The Comprehensiveness of Orthodoxy

    Many people who use the word “orthodoxy” as a weapon, think of it as an insistence on picking the one correct answer out of many possible. I think this misses the point pretty badly. Orthodoxy isn’t the insistence on finding the one correct answer — it’s the insistence on avoiding over-simplification.

    For example, one of the earliest conflicts over what became orthodoxy was provoked by the teachings of Marcion. Marcion wanted to throw out all of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament, and thus establish a Christianity that had no reference to Jews or Judaism. For a gentile world, this was undoubtedly appealing. Jewish history and culture was hard to understand, the Old Testament seemed rather cruel, and wouldn’t it be better if we just stripped things down to the basics?

    Orthodoxy insisted otherwise. Yes, Judaism was complex, and the Old Testament stories were tough to grapple with, but ultimately, to lose those would be to lose richness, depth, and complexity. To hold on to the full set of scriptures in all their nuance, was to hold on to the most robust and diverse version of Christianity possible.

    Similarly, we have four gospels instead of one. The earliest Christians weren’t concerned that there might seem to be conflicts or disagreements between these accounts. Instead, they knew that to hold on to all four gospels was to allow a “four dimensional” picture of Jesus to emerge. Again, they insisted on richness and complexity instead of uniformity and over-simplification.

    But perhaps the clearest example of this is in the question of the divinity of Jesus. Various early versions of Christianity wanted either a human Jesus, or a divine one. Orthodoxy wanted to hold on to both. And so the formula emerged: Jesus is fully God, fully man. 100% human, 100% divine.

    Many people have critiqued this over the years for being seemingly nonsensical. If it’s math, it doesn’t work. But for richness of expression, for depth of experience, for generation of insight and creativity and art — it absolutely does work.

    And so orthodoxy emerged, not as the simplest and most straightforward set of answers, but as the richest and most comprehensive, diverse, and generative stream of thought possible; the stream that gathered up everything valuable it could find, and wouldn’t let any of it go.