Not so long ago I met a young energetic and inquisitive university student, when he was visiting mutual friends. He knew I was a retired professor and asked what my field was. I told him theology. He stared at me, then chuckled, and said that he no longer believed in Santa Claus and the old Deity up in the sky. I laughed and said “I don’t either.” Then, surprisingly, we got into a very serious discussion about
belief, Jesus, and God. That discussion, I hope, will continue.

Over the past two thousand years, Christianity has gone through a lot of
theological twists and turns. Most involve a shifting focus on either “orthopraxy” or “orthodoxy.” In a life-centered Christian theology, the primary focus is orthopraxy which means “correct conduct.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, means and emphasizes “correct belief.”

Orthopraxy was certainly the focus in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth: being courageous, compassionate, and inspiring in the midst of life’s ups and downs. And Jesus certainly experienced life’s ups and downs. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In orthopraxy the Christian is like the Good Samaritan and embodies and lives out the Sermon on the Mount by
caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God’s love.

Certainly in Roman Catholic history the focus on unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy created an atmosphere of thought control and, quite often, fear for those who dared to question. Growing up as a pious Catholic teenager, I remember regularly saying the Act of Faith prayer, in which I so fervently prayed: “…I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because you have revealed them, who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this faith I intend to live and die.” My high school classmates called me “Pious Dick.”

Orthodoxy is not life-centered but doctrine-centered. It is about correct teaching. When orthodoxy is stressed, people are taught the official doctrine and must then unquestioningly accept that doctrine.
From 1910 to 1967, by way of example, all Roman Catholic “clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophicaltheological seminaries” had to take the Oath Against Modernism. Theological modernism interpreted Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasized the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. The Oath marked a high point in Pope Pius X’s campaign against “modernism” which he denounced as heretical. Although Pius X
died in 1914, his very far right influence on Catholic thought control lasted a long time.

In the fullness of time, Pious Dick grew up and became an open-minded professor of historical theology in a “philosophical-theological seminary.” Fortunately he never had to take the Oath Against Modernism. He did occasionally have to confront a couple bishops who strongly resonated with Pius X’s narrow vision and accused him of heretical teachings. One even tried, without success, to get him
fired from the Catholic University of Leuven.

The focus on a strongly enforced orthodoxy in Christianity began actually in 310 CE when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in his Roman Empire. Although he was not baptized until close to death in 337, Constantine was very pragmatic about Christianity and wanted to use it for his own political agenda.

Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The bishops had to attend. Most significantly, the Council of Nicaea issued the very first uniform statement of Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. Anyone who refused to obediently accept the Nicene Creed was excommunicated and exiled…or worse. I have always found it noteworthy that the Nicene Creed says nothing about actual
Christian living, i.e. orthopraxy. After Nicaea “faith” very quickly became a matter of intellectual assent.

Actually, “faith” had its original meaning in the Greek word pistis, which means trust, commitment, and personal engagement. Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and a commitment to God. Faith in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus. It was a commitment to do the Gospel, to be a follower of Christ. Originally therefore, “faith” meant active living — orthopraxy. Between 383 and 404 CE, however, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the Greek word pistis was translated as the Latin word fides (belief): a matter of intellectual assent.

By the late fourth century and early fifth century the church was becoming an authoritarian institution demanding obedience: faithful assent. The church’s understanding of God, thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin, became that of a heavenly judge seated on HIS throne. Augustine taught that humans have a sinful tainted nature passed on through sexual intercourse. About
five hundred years after Augustine, another bishop, Anselm of Canterbury, made the perspective on God even much worse with his Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. Bishop Anselm said that God was so greatly offended by human sinfulness that God demanded the crucifixion and death of his own son Jesus to atone for humankind’s sin. A strange view of God. A very severe orthodoxy. Anstrange understanding of the historical Jesus.

A more healthy theological perspective — the Jesus perspective — has no sinister view of God but sees God as the Divine Presence. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” we read in the First Epistle of John (1 Jn 4:15). Jesus revealed the Divine Presence within the human. His dream was for people to see the Divine Presence within them. So very different from Bishop Anselm of Canterbury’s vision of an offended and vengeful God up in heaven who chose to disconnect from sinful Humanity.

In his book It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith, the Australian theologian Michael Morwood stresses: “It is time to break from the worldview of two thousand years ago with its notions of a Supreme overlord God who lived in the heavens and who disconnected access to “Himself” because of some supposed sin by the first human.”

Yes. It is time to make a significant shift in our perspective on “God.” We need to move to an appreciation of the Divine Presence always here, always and everywhere active in an expanding universe, and in the evolution of life on this planet. This changed perspective resonates with contemporary science which finds itself speaking in terms of mystery and wonder, as it tries to explain the how and why of reality. And the problem of evil. Our contemporary understanding of Humanity realizes that Humanity is capable of destroying itself and everything around it.

Indeed, Humanity can give its best expression to the Divine Presence
only when it frees itself from destructive activity and behavior that destroys people and damages the natural world.

Humans can only truly experience and give expression to the Divine Presence within them when they follow the universal life-giving patterns of co-operation and working together. We, not a God in heaven, have to overcome evil. And the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to stand by and do nothing.


11 thoughts on “Theological Twists and Turns

  1. All aspects of the human condition evolve, change, grow with the body of knowledge we gain over time. That certainly includes religion, spirituality – however each soul expresses their longing for the sometimes inexpressible “Divine Presence.” Thank you for all the countless essays guiding, teaching, counseling us on this journey.

  2. Dear Pious, this is great. Personal and informative. Thanks. In theology, when I asked questions, eg about Teilhard de Chardin et al, I was told that I was being disloyal and if I kept asking questions I would not be ordained. So I stopped asking questions. Guess I’m kinda making up for that these days.

  3. Dear Jack,
    I have a file with every one of your messages so I can review your thoughts. However, today’s writing has been for me the most meaningful and significant and the one I will print to read time and again. For many years I have struggled with the sometimes dichotomy between the “words” of our faith and the “practice” of our faith. You have now given me definition of practical theology: orthopraxy. Sometimes I gnash my teeth and growl when moments of “belief” clash with “practice,” as happened recently when my nephew was presented with a document to sign to enable his marriage to be annulled. The questions and mental contortions required to simply allow both parties to amicably separate to live healthier lives seemed confusing and insensitive. This small example illustrated the corners into which theologians sometimes paint themselves to make sense of “God’s thinking.” We many times need theology for interpretation of complex issues but living in God’s presence in our personal lives is much more basic and fundamental. Thank you for clarifying and naming. I feel like you have opened the blinds and let the sunshine in!
    Peace, dear friend,

  4. Jack – as I read this contribution I could not help but think about that thick new Catechism of the Catholic Church. It attempts to define and describe so much of what is not able to be either defined or described. From a more contemporary perspective, it might be wise and helpful if those in power attempting to do the defining stay away from topics on which nothing more than speculation is available at this time in an evolving history. I think in particular to a wiser church pre-definition of the Immaculate Conception when the beginning of human life was defined as ensoulment: distinct, but nebulous and thus not leading into unprovable situations and a loss of focus on praxis. We certainly have enough solid theology to teach human dignity vs. white supremacy/racism, healthy psycho-sexual development vs. a litany of sin, and on it goes. Thanks for what you continue to contribute in these retirement years, once a theologian, always a theologian!

  5. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis speaks so much about showing faith through pastoral doing, rather than convoluted theological expostulations like his 2 previous predecessors!!

Leave a Reply