Toward & Away; Against & With

In my last post, I suggested that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have there are different basic styles of relating to the world. In brief, the Catholic Church’s tradition tends to be one that favors a “movement toward” the world. The tradition of the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, is one that values more a “movement away” from the world. In the West, grace perfects nature; in the East, grace is what makes possible the transcendence of nature. Obviously these are overly broad categories and just as obviously one can find easily “Eastern” tendencies in the “West” and “Western” tendencies in the “East.” And counter examples exist in both traditions that make a hash of my typology. But be that as it may, the general tendencies are true enough. Though they are different ways of relating to the world, there are not necessarily opposed to each other. Indeed, they can even complement each other.

In my own view, one of the greatest values of psychoanalytic thought in general, and Horney’s thought in particular, is that it embodies a certain anthropological genius. Psychoanalysis excels in helping us understand how even the noblest of human sentiments and goals can be shot through with self-deception and a desire for self-aggrandizement. For example, and we saw this in yesterday’s post, the Catholic “movement toward” the world of person, events and things can easily become mere compliance even as the Orthodox tendency to “move away” can come to embody what Horney calls detachment, or (to use less theologically loaded language) indifference. At least by analogy, faith communities can be as pathologically neurotic as individuals.

That said, I think that it is a helpful way to think about East/West Christian relations. Both of these movements, “toward” the world and “away” from the world, I would suggest, can certainly be taken up for the life of the world. Just as a fundamental openness can embody my concern for the good of the world outside the Church, so to can my movement to separate myself from it also be in the service of the life of the world.

The tendency of some in both traditions to make rigid and exclusive what should be complementary, but opposite, movements of East and West I think is where much of the conflict arises when we sit down together to discuss the relationship between our respective traditions. Under the best of circumstances, but especially in the absence of any personal relationship, intimacy, and trust, such conversations are anxiety provoking. This is why, as a quick aside, we often discover that face to face conversations between Catholics and Orthodox seem to work so much better than they do on the internet. Absent a personal, human encounter characterized by mutual respect and trust, we tend to fall back on our preferred approach to the world. As the anxiety increases, we become more rigid in our approach.

So, for example, the more the Catholic partner move toward the position of his or her Orthodox counterpart, absent a warm human connection between them, the more likely it is that the Orthodox participant will withdraw evoking from the Catholic partner an even more passionate pursuit of common ground.

And things, by the way, work the other way around as well. The more the Orthodox “moves away,” the more the Catholic partner is likely to “move toward” evoking an even more passionate “movement away” by the Orthodox.

If this is beginning to sound like a married couple stuck in a bad relationship, it should because it is.

Eventually the toxic mixture of anxiety and frustration leads not simply to a disagreement, but a bitter argument in which truth is often sacrificed for victory. Just as we can see the characteristically Eastern “movement away” among Western Christians, and can see the typically Western “movement toward” among Eastern Christians, so too both traditions have resources that lend themselves to a ratification of the third of Horney’s coping mechanism: “movement against.”

As with the other two movements, the movement against can, and often is, a healthy coping mechanism. There are times when we need to try and understand the one with whom we are in conflict (movement toward). At other times, the best response to conflict is to not let it bother us, to ignore it if you will (movement away). But just as clearly, there are times when must we risk a confrontation with the one with whom we are in conflict.

And, just like the other two styles, a movement against can become neurotic. For Horney a neurosis is a compulsion, what St Maximos would call a “passion.” Neurosis carries me away robbing me of my freedom to respond.

We would also do well to remember that these three styles of coping are not absolute. They are dynamics and are present in different measure, at different times, in the heart of each and every person. Though a particular faith tradition might “fit” with my own style of coping, and regardless of what I tell myself to the contrary, this fit is never absolute. I suspect that so often the bitter conflicts that ignite between Catholic and Orthodox Christians reflect (as I have said before) our own passions. But now we are in a position to understand that we often seek out for ourselves the “blessing” of our respective tradition for those passions.

To the degree that I confused my faith tradition with my own preferred style of coping, to that degree I will find intolerable even theologically insignificant divergence from the tradition to which I am neurotically attached. And again as Horney reminds us, my neurosis is ultimately ground in my own self-image. This being so any divergence from my tradition is likely to be taken up by me as a personal attach—and as such evoke from me an aggressive response.

Add to this what I see as the official and explicit sanction of my tradition for my preferred coping mechanism, and an otherwise healthy person is likely to lose all sense of balance and perspective.

What we need, then, might be a new method of engaging the often conflicted world of persons, events and things that constitute our lives?

While the movements toward, against and away are valuable they are insufficient. What might be a fourth, more spiritually and theologically sound means of coping?

What is needed is that we learn not simply to move toward, away and against, but also move with each other. It is this, I would suggest, that is really the goal of any ecumenical dialog. Ironically, it is the “movement with,” the movement of reconciliation and communion, that is the one that is most often neglected.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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