Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

To many people who were born and raised in the United States religions are viewed as being focused around something that you believe. You believe the correct beliefs, and that is what defines you as a member of that particular religious path. That religions have a set of orthodox beliefs or dogma that are shared by all members of that path.

The marks of this are particularly clear in the history of the Catholic church. For example, in the Code of Justinian it states that:

Let those who do not accept these doctrines cease to apply the name of true religion to their fraudulent belief; and let them be branded with their open crimes, and, having been removed from the threshhold of all churches, be utterly excluded from them, as We forbid all heretics to hold unlawful assemblies within cities. If, however, any seditious outbreak should be attempted, We order them to be driven outside the walls of the City, with relentless violence, and We direct that all Catholic churches, throughout the entire world, shall be placed under the control of the orthodox bishops who have embraced the Nicene Creed.

This does not have to do with the behavior of these individuals, but specifically pertains to that they have the correct belief and directs that all Catholic churches be placed under the control of someone who believes in a very particular doctrine on the beliefs of the Church.

Many Neopagan and Mesopagan groups also have their own forms of orthodoxy. Some of them will state it outright: if you do not believe a particular way, you cannot be one of us. Others have been gradually–or not so gradually–shifting that direction. It is a notable feature of many US Ásatrú organizations (though not necessarily European or Icelandic groups such as the Ásatrúarfélagið) that they have been embracing a fair bit of orthodoxy with respect to their lore.

When Raven Kaldera wrote On Being A Neo-Pagan Fundamentalist he was taking a fairly Orthodoxic point of view, for example:

1. The first, and most important tenet, is that a Neo-Pagan fundamentalist actually believes in the existence of every single deity that s/he worships. Deities are not merely theoretical archetypes, nor vague energy forms that can be ordered about by the human mind, nor merely parts of our own deep selves. […]

2. A Pagan fundamentalist is a strict polytheist. Not only do deities all exist, but they are not all merely faces of the same big deity, or even the same sort of deities. […] (As a corollary to #2, there is also that the Otherworlds are real as well, although what we know of them may be riddled with misinformation and assumptions.)

Both of these statements lean toward orthodoxy. The idea that the belief itself is what is definitional about being on a particular path. This allows for differentiation of path based on the simple statement what do you believe.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy for religions or practitioners. It has its place, and it is likely that most–if not all–religions incorporate at least a little of it in their tenets or their assumptions. I also have no complaint with Raven Kaldera’s statement of belief: It does not perfectly describe me, but it is an accurate reflection of a valid approach to the gods.

It should be noted, however, that any form of strong orthodoxy is not a universal attribute among religions, and that there are many religions that–at their core–could have most if not all of the orthodoxic elements stripped and still remain in many ways functionally the same.

Enter Orthopraxy

There are concepts of Orthopraxy (right practice) where the focus is on how you life your live and its partial subset of ritualism, where the focus is on actions done during ritual (usually group ritual). This is often not done to the exclusion of some orthodoxy, but for religions that are predominantly orthopraxic what you believe is not nearly as important as what you are doing.

Many branches of Buddhism, for example, have a much higher focus on the continued practice than on any specific beliefs that the individual might hold. Many people in Japan do not believe in Kami as spirits, but they still attend the seasonal festivals, their names get recorded in Shinto shrines, and many of them keep personal altars in their houses as a matter of social ritual. Judaism is well known for having strong orthopraxic elements relating to the culture that are independent of what is believed or not believed by the individual.

As an example in the Neopagan world, Wicca tends to be highly orthopraxic: What defines a Wiccan is the practice and the ritual, not the beliefs of the individual members. If you ask 10 Wiccans (especially from different traditions) What is your belief regarding the nature of Divinity it is likely that you will get at least 11 different answers, most of them involving some form of Goddess principle, but with the–very important specifics–varying wildly. This is not because Wicca is poorly defined on the whole (though one could argue that Neo-Wicca can lean that way), but because Wicca is largely defined by the praxis as opposed to the doctrine. Different traditions tend to be reflective of differences in practice, and if you ask those same 11 people about the wheel of the year for when rituals are held, many of their answers are going to be identical or only slight different based on their specific tradition.

We see this in a few Neopagan groups. The running statement in Kemetic Orthodoxy is that it is really is Kemetic Orthopraxy, but it was considered that not many people would know what orthopraxy meant.

Historically speaking, many older pagan religions appear to have been orthopraxic in nature. The specific gods followed are not nearly as important as the practice, though some modern reconstructions lean strongly orthodox, getting heavily involved in the question of proper belief.

My Approach

My approach to Northern Tradition Paganism is Orthopraxic in nature. To me, it doesn’t matter if you view the gods as Golden Dawn-style Godforms, aspects of our higher selves, manifestations of a greater Divine Essence, strictly separate entities that came about exactly as described in the lore, or anything else. What matters in my interpretation is that you treat them as independent entities and treat them with respect that goes with such an entity. If you practice in such a manner, I do not personally care how your internally model them.

The same is true of matters of the soul in the afterlife, the existence (in any form) of the planes, and what exactly you think is going on when journeying.

To me, all models are wrong, but some are useful. It is possible that your model is closer than mine. It may be that mine is closer to accurate. In the end, neither of us is going to be able to prove it to the other and the specifics of those beliefs do not especially matter. To me if we both are practicing the same way or in very similar ways, it doesn’t matter how we choose to model it. To me, while I recognize that how each person models the gods will impact how they treat those gods, I define what is in or out by the way the practice manifests, rather than making stipulations about how the entities in question are modeled.

Do I think everyone should be this way? Not really. Orthodoxy has its use, and such strong orthopraxic tendencies does have some strong disadvantages, which I may get into later, along with some areas that I tend to focus on beliefs as well. It is simply reflective of my personal path and approach in general and, as Piper likes to say, Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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