Ecumenism with a Gun

Una Sancta: Fundamentalism, Ecumenism and the One True Church

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Una and the Lion, from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (Briton Rivière)

I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.

- Fr. Georges Florovsky, “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”

A number of times in my life, especially since I have been ordained, and even moreso since I began writing and speaking publicly, it has been suggested to me (usually second- or third-hand) that I am some kind of fundamentalist—meaning not merely someone who holds to fundamentals, i.e., orthodoxy, but rather someone who is an intolerant militant.

Likewise, it has also been suggested to me (again, usually indirectly) that I am some kind of ecumenist—and here is meant not merely someone who will bother talking with other confessions and religions, but who will compromise with them on the truth.

I sometimes wish I could get these two groups of people together to let them have it out, and perhaps then I might know which sort of extremism best suits me by virtue of deciding who among these partisans I find most sympathetic. I suspect I will never get my wish, however.

Nevertheless, I believe it is the responsibility of any gentleman who aspires to integrity to take the words of his critics to heart, if only to remember why he does not agree with them. Also, I believe the issue of where exactly an Orthodox Christian ought to draw the line in these questions is very much something worth reflecting on. (I have written on this before, mind you, but that has never stopped me from doing so again.)

Suffice it to say, I do not believe that either fundamentalism or ecumenism (each as defined above) is befitting an Orthodox Christian, the first because it is a sin against love and the second because, well, it is a sin against love.

That fundamentalism is a sin against love is evident to all but the fundamentalist himself. This attitude, that it is I who possess the truth in and of myself, that it is I who am right, is fundamentally an error. Orthodoxy is not a measure by which people are judged to be correct or in error. Orthodoxy, because it is the truth, is actually Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He is the truth, and so we Orthodox rightly affirm that the truth is not a set of concepts which one can get right or wrong, but that the truth is a Person. Therefore, the one who is truly in union with that Person cannot be a fundamentalist, because he will have transcended worldly categories of rational correctness. He also cannot be militant, because the One with Whom he is in union is pure gentleness and respects the free will of mankind, having granted it Himself in the first place.

Ecumenism is likewise a sin against love, and, again, that is news to the ecumenist. He probably thinks he is acting in the interests of love, setting aside all that pesky dogma that divides and does not unite. But love does not lie, not even to spare the feelings of the beloved. And ecumenism is fundamentally based on the lie that there is no truth, that there are only “truths,” whose meaning never touches mankind such that he becomes responsible to something beyond himself. Rather, these “truths” are put in service to mankind.

Both fundamentalism and ecumenism (again, I stress: as defined above) are in their essence not remotely Christian. Why? It is because their purpose is always born of and directed toward this world. The fundamentalist serves worldly logic, always demanding correctness, while the ecumenist also serves another worldly logic, demanding instead social aims such as “justice” (defined typically in purely material terms) or “unity” (again, in material terms, not in terms of uniting with the one Christ). Neither fundamentalism nor ecumenism are actually about the truth, because they are about mere concepts (often about the truth), not about the Person Jesus Christ (Who is the truth).

Orthodoxy’s telos has always been directed away from this world, toward the Person Who is Truth Himself. That is why, as per Florovsky’s quote above, an Orthodox Christian must believe in only one Church, the Una Sancta (“One Holy,” from the Nicene Creed). Why? Because we believe in the whole Christ, according to the phrase of St. Augustine that Florovsky himself loved, totus Christus, caput et corpus (“the whole Christ, head and body”). Christ cannot be divided, and so there cannot be many churches. There can be only one Church.

Believing this and defending this to those who would deny it does not make one a fundamentalist. Why? It is because the uniqueness of Christ, which is the uniqueness of the Church, is not any human achievement. It is nothing for which I can take any credit. It is only something to which I can attempt to adhere. By my sins, I frequently separate myself from the Church, and it is only at the eschaton, the end of all things, when it will be known whether I will be fully and permanently joined with Christ.

