I grew up in a Christian denomination that many would consider legalistic. That is, there were a lot of rules to follow, usually dictated by whatever my pastor considered to be sinful. Everything was up for grabs, from the way I dressed to the television and music I watched and the relationships I was allowed to have. Growing up, I heard about the sin of wearing shorts more often than the sin of blasphemy. Worst of all, I was supposed to buy that these beliefs were from God and not believing them, in itself, was sinful.
Today, I look back on that time as being stressful. I constantly strived to control my thoughts and emotions because I believed that the devil was trying to use my thoughts against me to get me to turn my back on God. Eventually, it became too much, and I had a major emotional breakdown in my life. I tried to live a life of orthodoxy, or right belief, so much that I didn’t recognize the effect it had on my body until it was too late. It took a decade to recover my sense of the Holy and see religion as anything useful again.
Now, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with striving towards orthodoxy. Sometimes aligning our beliefs can make us better people in the world. The problem becomes when orthodoxy is so rigid it can’t be questioned. Why was I obligated to follow my minister’s beliefs on shirtless swimming, fantasy movies, and rock ‘n roll music? I still don’t know because none of those things are in the Bible.
Maybe the problem is that it’s possible to think so much about right belief that we neglect right action.
The ancient Suffis believed that, if one were to align their actions with the will of God, right belief would follow. Theologians have come to call this orthopraxy, literally “right action.” In other words, if we live out the will of God in our lives, beliefs become less important. Orthopraxy is why I believe some of the greatest spiritual heroes were atheists: you simply do something because it’s the right thing to do. You take the “do unto others” part of the Golden Rule seriously and think about what compassion, justice, and peace, three of the highest values preached in the Christian scriptures, demand.
I don’t think there are a lot of people living orthopraxy in the Untied States today. Is it right action to belittle and judge LGBTQIA+ people, BIPOC, or non-Christians because they have different beliefs? Is it just to pass laws that make it more difficult for poor people and BIPOC to vote? If Jesus saw a woman pregnant from rape or incest seeking an abortion, would he condemn her, or would he show compassion towards her situation?
In a time when there’s so much hate and division in the world, I believe it behooves those of us who say we’re influenced by the wisdom of the world’s religions to ask ourselves seriously whether we’re living in orthodoxy or orthopraxy. If it’s orthodoxy, are your beliefs and the actions that come with them bearing fruit that will lead to a more loving world, or are you part of the problem?
It takes a brave person to truly examine their lives and decide if they’re living in accordance with their highest values. May we have the courage to always ask: how are we doing unto others?
Rev. Chris Rothbauer (they/them/their) is minister of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. A native of Southern Indiana, they live in Auburn with their partner, a senior rescue beagle, and a spoiled rotten cat. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.