not know how God will choose to judge all humanity fairly, but we know that he will do so, and he will do it in love. And if even our sad earthly courts know that a Good Samaritan who intends to save a heart attack victim but accidentally kills them is not guilty of murder, then the one who knows our heart’s true loves is able to raise up a people from all of the nations of the earth—even where his church has not yet reached. The blind may lead the blind at need, but you can bet they’d rather have keen-eyed guide.

If you are not an inclusivist, I don’t expect this brief blogpost to sway your position. However, I do hope that I have shown that cognitive knowledge of the gospel is not the pearly gate to Christendom—not unless you want to wholesale condemn everyone with mental problems or children who are not there yet in development.

(Poor) Orthodoxy:

But wait! I feel like we’re forgetting something important! Persons-as-lovers are not just ticket holders waiting for their bus to Heaven (or even for resurrection). Explicit gospel allegiance to Christ ideally/usually means becoming his faithful disciple. And to follow him well we must know who he is, what he done, and what he requires of us who are now called by his name.

This is the great work of orthodoxy. Dogma and doctrine are not meaningless. They give shape to the formless intentions of our hearts. Where the Lord has spoken clearly, it is right and honoring to obey him as he asked. The scriptures and church tradition are our great guides that give us wisdom on how to follow Christ faithfully. By no means should we neglect them because they are not absolutely necessary for salvation. A seatbelt and a GPS are not absolutely necessary for driving your car across the country. If you never had them or knew about them it would be wrong to judge you as if you had them. But if they are sitting right there on the dash then only a fool would not seek to know their wisdom and receive relative safety and confidence for the journey.

Spiritual formation, discipleship, wisdom, maturity, and sanctification are all spiritual disciplines which receive great benefit from cognitive teaching. But it is at the very least an addition of right-doctrine to the pre-existing right-motive and right-practice. For those within the church, we have a known mandate that has been passed down to us with great thought and care. We are called to be witnesses to those who do not or cannot have orthodoxy. But this knowledge does not give cause to think that we can think our way out of our bodies. In a healthy Christian context, the three orthos should be circular (dare I say perichoretic) in their value and the way that they inform one another. *I do recognize that orthodoxy in its right-worship form has been used as short hand all three orthos).

“As St, Paul points out, Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary, He told us to be not only “as harmless as doves,” but also “as wise as serpents.” He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not. The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old.”

~C. S. Lewis

For me, I find orthopraxy the most difficult. I know what healthy disciples of Christ should be doing with their lives, and I desire to do those things, but like Paul in Romans 7 I do the very things I do not want to do. My desires and knowledge do not suffice as allegiance. Even if my current practices and liturgies are profitless at best and evil at worst, I must strive with the Spirit to really embody/actualize my allegiance.

There is no shortcut to spiritual formation. Inclusivism wouldn’t let me off the hook (if it applied to me) either. I still have to take up my cross and follow Jesus. Thanks be to God that he has given the church his Spirit. His burden is easy and his yolk is light, but I was never meant to be carried alone.

I don’t need a never ending series of sermons to convince me of what I already believe is true, though encouragement is nice. Yet mostly I need to be led in actually living the christian life. I need to actively participate with the Triune. I need the liturgy of the church to train my liturgies until I am transformed into the kingdom worker that I was called to be.

Maranatha

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