Orthopraxis, truly?

As mentioned previously, I’m reading through Introduction to Roman Religion by John Scheid (slowly. Oh so slowly), and it’s causing me to ponder over a large part of the vocabulary that makes up our language when we attempt to speak of our religious and spiritual practices.

Very early on, the author introduces the notion that, within polytheistic Rome, religion was an orthopraxis rather than an orthodoxy. This is a familiar concept for pagans, and it’s a term I see used especially a lot within the more polytheistic minded (which may mean nothing more than I read more from the specifically polytheistic minded than from more general-pagan writers, to be fair). It almost seems like a no brainer, right? We are not about having One True Way to do things, it’s not about our specific *belief*, it’s about right practice. Right?

Except, we all know of people who want to decide for us what that right practice is or should be, people who say that if we are not giving cult to our ancestors in this precise way, if we are not worshipping the gods with these particular steps and this particular mindset, then we are failures, we ought not even bother, etc. My personal theory is that much of that behavior is instinct driven (we are social animals, no matter how much of a loner we are or are not; our preferences may counter our animal instinct, but I suspect instinct still influences our behavior more than we care to admit), the need to create an us or them, tribe or not tribe boundary. But, holding the concept of orthopraxis in mind, I can’t help but think of the people I’ve come across who with one breath claim that what we have in paganism is orthopraxis, and in the next, want to call people out for doing it wrong.

That’s not orthopraxis as I understand it. That’s orthodoxy in pagan clothing.

The other bit about orthopraxis that this book has me turning over in my mind is: context. When this author speaks of state religion and orthopraxis being more important than one’s particular belief — that is, you go to the public rituals you are expected to go to, you play the part you are expected to play, you honor the god(s) in question in the state sanctioned manner, and when you are home you can view Minerva however you like — the author is speaking of a time period when polytheism was the shape the state religion took. Even thinking about right practice as endorsed at government level makes me incredibly uneasy; orthopraxis beyond one’s immediate and chosen groups, if one even has such a thing, makes me uneasy. I think we all know what a government sanctioned orthopraxis would look like, at least in the US, and I don’t relish the idea of giving up my Sunday mornings to go to church. Our state sanctioned orthopraxis would not be polytheistic.

My challenge to myself is this: to be sure that when I speak of right practice, of orthopraxis, that I am keeping true to the meaning of the word, and not using it as a measuring stick against others. I do not want civic religions, not even if polytheism where the dominant view held by our country. Religion is private. Relations with the spirits is private. I do not hold that there is one or even a number of Right, True Ways to maintain our relationships with the gods and spirits, and I give over entirely TO the spirits and gods, deciding how and what is appropriate. Not other humans. I’m not immune. I’m human. I have moments of, “Why are they doing *that*? That’s ridiculous!” but I try my best to catch them and root them out, because it truly, truly is none of my business, and I believe completely that the spirits can correct people if people are “doing it wrong”; they don’t need my help.


4 thoughts on “Orthopraxis, truly?

  1. Cora and I have been discussing orthopraxy and it’s place in Roman Revivalism. Personally I feel like there needs to be a guideline for possible group work on a level that if I went to a group in Nashville or Portland, I’d be able to join in instead of simply witnessing. That novices should be taught the gestures and framework for ritual. Something easy to do. But beyond that I really don’t care about what people do in their private cultus as long as *they* feel it’s pious, it’s legal, and no one is getting hurt (without consent, I guess).

    Thank you for writing about these words! I’m constantly saying “I don’t think it means what you think it does” anymore.

    • One thing that I’ve picked up, from approaching things both from a heathen-informed perspective and from a Hellenic-informed perspective is, the *bare bones* in a ritual a essentially the same, when the ritual in question is about honoring a spirit, ancestor, or god. For me, the bare bones here is: extending a welcome, offering food and drink, speaking words of praise and gratitude. Granted, *my* rituals are always bare bones anyway; i’m not big on ceremony.

      But yes: orthopraxis is extremely important as something that binds a group together. It, more than anything else, is the visible representation of that cohesion, so naturally you want it to be there. (It’s why the Romans wanted it there, after all).

      Which is why I always get baffled by people (and I do it too!) wanting to apply their traditional way of doing things as The Golden Standard to which all must conform. Traditional ways taken out of their tradition become empty and meaningless, and why the heck would we want that?

  2. This post made me think of other orthopraxic traditions and it seems that political power and orthopraxy are frequently paired. (Other examples could include the pre-Mogul Hindu temple tradition and the temple tradition of Ancient Egypt.) In fact, it might not be too far a stretch to say that any collection of rituals/practice that aim to glorify, celebrate, or otherwise esteem a political leader are participating in orthopraxy; even the rituals of crowning a leader by a person of religious power has shades of orthopraxy. Since the power and well-being of the state is tied to religious function, it makes a certain sense that right practice is highly valued in these situations; contrary religious practices would be treasonous or at the very least would be seen as anti-social (in the traditional sense). (This brings to mind the political conflict between Jewish populations and the Greek, Roman, and Holy Roman states.) Since religion tends to have strong organizational power among groups of people and since governments aim for similar organization, there is probably good reason why two forces go hand-in-hand so frequently.

    That said, I think that many people are today highly dubious of state-sponsored or state-sanctioned religious practice (and rightly so!). There is some scholarship that suggests that the dispersal or weakening of state-level power is connected with a rise in decentralized religious practice (the example I’m familiar of is the rise of the bhakti tradition in India not long after the Mogul rulers took over; without the patronage of state leaders the temples were not able to function as they used to and so religious function had to change in response). I think people who are amenable to the idea of state-sponsored religious practice are not (culturally) far removed from those faiths that have had state support in the not-too-distant past. Such faiths probably have some belief regarding a worldly leader that rules with divine authority, too. Lacking such beliefs there’s no wonder why some of us (me included) find such beliefs frightening to consider.

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