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ORTHOPRAXY . Derived from the Greek orthos ("straight, right") and praxis ("doing, practice"), orthopraxy refers to "correctness of a practice or a body of practices accepted or recognized as correct," according to Webster's Third International Dictionary of the English Language. The term in English is rarely used, having been displaced by the related term orthodoxy, from the Greek orthos and doxa ("opinion, belief"). Webster's Third defines orthodoxy as "conformity to an official formulation or truth, esp. in religious belief or practice." Thus common English usage assumes that dogma governs practice.

The proclivity of English speakers to think in terms of orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy has historical roots. During the early centuries of the Christian church, the ecumenical councils defined and championed an orthodox creed to quell potentially divisive heresies. During the period of the Reformation, doctrinal interpretation became a battleground for orthodoxy as the various churches strove to reestablish stability in beliefs after a period of ferment and schism. In the modern world, traditional ideologies have their champions, who militantly defend orthodox views against maverick reinterpretations. As a result of this history, Westerners commonly assume that beliefs are the defining core of any religion.

Religions, however, do not begin and end with doctrine. They also entail liturgical, contemplative, or ethical practices as well as direct or mediated experiences of the sacred. If doctrines or beliefs remain the only yardstick by which a religious tradition is measured, other aspects of religious life and experience, which may in certain cases be far more important than belief, will be neglected or ignored.

Orthopraxy provides a nondoctrinal focus for analysis, an alternative model for understanding the functioning of religion in a given community. The concept of orthopraxy helps scholars to broaden their religious imaginations and enhance their religious "musicality," their sensitivity to the full scope and variety of the rhythms, patterns, and harmonies of religious life.

Orthopraxy is a particularly apt term for describing cases in which written codes of behavior for liturgy and daily life constitute the fundamental obligations of religion. Frederick Streng has called this religious modality "harmony with cosmic law," noting that the codes delineate not only the path of individual piety but also the hierarchical and complementary roles that build a harmonious society.

Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Islam exemplify Streng's "harmony with cosmic law." The primary religious obligation in these traditions is the observance of a code of ritual and social behavior minutely stipulated in religious texts and in scholarly commentaries as interpreted by the educated religious elite. The code has sacred authority because it was established in ancient times by a god or the revered founder or founders of the tradition. These religions have no creed, no officially sanctioned statement or dogma that holds a key place in liturgy or rites of passage. In these instances religiosity is not primarily a matter of holding correct opinions but of conforming to a set of behaviors.

Orthopraxy is central to the dynamics of religious life in Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Islam. For instance, in the first three traditions observance of the religious code (orthopraxy) establishes and reinforces the cultural or ethnic identity of the community. These religions do not claim to be universal; each is associated with a specific cultural group.

Cultural and ethnic groups perpetuate their communal identity through distinctive mores based on shared symbols and values that establish behavioral boundaries between themselves and other groups (Royce, 1982). In Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism, the practices mandated by the sacred law define the distinctive boundaries of the culture and the identity of the group within a larger world. In these cases religion defines and reaffirms one's cultural roots rather than one's beliefs; religious and cultural identity are inseparable. Observance of the written code also ensures a semblance of unity within each group despite considerable local variations caused by linguistic or regional differences.

At first glance, Islam does not appear to use orthopraxy to maintain an ethnic identity. Islam has not been bound to one ethnic or cultural group; like Christianity and Buddhism it has become a world religion, ranging extensively across the globe among a diversity of peoples. Originally, however, Islam was strongly tied to Arab culture and identity; to become a Muslim one had to join an Arab tribe if one were not favored by Arab birth. Perhaps the original cultural boundedness of Islam, its view of itself as the religion of a distinctive and chosen people, helps to account for the centrality of orthopraxy. To be a Muslim is to accept and observe the law of Allāh. Surrender to Allāh is not a matter of belief in a doctrine; it is a matter of obedience to his commands (Smith, 1963).

Although Qurʾanic law no longer maintains the original ethnic boundaries of Islam, it serves to create unity within the Islamic world, thus minimizing very real differences. Sunnī and Shīʿī interpretations of the law differ considerably, and there are local variations in the way in which the law is applied. Observance of the law, however, identifies each community as Muslim. A commitment to orthopraxy binds together all who surrender to Allāh.

In Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Islam, the sacred law also establishes a standard of religious purity that, along with knowledge of the law, defines a religious and social elite. All members of the culture traditionally were expected to observe the mores of the groups as encoded in the law, but meticulous observance was both the defining quality and the responsibility of the religious elite.

