Monday, 28 January 2013

Orthodoxy versus Orthopraxy

Orthodoxy: Correct Faith, the right doctrine (Greek).
Orthopraxy: Correct Practise, the right action (Greek). 

In Western society, people are generally only used to one viewpoint about religion: that of Christianity. Christianity in all its flavours is an orthopraxic and orthodox faith. This means that the religion itself is defined in every aspect. There are rules for how to worship, but there are also rules for how to think and feel about the way a person worships. As a result, discussions about personal interpretations of ritual and viewpoints such as the form or meaning of the Divine are discouraged apart from the upper echelons of the Church. The level responsibility that a person has within the creation is usually clearly set out, as is the reason for our existence on this planet. It makes for a relatively dualistic attitude: there is a right and a wrong in life for most situations, with very little room for a grey area.

Wicca is different. Wicca is an exclusively ortopraxic belief system. The way in which we work, in which we practise is defined, but the personal interpretation of the individual worshipper is undefined. The way in which the rituals are structured is written down, but what the rituals mean is not defined by anyone. It is one of the reasons why the book that holds the rituals is called the Book of Shadows: It holds the basis of the rituals, the text but it is impossible to write down the actual ritual because it is the personal experience that matters. Personal experience will obviously vary from person to person, so it simply cannot be written down.

This viewpoint was exactly the reason why I felt at home in the Craft from the beginning. I have a Jewish background, and Judaism is largely orthopraxic. The way things are done during service in the synagogue are written down, but vary greatly between communities and local traditions are freely incorporated. In Judaism questioning the Bible and the Tzadikim (wise men) is almost seen as a duty rather than as something that is wrong or inconvenient. The concept of Lernen (learning), where Jews sit down and discuss and argue the sacred texts, is an important foundation of our culture. And nobody in synagogue will ever ask what your viewpoint on the Divine is, as it is completely your own responsibility. There are actually many devout Jews who are atheist, but practise because it gives them a connection with their ancestors and culture. It is also the reason why I have no problem combining Jewish practise with a Wiccan belief system, though I am strict about not practising the two at the same time.

It is often a very big switch for people to make when they first come into contact with Wicca. I have spent many nights sitting up with frustrated students because I simply could not give them the 'right' answer. “But how do the Eight Festivals exactly relate to the Wheel of Life, because all these books give different answers?”  “But exactly how does the Goddess of Wicca relate to the local Goddesses?” All these questions were met with the same reply: “Well, that depends. How do you view it?”

Sometimes the fact that there are no 'right' answers is confused with the fact that you can do anything you like in Wicca. This is absolutely not the case. The fact that Wicca is orthopraxic means that there is a defined praxis, a defined way of working. For example, if a different ritual is used during initiation, the initiation could be just as effective but simply wouldn't be an initiation of the Wicca. Orthopraxy does not mean “anything goes” or that every time you do a ritual you need to adapt and change it.

I help students by giving them different possible viewpoints that others in the Craft have shared with me over the years. It isn't possible for me to give them the one, correct answer, because there simply isn't one. What is more, there shouldn't be one to begin with! One of the essential abilities of a Priest or Priestess is to find their own answers and interpretations of what the Gods and Life expects from them. These answers need to be well thought out and balanced – that is the main requirement. It is what we do as Priests: we recognise what needs to be done in our own lives, when to reach out to others and when not to, and to help others make their own interpretations of what is needed in their lives. These interpretations might even be diametrically opposed to their own answers, but can be just as true and valuable as any other answer.

It can be scary to end up in a realm where there is no right or wrong, no clear guidelines that give safety. It is an essential – if not the most essential – part of Wicca, and it is my opinion that before a person is considered for initiation, he or she should be completely comfortable with the concept.


  1. Wonderful post - very clear and coherent with a firm position (one I am inclined to agree with!)

  2. More Jewish stuff I had NO idea of. Very cool Boann :)

    It must be handy to have the questioning almost a requirement than the old way with priests where you darent question em.