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.