Gradations of ritual purity and observance define and perpetuate the hierarchical structure of Hindu society. Upper-caste Hindus have heavier ritual responsibilities and are expected to maintain an elevated standard of purity. Likewise, groups seeking recognition of increased social status in Hindu society must raise the level of their ritual purity. Thus in Hindu culture, the sacred law establishes a standard for both individuals and groups (Dumont, 1967).

Although Jewish, Confucian, and Islamic cultures were not characterized by the elaborately graduated ritual hierarchy of the Hindu caste system, scrupulous observance of the law and knowledge of tradition were the responsibility of the social and religious elite nonetheless. In China, the law or ritual code dealt primarily with social ethics, the standard of a humane and civilized society. However, it also prescribed ritual obligations in regard to the mourning and veneration of ancestors. The mandarin was to be the model of the civilized moral person, with a profound sense of obligation to family and community. In Judaism and Islam, the law defined a complete way of life: ritual observance, dietary code, ethics, familial and marriage practices. The rabbi in Judaism and the ʿulamāʾ in Islam were scholars and teachers who embodied and interpreted the law to their congregations.

In traditions in which the observance of the law is the central religious obligation, orthopraxy establishes and maintains ethnic or religious boundaries and gradations of social and religious purity. However, orthopraxy functions in a broad range of religious traditions and circumstances. An examination of selected examples will illustrate the variety of roles orthopraxy plays in the religions of the world.

In tribal cultures, orthopraxy defines not only religious obligations; it is also the law of the tribe. Its sacred and secular functions are barely distinguishable. The tribal rulers and the ritual specialists are usually two distinct groups; yet, because they share a common tradition and sense of orthopraxy, religion and government support each other. Religion and the state can cooperate in full harmony only in a religiously homogeneous community. When religious pluralism becomes the norm, secular law must develop along autonomous principles to apply equally to all citizens, whatever their religion.

Even in large-scale and complex societies, such as pre-Mughal India or traditional China, sacred law can have an intimate connection to sovereign authority and the secular law, if one religion is overwhelmingly dominant or has established an unassailable claim as the state ideology. The Indian and Chinese rulers were not themselves the religious elite, but their sovereignty and ruling effectiveness were shaped and supported by the sacred code.

In China, Confucianism remained the official state religion and ideology until 1911, and its values were enforced by law, although Buddhism, Daoism, Nestorianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity were present as well. The state accepted the existence of other religions as long as they made no claim to be the law of the land. When Daoists, Muslims, or Buddhists occasionally tried to supplant Confucian mores with their own, they were charged with rebellion and chastised by the full military power of the state.

The Chinese saw no threat in the coexistence of religions, even when two religions coexisted within the life of a single citizen. Most Chinese, in fact, combined Confucian values and practices with Buddhism, Daoism, or some other religion. Each religion, however, had its proper place in the hierarchy of the social order. As an old saying goes, "Daoism cures the body; Buddhism regulates the mind; Confucianism governs the state." Thus the Chinese found a means to reconcile religious pluralism with the maintenance of a sacred code and orthopraxy, a reconciliation that served as the basis of the Chinese social order for two millennia.

Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are also factors in the process of communal religious renewal. The history of religions offers endless variations on the theme of renewal as communities struggle to recapture the freshness and power of their tradition. Belief and practice are subject to continual reinterpretation by the religious elite, who revise their understanding of tradition according to ongoing experience, and by ordinary people, who believe and practice their religion in ways that reflect their individual, social, and historical circumstances. What makes beliefs or practices correct (orthos ) is the consensus of the living community in a particular social and historical circumstance. In every religious drama, from everyday worship to grand ceremony, the actors negotiate the meanings and practices according to their collective and personal experiences.

Orthopraxy and orthodoxy become issues because religion and its meanings are social and shared. Private belief and experience neither mediated through the symbols of tradition nor authenticated by the living religious community isolate the individual; private belief is socially meaningless, often perceived as fantasy, or even madness. The ongoing process of religious socialization is the mediation of belief, the negotiation of significance. Collective perceptions, however, are fluid; they evolve with time and circumstances, and thus religious traditions are constantly renewed and reinterpreted.

Pluralistic cultures are torn by competing claims of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The issue of orthopraxy dominates religious competition in sectarian groups that seek to separate themselves from a corrupt, misguided, and tainted society. Their members retreat into communities marked by a strict and demanding religious life. The Amish and the Shakers, among other groups, rejected the larger Christian culture, considering its laws and religious life fallen and depraved. They sought to live out their vision of a pure Christian life, abjuring the taint of sinful society. Members of their community who did not follow the discipline were first reproved, then shunned, and finally expelled. Correct living was the measure of the religious life.

