Orthodox or extremist?

chesterton orthodoxy lgNew York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels devoted his Saturday column to media use of the word “orthodox” as a religious descriptor. The article, titled “The Audacity of Claiming the Last Word on This Word,” is a thoughtful and interesting media critique against the media being the arbiter of what makes an orthodox believer.

It’s easy when it comes to uppercase Orthodoxy. No one disputes the use of the word for Orthodox Jews or Eastern Orthodox Christians. But what about lowercase orthodoxy?:

In many religious groups, the word, from the Greek for “correct doctrine” or “right belief,” designates not one side in theological controversies but precisely what is at issue: What constitutes correct or true teaching within that particular tradition?

In the rough-and-tumble of these controversies, it is not unusual for some believers to put themselves forward as orthodox Catholics or orthodox Presbyterians, just as it is not unusual for some partisans in political battles to put themselves forward as true or patriotic Americans.

Such audacity can be entirely sincere, although it can also be highly manipulative. Not every difference over public policy is a matter of patriotism, and not every difference over liturgical practice or pastoral priorities is a matter of orthodoxy. Raising the stakes rhetorically does not necessarily help resolve these questions practically.

But whether the matter under debate is central or peripheral, making a claim to the label obviously does not settle the question of what is true doctrine, or true patriotism. And the news media should be as careful not to echo the partisan language of adversaries in the religious case as in the political arena.

It’s an excellent point and reminds me of Bill Keller’s memo to staff about playing fair when describing religious views.

But it’s possible to go overboard with this. At least in my church body, lowercase orthodoxy is a term that isn’t really disagreed upon. Confessional Lutherans use the word favorably to describe themselves while more evangelical Lutherans use it as a negative term to convey what they consider too much adherence to doctrine.

The term shouldn’t be used to describe who is morally or theologically superior, of course. But can it be used to distinguish between those who adhere to a given church body’s creeds or confessional statements vis-a-vis those who wish to reform or modernize church teachings? Sure it can. It’s good to take it on a case-by-case basis, but there is no need to throw the term out just because it must be handled with care.

Steinfels says that reporters can avoid controversy by allowing believers to describe themselves, which is true. He also has this caution:

When it comes to nomenclature, writing about religion is of course a minefield. Terms like “conservative” and “liberal,” “traditionalist” and “progressive” are almost unavoidable shorthand, though they suffer from their origins in political categories and almost inevitably oversimplify and dichotomize religious realities that are multifaceted.

Amy Sullivan’s recent advocacy piece for Time had some interesting advice for Catholic Democrats. Namely, know your catechism. But she describes Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s:

. . . extreme views about denying communion to politicians . . .

So, Catholics who agree with the Vatican are extreme. Interesting.

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  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    As a Lutheran pastor, I disagree strongly with the characterization of “confessional Lutherans” versus “evangelical Lutherans.” For us, to be one is to be the other, since we believe that our confessions of faith are a true witness to the Gospel.

    There are plenty of internal differences among Lutherans: high church vs. low church, socially progressive vs. socially conservative, “evangelical catholic” vs. Pietist, etc. There are even different understandings of what the Confessions and the Gospel are. But the two words you singled out are words that, in my experience, virtually all Lutherans (at least among the theologically-educated) would use to describe themselves. Which simply points to the sort of terminological difficulty Steinfels was writing about.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Rev. Church,

    Interesting perspective. Thanks.

  • FW Ken

    Compared to the American Catholic bishops, Abp. Chaput may fairly be called “extreme”; he may also be called “correct”, “faithful”, and “prudent”. All of which says as much about the American Catholic bishops as it does about the archbishop of Denver.

    It’s worth remembering that for Catholics (formally) and, I think, for most of us, informally, truth is textured. Creedal truths hold a level of authority which is greater than theological speculations and opinions. For example, Christians all believe that Christ returns at some point to bring about the reign of God. Precisely what that looks like is a matter of legitimate speculation. Over time, the Church has come to understand the Incarnation as a fundamental Christian Truth (capital “T”), and some aspects of the union of human and divine in the person of Jesus as foundational to Christian theology. These are fair game for the use of “orthodox”; there are other aspects of Christology about which we can disagree without impugning each other’s orthodoxy, since they are, at this time at least, simply religious opinions.

  • Jerry

    Steinfels says that reporters can avoid controversy by allowing believers to describe themselves, which is true.

    It’s also worth emphasizing the limitations of that principle. Any group can claim anything they want, true or not. So while it is helpful to report what a group says about itself, that has to be balanced by reflecting the view from others. A few months ago there was a lot of attention to whether or not Mormons followed Christian orthodoxy, for example.

  • Darel

    I doubt whether a liberal-secular media (or, if you prefer, the mainstream media in a liberal-secular political society) can entertain the concept of “orthodoxy”. After all, let us remember John Locke’s blanket statement on the topic in A Letter Concerning Toleration which all liberals follow: “every church is orthodox to itself”. Which of course it built upon Locke’s prior statement “everyone is orthodox to himself”.