Admitting that I am a sinner and do not understand the truth fully also does not make one an ecumenist. Why? Because God actually did reveal the truth, and He revealed that He is the truth. We cannot compromise on the nature of the truth—Who is a Person—any more than we can compromise on any other person’s nature. We can argue and issue agreed statements and overlook various points of doctrine all we want, but none of that will change the nature of Christ. He is Who He is. Working out a “confession” to which one must be loyal or to which disparate parties can agree is ultimately irrelevant to the reality, as though some “version” of Christianity could be found to be sufficient. The task of the Christian is not to discover the truth (or worse, “my” truth) so that it can be publicized to mankind but to be responsible to what was actually revealed to mankind. There is discovery to be made, but the discovery is how I may further conform myself to the revelation, not the revelation to me.

Yes, I believe that the Orthodox Church truly is the only Church. Seeing what I have seen, how can I believe otherwise? And I also wonder, how can anyone else who holds to some faith believe otherwise concerning his own faith? If what you believe is not truly the truth, why do you believe it? How is it worth your dignity and your loyalty if it is not the truth? Nothing is worthy of the name truth that does not call humanity to its knees in repentance to be transformed into what is higher and nobler.

What makes belief in the Una Sancta something that cannot be used as a weapon against others, something that cannot be turned into a fundamentalism, is that none of us truly knows whether he will finally be found in the Church at the end of time. The Church is not mine. The question is really whether I am the Church’s.

Likewise, the Una Sancta cannot be turned into a project of ecumenism, because the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the corpus of the totus Christus, and there is no amount of word-wrangling that will change the God-man Jesus Christ. In the end we must stand (in the words of the great Akathist of Romanos) “as mute as fish” before this mystery of incarnation.

Let us pray that in the end we will be found not to have neglected so great a salvation.

Update: For the sake of clarity, I thought I should make explicit that the definitions of fundamentalism and ecumenism used above are not my own, nor do I prefer them. To me, both words are almost entirely evacuated of any real meaning these days. I will, however, proffer my (observed) definition for fundamentalist as found in the wider culture:

fundamentalist, n. Anyone who is more serious about religion than I am, especially if he owns a gun.

Encomium Fidei

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The Anthem of Nihilism
In light of yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful to comment on the “other” side of the questions of inter-religious relations. By no means is this a sort of antithesis of yesterday’s thesis. Indeed, I believe a vigorous engagement precisely on doctrinal terms is the basis on which the best inter-religious friendships can occur. I’ve known some good men who have been engaged in honest, “ecumenism with a gun” type of dialogues who have made many good friends along the way, even if they remain on different sides of doctrinal questions.

Now, it should be noted that I do not rise in any sense in defense of “religion.” There is no such thing. There are only religions. Religion is far too broad a term to be useful in any real sense as a phenomenon to which one can point or offer criticism or defense. (For more on this, see the opening pages of David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). That said, I find religion quite interesting, and if we boil it down at least to its etymological roots (re + ligio), it means “reconnection.” Religion is fundamentally about reconnecting oneself—to community, to transcendent principles, to metaphysics, to tradition, etc. And in that sense we can see the fundamental irreligiosity of our age—even while attendance at religious services remains quite high just about everywhere, there is more and more a fundamental cultural sensibility of disconnection rather than reconnection. Indeed, much religion is, in this sense, distinctly irreligious.

The forgetfulness of politics (e.g., the senator who today insists that the sovereign debt ceiling must be raised who five years ago spoke out against it on principle, yet without any loss of reputation or influence), the ahistorical character of much theology and spiritual life, the general ignorance of history and disdain for tradition, the banality of modern industrialized mass education, the popularity of contraception—all of these things form a maelstrom of disconnection, of people from their pasts, of people from each other, of people from what orders their lives toward what is noble. The irony of our age is that, as telecommunications gives us more of the illusion of connection, we are plunged further into isolation.

Thus, I rise today in praise of faith, which is fundamentally not a set of beliefs, but an act. Faith is the act of reconnection. It is the act of religion.