Similar in some ways to the Amish and the Shakers, although not sectarian in intent, are the religious orders of the Roman Catholic church or the sagha of Buddhism. These communities of individuals choose the religious life in response to a special vocation; they renounce the pleasures and ties of the material world, such as sex and property, in order to live a life of purity and contemplation. Their exemplary lives of sacrifice and discipline were traditionally believed to benefit the broader community and not just themselves.

Orthopraxy can support the secular arm of the state or the rebellion of a sectarian movement. It can be a force for change or for repression of change. At times, the powerful forces for change threaten traditional values, and religious communities may hold tightly to an orthopraxy in order to maintain traditional values. At other times, orthopraxy evolves along with community acceptance of new realities and values, as in the loosening of regulations on drinking and card playing among American Methodists in the mid-twentieth century or the changes in Catholicism following Vatican II. An earlier example of this is the acceptance of married clergy among Pure Land Buddhists in Japan since the thirteenth century. Orthopraxy may even serve the cause of progressive social change, as it does for many liberation theologians. This group sees praxis, action, and reflection on action as the core of the Christian life and they believe that correct practice (orthopraxy) is directed toward liberating the oppressed and reducing suffering in the world.

The concept of orthopraxy helps the student of religion to avoid excessive emphasis on the doctrinal model of religions, but a word of caution is in order. In most cases orthopraxy and orthodoxy are intimately connected and represent two interrelated aspects of religious life. Belief and practice at once entail and support each other.

While orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy in tribal religions, the "ways of the gods or ancestors" are based on stories or beliefs about what the gods or ancestors did or said. These practices are not merely a random set of behaviors; they express a worldview, a coherent story of the community and its relationship to the world it knows. Likewise, there is no motivation for following a ritually correct or pure life in Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, or Islam without belief in and about the God or gods or sages who handed down the law. The law is rooted in and implies a particular view of the sacred, of human life, and of the world. There is no ritual behavior that is not also the expression of certain beliefs about the relationship of the human and the divine, the relationship of ordinary action and sacred command.

While belief and practice are intimately connected, it is not the case that one always dominates the other. Some religions under certain conditions stress that belief leads to practice. Other religions, such as Confucianism, stress that practice leads to and deepens belief and understanding. The student of religion must carefully observe how doctrine and practice complement and correct each other in each unique historical circumstance.

See Also

Heresy; Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.


In his article "Orthodoxy," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 9 (Edinburgh, 1917), William A. Curtis noted that " since religion embraces feeling and activity as well as thought, orthodoxy becomes an inadequate criterion of its worth apart from right experience and right conduct. It ought to have for its correlatives such words as 'orthopathy' and 'orthopraxy,' the inward experience and outward exercise of piety." Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues forcefully that observance of the law, and not belief, is the sine qua non of Islam; see Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to Religious Traditions (New York, 1963). Frederick J. Streng has gone further to define the religious modality of "harmony with cosmic law," in which orthopraxy dominates religious life; consult his Understanding Religious Life, 2d ed. (Encino, Calif., 1976).

A number of anthropologists have explored the ways in which religious practices and mores serve to define the ethnic or cultural boundaries of a community. In Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity (Bloomington, Ind., 1982), Anya P. Royce provides a review of the literature and offers an articulate analysis of strategies for maintaining ethnic identity. Barbara E. Ward demonstrates how local regions and communities within cultures unified by a standard of behavior consider their variations on the universal mores in the realm of orthopraxy; see her "Varieties of the Conscious Model: The Fishermen of South China," in The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology, edited by Michael Banton (New York, 1965).

Louis Dumont explores how standards of ritual and behavioral purity establish and maintain social differences in his now-classic Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System, rev. ed. (Chicago, 1980). For a Marxist analysis of orthopraxy, see Pierre Bourdien's Outline of a Theory of Praxis (Cambridge, U.K., 1979).

New Sources

Denny, Frederick M. "Orthopraxy in Islam and Judaism: Convictions and Categories." In Studies in Islamic & Judaic Traditions: Papers Presented at the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies, Center for Judaic Studies, University of Denver, edited by William M. Brinner and Stephen D. Ricks, vol. 2, pp. 8395. Atlanta, 1989.

Schroeder, John. "Nagarjuna and the Doctrine of 'Skillful Means.'" Philosophy East & West 50, no. 4 (2000): 559584.

Judith A. Berling (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Orthopraxy (Gk., orthos, ‘correct’, + praxis, ‘action’). Right action, in addition to (or sometimes in contrast to) orthodoxy, ‘right belief’. Many religions are characterized by an emphasis on orthopraxy—e.g. ‘Hinduism’, whose concern is with sanātana dharma (everlasting dharma, with dharma meaning, roughly, appropriate ways to live) or Islam, where the account to be rendered on the day of judgement (yaum al-Din) is one of works.

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This entry includes two subentries:

Western Orthopraxy