"Do now, do now, what you will wish to have done when your moment comes to die." [St. Angela Merici]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Orthodoxy or Legalism?

By Micky Wolf

Whether in politics, the public sector in general, or in our individual daily lives, finding the balance between orthodoxy and legalism is an ongoing challenge. Why the difficulty? Why does it matter anyway? And why the need to find balance?
Orthodoxy and legalism—two distinct concepts.
Orthodox—conforming to an established doctrine, especially in religion 
[Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

If I say I am orthodox, religiously speaking, I am declaring my intentions to conform to an established doctrine. Therefore, my perspective from a position of Christian orthodoxy espouses a certain set of beliefs within the Christian doctrine. More specifically, if I profess orthodoxy as a Baptist, Methodist or Catholic, I further define a specific set of beliefs within the larger Christian doctrine. So it is with the Muslim, the Hindu, and any other religion.
The role of perspective begins to become clearer at this point, from two aspects:  a] my ‘take’ on religion, life, and the world in general is imprinted to a great extent on what I “know or do not know” about the doctrine I espouse and; b] my openness to increasing my knowledge and understanding of that doctrine determines the depth and breadth of my ability to convey those beliefs to others in greater fullness of truth.
Legalism—strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a moral or religious code [Merriam-Webster Dictionary]

A moment’s reflection on this definition and it is not difficult to see how crucial it is to distinguish what is good and meaningful in claiming one’s orthodoxy from being one who thinks and behaves as a legalistically. The key?—strict, literal or excessive conformity.
How many times have we heard exhortations such as “don’t go overboard, moderation is the key, less is more”?  Yet, unfortunately and in many ways, numbers of us over the past several decades paid little attention to those admonitions with regard to the law, moral or religious code. Throwing moderation to the winds—and in some cases Divine principles as well—all kinds of perversion and sinfulness have been birthed before our very eyes—in our homes, neighborhoods and communities. The consequences have been nothing short of disheartening and destructive.
As a result, many religious and well-intentioned citizens—determined to upend from their perspective the sinking ship of American democracy, morality and religious integrity—have taken up the “fight for right” by behaving in ways that can only be described as legalistic. In attempts to “conform to established religious doctrines” and with the best of intentions, we have entered the perilous waters of strictness, literalness and excess, determined to take as many prisoners as possible in conversion to our way of thinking, our way of believing, our way of living the doctrine of our faith[s].
So, why the difficulty in living the best of these concepts?
One word—perspective. Perspective is a very personal thing, set amidst a very public world made more so in recent years by all the technology at our finger tips. In a matter of seconds we can share what we are thinking and feeling in a myriad of ways. What we may be forgetting is that much of we feel compelled to put out there are details and insights we see and understand from where we live, work and play—our understanding of what the world is to us—our perspective.
Each of us arrives at our perspective from various vantage points. The environment we grew up in, nature as well as nurture, certainly impacted the development of our perspective. Additionally, some of us have lots of formal education. Others have a myriad of travel experiences. Still others among us have refined the art of seeking knowledge, information and understanding of our physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional world without much more than spending time in a comfortable chair in front of a computer screen. Whether we care to accept it, the reality is our perspective has limitations in the finiteness of being human.
Why does it matter?
In not clearly understanding the difference between orthodoxy and legalism, perspective becomes clouded, too often misdirected, absent acceptance and compassion for other people. The bearer of a particular perspective may be closed to new ideas simply because they seem ‘too different’. Being an effective member of a team, whether with the family, in the workplace, ministry or community is often nonexistent. Our wherewithal to enjoy the good fruit—gratitude, peace and joy—in accomplishing the most basic of tasks is lost without ever being fully discovered.
Strictness, literalness and excess do not solve any kind of problem, encourage loving attitudes, invite creative thinking, or generate healthy feelings and emotions. Excess, in the simplest of terms is “too much”. Excess in any form, especially when manifested in human behavior, has the power to alienate. Frighten. Discourage. Belittle. Even destroy.
Why the need for balance?
There is value and meaning in the doctrine of our faith expression. The religious principles inherent in that doctrine serve as guideposts, definable and specific points of light on our path through life. However, when the doctrine and principles become more important to us than the meaning and purpose they are designed to convey, we risk becoming law-keepers in excess. 
Doctrine—as one way to impart knowledge and wisdom to build up the Body of Jesus Christ—allows meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas between compassionate, caring people with different perspectives. When legalism blooms and prevails, impenetrable walls of self-protection are erected, existing primarily for the purpose of scrutinizing and judging the potential seeker or interested visitor.  
For Christians, our finest example of doctrinal conforming without legalistic excess is Jesus. He lived among us as an orthodox Jew. And in His death and resurrection, imparted to us the fullness of Christ-centered Truth. [Matthew 5:17]
One perspective.
Do I consider myself orthodox? In what way? Why?
How do I feel when I act out of orthodoxy?
What is my perspective? What defines my perspective?
Can I appreciate the uniqueness of all perspectives as part of a larger whole?
Can I recall an incident of being legalistic?
How do I feel when I behave as a legalist?

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