Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2021

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On the fourth Sunday in Lent, Christians who follow the revised common lectionary were treated to the most well-known of Christian scriptures — John 3:16.

It occurs during a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus, a prominent religious leader of his time. And in case you are unfamiliar with the verse Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It dawned on me some years ago how very different the Christian faith is from other religions in the world. For the other major religions (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) much of what they entail is centered around right practices. In short, doing certain things or observing certain rituals have direct bearing on one’s ultimate outcome in the end. Nirvana, heaven, and other beliefs in the afterlife, are contingent on how well or how poorly one observed the practices or rituals of those particular faiths. The fancy word for such observances is orthopraxy — right practices.

Christianity on the other hand, differs significantly. Christianity is based on belief (as seen in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus quoted above) and not right practices—the fancy word for that is orthodoxy — right belief. As one of my favorite Christian writers, Fredrick Buechner puts it, “A crucial eccentricity of Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” Don’t get me wrong, that is not to say that acts of charity and of good works are unimportant—far from it. They are crucial. What differentiates Christianity from other faiths is that we don’t do those good things in hopes of gaining or attaining some celestial reward at the end, but rather, we do them out of a posture of gratitude for already having received it. It isn’t a quid pro quo system. The motivation to give of oneself in the service of others is motivated out of the love we have received and known in God’s Son Jesus Christ, and the gratitude for God’s grace shown in him especially on the cross of Good Friday. Observing set laws, or practices in order to earn entrance to the afterlife was never within the human capacity and therefore out of love for humanity, God did for us what we could not do. As C.S. Lewis once quipped, “God became human, in order that, humanity might become divine.”

As we finish our Lenten observances and make our way to Holy Week and the Easter feast, do our Lenten practice serve to strengthen our beliefs or are have they turned into more religious rituals tainted with some divine quid pro quo? For Christians it’s not so much what we do, as who we believe in. For Christians, belief in Jesus Christ makes all the difference not only in this life, but for the life in the world to come.