I recently read Andrew Beatty´s article The Pope in Mexico: Syncretism in Public Ritual which has really reawakened a few strong sentiments for me. The article essentially looks at the canonization of Juan Diego by the late Pope John Paul II from three perspectives and shows how political, religious and indigenous orthodoxy are contested and expressed in this three day event in Mexico. Juan Diego (whose authenticity as an actual person is highly in doubt) is said to have seen the Virgin Mary as a morena (a dark woman). According to the tale this apparition was denied by the Catholic establishment of the time – interested in preserving the Marian image as white and spotless (but more importantly European in ethnicity). After several appearances the virgin of Guadalupe was recognized as a symbol that the indigenous tribes were welcomed into the church. So the pope comes to canonize this likely fictitious character. The canonization is a personal achievement for the pope who holds special sentiment for the virgin of Guadalupe.
The article gives a fabulous picture of how intricately woven together politics, indigenity and religion (in this case Catholicism) and yet how contested and perpetually redefined they are. Although Beatty is far too intellectually clever to say it outright – it is clear that he firmly believes that there is no such thing as orthodoxy in any context politically, religiously, culturally, principally.
And for the most part I agree.
What I find interesting is that the preoccupation that the Christian community has with defining and rediscovering orthodoxy. I am not convinced that this is a worthwhile venture. There are two forms that this typically takes – from my humble and increasingly irrelevant view. First, there is this propensity to reclaim the original church doctrines and practices. This pursuit of orthodoxy suggests that there was something innately pure about first manifestation of the church which can in fact be reclaimed because it is the ideal standard. Second there is a strong urge to encapsulate the essence of Christian theological orthodoxy. That is to say that there is a strong effort to define with great precision what is and is not truly Christian.
What complicates this second objective is that the plethora of branches that the 'kingdom' has divided into. What is orthodox to Evangelicals could never be orthodox to Anglicans etc. So essentially, this pursuit of defining orthodoxy becomes little more than a thinly veiled exercise in trying ever so hard to get one's own ideas accepted as commonly held in a particular context. What complicates the first objective is that the 'original' church is anything but pure or original. It is very clearly a mixture and a deeply contested one at that (i.e. Peter and Paul and the foreskin issue). This is the motif of the church for its entire history: contestation over orthodoxy. And besides its contested nature - the early church is anything but pure. It is as an exemplary version of what the church should be a very messed up (the word messed is a derivative of mix) one.
This notion that there is no orthodoxy is an unsettling one at first. There is a lot in traditional church culture that moves us to consider that there is a pure orthodoxy whose boundaries we are loathe to cross for fear of 'losing our faith'. And that was me and still is often. But I am refreshed when I look at Jesus' teachings. I see that he was very intentional to avoid statement that provoked rigidity. In fact he explicitly denounced people who held to the various incarnations of 'orthodoxy' (a.k.a. the Pharisees).
So some will say if we have no orthodoxy can we say anything significant about faith. Their question reveals just how much value we have placed on the process of defining and reasoning our way through our faith. It is rare to find people who honor the role of revelation in an authentic way. I don't mean the kind of revelation that comes through tongues or frenzied 'spirit-filled' worship. I also don't mean the unfettered revelation of money hungry TV personalities.
We need leaders who negotiate the culture of our day with heritage of faith we have been given (messy as it is) and clear connection to commune with God is real un-contrived ways. Such a person I would follow and do. We need more people leading our churches who have the art of negotiation. I am privileged to have a number of people who I trust who do that for me…