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Religion: Doing, believing, or both?

Here is my no doubt extremely ill-advised attempt to revisit the question of religious orthodoxy in contemporary society from an angle that, I hope, will bring more clarity to the discussion. I think perhaps it foundered over confusion, no small of it caused by me, over the use of the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity. I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this post. I am not trying to put things down here in a systematic way. I am just writing down notes on a web log, with an eye toward stimulating thoughtful conversation.

So let’s go at this in a somewhat different angle. Understand that I’m talking about religious orthodoxy within Christianity. I don’t know enough about Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Hinduism, etc., to talk meaningfully about the concept of orthodoxy within those traditions. Paganism, for example, and, I think, Hinduism, have no real orthodoxies by their nature. The monotheisms are far more restrictive. I can only speak knowledgeably within Christianity, though of course I welcome insights from other traditions in this discussion.

The main reason why I think it is important to limit the discussion of orthodoxy to Christianity is because I recalled an insight I first encountered through Stephen Prothero: Different religions ask and answer different questions. For example, as Prothero puts it, in Confucianism, the problem is chaos, the solution is social order, the techniques are ritual and etiquette. In Judaism, the problem is exile, the solution is return, the technique is remembering and obeying. In Christianity, the problem is sin, the solution is salvation in Jesus Christ, the technique is some combination of faith and good works. And so forth.

Now, it is true that all religion provides a general conception of the way the world works. Richard Weaver’s lovely phrase (from “Ideas Have Consequences”) for this is the “metaphysical dream.” It’s an important passage to this discussion. It’s four paragraphs long, so I’m going to take the rest of this longish post below the jump. Stick with me here:

Every man participating in his culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.

The first of these are the thoughts he employs in the activity of daily living; they direct his disposition of immediate matters and, so, constitute his worldliness. One can exist on this level alone for limited periods, although pure worldliness must eventually bring disharmony and conflict.

Above this lies his body of beliefs, some of which may be heritage simply, but others of which he will have acquired in the ordinary course of his reflection. Even the simplest souls define a few rudimentary conceptions about the world, which they repeatedly apply as choices present themselves. These, too, rest on something more general.

Surmounting all is an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification. Without the metaphysical dream it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time. The dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.

Christianity, like all religion, gives us a cosmos, by which I mean a metaphysical dream that imparts meaning to the physical circumstances in which we live. The evaluation of that dream — that is, deciding what it means — requires judgment, and that judgment is, as Weaver observes, the bond of spiritual community. To make a judgment, we need a communal Authority. That, too, is a basic part of the spiritual community.

In the earlier thread, Caleb Stegall observed that anxiety over the passing of authority in religion may not be so much about the loss of Truth as about the loss of (spiritual) community. I think there is something to that. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.

In his recent book “Religion in Human Evolution,” Robert Bellah discusses at great depth the origin of the religious sense in human beings. Bellah discusses two ways of interpreting religion: as a system of ideas (= propositions about the nature of God and reality to which one assents), and as a practice (= the religion is not so much what one believes as what one does). Granted, the lines are not clean between them. For example, what a Christian does is to a great extent driven by what he believes. But it’s also true that what he believes is also determined by what he does. This, in part, is what is meant by “lex orandi, lex credendi” (the law of prayer is the law of belief). There is a reciprocal relationship here.

Anyway, Bellah discusses historical stages in the development of religious consciousness. We went, as a species from the primitive, unitive state, to the mimetic state (that is, ritualistic), to the mythic (developing hierarchies), then to the theoretic (abstracting and systematizing ideas). If a religion overemphasizes the theoretic, it will deplete itself of vitality. This is one reason why mainline Protestantism is on the wane; it has in general become so dry and theoretical that it is more like a philosophy than a religion.

But all advanced religions can be this way. Orthodox Christianity insists on this distinction between itself and what it considers to be the overly rationalistic Christianity of the West: in Western Christianity, the “theologian” is someone who knows a lot about God; in the East a “theologian” is someone who knows God intimately. The difference has to do with a fundamental difference in approach toward religion itself. Do we know God by learning about him, through study and rational thought? Or do we know God by prayer, good works, and the sacramental life? To be clear, it’s not that clear-cut. There is a rich and deep tradition of theological scholarship in the East, and relatively few people in the West consider that Christianity is only a system of ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to me that for its obvious limitations, that distinction made by the Orthodox is helpful in understanding the problem, or the challenge, of maintaining a small-o orthodoxy among Christians today.

