This new article is largely related to Christians and Christian theology—but not exclusively. In recent decades some Buddhist thinkers, such as the venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, have emphasized “engaged Buddhism,” which is closely connected to the movement in Christian theology referenced here.
Emphasis on Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy is a word that has had a long and checkered history in the story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times, the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century.
The first Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church.
Until about sixty years ago, the emphasis on orthodoxy was largely unchallenged in Christianity, although, to be sure, some small, “splinter” groups placed more emphasis on correct action than on correct belief.
For the church as a whole, however, the creeds were the focal point of correctness, and all who entered the Christian faith and sought to maintain good standing in that faith were expected to agree with the creeds.
Nevertheless, Christians, and all people, need to recognize that what they do is more important than what they believe.
The Contribution of Liberation Theology
That which is known as liberation theology has its strong supporters as well as severe critics. There are variations in all movements and schools of thought; some are more excessive in their emphases than others. That is true for liberation theology, too, of course.
Assuredly, there have been some statements made and some actions performed in the name of liberation theology that clearly have to be labeled as extreme. But there is much that is good and important in liberation theology.
Three distinct liberation theology movements began in the early 1970s. For many, though, liberation theology refers primarily to a theological movement whose roots go back to the late 1960s in South America.
Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became the clear leader of that theological movement with his book A Theology of Liberation (1973), based on his theological proposals of 1968.
Gutiérrez defines liberation theology as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” He goes on to assert that “a principal task of ‘reflection on praxis in the light of faith’ will be to strengthen the necessary and fruitful links between orthopraxis and orthodoxy.”
Emphasis on Orthopraxy
But what is all this talk about praxis and orthopraxis? Praxis simply means action or practice, but it often has the connotation of being the practical application of a theory.
For religious people, praxis refers to the idea of putting faith into action. For Christians, it is particularly related to the idea that “faith without works is dead,” as found in the book of James.
Orthopraxy, then, simply refers to right action. This concept stands over against orthodoxy, which means right belief. Gutiérrez says that the purpose of orthopraxis is to recognize “the importance of concrete behavior, of deeds, of action, of praxis in the Christian life.”
Given the wretched economic conditions of the masses of people in South America, the liberation theology developed in that continent spoke much about liberation from poverty, and “the preferential option for the poor” became a widely used, and often misunderstand, slogan.
For all forms of liberation theology, though, action (praxis) is considered more important than words. That is the important point I am making here: what we do is more important than what we believe.
[Much more on this important topic can be found in the 23rd chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT), which can be accessed here.]