Orthodoxy gets a bad rap these days. At a time when distinction is seen as an evil – this or that, one or the other – orthodoxy is seen as presumptive, divisive and unwarranted. To say one thing is right or rightful is to deny the right or rightfulness of something else – an inconceivable vanity, a tired, predictable power-play of the literal-minded who have not yet grown beyond certain categories in their faith formation.
Passing over the irony that the denial of a creed is, in itself, a creed, what exactly is the purpose of orthodoxy? Too large a question for a short reflection, and one that academics would undoubtedly plumb in detailed excellence. But let’s go for broke and at least sketch a few characteristics.
The purpose of orthodoxy is to align followers of Jesus Christ with God and with one another. Yes, this assumes that it’s possible to get out of alignment. But even if we say that judging is a great evil, we practice it regularly in real life because we must: we align our tires, we align scientific instruments, we align our habits with healthy guidelines, we align our behavior with our beliefs. If we neglect realignment, we face the hard reality of entropy – our tires are unaligned, our instruments are unreliable, our health suffers, our behavior harms ourselves and others. “But God is beyond understanding in a way you cannot compare with our comprehension of how to make a car run well. How can you align with someone or something you can’t claim to comprehend?”
The purpose of orthodoxy is assert an embodied, knowable reality that is knowable truly even if it can’t be known fully. The Word Made Flesh means that almighty God knew how to make the heartbeat of Trinitarian love known to our well-meaning but tiny minds. Orthodoxy points us again and again to the idea that we can know because the Incarnation reveals that God wants us to know. If we even hesitantly reach for the idea that the Word Became Flesh, that infinite God took on humanity, then we accept the idea that something of God can be known because God made sure of it. So if we out of hand reject the possibility of the Son of God being born in carbon-based, fetal-heartbeat reality, then we immediately make a statement about what we think can be known of God – or not known.
The purpose of orthodoxy is to proclaim that God so loved that God so revealed the internal nature of God through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of the nature of God, and we treasure Holy Scripture because we trust that the same grace that revealed itself in Christ preserves the redemptive narrative of God’s interaction with humanity in the pages of Holy Scripture. And this is a reality of beauty.
Orthodoxy is beautiful because it aligns us with Jesus Christ and with one another. It is beautiful because it asserts an embodied reality that is known truly if not comprehensively. It is beautiful because it proclaims that God loves the world so much that God revealed the divine nature through Jesus Christ.
The creeds that house these heirloom beliefs of the Christian faith are beautiful. They are not ugly or divisive or a predictable will to power.
If we do not agree about how God has revealed the inner workings of God’s own self, we may still affirm each other’s humanity, each other’s value, each other’s beauty, each other’s worth. We may live in kind regard and friendship. We may live as caring neighbors. We may live in service to each other. We may donate a kidney to each other. We may cheer each other’s kids in sports. We may send emergency relief in tragedy. But we do not share the same heirloom beliefs of the Christian faith, and we probably cannot worship together indefinitely. And that’s alright.
The beauty of orthodoxy doesn’t leave room for ill-will: it simply doesn’t. It washes the feet of friend, neighbor, enemy, ex-lover, the same. Common worship is essential for any connected faith body. The Amish and Mennonites and some contemplative Catholics all submit themselves to this reality: with pacifist intent, they order their worship as they best understand and wish others well, ready and active in serving those of other faiths or no faith at all. There is a time to celebrate the Eucharist, and a time to celebrate a service of foot-washing. Maybe the time has come for the latter. That is how we might lovingly pay honor to each other as, with mutual respect, we might depart to order our common worship as we best see fit.
So there is a gentle beauty to orthodoxy that sounds a great deal like leather sandals being slid off of calloused feet, like the splash of water being poured from a pitcher into a basin, like a cloth being wrung out, like a towel rubbing against a cracked heel.
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. – John 13:1-5, 12-17 (NIV)