The Other Side of Orthodoxy: Heeding Two Dangers


There are more ways than one in which our belief system can be unbalanced so as to do harm to the God and to the church.

What makes for a healthy, balanced, orthodox faith? The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines orthodoxy as “right belief as contrasted to heresy.” That’s accurate enough, but we tend to think of this in a very one-sided way.

For most people, heresy is conceived of a going too far, as crossing a dogmatic boundary, as stretching Christian truth further than it may be stretched. Orthodoxy, then, means staying within safe perimeters.

This is true in so far as it goes, but it is a one-sided and reductionist understanding of orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy has a double function: It tells you how far you may go, but it also tells you how far you must go. And it’s the latter part that is often neglected.

Heresies are dangerous, but the danger is two-sided: Faith beliefs that do not respect proper dogmatic boundaries invariably lead to bad religion and to bad moral practice.

Real harm occurs.

Dogmatic boundaries are important. But equally important, we don’t do God, faith, religion, and the church a favor when our beliefs are narrow, bigoted, legalistic, or intolerant. Atheism is invariably a parasite that feeds off bad theism.

Anti-religion is often simply a reaction to bad religion and thus narrowness and intolerance are perhaps more of an enemy to religion than is any transgressed dogmatic boundary. God, religion, and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy.

Right truth, proper faith, and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open – and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated. Purity of dogma alone doesn’t make us disciples of Jesus.


‘The real demands of discipleship’

Suffice it to say that Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness, and intolerance is reading selectively. Granted, Jesus does warn too about staying within the bounds of proper belief (monotheism and all that this implies) and proper morals (the commandments, love of our enemies, forgiveness), but he stresses too that we can miss the real demands of discipleship by not going far enough in letting ourselves be stretched by his teachings.

True orthodoxy asks us to hold a great tension, between real boundaries beyond which you may not go and real borders and frontiers to which you must go. You may not go too far, but you must also go far enough.

And this can be a lonely road. If you carry this tension faithfully, without giving in to either side, you will no doubt find yourself with few allies on either side – that is, too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals.

To risk just one example: You see this kind of pained, but more fully Catholic orthodoxy in a person like Raymond Brown, the renowned Biblical scholar, a loyal Roman Catholic thinker who found himself attacked, for opposite reasons, from both sides of the ideological spectrum. He upset liberals because he stopped before they thought that he should and he upset conservatives because he suggested that proper truth and dogma often stretch us beyond some former comfort zones.

And this tension is an innate, healthy disquiet, something we are meant to live daily in our lives rather than something we can resolve once and for all.


‘A healthy soul’

Indeed, the deep root of this tension lies right within the human soul itself: The human soul, as St. Thomas Aquinas classically put it, has two principles and two functions: The soul is the principle of life, energy, and fire inside of us, even as it is equally the principle of integration, unity, and glue. The soul keeps us energized and on fire, even as it keeps us from dissipating and falling apart.

A healthy soul, therefore, keeps us within healthy boundaries, to prevent us from disintegrating, even as it keeps us on fire, lest we petrify and become too hardened to fully enter life. In that sense, the soul itself is a healthy principle of orthodoxy inside us. It keeps us within real limits even as it pushes us towards new frontiers.

We live always in the face of two opposing dangers: disintegration and petrification. To stay healthy we need to know our limits and we also need to know how far we have to stretch ourselves. The conservative instinct warns us about the former. The liberal instinct warns us about the latter. Both instincts are healthy because both dangers are real.

The German poet Goethe once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in Christian orthodoxy. There is danger in bad dogma but there is equal danger in not radiating, with sufficient compassion and understanding, God’s universal will for the salvation of all peoples.


1 Comment »

  1. Eric-97921 May 30, 2011 Reply

    Hi Father–

    A few thoughts on your blog posting–to put my own interpretation on your blog posting, the “orthodoxy” you warn against is one that becomes rigid, ossified, closed-off, and obsessed with external markers. With what you are getting at, it seems to me that this warning centers more upon a psychological strain or danger of doctrine/dogmatic belief than any particular set of beliefs per se. From time to time, I see this among some of my frineds and acquaintances. But let me address one or two things you say and then end with some practical proposals:

    “Anti-religion is often simply a reaction to bad religion and thus narrowness and intolerance are perhaps more of an enemy to religion than is any transgressed dogmatic boundary.”

    A true enough warning. In my experience, though, within the contemporary Catholic Church in America, the reaction, at least from my perspective, is the other way around. We sometimes have the sort of orthodoxy you warn against because Catholics have seen the rug pulled out from under them in terms of teaching from the pulpit and the very valuable tangibles that represent their faith for the past 50 years (and no, this is not a reference to Vatican II). I myself have experienced this. Most people in this world are not intellectuals, so when they abuses, they will bite back. Ratzinger made this point in “Salt of the Earth.”

    “God, religion, and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy.”

    I don’t know about that. A sense of unity among core belief is important for any Church. We have not had that in the western world for a long time. This disunity has extended not only to so-called lower tier beliefs (noninfallible) or sexual mores, but also to matters of defined dogma. No need to regurgitate it here.

    In my experience, the best cure for the narrowness you seem to speak of is twofold: a vibrant Catholic community where unity on the essentials of faith is present. Second, exposure to, friendship with, and interaction with individuals with a variety of backgrounds. It is no coincidence that Catholic friends of mine who tend to work in more professional or secular fields tend to be able to maintain the balance we’re talking about here.


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