Thursday, June 7, 2012

Debunking the Claim that Orthodoxy is Not About Right Belief

The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is an Orthodox priest who blogs at Roads from Emmaus.  He's recently launched a new blog called Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy to which he and other Orthodox Christians will contribute articles.

The first posting is entitled "Doctrine Matters."  Here's some of what Fr. Andrew writes:

It could be argued that we are now more educated than ever before, that our scientific progress is the furthest that history has ever seen. Literacy levels in our culture are probably the highest in history. And yet, somehow, even among church people, people who say they love God and want to know Him, questions about theology are almost entirely unknown. Even in the inter-religious groups of clergy I’ve taken part in, we curiously almost never discuss theology. ...

Why? It’s because of a movement from the Protestant Reformation called pietism, whose most pervasive inheritance to us Christians is the feeling that doctrine doesn’t really matter, that a serious Christian is marked not so much by what he believes but by how sincerely he feels about God and by his moral behavior. Pietism has spread far beyond the churches of the Reformation and their numerous children, and it affects Christians of every communion, including Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

Ironically, though, even though most Christians no longer care about doctrine, they still believe in it, though more often at a subconscious level. But even beyond the question of belief is the effect that doctrine has on their worship, their morality, and their sense of how to bring the Gospel to other people. Here are a few examples: If you do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you probably will not have communion often, and when you do, you may well give it to just anyone. If you believe in “once saved, always saved,” logically, you can spend your life in sin, being comfortable in the knowledge that you have your irrevocable ticket to Heaven. If you do not believe that any one church is the true Church, then you will probably not care about heresy and you will not care that people who believe something radically different from what you do could be heading in a different spiritual direction than you are; you may even begin to say that all religions are “true” paths.

Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, doctrine really does matter. It matters even for atheists. What you believe about the nature of the universe, whether or not there is a God or gods, whether or not a divine being would become a man, and what all that means will have a profound effect on how you live your life, both for yourself and in community (or lack thereof) with others. ...

... theology isn’t just a bunch of spiritual opinions. Theology is not just life and death, but eternal life and death. We have to get it right not just so we can belong to the right churchy club, but so we can grab hold of sanity in an insane world, so we can seek out the profound while surrounded by triviality, so we can pursue beauty in the midst of ugliness. 

There is quite a contrast between what Fr. Andrew has written and what many say within the Episcopal Church. John Westerhoff, writing in A People Called Episcopalians, offers a view I've heard many times: "Orthodoxy for us is right worship and not right belief."  Westerhoff continues driving a wedge between worship and doctrine when he writes: "Our primary identity is as a community of practice."  In other words, "we are bound together by our liturgy rather than doctrinal emphasis."  And so doing (practices of piety, common prayer, liturgy) takes virtually exclusionary precedence over believing (right doctrine, creeds).

Part of what we do, of course, is gather Sunday after Sunday for the Eucharist.  So Westerhoff's claim is that common prayer and the common cup rather than common belief provide the basis of Anglican identity.  It's almost as though sacraments and liturgy are empty vessels which each of us can fill with whatever meaning we like because they lack the integrity of a doctrinal content that could challenge our subjective preferences.  The important thing is to gather for common prayer.  You can believe anything you like, even if it contradicts what the liturgy affirms.  The important thing is to gather as a community for worship.  

In his blog posting Fr. Andrew notes that "Orthodoxy means true glory," and he goes on to write: "Doctrine ('teaching') includes not just dogma, but every teaching and true tradition pertaining to union with the Holy Trinity—worship, asceticism, hierarchy, canonical tradition, and so forth."  From what I know of Anglicanism, the idea that doctrine or teaching includes not just dogma but also worship makes perfect sense. And if prayer really does shape believing, that can only be because prayer entails substantive doctrinal content. Right worship and right belief are not adversaries, but rather flip sides of the same coin. Westerhoff is wrong: orthodoxy is both right worship and right belief!