Why? Because we need both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) to maintain the integrity of our tradition through time. For all the anti-rational aspects within Orthodoxy (N.B., when I capitalize the word, I’m referring to Eastern Orthodox Christianity; when I leave it lower case, I mean the idea that there is a right way to believe within any tradition) … anyway, for all the anti-rational aspects within Orthodoxy — that is, the belief that God is known through the heart and soul, not through the mind — it places great emphasis on the importance of “right belief.” I don’t think most Christian churches, Catholic or the various Protestant churches, would disagree. Historic Christianity does not give one the option of believing that all authority for evaluating the metaphysical dream resides within the individual. The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 settled a question of whether or not Gentile converts had to obey the Mosaic law. The question, then, for all successive generations of Christians is: where does that Authority reside today? Where is it retained? How is it to be recognized and exercised? The answer defines, or should define, the bounds of the spiritual community.

What happens when you get a situation like the one we have today, in which many people don’t identify the authority of the institutional church as binding on them? That is, when they see the church not as teacher, but only as mother? This is the situation in which every man feels himself free to decide for himself what is true and what is false in their religion. That’s fine, but as Bellah puts it, “what in the hell are you going to tell your children?” By which he means, how are you going to assure any kind of continuity over time of religious truth, and the survival of spiritual community? You may well answer: that does not matter. What matters is that my children find their own way, that they become good people, and are happy. As for the rest of it, who cares? That’s fine, but that means you have ceased to be an essential Christian (as opposed to a nominal Christian), and are, in fact, a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. There is no longer a spiritual community. It’s only a herd of individualists.

I remember once being in mass at my Catholic parish in Dallas, wondering how many people around me (the church was full) really believed what the Church taught. If our congregation was representative of the US Catholic population as a whole, the answer was not encouraging. Which in one sense is fine, or at least not my business. But in another sense, it’s hugely important because if people believe that the Church’s teaching is optional, that what makes one a Catholic is one’s choice to attend a Catholic church, what is there to bind one to the faith, if not for mere custom and habit? Custom and habit were enough in ages past to maintain the spiritual community. They aren’t today — nearly half of all Americans today have changed their religion/church. (I am among them.) This was hardly thinkable by most people in ages past. Now it is a normal part of our condition. It is good in some ways, bad in others, but it cannot be gotten around.

Now, could you not simply say that the way to find out what one must do is to rationally weigh the claims of the various churches, and make a rational decision? Yes, you could, and some do. One big reason I became a Catholic is because the Catholic claim for its own authority made overwhelmingly more sense to me than the Protestant claim. I never considered the Orthodox claim until many years later. But it’s also the case that none of us chooses with pure disinterest. We go by a mixture of intuition, emotion, social context, and reason. We are finite creatures. We are subjects. Before I had my own crisis of faith in Catholicism, I truly believed that one should rationally weigh the competing arguments among the churches, and decide that way. I’ve written before about my telling a friend in the 1990s that as he decided whether or not to become Orthodox or Catholic, he should not think about the worship environment in which he would raise his children, but rather simply evaluate the arguments each church makes for its own authority. When I had kids of my own, I saw how wrong-headed that was. It’s easy for theologians, intellectuals, and mere bloggers to argue these things out on paper. When you have the moral lives and the souls of your children at stake, it matters at a different level. My friend could not separate his thinking about which church he and his family should join (they were leaving the Episcopal Church, and their only choices, they believed, were Rome and Constantinople). He said that catechesis was a disaster in much of the US Catholic church, and he worried if his kids would grow up to hold the faith at all if they grew up in Catholic parishes.

I bring this up not to argue about Catholicism vs. Orthodoxy, but to illuminate how subjective considerations inevitably affect the choices we make. If you are reading this in a small town in Nevada, the mother of three children and without a spiritual home, and the nearest Orthodox church is 500 miles away, I would question whether or not you should even investigate Eastern Orthodoxy. I say that because I truly and deeply believe that to be redeemed is not to hold the correct ideas, but to submit to the Holy Spirit, and to be changed from within, to become more Christ-like. It’s hard to do that alone, and even harder to help your kids do that alone. What does it avail you to unite with the truest form of Christianity (as I believe Orthodoxy to be) if you will be all alone in the practice of it? You may be called to do this, but I would wonder if your growth in holiness would proceed more within the Baptist church (if a good one was close to you) or within the Orthodox church, which does not exist in a manifest form near you? As I see it, it’s better to know Jesus imperfectly than to not know Him at all. How you unite yourself to a Baptist (or Catholic, or Presbyterian) church when you believe that the Orthodox Church contains the fullness of truth is a difficult problem.