I am fascinated by religions, and the more I learn of them, the more I learn to love Orthodoxy—not out of disdain, happy to be “free” of their problems, but rather out of being able to see my own faith more clearly and having my blind spots cleared up because of the way some other faith emphasizes things. It was a class on Hinduism which helped prepare me for the paradoxes of Orthodox Christianity. It was a friend’s decision to become Roman Catholic that articulated for me why I could no longer be Protestant. It was in seeing Islam in prison that I caught a glimpse of what prisoners experience. It was a Roman Catholic roommate in college who demonstrated for me what firmness in faith could look like for men in their twenties. And of course it was my Evangelical upbringing that gave me Christ.

All those who believe in what is beyond the world of the dull senses, who are willing to use tools of knowing that are beyond what has become standard in our world, have something in common, and that is that we believe in the possibility of self-transcendence. If there is a God (or even gods), then that means that humility is called for.

There is also something about man’s reach for transcendence that produces beauty. I can see the beauty in Buddhist culture, though I have a hard time relating. I can see it much more clearly in Catholic and Anglican Christendom, and indeed, in many ways, I still feel more at home in those Western Christian worlds than I do in the cultures of Orthodoxy. I of course want to go see Greece, Syria, Russia, etc., but I don’t think that they will thrill my heart in quite the way that my pilgrimage to the British Isles did in 2001. And I still try to read Tolkien every year.

I am also moved by the seriousness and capacity for compassion of the believers I meet outside of Orthodoxy, as well. Of course the family in which I grew up is highest among them. But I also greatly respect my clergy friends in other confessions that live and work here in Emmaus. I don’t believe in their theology, but they (who are mostly far more experienced than I) have a maturity and a comfortableness in their own churches that I hope someday to attain in my own. And I also very much wish that the sort of strong moral voice that certain communions have in America (particularly Rome) were characteristic of the Orthodox.

Yes, I want everyone to be an Orthodox Christian. But I do not go around trying to “make” people Orthodox. I will of course debate doctrine if that is appropriate at the moment, but I’m mainly interested in trying to facilitate an encounter with Christ. And just like St. Justin Martyr believed of old, Christ can be encountered outside the visible boundaries of the Church, as the spermatikos logos, the Word of God in seed form. That doesn’t mean that Christ’s Church doesn’t have boundaries, but it does mean that He’s out and about. He’s on the move.

It is not the case that everything outside the Church’s visible boundaries is unmitigated darkness. Any place where God is sought, where Christ is loved, or where the Truth is desired is a place where I can find joy.

There are, of course, cheerful materialists out there, people for whom transcendence or absolutes are utter nonsense yet are not bothered by it. But almost all of them are enjoying the inheritance of religion and not really ready to abandon it.

John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. The last prominent man who really did that with any consistency and honesty was Nietzsche. And I’m not fond of the vision he concocted. He was ready to deal with a world with a dead God.

It’s a good thing he was dead wrong.

Ecumenism with a Gun

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Statue of Elias on Mt. Carmel

I was recently taken to task via email by a local acquaintance who is a senior clergyman in another Christian confession. At issue was my occasional habit of using sarcasm when discussing the differences between faiths. A couple of his parishioners had attended one of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy lectures that I gave in Emmaus in the Fall of 2009, and I think appalled is probably the right word for their impression.

Now, there are a lot of reasons why someone might walk away from an encounter with me appalled, and most of them are probably pretty good reasons. Some of you know that I worked as a professional stagehand for ten years, and in that world, sarcasm is essentially the basic mode of communication. I confess that I still use it entirely too much, and I’m still working on cutting back.

Aside from my own sinfulness, though, it’s an interesting question as to whether it is ever okay to ridicule other doctrines—not just a little incredulity (which is probably the primary mode of my sense of humor when it comes to other doctrines), but actual ridicule. I actually think it’s a bad idea to ridicule other people, and I don’t believe that doctrine itself is a laughing matter, even utterly false doctrines. But let’s face it—prophets, saints and even the Lord Himself have been known to use strong language when speaking against those who oppose them. Perhaps the clearest use of sarcasm by a holy person in the Bible is when the Prophet Elias openly mocks the prophets of Baal even while they were in the midst of prayer. And if that moment of ecumenical sensitivity were not quite enough, Elias later had his ecumenical partners seized and then killed them (a scene which is depicted iconically on a small medallion my father-in-law gave to my son Elias at his baptism).

