Commentary: When Praise and Participation Embrace

MomanyWhile teaching the Christian Social Ethics class at Adrian College, I always expose my students to the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred Salvadoran church leader. Romero began as a retiring (some would say naïve) book worm, a scholar with his head in the clouds. He ended his life as a witness for justice and as a spokesperson for oppressed people. There was tremendous growth and change along Romero’s journey, but some things stayed the same. He became more active and bold, but he remained a man of thought and worship.

Romero’s life serves as a reminder of the contrast between two terms – two terms that somehow belong together. These are words that were given particular emphasis during the early years of “Liberation Theology.” They are: orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The first is more familiar, a term that pops up in church language all the time. The formal definition of “orthodoxy” is often given as “right belief.” The word suggests correctness around doctrinal understandings. For this reason, and perhaps some others, the term is either celebrated or disparaged. Some have very particular ideas about what it is that constitutes “right belief,” and they either live within this framework or run from it. Yet having a right or correct conception of “right belief” is its own question and one that invites more nuanced reflection. The term “orthopraxy” is often conceived as “right practice.” Drawing on the meaning of “praxis,” this emphasis is all about action. If orthodoxy implies doctrinal truths, orthopraxy means engagement for change. Again, the term has been either received or rejected, depending on one’s theological leanings. Some assume orthopraxy stresses the implementation of political agendas, and such ideologies can tilt in any number of ways. Yet again, we might ask whether the notion of “right practice” captures the deeper meanings of orthopraxy.

OUR SOCIAL CREED

The seventh section of the United Methodist Social Principles features the church’s “Social Creed.” Because it is a creed, it implies conviction – belief. Because it is social, it implies engagement – practice. We are encouraged to make this Social Creed part of our worship services, and this suggestion can lead to several different conclusions. One might hear this request as an overdue inclusion of social resolve and call to action among the church’s liturgy. Others might hear it as a worldly agenda inserted within sacred time and space. I would suggest that it is neither one of these two things but a third, integrated reality.

The Creed begins with conviction about the triune God. It then speaks to a number of social issues. There is an almost seamless connection between the opening language of theological focus and the following words of commitment. The Social Creed unites orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but it unites them in a way that revises the meaning of each term. Here orthodoxy is not so much “right belief” as it is “right praise” – authentic worship. Here orthopraxy is not so much “right practice” as it is “right participation” – authentic being with creation and others, all others.

THE REIGN OF GOD

I do a lot of human rights work. Lately activists and academics have searched for common ground to discuss important issues of faith and action. But these gatherings have not always gone well. The activists suggest that academic people are too hung up on theory. The academics warn the activists to think before doing. It is a lot like the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and it is becoming, quite frankly, tiring.

Praise and participation belong together. They unite in a new reality. A social creed is not an agenda slipped into worship, and we are not to separate worship from action. Worship shapes relationships – with God and all of God’s creation. It should not leave us untouched, unchanged. It should also not be a venue for the manipulation of God’s people. The church is not in trouble because we lack self-appointed adjudicators of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The church is in trouble because we too often fail to open ourselves to God. If we will do this very thing, God will mess with our conceptions of the self and others. God will move us to live with, work with, love with others – all others. Instead of belief and action, I like to think of orthodoxy and orthopraxy as praise and participation. These two forces belong together, and they will one day be united. The time when they will embrace is called the reign of God.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Diane Adele Rheos
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Really interested in this post! These are things I have been thinking about, but you have seen it in a way that I have not. So it’s great to have a new way to look at something. I am working on the transformation of church. One thing that we don’t seem to do is mix the two things you talk about here. Worship service has only served the praise side. But in our definition of church people are also yearning for participation. I find many congregations do one or the other well, but most of the time, not both. I… Read more »
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