Orthotopic: The Central Importance of Place and Proximity

About two years ago I took a stab at writing a book. Though I do have a good amount of chapters written I never finished it. The book itself was to be called 'Ruined' or "Jesus Ruined my Life." Maybe I will get around to editing it and adding the tremendous amount of foot notes that I failed to compile as I wrote it. This fact alone has seemed like reason enough not to continue working on it. In any case there is one short chapter in particular that has stood out to me and echoed in my mind over the last few years. I grow more and more convinced of the importance of this idea to the whole of our spiritual journey. So rather than letting the idea gather dust in a pile of writing that may never see the light of day, I am sharing it here. I have removed several references to the other chapters so that it may stand alone and I have tried to substantially abbreviate the first portion of the chapter for the sake of length. Other than that, here is that writing as I originally conceived of it. As always, I welcome your thoughts and any dialogue on the topic. 


In the world of theology, orthodoxy is important. The word itself means right thinking. The desire to have right thinking, or to be orthodox, is fairly universal though we still find many communities who call themselves orthodox and yet remain in stark disagreement with each other. Never the less we hunger for Truth.

For the Christian, that truth is made known in the life, death, and teachings of the man Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God who has made truth about God visible and concrete. What has always baffled me is the ways that we make attempts at truth by looking at what Jesus said and did only to formulate ideas rather than emulating the truth he revealed in action.

We can have right ideas about God and Jesus and still not look or act anything like Him. One might say “I believe in the Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.....” along with the rest of the theological affirmations of the Creeds and still not love people or resemble that incarnation of Jesus in any way.

Many, especially among missional communities, have similar criticism and have made a call to orthopraxy. Orthopraxy is important. The word itself means right action and don’t we all want to act right? 

You might not have it all together in terms of orthodoxy, but do you put into practice the few things that you do know to be true? This call is made very clear throughout scripture and is probably clearest in the epistle of James with strong words like “faith without works is dead.” James would argue that just ‘believing’ in God was not enough and pointed to the reality that the devil and demons believe that too. At least it causes them to shudder. What does that belief cause you to do?

As one begins thinking in terms of praxis or doing they will, without a doubt, find no shortage of situations in which they push themselves to ‘do’ the ‘right’ thing while everything in them is erupting in protest. Is it enough to just act right? Or do we again find ourselves in the position that Jesus criticized in the Pharisees whom he called hypocrites (masked actors). The call of God on our lives has got to amount to more than simply sucking it up and just acting. Doesn’t it? Paul would write in his first letter to the Corinthian church that even if one were to do all the right things, without love it was empty. He wrote
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 corinthians 13:1-3)
If I believe all the right things but do not do anything with it I am lacking and even if I do all of these things, without love it is empty. This is where we find ourselves wrestling with the idea of orthopathos. Orthopathos means ‘right feeling’ and it is important.

For now I want to move past these three significant and central concepts to focus on another line of thinking that is related, in terms of the ‘ortho’ life, and which I would argue is equally significant and yet rarely (if ever) discussed.

Just as one must consider and strive toward both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, orthotopic is just as significant and arguably primary. In case you are not familiar with the etymology of these words they are English words that find their roots in the Greek language. The first two syllables that each of these words share come from the Greek word orthos which means straight, proper or perfect. So since the greek word odous means tooth we use orthodontist to describe the man or woman who makes ones teeth straight or perfect. Similarly, ortho-, in the terms above has to do with right or proper doxy (thinking/ideas), praxi (action/doing), or pathos (feeling/sentiment) 

The term orthotopic is used in the medical field to refer to an organ being in the right place. Topos in Greek, means place or topikos, is with respect to a place. So a topical cream is one that you put on a specific place that needs it. Orthotopic is about right proximity or place and it is important. Topos in Greek is similar to the Latin word Proximitas, which we render in English as proximity. Proximity is about nearness in both space and time. I am not aware of this term being used apart from the medical field though I am convinced that it has theological significance and should be imported as terminology. It is a word that asks us where you are instead of what you think, do, or feel. “Where are you?” is the very question that God is said to have called out in the garden after the fall of man in Genesis three. Where are you? This question of proximity reveals the alienation that came upon man's existence in the fall. We became far away and wedged a chasm between ourselves and God, between ourselves and each other as well as between ourselves and creation itself. Alienation then became the existential condition of mankind.

In realizing that the work of sin divides and that the work of God, through the power of love, is overcoming this division toward reconciliation and unity we can see that proximity is a powerful lens through which we can understand the gospel.

