Religious traditions don’t arrive from Heaven neatly wrapped with a pretty bow. Rather, they develop organically in the messy business of human affairs and history.
Religions develop when a people searches for meaning and identity and from that wrestling emerges meta-narratives that build a plot around answers to fundamental existential questions – where do we come from? How should we live? What’s our purpose in life? Who are we as a people?
Depending on your perspective – in the search for meaning, people encounter God, or Wisdom, or the Tao, or Enlightenment, or the Way – and so on.
Foundational myths are reinforced through rituals that repeatedly reenact the core narrative and teachings that elaborate and apply the wisdom contained within.
Each generation contributes to, and then passes down, this sacred wisdom that in many cases becomes a worldview.
Orthodoxy & Orthopraxy
In most religious traditions the issue of orthodoxy – or right thinking, becomes paramount. The core set of myths and ideas are questioned and engaged and certain answers are accepted as valid and true. The ongoing questioning and conversation of each generation keeps the tradition alive in history.
Orthodoxy provides parameters for meaningful questioning and engagement. Without such parameters, a tradition would dissolve into a haze of individual theories and idiosyncratic expressions. Certainly, some orthodoxies can be conceived of too narrowly and rigidly, choking off genuine development and life-giving innovation.
Thinking, doctrine, and abstract ideas aren’t all that matter – ideas inspire action and practice, thus orthopraxy also plays a vital role in maintaining religious traditions.
Some traditions emphasize identity through doctrine – your standing in the community determined by your adherence to orthodoxy and what you think. Other communities deemphasize doctrine and rely on adherence to ritual or practice to convey identity and promote unity.
Consider the differences between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Both traditions are grounded in essentially the same theological fundamentals. Roman Catholicism seeks to maintain its unity and communal meaning with a strong emphasis on orthodoxy, requiring assent to many doctrines and teachings. Anglicanism tolerates greater divergence on doctrinal matters and forges its unity in a common liturgical vision and practice.
For both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism ideas and actions matter – the issue becomes one of emphasis and degree.
Personalization & Integration
Personalization and individual integration of a traditions ideas and practices are vital for mature participation and the thriving of the tradition. And personalization and integration necessarily implies nuance, difference, and personal interpretation. No two people will embody the truth of a particular religious tradition in the same way. And this is a good thing, despite the tendency of some to insist on rigid uniformity.
Yet personalization taken too far will erode meaningful communal participation. Allow me to offer a practical example.
This past November, family from out of town visited the week before Thanksgiving. Therefore, our household had Thanksgiving dinner the Saturday before the actual date of Thanksgiving. We took the opportunity and adapted the practice of the holiday to better suit our needs. And when you consider the way our particular family sets the table, the specific recipes we use, our unique food choices – the opportunities for personalization are rich and many.
Thanksgiving has a core meaning, a set of myths, and a more or less accepted set of practices. Families and friends gather for a meal, on a specific Thursday, reflect on and/or express gratitude, in some way see themselves as carrying on a set of traditions that harken back to the mythic encounters of pilgrims and Native Americans, and most eat Turkey and a common set of foods.
The meaning of the holiday isn’t threatened or radically altered if some families gather in the week before or after the actual date. Nothing essential is lost or put at risk if some families enjoy ham instead of Turkey at their meal, or even if there is no meat at all. Variances and diversity add to the beauty of the celebration.
Yet some changes can go too far. It’s possible to vary from the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Thanksgiving as to render it meaningless in terms of its original purpose.
If my family decides to celebrate the holiday in April; if we decide that the menu will be popcorn, and if we further decide that our gathering is no longer about gratitude, but instead we decide it’s an opportunity for each participant to boast of their successes in the past few months, one begins to see how the gathering has lost any connection to the essence of Thanksgiving as commonly understood.
Polydoxy & Polypraxy
Without personalization and integration, religious traditions would become dry, brittle, and eventually erode and decay. Religion needs to be taken to heart and sincerely practiced for it to be vital and transformative.
Further, there is a legitimate sense of proper autonomy of the individual adherent – a person engages a tradition freely, without sacrificing their dignity or rights of conscience. Personalization is a fitting and natural response.
Yet when orthodoxy slips into polydoxy the risk of loss of meaning and communal breakdown emerges. Additionally, if orthopraxy morphs into polypraxy pivotal signifiers and practices that promote unity can vanish.
Achieving a healthy balance of common thinking and common action is vital for the long-term endurance of religion.
How does your particular community achieve unity? Is there an emphasis on orthodoxy or orthopraxy? How does each inform the other?
I’d love for you to share your thoughts and experiences.