Transcending Relativism & Triumphalism

Obviously, the position I’ve outlined in my last post requires further systematic and historical research and elaboration. But it makes, to my mind at least, an intuitive sense. Whether Orthodox or not, our communion with the Church is grounded in our communion with Christ. And this primordial communion is characterized not simply by the objective presence of grace, but subjectively by our freedom in response to the divine initiative. In their refusal to offer an evaluation of the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox confessions, the council fathers in BPA are trying to remain faithful to both the operation of divine grace and human. Granted we can debate the degree to which they succeed in this, and even if this is their intent, but this does allow us a way out of the impasse of what to many (both outside and inside the Orthodox Church) seems to be an ecclesiological agnosticism.

The differences between the Orthodox and, for example, Roman Catholic Churches on a given issue are often not simply theological, but also psychological. We can, I think, get at the psychological difference by considering statements by the Roman Catholic Church such as Dominus Iesus, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” and the recently released “Doctrinal Notes on Some Aspects of Evangelism.” While there are some points of disagreement, in the main these are documents articulate a position that the Orthodox Church would also hold about herself. While I hope to offer a fuller treatment later, for now I would say this: Taken together, these documents are a prudential, pastoral response to aberrations that have arisen of emphasizing too much the commonality between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic confessions and non-Christian religions (For example see the American Catholic bishops’ “Clarification” of some problems with Fr. Peter C. Phan’s Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue and earlier corrections on the work of Fr. Hans Kung. A good summary of the bishops’ concerns about Phan’s work can be found on Touchstone’s
Mere Comments.). The lesson as an Orthodox Christian that I draw from these documents is that good intentions to find common ground out not to be carried out to such a degree that we lose our zeal for evangelism and for the reconciliation of divided Christendom.

Overemphasize our similarities and you fall into a relativism that denies any real difference between Christian confessions and, indeed, between Christians and non-Christians. Overemphasize our differences, however, and you fall into a triumphalism that makes the Church a sectarian group radically divorced from the very human family that Christ joins Himself to and for which He suffers and dies. In both cases, the catholic (kata + holos, or wholeness) nature of the Church is lost.

The necessity of balancing of similarity and difference, of continuity and discontinuity, I should emphasis, emerges not from a divided Christendom, or even a religious divided humanity. Certainly the divisions in the human and Christian communities, flowing as they do from our personal sinfulness, serve to complicate these tensions, but it is not the cause. The deep structure of these tension are found in God’s creative actions—there is between humanity and God a similarity and a difference, a continuity and discontinuity, that can never be dissolved. But it is a tension that can be transcended. (When I have time, I hope to look at the implications for evangelism and ecumenicism of some contemporary research in the psychology of human development that discussion the “post-formal” stages of human growth and development. This research can help us understand psychological how we can overcome some of the human obstacles to holding the tensions that are intrinsic to not only to human development, evangelism and ecumenicism, but the enormous challenges of parish ministry.)

It is through love, that is to say, in Christ, that we are able to embrace similarity and difference, continuity and discontinuity. This raises a question, and in fact, this is the last question of this series: “Do we want to be reconciled with each other?” Or, more directly, “Are Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians willing to love one another, and the whole creation, as Jesus loves us?” (With a hat tip to Fr John Steffaro of St John Orthodox Church (OCA) in Campbell, OH, for the second question.)

To be continued, and concluded. . .

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