Jesus’ incarnation was described by John in his gospel as the ‘Word becoming flesh and making His dwelling among us’. Eugene Peterson would render this verse as ‘moving into the neighborhood’ in his translation called The Message. The incarnation was a gesture of proximity and the work of the cross would forever solidify God’s reckless loving call for reconciliation and unity. The early church shared all that they had and lived as one united people. They worked hard to overcome everything that might divide them such as their racial and ethnic differences, or gender roles, and they understood the work of the cross as Jesus destroying such divisions. Paul would write to the Ephesians that Jesus “himself is our peace, who has made the two (racial) groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-15)

The work of God in this world through Jesus is to restore that proximity that we were created for. We were created to live in close and intimate relationship with Him (communion), each other (community) as well as with creation. If this is the work that God is doing in us then we must realize the important place that our proximity with each other plays in our life of faith. We were created for community and as God said after creating Adam ‘It is not good that man be alone.’

It makes sense when we consider all of the ways that Jesus has called his followers to be different in this world that he would call us into and send us as communities. The ways of Jesus are so counter cultural that it seems unimaginable that any of us could continue to swim against the current forever without others by our sides. We are overwhelmingly affected by the cultures in which we find ourselves immersed and it is only by creating counter-cultural communities that we might find the strength to stand firm to the end. This was the realization of the early monastic communities that cloistered themselves away from society to form religious compounds in which a life of holiness and pursuit of God was normative. In these monasteries a young believer could find the support they needed in this counter culture to chase after Jesus with everything in them. They had older monks who had gone before them who could instruct them, peers by their sides striving right along with them, and a general culture that affirmed them. I have heard many young believers today wishing that they could move to a monastery where they might finally be free from all of the temptations of modern life. There is something right and wrong about this sentiment. On the one hand they will never be free of their temptations and are therefore mistaken. Many monks have written at great lengths about the challenges of this ‘desert spirituality’ in which they do not so much meet God as have to wrestle the devil. The young believer who longs for the monastery is also right however that they would do better there. They would not do better because they got away from temptation but because they planted themselves into a community in which wrestling the devil was normal and hunger for God was common.

The monastics were onto something by living in close proximity with other believers. They can also be criticized for the major blow to mission that was suffered as these radical communities of believers separated themselves from 'secular' society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that “the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this.” In recent times we have seen exactly this in the movement known as new monasticism. Communities of faith are banding together to form such countercultural communities though this time they are planting themselves in the very heart of our impoverished and suffering inner-cities and ghettos. They are practicing this proximity with one another in community but also placing those communities in close proximity with the poor, where Jesus promised we might find him.

I have lived in community like this for years now in one of the neediest neighborhoods in Tampa. This experience has shaped the way I think, act, and feel in more ways than I can count. Orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathos are being forged because of and within this pursuit of an orthotopical life. I have planted myself in a house with other believers striving to know Jesus and that house is planted in a community where we might serve those whom Jesus has so clearly expressed his heart for. This community has so often been the safety net necessary to keep me in the game.

We all face seasons where our faith is in shambles or our circumstances make selflessness seemingly impossible. Living among other believers has given me shoulders to cry on when life just seems too heavy and faith to borrow when God seems to have vanished. If I had faced these seasons on my own I cannot imagine how I would have made it through with faith in tact, though in community God had given me exactly the supports I needed to safely fall apart. We egg each other on and we carry the burdens of ministry life together. I find Jesus in my brothers and sisters and He often knocks at my door in the guise of a needy neighbor who has come to meet me in my times of need.

It was not enough for me to believe that God wanted people to be restored in relationship with each other but I had to actually get close enough to others for Him to do that work in us. It was not enough to believe that God loved the poor but I had to know the names and stories of the poor in my own city, who are now on my own street and often in my own house. It is not enough to believe that Jesus wants to have a relationship with me but I had to surrender myself to his ways and presence in prayerful devotion. With every move I have made into closer proximity with Jesus, his people and this hurting world that he loves I have found that His Kingdom is that much closer. God is still calling out that same question that he called to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” 

When we look through scripture with the question of place and proximity in mind we find many examples of places and proximity in relationships being significant elements of Gods call and will for his people. We see Israel called into a promised land, Jonah running from the place that God has called him to and paying the price for it. There are also examples such as the story of Mary and Martha, where sitting at the feet of Jesus was considered the better thing (or place) that would not be taken from her. Orthotopic is about our proximity to God in worship and devotion as he asks us the question “where are you?” It has everything to do with our proximity with other believers and the community we exist within. It is also a major part of our call to mission and the places and communities that God wants to plant us in.

An example of a life lived in close proximity to the treasure that is the poor and suffering might illuminate the orthotopical life. Father Benigno P. Beltran was a Catholic Priest who had spent years studying in seminary and developing his orthodoxy at Rome. During his years at seminary studying and teaching he found that he felt very lost. In his reflection on this time he describes very well how all of the seminars, papers and research became a distraction from facing the fragile, sinful, depraved, and broken solitary self within. It is that refuse pile within his heart that he later said should have been his primary source of research. He neglected, as we all are tempted to do, that trash dump inside. Of the ruins within he wrote “I wanted to flee from the nothingness inside me that was so dreadful to confront that I distracted myself with things that mattered little in the long run… I was afraid of what I might discover about my own nothingness if I stopped long enough to be still.” The will to control is always motivated by this very fear in us too. In as much as we continue to hide and bury it we rob ourselves of the wisdom and life it is pregnant with.