In light of the downplaying or rejection of right belief by some Episcopalians, I'm again reminded of Leander S. Harding and Christopher Wells' 2010 call for the Episcopal Church to proactively focus on studying, preaching, and teaching basic doctrine:

The Episcopal Church needs a movement among a critical mass of leaders, especially priests and bishops of the church, to place the teaching and preaching of basic Christian doctrines about the person and work of Christ at the center of their ministry. ... Such a movement would per force refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central, and help to frame a way forward in Christ with respect to our continued disagreements. The center of the Church is not the midpoint between extremes but the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of God. 

Most of the published responses to this call to return to basic doctrine were less than enthusiastic.  Ian Douglas and Jo Bailey Wells, for example, contend that since "the Episcopal Church is not a church that readily thinks in terms of 'doctrine'" we should focus instead on narrative, liturgy, and mission (as though such things don't presuppose, enact, and entail doctrine).  And Bishop Shannon Johnston and Ian Markham caution against a return to basic doctrine "lead[ing] to the persecution or vilification of those who are seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity." But what if those "seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity" do so in ways that carry us off the Christian reservation?  Is it persecuting or vilifying them to uphold the normative boundaries of the historic Christian faith?  Is it persecution and vilification to say "no" to imaginative revisioning of doctrine that changes its core meaning?

Missing here is any sense that right doctrine has anything to do with (in the words of Fr. Andrew) "eternal life and death."  If we follow folks like Westerhoff, there's a disconnect between how we think and act on the one hand and the language of our Prayer Book liturgies on the other hand.  The dissonance this creates comes out clearly when, following the calendar of the Church year, we remember persons who suffered as confessors and martyrs for the basics of the Christian faith. For them, the truth of right doctrine was about "eternal life and death." It mattered so much that they were willing to suffer and die for it. If only they had known that orthodoxy is not about right belief, it might have saved them a lot of trouble!


Fr. Jonathan said...

You point out rightly that if we are sharing in the same liturgy and practice of faith, we should have a common mind, or else we are contradicting what we're doing in what we're believing. But the big problem with this claim that orthodoxy is simply about our practice of faith and not about our teaching is that lack of common faith inevitably leads to lack of common practice. Hence, in the last forty years, we have grown distant from the prayer book tradition, first through the affirmation of a prayer book largely divorced from the prayer book tradition that came before it, and then through the abandoning of common prayer altogether in favor of liturgical "shape." If orthodoxy is determined by common liturgical practice, than we are far from orthodox in TEC today even by that rather strained definition.

C. Wingate said...

I'm preparing a longer response to this, but I would point out first of all that the present practice of changing the text of the liturgy according to one's personal tastes and doctrines, and using readings outside those prescribed, and proposing a long list of liturgical changes and additions pretty much puts the lie to "right worship". It appears in practice to be ruled, for the liturgical revisionists, by a set of socio-political doctrines which override the supposed commitment to common and "right" worship.

BC said...

"It's almost as though sacraments and liturgy are empty vessels which each of us can fill with whatever we like because they lack the integrity of a doctrinal content that could challenge our subjective preferences."

Bryan, many thanks indeed for this. It, of course, the worship-doctrine dichotomy that is empty. How exactly is it possible to pray the Eucharistic Prayer and to believe there is no doctrinal content ...?

This also emphasises a theme you consistently return to, Bryan - the presence of the catholic creeds in the Liturgy. These creeds act an hermeneutical key both for interpreting Scripture and the Liturgy.

BC said...

P.S. It's also a very appropriate theme for the Feast of Corpus Christi - a day which exemplifies that worship and doctrine cannot be separated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link Bryan.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! Thank you for taking the time to summarize and draw Fr. Damick's comments into the Episcopal Church.

I think it's very interesting how the Pietism that Damick rightly derides can show up, in a sort of inverted way, in those who want to divorce doctrine from practice. As you point out, this position betrays it's own commitment to doctrine (the doctrine of neutrally); one that is growing less and less philosophically tenable these days.


The Underground Pewster said...

Agreed: "Westerhoff is wrong: orthodoxy is both right worship and right belief!"

You can't have one without the other. And aren't both what we should be striving for?

Robert F said...

And anyway, don't you need to have a set of right beliefs about what right worship is before you can practice it? Even if those beliefs are not articulated?