Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Myth of Orthodoxy

The title of the entry is intentionally bombastic, but not merely so. Thoughts on orthodoxy and extremism have been swirling around in my head lately. I was introduced to the term “orthodoxy” maybe about five years ago. I hadn’t ever really heard it before, as I believe many people in our culture have never heard it either.

Literally transliterated from the Greek it means “right teaching”. It is generally used as a self-identifier by conservative thinkers appropriating some degree of credulity by associating with an authority in the matter of teaching. In Western circles, this appropriation is usually limited to Catholics, although you will sometimes hear of evangelicals or Anglicans self-identifying as “orthodox”.

I enthusiastically embraced the idea of orthodoxy (in the Catholic sense) about five years ago when I was first introduced to the idea. I still do. It followed logically for me from several sources: the unbroken line of theological and moral consistency in 2,000 years of Catholic thought, the genius of the contributors to the body of Tradition within the Church, and also from a direct experience of the chaos of the philosophical jungle that exists virtually everywhere else but inside the Catholic Church.

So orthodoxy would seem to not be so much a myth at all. That’s where the bombast comes in.

I heard the phrase “dynamically orthodox” used about three years ago. I liked it. It implies a degree of suppleness and, well, dynamism, within the concept of orthodoxy. To be dynamically orthodox is a contrast with those who are “statically orthodox”. This stasis implies an association with the past as “rightness”. If it was true before, so it must still be true.

This is obviously a subtle issue, because things that were true still are. Continuity is characteristic of truth.

This is where the trouble comes in. It is impossible to separate truth seeking from the subjective experience of reality. We will always, in some sense, be challenged by the Truth on a personal level. This challenge introduces fear, which in turn introduces the urge to control. This is where the Truth can be abused.

There will always be a dissonance within those who profess the Truth. It comes from the awareness that we don't have it all yet, and also from the awareness that others are free to come to the Truth or not, as they so choose. It can be heartbreaking to feel like you have failed the Truth by misrepresenting it, or allowing it to be misrepresented. Or even because your grasp is beyond your reach. Sometimes we may be left feeling like idiots, or pretend to be wise, because of some simple question to which we don't know the answer.

The myth of orthodoxy is the mistaken notion that "knowing" is enough. Faithfulness to the Truth is an essential element of character. But it is only one part. To be truly faithful, we need to be steadfast in all the vicissitudes of life, including those moments when we are without an answer. We must resist the temptation to establish crude marionettes to substitute for a truth we do not yet understand.

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