    Liberalism is not able to truly grapple with claims to orthodox belief because it does not believe “orthodox belief” exists — only claims of orthodox belief exist which have no basis for adjudication apart from the exercise of raw power.

    Thus from a liberal perspective, agreement with the Vatican does indeed count as “extreme” because it is at root a claim to orthodoxy which liberalism rejects on principle. Those who disagree with the Vatican are not extreme because they advocate doctrinal pluralism (at the most extreme end, doctrinal individualism) which triggers the signature liberal value of toleration.

    In liberalism, orthodoxy exists only in the arena of physics, not metaphysics. Anyone who even claims orthodoxy in the arena of metaphysics (regardless of content) is by definition “intolerant”, “extreme” and most likely dangerous to boot.

  • Julia Duin

    I described Archbishop Chaput as a “policy wonk” in a recent piece and got all sorts of emails from folks who thought I was being disrespectful. Apparently the archbishop had no problem with it, according to a staff member, and besides, that term is a compliment inside the Beltway.
    As for Amy Sullivan’s essay, I understand she is the nation editor for TIME, where she directs political coverage and the magazine’s polling operation. Although I found her essay on the mark in several ways, it was very, very opinionated and something a lot of us who do hard news coverage could never get away with. I guess Time makes no pretensions to covering both sides any more? And is there another staff editor there who is allowed to write similar copy, albeit from the conservative perspective?

  • Dan

    It is not at all true that reporters can avoid controversy by allowing believers to describe themselves. That approach allows the press to be easily manipulated. An example are those certain Catholics in public life who advocate legalized abortion and/or gay marriage and wish to convey the impression that notwithstanding what the Church always has taught it is acceptable within the Church for a Catholic to share their views. Callng such persons “devout Catholics” or “faithful Catholics” at their request helps them to foster this impression.

  • Julia

    That spirit [of Biden], along with his Scranton roots, could attract him more sympathy from fellow Catholics when criticized by church leaders. “His blue-collar background may inoculate him in ways that it couldn’t for John Kerry,” says Bill Roth, president of the Catholic Democrats PAC

    Here we go again – Catholics are not predominantly blue collar any more. And, why would threatening to shove rosaries down detractors’ throats appeal to blue collar Catholics? The stereotypical Catholic blue collar person is less likely, than a dissident like Biden or Kerry, to be swayed by positions antithetical to Rome. It’s the fancy-pants highly-educated Catholics who are more likely to be theologians to themselves. [Jesuit-educated myself, I know whereof I speak].

    I doubt whether a liberal-secular media (or, if you prefer, the mainstream media in a liberal-secular political society) can entertain the concept of “orthodoxy”. After all, let us remember John Locke’s blanket statement on the topic in A Letter Concerning Toleration which all liberals follow: “every church is orthodox to itself”.

    Exactly. In the Biden case, we are talking about orthodox teaching as determined WITHIN Catholicism; not vis a vis other Christian groups.

    Liberalism is not able to truly grapple with claims to orthodox belief because it does not believe “orthodox belief” exists — only claims of orthodox belief exist which have no basis for adjudication apart from the exercise of raw power.

    This may be more relevant when the discussion is about general Christian orthodoxy. And this may be relevant when an outsider is judging the truth of a particular church’s belief system. But why would liberalism not be able to recognize that Catholicism institutionally has a coherent body of teaching which it defines as orthodox? That recognition does not require assent to the truth of what is asserted as being orthodox.

  • Dave

    Darel said:

    Liberalism is not able to truly grapple with claims to orthodox belief because it does not believe “orthodox belief” exists — only claims of orthodox belief exist which have no basis for adjudication apart from the exercise of raw power.

    This is an incorrect summary of the liberal position, which is that claims of orthodoxy can only be adjudicated within the belief system in question — not “raw power.”

    The rest of Darel’s exegesis falls apart from that point on.

  • Brian V

    I’m responding to this tardily because I still have no power in my home in Cincinnati after Sunday’s windstorm (me and 300,000 other Cincinnatians). My point is brief. I oftern read orthodoxa rendered exclusively as “right belief” or “right teaching,” which does not answer why equally acceptable terms like orthopistis or orthodidaskalia aren’t used as synonyms.

    I realize Plato contrasted episteme with doxa, thus distinguishing knowledge from opinion, but I also recall that the Septuagint renders the Hebrew kavot (glory) as doxa. Thus, I would think, orthodoxa also meant “right glory” or “right worship” to those Christians first using the term. Aidan Kavanaugh makes much the same claim in his On Liturgical Theology . To drive home the point for Westerners, Kavanaugh continually cites Prosper of Aquitaine’s “Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi” (the law of prayer/supplication determines the law of belief) rather than the ambiguous tag line “lex orandi, lex credendi.”

    So it would seem “orthodoxy” has, for Christians at least, an ambiguity passed over too often, even by so fine a reporter as Steinfels. But then, I’m neither a theologian nor a linguist, so I could be wrong.