July 2018

ElPasoFishNet

By Randy Limbird

One of my favorite sermons was preached by a former professor of mine nearly 30 years ago. Dr. Robert McAfee Brown was a highly regarded theologian, author, educator and activist, particularly known for his leadership in ecumenical efforts to oppose the Vietnam War. The war had been over for a few years by the time I heard him preach, but he was still a major voice in social justice issues.
He preached that day on the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy refers to “correct belief” and orthopraxy refers to “correct conduct.” One has to do with the way we think, the other with what we do.
Dr. Brown talked about how some people emphasized orthodoxy, and assumed that orthopraxy came as a result of right thinking. Get your theology straight, in other words, and your actions will follow. Evangelicals in particular tend to focus on what people believe as more important than what they do.
But it can be just as true, Dr. Brown said, the other way around. How we conduct ourselves affects what we believe. A life dedicated to doing good can lead someone to the truth about God. As a theologian who taught at some of the country’s top universities, Dr. Brown certainly cared about thinking right. But his experience working with others to fight injustice also taught him that those who gave themselves fully to doing good had a better understanding of God than the religious do-nothings who contented themselves with Bible knowledge.
Obviously we don’t have to choose between the two. But after mulling over this sermon for nearly 30 years, and learning from my own experience, I am much more respectful about the different ways people come to the truth. There are people like me who focus on intellectual truth and still grope in the dark to live good lives. There are people who selflessly do good for others but don’t have a fancy theology.
I don’t believe that just subscribing to a certain set of beliefs gives us a pass into heaven, and I don’t think that any lifetime of good work earns someone eternal life. On the other hand, I also think people who sincerely look for truth will find their actions transformed; and those who strive for good will find their minds transformed.
I would suggest that along with orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we should also seek orthopathy — having a heart that loves what God loves. And I have met people who beliefs and conduct seemed amiss, but their heart sought what was good. And that can also lead to right thinking and action.

Randy Limbird is editor of
El Paso Scene. Comments?
Send to randy@epscene.com

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