orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy and the relevance of religion in the sociology of culture

I’m very grateful to Rod Dreher for such a thoughtful and kind response to my work.  I sent him an e-mail in reply, but I’m actually going to edit it a bit and post it here because it relates to some ongoing conversations in the sociology of culture.  In response to my post about how “moralistic therapeutic deism” is a bit too Protestant, Dreher responds:

Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do. The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)

I take his point about the intermingling of orthodoxy and orthopraxy (something I’m actually writing about regarding Evangelicals, who are much more orthoprax than than they themselves often recognize), but I suppose my response would be about the question of how much being able to talk about your beliefs actually matters.

This is where (I think) Protestantism really did change how Catholics think about what it means to be a Christian, or, at least, this is Diarmaid Macculloch’s argument about Protestants and the pre-Protestant changes in homiletcs, etc. Charles Taylor describes the Catholic church as a religion on two tracks: folks who had to know what they were talking about, and folks who did the things people who knew what they were talking about were talking about.  So what happened was people got the sacraments, vaguely understood what all of that meant, and then went on their way.  Meanwhile, the elites (monks, priests, nuns) actually had a robust and articulable sense of the meanings of things.

That focus on articulacy is an importance piece, and something that I think Evangelicals often take for granted: being articulate takes work, and the practice of sharing testimony helps you get good at it.  Orthodoxy, or, really, speaking about orthodoxy, is itself a practice, or at least that’s what I’m arguing in my book.

So: if you don’t practice talking about theological claims but you get the sacraments and go on your way, what keeps it together?  Gemeinschaft, basically: a sense of a shared cosmos.  And when you lose that, as Peter Berger and James Davison Hunter argue, it actually becomes more important to be able to be articulate because you start seeing differences.

However, and this is part of my difference with Berger and Hunter (and to be clear: Hunter was my post-doc advisor at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture: we’re very close): I’m just not sure people feel the need to think about things as much as Berger and Hunter seem to think people do.  My hunch is that most people’s lives happen in the habituated sense of what’s good and bad, right and wrong.  As such, it’s really not surprising most people (in any context or time period) are inarticulate.  However, the safe guard against that is they’re part of a community with clear ideals and with an elite that can be articulate for them.  In that sense, the democratization of Protestantism is as much at fault here as capital-L liberalism (especially the Second Great Awakening, which is really “when every man his own priest” was taken, a la Trump, both seriously and literally).

This conversation is interesting enough for sociologists of religion, but I think it also has something to say to sociologist of culture, especially regarding Omar Lizardo’s recent ASR on “declarative and nondeclarative modes”:

A roadblock to reaching this goal is that, under the most influential approaches, the implicit, or nondeclarative aspects of culture (phenomenologically opaque and not open to linguistic articulation) are usually conceptualized as being inherently intertwined with, or as being of secondary analytic importance in relation to, its explicit or declarative facets (phenomenologically transparent and elicited as linguistic reports). That is, knowledge “how” is not properly differentiated from knowledge “that” (Ryle 2002:25–26). In the modal case, linguistically articulated forms of culture are presumed to be of more inherent substantive interest than “how” knowledge, or at least of being capable of serving as a relatively unproblematic point of access to the latter (Jerolmack and Khan 2014).My argument in what follows is that a serious consideration of the distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture (at the personal level), and both from the way culture is manifest in public (extra-personal) form (Strauss and Quinn 1997), is a requirement for effective cultural analysis on analytic and empirical grounds. I will show that having an adequate conceptualization of both the analytically relevant differences between cultural elements as well as the multifaceted relations that these elements enter into, helps resolve a host of empirical issues that would otherwise remain shrouded in ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.

Lizardo continues, not long after that quote, getting at the problem of how we sociologists can study culture that isn’t easy to articulate but nonetheless still exists.  That matters, I’d argue, for religion as well, and for whether or not we can use a respondent’s inability to articulate (orthodoxy) as evidence they are unable to practice (orthopraxy):

I attempt to integrate the practice-theoretical insight that a lot of what functions as culture remains in the tacit dimension, never rising to the level of discourse, with the empirical fact that a lot of what gets referred to as “culture” presents itself to the analyst in the form of explicit talk and discourse (e.g., Swidler 2001a). To that end, I draw on recent interdisciplinary work on the enculturation process to provide a principled account of how we may be able to pull off this feat, an account that should be usable by social scientists committed to the project of cultural explanation. This reformulation has several analytic advantages over previous synthetic attempts, whether of Bourdieusian provenance or not, including the fact that it does not require either the adoption of an idiosyncratic terminology (opting instead for terms with wide currency in social science) or all-out commitment to a delimited theoretical system or program.

Anyway, a lot to think about here, for more than just religion! I know a lot of folks are pushing this cart up the hill, but I really do think religion is just a great site to think about how social life works.


Written by jeffguhin

March 22, 2017 at 4:23 pm

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  1. Isn’t ‘more orthoprax than they realize’ missing the whole point? That orthodoxy is only possible to the extent that discourses focus on the unity of belief rather than on praxis? To make an argument that they misrecognize what they do or who they are is to imply that this is somehow particular to this group. But isn’t that kind of process what underlies pretty much any social formation at all!


    Bored U

    March 23, 2017 at 9:21 pm

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