Now, I don’t think that Elias’s behavior is a normative model for ecumenical engagement. After all, he was alive in a very different time and place than our own, and in some sense we have to look at the slaying of the prophets of Baal as a sort of capital punishment for their crimes of leading the people of Israel astray.

But nevertheless, even if inter-religious engagement is not properly embarked upon by Christians with the use of violence, we can still see that, throughout the history of the revelation of the true God in true religion, first to the Jews and then to the New Israel, the Church, those who represented the faith did so with great vigor. The ecumenical “niceness” which is now the general norm in our own time is, historically speaking, something of an aberration. Throughout most of history, people who disagreed with each other over religion did so with fire, even when they weren’t using the sword. (So perhaps Elias can be rehabilitated as a patron saint of inter-religious dialogue, after all.)

This brings me to what I (yes, sarcastically) call “ecumenism with a gun.” To me, this phrase is shorthand for being a true representative of one’s religion, not compromising on its teachings or practices in order not to offend. So if I ever call someone an “ecumenist with a gun,” that’s what I mean. I don’t mean someone who attacks other people, but I surely expect them to attack what they believe are false doctrines.

Now, part of the problem with the word ecumenism of course is that it can mean anything from (1) doctrinal compromise to (2) real doctrinal engagement to (3) simply meeting together with folks from other faiths for the sake of friendship and cooperation in charitable work and common moral witness. I think the latter two of those three are worth doing, and I try to do both of them with some regularity. Usually, those two aren’t mixed very much, though I think it would be quite interesting if they were. Nonetheless, one must gauge what’s going on (especially with the third) to see if the second is going to work within those particular relationships. (I belong to an Emmaus group of clergy of various kinds, mostly Trinitarian Christians. We do not, in general, really discuss doctrine, though we once had a fascinating discussion on the spiritual character of church architecture.)

In thinking about all this, it occurs to me that there actually is a realm of vigorous discourse in which most of us are fine with an energetic pursuit and critical approach (and even assault) regarding the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Indeed, it is almost expected that such discussions will turn into debates, and we commonly select people to conduct such raucous dialogues on our behalf, while also not neglecting them ourselves. And what realm of discourse is that? It’s politics. In politics, if you’re not pushing ahead full-bore and openly declaring the wrongness of your opponent’s ideas and even sometimes expressing incredulity or ridicule toward his stances, then you’re not doing it right.

Why is this? Why do we have no problem with knock-down, drag-out politics but want inter-religious discussion to be “nice”? I don’t think it’s out of a sense of religious charity, but rather out of a sense that religion really just doesn’t matter that much, that doctrine isn’t worth fighting over. Or perhaps we think that religion is basically private and therefore inappropriate for public debate. But if the sovereign debt ceiling of the United States is worth fighting over, isn’t eternal life for billions of God’s children worth something? And isn’t the self-revelation of the God of the universe to all of mankind a matter of public concern?

Anyway, I actually am sorry that I do indeed get carried away with my sarcasm at times. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t do it, and I apologized to my fellow cleric and asked him to pass on my apology to his parishioners.

At the same time, I very clearly remember their visit to the lecture, and I don’t think they were appalled only by the tone. I think they were (at least partly) appalled that someone was describing their religious tradition in critical terms. They engaged me during the lecture, and during that engagement, neither they nor I mocked each other but only talked specifically about doctrine and practices in direct terms. They said that I was misrepresenting their tradition, and I know that I was—but mostly in the sense that I don’t believe in it. (I did make some changes when I revised the originals lectures to become the book, and there were some corrections of errors to be made. I had gotten some things wrong, so they were at least partly right.)

