Orthopraxy within Pagan Theology

“Why don’t we have any rituals in our church,” was a question that a member during service asked when we were sharing our joys and concerns. We do have rituals in our Unitarian Universalist tradition. We have the Water Communion, the Flower Communion; many congregations celebrate the changing of the seasons. Moreover, for the pagans in our congregations– well ritual is what we do.Taking the omen

This member of the congregation is not of the pagan persuasion, and she had attended our flower and water communions. But for her, the rituals were not the same as what she remembered from her Christian upbringing. There was something missing from our rituals, and she couldn’t put her finger on it. She knew that it had something to do with how Christian rituals are associated with the mythology of Jesus (her word, not mine), and it was just different.

Since I was speaking that day, I addressed her concern during the sermon; and this essay is an extension of my reply. The difference is the perspective of the rituals and what they are designed to do.

Most of us have heard the term orthodoxy, but are you familiar with orthopraxy?

While orthodoxy is concerned with beliefs and a way of thinking (orthodoxy means thinking straight or correct) that is conditional and is expected to be adopted by members of their faith,  Orthopraxy, instead of focusing on common beliefs and faith, focuses on common practice and experience.

One of the values of orthopraxy is that it values the individual’s experience within a community. Participants are encouraged to rely on their own personal experience as the basis for truth. This is a common trait that contemporary paganism shares with UU, and it is something that we both strive to do in our worship services.

One of the beautiful things about a ritual based on orthopraxy is that, while each member might be doing the same actions, each is encouraged to cherish and honor their own experience. It is not uncommon for many different experiences to occur within a ritual, and each one is as valid and valued as the next.

Orthopraxy also entails the way we conduct our lives. But unlike orthodoxy, which hands down a preset construct of codes for us to follow, orthopraxy relies more on the notion of values. These values are derived from learning the proper way to conduct one’s life based upon our spiritual experiences.

Ritual plays an important part in developing a proper sense of ethical values. Through ritual we are reminded that we are just a small piece in the larger puzzle that we call existence. Ritual also teaches us how to weave our experience into a larger reality and grow from it. Just like the perspective of most Unitarian Universalists, it is not what we believe, but what we do that makes the difference.

Orthopraxy, I believe, is also a more difficult path to follow than orthodoxy. Because with orthopraxy comes personal reasonability. Since we have the freedom of personal experience, we are not being gauged on our level of conformity; and because we develop our values from this experience, we sacrifice the right to blame anything outside ourselves for our experience.

If a perspective on life, a value system, or a ritual just doesn’t work, and it is not helping create and live a better life, then it is up to you to change your perspective, reevaluate your morals, or redesign the ritual until it works for you. Emerson said, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

With orthopraxy, you are given the right to walk your own path, and that is what is missing from rituals based on orthodoxy. Instead of opening you up to endless experiences, orthodoxy rituals are designed to bring you further into the general mindset of the faith. A context has already been careful designed, so that any experience in the ritual can fit into a system. You are given the answers before you even have the questions.

And yes, that aspect of ritual is missing in most, if not all, Unitarian Universalist rituals. The mythology that my fellow congregational member spoke about was probably the predesigned context, the meaning for the ritual. That is not something offered in an orthopraxy ritual.

We all might pour some water in a communal bowl, but we each then tell our own story of why this moment is significant. And the stories are as diverse as the members in the ritual. One might see it from a strictly materialist perspective and tie it to ecological concerns, while another member might see the water as the life blood of the Mother Gaia and see it from a very mystical and non-material perspective. While each story comes from a different direction, they both help tell the larger story. Humanity’s relationship with water.

The difference boils down to this simple fact: when you are in an orthopraxy ritual, what you get out of it is in your hands, not some deity’s.

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