Dialog and Self-Criticism

For the council fathers, ecumenicism and evangelism, far from being secondary or tangential to the life of the Church, have deep Christological and biblical roots, and are two hallmarks of a committed Orthodox Christian spiritual life. But, and the fathers are also clear about this, neither of these can

be a monologue, since [both] assumes the existence of listeners and therefore of communication. Dialogue implies two sides, a mutual openness to communication, a willingness to understand, not only an “open mouth”, but also a “heart enlarged” (cf. 2 Cor. 6:11). That is why the problem of theological language, comprehension and interpretation should become one of the most important issues in the dialogue of the Orthodox theology with other confessions” (4.5).

Enlarging our heart, what in another context I have called empathy, is the central instrument of Orthodox witness. Writing as they do at the close of the 20th century, the council fathers were painfully aware that recent human history

has been marked by the tragedy of divisions, enmity and alienation, but in it divided Christians have shown a desire to achieve unity in the Church of Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church has responded to this desire with a readiness to conduct a dialogue of truth and love with non-Orthodox Christians, inspired by the call of Christ and by the goal of Christian unity as ordained by God. And today, on the threshold of the third millennium after the Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church again lovingly and persistently calls all those for whom the name of Jesus Christ is above all other names under heaven (cf. Acts 4:12) to seek blessed unity in the Church: “Our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged” (2 Cor. 6:12).

It is tempting to assume that we can create that unity through our own efforts. In BPA the bishops identify theological relativism and triumphalism as the ways in which we often succumb to the desire to a man made union. In sections 2.4-2.10 they address the dimension of relativism. While not denying the role of human sinfulness and cultural misunderstanding the bishops rightly root relativism that reduces the Gospel to a purely human reality.

Also unacceptable is the idea that all the divisions are essentially tragic misunderstandings, that disagreements seem irreconcilable only because of a lack of mutual love and a reluctance to realise that, in spite of all the differences and dissimilarities, there is sufficient unity and harmony in “what is most important”. Our divisions cannot be reduced to human passions, to egoism, much less to cultural, social and political circumstances which are secondary from the Church’s point of view. Also unacceptable is the argument that the Orthodox Church differs from other Christian communities with which she does not have communion only in secondary matters. The divisions and differences cannot all be reduced to various non-theological factors (2.8).

If relativism is ruled out, this is not meant to suggest that Orthodox Christians are without our own failings. Directly and forcefully the fathers rule out any hint of triumphalism. As wise pastors they remind the faithful and clergy that

One should not yield to the temptation to idealize the past or to ignore the tragic shortcomings and failures which marked the history of the Church. Above all the great fathers of the Church themselves give an example of spiritual self-criticism. The history of the Church in the IV-VII centuries knew of not a few cases when a significant proportion of believers fell into heresy. But history also reveals that the Church struggled on principled terms with the heresies that were infecting her children and that there were cases where those who had gone astray were healed of heresy, experienced repentance and returned to the bosom of the Church. This tragic experience of misunderstanding emerging from within the Church herself and of the struggle with it during the period of the ecumenical councils has taught the children of the Orthodox Church to be vigilant. The Orthodox Church, while humbly bearing witness to her preservation of the truth, at the same time remembers all the temptations which arose during her history (1.9).

The remedies for relativism and triumphalism are the same: not only knowledge of the faith of the Church, but also a commitment to dialog that is rooted in both an openness to others and a spirit of self-criticism ground in Christ’s call to His Church to always empty herself of any pretention and self-confidence.

In my own pastoral experience I have found, for example, that an acknowledge both of the fullness of the Church’s faith, and a willingness to acknowledge the shortcomings of her members, is very positive thing not only for those interested in the Orthodox Church, but also for those who were raised in the Church.

Taking our cue from BPA, it seems that both our ecumenical activities and evangelical outreach, are grounded in our profession of the Orthodox faith. And in both cases, mutual dialog and self-criticism, vivified by our personal kenosis, are the means by which our profession of faith is lived out. This is certainly what the Apostle Paul counsels when he writes to the Church at Philippi

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2.1-11).

To be continued. . .

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