Musing About Right Beliefs

I guess everyone has an interest in sorting out truth from fiction and those who champion orthodoxy obviously value the notion that they are holding to truths which have secure traditions and values particularly if they have stood the test of time. The very word “orthodoxy” is derived from a Greek word meaning “Right opinion, right belief”.

At the same time, a single minded emphasis on ensuring right beliefs has a historical weakness in that concentration on right beliefs in practice has led to some most unfortunate treatment of those who do not share those same beliefs. In the absence of objective ways of testing the versions of faith e.g. testing the assertions about the nature of the scriptures, the value of various Biblical injunctions and commandments and the varying beliefs about the future, there is something disquieting about using violence to support a particular theology in the name of one who taught forgiveness of sins and love of neighbours.

Drawing up the creeds e.g. the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed etc no doubt gave a sense of group identity for those who authored or accepted those set of belief statements, but we should remember that it also sets up some intractable disputes with those who choose other creedal alternatives.

The insistence that the Jews were solely responsible for the crucifixion morphed into centuries of anti Semitic persecution. The gulf between the Eastern and Western branches of the Christian Church as a consequence of different creedal emphasis and different power structures was a key factor in the Western Crusader attack on the Eastern Christian city of Constantinople, the reciprocal wars between Protestants and Catholics and persecution of those setting up new denominations all in the name of true belief showed just how far some were prepared to go in the extermination of any one of the attempts to find alternate expressions of orthodox faith.

Richard Holloway suggests a positive way through such a dilemma might be to shift the emphasis from “orthodoxy” to “orthopraxis” i.e. right beliefs to right practice. In terms of the gospel this means switching from observer to participant status, in other words from beliefs about the theological status of Jesus and evaluation of the records about his life to attempting to live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching. I can at least see what Holloway is on about. Believing what is wrong with others’ acceptance of my preferred version of orthodoxy, and why those other people’s situations have arisen is very close to the judgmental attitude condemned by Jesus, whereas being led by orthopraxis might mean offering friendship and compassion to as many as possible of neighbours we encounter and working to change the lot of at least some of those whose circumstances are abject or unjust.

Living in accordance with Jesus’ teaching is certainly not a simple following of formulae. When I look at what he appeared to stand for I note that all his teaching was directed towards an audience of his time and place and while some of his reminders suggest universal truths, the issues for 21st century Westerners are very different to that his predominantly Jewish audience struggling to make sense of their faith in occupied territory. We should of course note that Jesus was concerned with injustice and that he advocated non violent resistance to such situations. We note that on a number of occasions he expressed anger at hypocrisy and this included hypocrisy on the part of those who claimed to offer leadership in the Church of his day.

Where we must be more cautious is in trying to use his teaching in a modern world in which society faces far more variability of religion, new social situations in which old patterns of behaviour and custom have become steadily more irrelevant while a host of new dangers to the environment, international relationships and to social stability have emerged.

Here is a challenge to the reader. Using Jesus-type attitudes what priorities would you set (and why) for personal and group behaviour on issues like: uneven distribution of resources, international justice, arms control, interfaith cooperation, human rights, aid for the underprivileged, emerging threats such as terrorism and attitudes to new social phenomena like transplants, euthanasia, same sex marriage, abortion, weapons of mass destruction, and gun control?

What religious reform appears necessary for faith to be seen as relevant in the modern world? Your thoughts please.

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