Ecumenism. I do not think there is a dirtier word that exists in the American Orthodox playbook. For decades now I have sat in national gatherings of my church and listened to the passionate and uncharitable calls from brother clergy to abandon all efforts to talk with Christians of other persuasions. “They are feminists,” they say; “they are gnostics,” others comment; “they are tree-hugging, Christa-worshipping, communist-supporting, family-bashing, left-leaning, immigrant-protecting heterodox secularists.” Or something like that. It’s hard to tell sometimes, but I am pretty sure that’s what I heard. Not a bit of charity. And certainly no interest whatsoever in learning about outsiders. Well, of course, we know everything we need to know about them, as was cited a few lines above this one (the tree-hugging part).
I think this sentiment – and make no mistake, I do think it is a sentiment (def: 1 – a view of or attitude toward a situation or event; an opinion. 2 – a feeling or emotion. [I choose both]) – comes from many people who themselves are converts to the faith from some other form of Christianity. That means they came from somewhere else first, like Methodism, or Lutheranism, or Calvinism, or Catholicism. Maybe, if they are truly industrious, they came from all four of those! Journeys take weird paths sometimes. Thank God.
Anyway, I was given an article a while back from someone, a convert, who was sharing his own thoughts about ecumenism and the Orthodox Church. I thought it might be of use to add my thoughts to his. I am not going to say who the writer is. Sorry. The writer says that he spent a great time in seminary “studying theology as an intellectual, academic enterprise with philosophical underpinnings”. So did I. But even then, when I was in seminary, I was not unaware that I needed to do some heavy lifting on my own. I knew that theology was literally the study of God and needed to be augmented with worship, spirituality and ethics. I knew that some ethicists disdained spirituality and that even some theologians never went to church. I didn’t care. I did what I knew was right. I did not despise them, I actually kind of pitied them for their lack of dimensionality.
I read Henri Nouwen. I read Thomas Merton. I read the great collection of books from Renovare (Devotional Classics, Spiritual Classics). I read voluminously from the Classics of Western Spirituality. I also read the writings of the Desert Fathers (thanks to Merton and Nouwen), and especially my beloved patron saint, Gregory of Nyssa (thanks again to Merton). I learned to appreciate the Church Fathers as voices to listen to and learn from, recognizing that they have an enduring authority in that they were dealing with matters quite similar to our own and they were largely bishops and priests or nuns – people immersed in the theology of the church along with the worship and spirituality of it as well. I found that their sacrifices and their love and commitment to God put my own feeble way of life to shame, and they made me appreciate the need to devote my life to God – heart, mind, soul, strength. So in effect, Christianity outside of Orthodoxy is not merely an intellectual pursuit – it has a rich spiritual tradition as old as that of Orthodoxy, even going so far as to include the very church Fathers we ourselves honor. Note: I learned this as a Christian, not necessarily as an Orthodox Christian.
So why did I convert? Because everywhere I went politics, not theology, ruled the day. Who cares about theology? what matters is how you feel about abortion, the death penalty, liberalism, conservatism, red, blue, etc. And look: now those denominations are splitting into conservative and liberal facsimiles of themselves. How cute (actually how tragic). I became Orthodox because Christianity’s fulness was preserved in her, from theology to worship to spirituality to ethos. It was there, and the politics was not. Thank God!
Back to the writer. He mentions Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and his understanding of theology as therapy. He sees this as a crucial aspect of life in the Orthodox chuch. But he writes as if the only way that the Orthodox think of theology is the way that Metropolitan Hierotheos does. If this is really what he believes, then he is mistaken. In my early years, I learned that Orthodoxy was big – global in fact, and diverse. In seminary I learned about and read Ugolnik, Bulgakov, Hopko, Florovsky, Zizioulas, Yannaris, Lossky, Romanides, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Florensky, Evdokimov, Rose, Ware, Azkoul, Tsirpanlis, Allen, Harakas, Guorian, and others, for sure. I read a lot. They were more my conversation partners than were Edward Farley and Hendrikus Berkhof (the ones I was supposed to read in seminary). I learned that the writers that I was reading came to write their books from many disparate points of view. I learned that Romanides and Azkoul really disliked Augustine. I thought that Schmemann wrote clearly and pastorally, and reminded me of Stanley Hauerwas at points. Rose reminded me somewhat of a Orthodox Thomas Merton, but his path was and is not my path. I had some I liked, others I did not. I did not see one as more Orthodox than the other, much like I did not see Hans Kung and Hans Urs von Balthasar as more Catholic than the another.
So now we come to today. The Orthodoxy of America today, in the context in which this article appears to have been written, has veered. In some present-day circles, it seems, the neo-patristic/neo-athonite/neo-palamite theology of Romaindes and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos has become the exclusive theology of Orthodoxy, even the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy. The model of theology as therapy (a valid model, for sure, but not the only one, as Larchet himself points out in his magisterial Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses), and the rejection of anything that is outside of the narrow band of palamite/hesychastic theology has the (hopefully) unintended side-effect of promoting a form of Orthodox fundamentalism. Among its characteristics is that fundamentalism rejects ecumenical discussions as being unfruitful and useless because of the insistence that, in all honesty, it is perceived that the east is so very far from the west.
The picture at the top of this article comes from a poster from the Mennonite Central Committee. As pacifists, they believe that embracing Christianity means embracing a lifestyle that makes real the possibility that swords will indeed be beaten into plowshares and that one day we will indeed learn war no more. It is living into the “ethos” of Christ’s Gospel teachings in the fullest way possible. The only way we can do this indeed is to agree, and to agree about some important things. We can agree not to kill each other. We can agree, each of us, to live honestly into our Christian faith – not judging, but loving our neighbor, and loving God fully and completely. We can learn about each other, and this is where I think ecumenism is most important: I am not looking for pan-Christian sacramental participation. I am hoping for each expression of Christianity to talk openly and honestly about themselves and about each other. Do I think Orthodoxy is Christianity in its fulness? Yes. But I also believe it is important to talk with others. We learn about ourselves when we do. Our faith may be perfect, but we humans are only human – corruptible and imperfect. We see through the mirror dimly and we must have the humility to understand that God can teach us in any way He chooses. And we can learn just how far we have to go sometimes to attain the theosis we are so eager to partake of. It is foolish and arrogant to abandon opportunities to talk to each other, to learn from each other, to work often with each other in times of need or common purpose, and help all peoples to get closer to the living God whom we love and revere.