In 1978 Fr. Beltran decided to move to Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila. Smokey Mountain is a trash dump community of scavengers in the Philippines. He prayed that this radical decision would be an antidote to illusion. Later he would write of that decision “It was all very nice, when it was spring in Rome and the flowers were in bloom… and you decide to stay among the poor. You can entertain romantic notions of bringing the poor back to God in droves, creating beautiful liturgies to bring tears to their eyes, being popular among the youth and responding effectively to the needs of the destitute, the deprived, the oppressed.” Then of his actual arrival to the dump he wrote “It was like landing on another planet … I suddenly came face to face with the anarchy of desperation, of fear, of lust among people who survive on what others throw away, scavengers clinging to the underside of the city like earthworms eating their way through the muck…The garbage dump was frightening, then nauseating, then infuriating. This festering sore on the face of the planet had all the diabolical charm of a nightmare.”

As I read his vivid descriptions of the trash dump and its frightening and nauseating character I cannot help but wonder how much this scene would resemble the nothingness within from which he, and all of us, spent life running from. When you consider that rather than turn to that dump within he planted himself in this “festering sore on the face of the planet” it makes you wonder how great and terrible this sore within us is.

Beltran would be set free among the stench and pain of that dump and would write with conviction about the necessity of living in proximity to the poor. Orthotopical life became a salvific pursuit for this priest. He wrote “Living among the poor, I came to realize that one of the spiritual disciplines – just like reading Scripture, praying and worshiping in the liturgical action of the Church- should be the physical contact with the poor, especially for those who have not experienced the sacred, and still have to ask: Where can I find God? Who am I? Where is my place in the scheme of things? What is the meaning of life? How can I have faith? Those who struggle in order to survive, those who lay their lives on the line all the time, taste a flavor of life that the sheltered never know. Living with them might give a certain urgency to the questions that touch on the meaning of life.” Paul Tillich would say that theology is only relevant in as much as it is spoken to the existential questions of living men and Fr. Beltran would demonstrate a theology that was not fundamentally made up of the right ideas but the right place and people.

The poor became his teachers and access to a real and living relationship with God. His proximity to the poor, his orthotopicos, helped him find meaning and answers to the deep questions and anxiety that gnawed at the deepest parts of him. Where answers were not necessarily available they taught him patience and a capacity to be open to fully experience life for all that it really is. Who better to speak of the value of waste and the blessings buried in our trash piles than this man? Who better illustrates the power of orthotopic living than one who has moved into the dump for over 26 years?

Listen to the treasure buried there “after 26 years in the garbage dump, I have allowed the suffering of the scavengers to enter into the depth of my heart and be turned to compassion. A strange, blissful calm settles upon me now… “This is a garbage dump” I say to myself, feeling an incredible lightness of being, “this is where I ought to be.” It is the realization that he is in the right place. In proximity to the poor and the Nazarene who has hid himself among them in the Garbage dump.

Our constant struggle for orthodoxy may sometimes be another mechanism or technique by which we distance ourselves from the wounds that are very real within us as well as in the world. If repentance is a turning around and going back the way we came it will mean for us a turning to those places in ourselves from which we have shrunk away in horror, it will mean going to those people whom we have avoided, it will mean solidarity with the poor and the broken hearted.

Richard Beck, in a blog post titled ‘The Preferential Option for the Poor’ on his outstanding blog Experimental Theology, made a very clear argument for the place from which theology is properly done. By highlighting the primary commitment of the liberation theologians to stand with and for the poor he demonstrated how theological reflection followed as a secondary discipline from that place. I do not think it is a stretch at all to say that the story and thoughts of father Ben Beltran thoroughly illustrate the clarity and advantage of this vantage point. Beck writes “This does connect back with the biblical observation that God stands with the poor. The notion here is that theology can't be done properly if it doesn't begin where God begins--with, among, and for the poor. In this the commitment to the poor is a regulating principle helping us sort good theology from bad theology, correct theology from incorrect theology, orthodoxy from heresy.” This removes any illusion that there is a neutral ‘place’ from which theology is to be done. Theology, Beck points out, can never be objective and disinterested as it sometimes appears to be. There is a place where God stands, on the side of those with nobody else on their side, and we would do well to stand, with God, in solidarity with the poor. It is an explicit and intentional choice, commitment and bias. “Blessed are the poor…Woe to the rich” as Jesus put it.

Orthotopic is primary. Our thinking will only be right, orthodox, if it is forged in the right place, among the poor and in community. Our actions will only be right, orthopraxy, if we stand in the place that will demand righteous action. The way that we feel about things, orthopathos will only be right if we allow God to give us his heart, which is breaking, by putting us into the place where we must face what is heartbreaking. We must answer that question which God has been asking since the moment we fell into alienation, “Where are you?”