Anyway, this is what I was trying to get at with the “subjectivity” of religious truth — and why I am a lot more open to the view that religion is what people do, not the ideas in their head. Again, I deny that it’s an “either/or” — it’s really a “both/and”. My point is simply that religious claims belong to an order of truth that can only be truly known not by being affirmed in one’s mind, but also must be inwardly appropriated with enough passion to make them change one’s life. This is what Bellah means when he says if you want to know what people believe, look at what they do, not what they say they believe.

There is Scriptural validation for that position. This is also what Thomas Merton was getting at when he said that he thought wrongly that he was truly converted to Catholicism because his intellect was converted. He learned later that until and unless the will is converted, all conversions will be precarious. That’s an important insight, and it speaks directly to the “truth is subjectivity” point.

What’s more, Jesus did not set out a religious system. He gave us a narrative to show us how to behave. He was Truth Incarnate. To unite yourself to Truth required an act of subjective will. You had to love Him. You still do. Rationality, and religious systems, are only true and good if they point to Him, and open the doors to Him. The Church is not an end, but only a means to an end. If you believe in the Orthodox faith, you will agree that the Orthodox way is the way Christ intended to Him, the most efficacious way. If you believe in the Catholic faith, then likewise. And so forth. To believe this is not to deny that people can’t find their way to unity with God through other forms of the Christian faith, and under certain conditions, in other faiths. But it is to recognize, as I think we must, that even forms of the faith that know the way to the Truth imperfectly nevertheless have some connection to it, which is to say, to Him.

Nobody is passionate about something they don’t believe is objectively true — even if that “objective truth” is that there is no such thing as objective truth. The absence of a position is a position. (You will find on this blog’s comments pages no more passionate religious advocate for a religious position than Conradg, who holds a core belief that there is no such thing as religious orthodoxy.) If I didn’t believe that Orthodox Christianity is true, I wouldn’t be able to be an Orthodox Christian. But the experience of how tenuous my own convictions have been, I am, I think, more humble about how much any of us can know about God and what He wants of us. Let me be perfectly clear: I am not saying that all religious truth is relative. I am saying that within Christianity, religious truth is irreducibly relational — which is to say, has within it a certain degree of subjectivity.

It is precisely because religious truth has this subjective element, and that religious truth is understood, lived, and passed on as much if not more by what we do than by what we believe in the abstract, that I am concerned about how orthodoxy survives in a culture that reserves so much authority to individuals, and not to the institutions, however imperfect, that represent the guardians of tradition. Individuals cannot maintain tradition. Communities and their institutions can, and do. But if people do not believe in orthodoxy, they will not expect their institutions to uphold it, teach it, and renew it. If they don’t share a metaphysical dream and believe in its evaluative judgments, what happens to the spiritual community? If you believe religion is only about expressing individual opinion and finding psychological comfort, this won’t matter to you. If you believe religion is the way God tells us about Himself, and relates Himself to us, then this matters a great deal.

I wish I had a tidy conclusion here. I’m still working my way through this enormous subject. I am convinced that I made an enormous error in my Catholic life, spending so much time thinking about theology and apologetics, and far too little time praying and doing good works. I can’t afford to do that as an Orthodox Christian. Nevertheless, I honestly don’t know how we maintain an appreciation for small-o orthodoxy, and its importance, in a culture that passionately believes the worst thing to do is to make judgments, to evaluate metaphysical dreams. If we are indifferent to judgment, then we abandon the basis for spiritual community. Do we not?

OK, enough. I’ve written 2,500 words this afternoon, and I’ve got to go have a life. Please be thoughtful when you write, and respectful of others. Remember, we’re talking about orthodoxy in the context of religion as a system of ideas, and religion as a way of life. I’m not trying to settle an argument; I’m trying to tell you what I’m thinking about, and something that’s important to me, but whose problems I haven’t solved to my satisfaction.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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