But it’s not as if the advertising on those lectures was in any way misleading. The title for the lectures was also “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” and the posters and other publicity all made it clear that we were going to be looking at other faiths from the point of view of Orthodoxy. And obviously, since it was an Orthodox priest giving the talks at an Orthodox church, Orthodoxy was being presented as the right way to go.

I did send the flyer to some of my contacts in other faith traditions, but when I do that, I always preface my request for their consideration with a comment that I’m asking them only to post such things if they find it appropriate. I myself do the same. Most (though not all) of the publicity I get from other religious traditions I would never put on the walls of my church, mainly because they promote a spirituality and doctrine that are alien (and even hostile) to Orthodoxy.

As I said, I am sorry that I offended some folks. I did not know until they began engaging me that I was dealing with folks from the faith tradition in question (though I should have known better and adjusted accordingly). The vast majority of the audience were Orthodox, and the lectures were explicitly designed for Orthodox Christians (something I also noted in the preface of the book). They were not designed as inter-religious dialogue.

But my hope is that, instead of just being offended, folks who become appalled at criticisms leveled at their beliefs (though not at them personally, since that is really not the point and is not honorable) will research and see whether what I or other critics say is true. And if what we’re saying is not true (at least from the viewpoint of their own tradition), what I would like to see happen is the mounting of a vigorous response. At the very least, I would love to sit down and talk with them about this very bad impression they’ve remembered for two years and perhaps express my regret to them directly for the offense I caused.

Although these issues are apologetical in their character, I’m really not an apologist, but I do try to understand the basic apologetic issues, because they’re important. Why? For one thing, truth is worth debating and contending for. When the issue is doctrine, I fully expect to be doctrinally attacked by people whose tradition puts me under anathema. I always am a little suspicious when I’m not. I have little time for the ecumenical professionals’ “agreed statements” while the official books of other faiths officially consign me to the netherworld. (“Yes, well, technically we do curse your name and cast you into Hell because you do not believe this thing we believe, but can’t we really talk about something else, like recognizing each other’s baptisms?”)

There are, of course, inherent limits to apologetics. There are the human limits of people like me, who are not as well-versed as we should be in all the realms of religious theology that are available. And some people are simply not very well-versed in their own tradition. (I continually find a discrepancy between the official teachings of a faith and what its followers actually believe or are being taught.) Another limit is the simple reality that different people (even smart, sincere people) can look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions. But perhaps the most important limit for this discussion is that followers of disparate traditions don’t always have to be talking about doctrine.

We can be friends without that. You can tell me that doctrinal engagement is off-limits, and unless you’re actively seeking to undermine my faithful and my church, I will leave such topics alone. (Public statements invite public response, however.) I have lots of family and friends, people I love and who love me, with whom I don’t talk about doctrine. (My Baptist grandmother did happen to attend the lecture I gave which critically treated the revivalism that is the source of her tradition’s shape, but she knew what she was getting into.) We can even still talk about religion, which I find fascinating even when I don’t agree with particular tenets. And on top of all that, it’s not like we should spend most of our time on these things. Most of what believers should be doing is following the teachings of their traditions.

And even if I do not agree with the doctrines and practices of another religion, I do respect the faith of those who follow it, especially those who follow it with seriousness. Indeed, I almost always make it a point not to stir up such serious people to try to coax them into Orthodoxy. Someone who loves God and is earnestly seeking the Truth is not someone I need to seek out for prodding.

I believe that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true way, that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church, and that every single man, woman and child should be an Orthodox Christian. I hope that other religious people believe the same things about their religions. If they don’t, they are at least partial relativists, and if one is a relativist, I don’t see the point in being part of a religion. (Or they could simply be very mean—their faith is the one, true faith, but they don’t want to see other folks in it.)

But that does not mean that I or anyone else have to spend all of our time trying to make people into members of our churches. One must try to gauge the right moment to present the Gospel in its fullness (especially in terms of comparative theology). Not every time and place is the right time and place to do that—but rest assured that there is indeed such a time and place.

We should be at least as serious about religion as we are about politics. If we’re not, I have doubts about whether we really believe in that stuff, anyway.