What Is Needed to Live Out the Christian Religion in a Religiously Plural and Global Age? A Whole Lot of “Ortho” (But not the Weed Killer Kind)

What Is Needed to Live Out the Christian Religion in a Religiously Plural and Global Age? A Whole Lot of “Ortho” (But not the Weed Killer Kind) September 30, 2016

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What is needed to live out the Christian religion in a religiously plural and global age? Quite simply, we need to think globally with virtuous passions in our multi-faith world. Or to put it in “ortho” terms—not to be confused with the weed killer “Ortho” (“ortho” is a Greek prefix meaning “straight” “right,” “correct”), we need to operate according to a robust and holistic framework involving orthodoxy (right teaching), orthopraxy (right practice), and orthopathy (right passion). The Christian religion, as defined here, deals with a comprehensive way of life that bears upon dialogue with other faith traditions, not a mere comparison of doctrines, practices, and feelings.

Evangelical Christians tend to approach other religions through comparing and contrasting doctrines in the pursuit of safeguarding and promoting biblical orthodoxy. Certainly, adherence to orthodox doctrine is important and Scripture commands it (1 Timothy 4:16; Jude 3). However, adherence to orthodoxy is hardly sufficient. Equally important are orthopathy and orthopraxy. We will turn to these subjects shortly. Before doing so, we need to account for a view of Christian thought that is ecclesial but not parochial.

All too often, Christians in my Evangelical tradition are tempted to approach the subject matter of Christian theology such as the doctrine known as Christology (study of Christ) as if it is presenting happy thoughts and abstract formulas that have little bearing on life in society and the world at large. In other words, theology is private and parochial, not public and global in scope. Contrary to this assessment, it has been stated that religion deals with rebinding a broken universe. It is unfortunate that for many inside and outside the church theology is viewed as divisive rather than as an adhesive. While there has certainly been a fair share of acrimonious debates over the centuries on credal formulations, debates have at times been intended to unite the church; in fact, in the case of documents like the Barmen Declaration, they have at various junctures aimed to center the church as a word of protest against oppressive forces that would destroy the church and society, and as a word of hope for the ultimate healing of the nations. For example, Jesus Christ, the revelation of God in the flesh, not Hitler, is Führer or Lord, and only his kingdom will reign forever, not the Third Reich. Doctrines and confessions, as I frame them here, function best as transcendentals (Colin Gunton spoke of Trinitarian transcendentals in his work, The One, The Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity[1]), or as the necessary conditions for the possibility of authentic existence (to commandeer Kantian phraseology for transcendentals).

In addition to a global or all-encompassing orthodoxy over against true though parochial formulas and warm sentiments, engaging religion in our global age requires orthopathy.  While love is not merely an emotion or an affection, it is surely not less than one. Paul tells us that anything not done in love is futile. It is a vain thing to fathom all mysteries apart from love (1 Corinthians 13:2). Love alway hopes to find truth and goodness in others (1 Corinthians 13:6-7) rather than to find fault with them. On this subject, Lesslie Newbigin writes:

The Christian confession of Jesus as Lord does not involve any attempt to deny the reality of the work of God in the lives and thoughts and prayers of men and women outside the Christian church. On the contrary, it ought to involve an eager expectation of, a looking for, and a rejoicing in the evidence of that work. There is something deeply wrong when Christians imagine that loyalty to Jesus requires them to belittle the manifest presence of the light in the lives of men and women who do not acknowledge him, to seek out points of weakness, to ferret out hidden sins and deceptions as a means of commending the gospel. If we love the light and walk in the light we will also rejoice in the light wherever we find it—even the smallest gleams of it in the surrounding darkness.[2]

In view of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians and the quote from Newbigin, it would make sense for Christians concerned for religion’s global bearing to look charitably and not pessimistically, but with hopeful anticipation, for partners from various paths in cultivating virtue. Why should we who are Christians be given to pessimism and filled with shocking surprise when Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, for example, promote the sanctity and sacredness of life that finds its grounding, grid and goal in Jesus Christ? The Dalai Lama’s ethical reflections on genetics in The Universe in a Single Atom provides one key example.[3] Various non-Christian groups’ affirmations of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment is another example. Certainly, there will be disparity at points, but Christians can use all the help they can get when it comes to affirming the sanctity of life in a culture enamored with death. Jesus as the Word of life and the light of the world will not leave himself without witnesses inside and outside the Christian church.

Regarding orthopraxy, the Bible says that we should love people with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18). For Paul, our life as well as doctrine matter (See again 1 Timothy 4:16). Or as James puts it, faith without actions is dead (James 2:17). Moreover, James asserts that the kind of religion God affirms is to keep oneself unpolluted from the world and to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27). Here we must move beyond an inward-oriented propositionalism (not to be equated with all forms of propositional revelation), which is related to the point above on parochialism.

In developing this claim, it is worth drawing attention to the emphasis given to virtue in the understanding of religion historically. Religion or theology as well as natural philosophy, which today is reduced to science, were not separate disciplines, but rather two aspects of a larger enterprise: they were stages guiding us toward our telos as humans—virtue as a way of life.

At this point, one might ask what does this point related to propositionalism have to do with religion in our multi-faith world? The answer has to do with the privatization of religion in the post-religious wars setting of Europe where the emerging nation states interiorized religion for political purposes; confessions of this period were used to unite and distinguish religious traditions for territorial cohesion serving the various nations of Europe. Later, science moved in the same propositionalist direction where the aim was to arrive at objective propositions and activities, not virtue. The reduction of religion to propositions and activities was exported to the rest of the world, where like the Christian faith, other spiritual traditions were internalized and privatized as religions emphasizing doctrine and practices for the sake of European colonial ambitions. These “religions” were often placed by Christianity’s apologists in competition with Christianity rather than as distinct paths leading to virtue with the Christian faith at the apex.[4]

What is needed is a return or better an advance to global thinking with virtuous passions involving all major faith traditions, not primarily religious propositions and activities that are often presented in oppositional terms. Together these paths to virtue (with the Christian faith as the apex from a Christian standpoint) can contend against the objectifying forces that reduce human identity and our world to base commodities that are bought and sold rather than as valued ends in themselves.[5]


[1]Colin E. Gunton, The One, The Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, The 1992 Bampton Lectures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[2]Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), page 175.

[3] The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (New York: Harmony Books, 2005). See also my blog post on this work: Thank God for the Dalai Lama.

[4]See for example the following works: Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), pages 26, 31, 37, 99; Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), page 20; Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[5] For an essay bearing relevance for key points in this essay, see Sang-Ehil Han, Paul Louis Metzger and Terry C. Muck, “Christian Hospitality and Pastoral Practices from an Evangelical Perspective” in Theological Education, vol. 47/1 (2012): 11–31. For a recent volume addressing the importance of the study of religion, see Terry C. Muck, Why Study Religion? Understanding Humanity’s Pursuit of the Divine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). Lastly, I am a member of Multi-Faith Matters, a team of people engaged in a Louisville Institute grant initiative aiming to equip Evangelicals to become faithful and meaningful witnesses in our religiously plural society. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy and orthopathy are key themes that we are exploring in this grant initiative: you can find here and here two links to our grant project.


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