Difficulties in the Orthodox-Western Encounter: An Orthodox Ethicist Shares Two Contrasting Perspectives
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Stanley S. Harakas
Editor's Note: A respected Orthodox ethicist takes both Orthodox and Evangelicals to task in this painful assessment of post-Soviet "soul wars." Readers should take care in quoting Harakas because points made are frequently followed by equally compelling counterpoints.
East and West at Odds
An exchange took place in the Geneva suburb of Chambesy in September of 1991 at the Inter-Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was a meeting of representatives of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches throughout the world and, of course, dominated by representatives of Orthodox Churches from Eastern Europe.
Almost all of the church leaders who spoke expressed themselves, roughly, in the following fashion:
We are very pleased that our church is now free from control and repression at the hands of the former regime. We rejoice in our newfound freedom. We look forward to a normalization of our church life. Yet we are disturbed by the inrush of foreign missionaries from various Christian and non-Christian churches and sects. They are creating division and fragmenting our national and ecclesial unity in a scandalous way. We ask you to protest this inappropriate activity, for our nation is an Orthodox nation by tradition and polity. Other churches should respect that and stop seeking to convert our people.
This was the almost unanimous stance from the leaders of the Orthodox Churches present at the meeting. In my role as a "theological consultant" I felt it necessary to speak to this stance. I began by noting that I was speaking as an Orthodox who shares in a traditional ethnic heritage, but also as an American. I repeatedly sought to point out that there seemed to be an inherent contradiction in statements celebrating freedom on the one hand and, on the other, demanding that non-Orthodox proselytizing activity be prohibited. I offered the opinion that these were mutually exclusive concepts. What was needed, I said, was an acceptance of the new realities rooted in a competitive effort to retain and regain for the Orthodox Church the peoples who were its traditional flock.
Essentially I called for pastoral activism. This meant that it was necessary for the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe and elsewhere to accept that freedom meant anyone could proclaim their beliefs and seek converts, but the best defense by the Orthodox Church would be to minister energetically to its natural constituencies. I was repeatedly told, "I did not understand," and my comments essentially fell on deaf, if not antagonistic, ears. This personal experience summarizes the challenge for Orthodox in the post-Soviet world.
Orthodox Assumptions and Distinctives
Orthodox assumptions for ecclesial life are not rooted in the Western post-enlightenment, secularist, capitalist, and individualistic ethos now so dominant in the modern world. In the face of Western rationalism, Orthodox emphasize human finiteness and the transcendent mystery of the ultimate unknowability of God. The East's stance is summarized in the title given to a translation and commentary of Gregory the Theologian's five theological orations by Fredrick W. Norris: _Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning_ (New York: Brill, 1991). In sharp distinction from the rampant individualism of the contemporary mindset, in Orthodoxy both theological and ethnic considerations play important roles in affirming, rather, the corporate reality of human existence. In the face of the fact that holiness is often thought of in individual terms, it is often forgotten that the presence of the Holy Spirit creates community.
An outgrowth of this perspective is the incarnational missionary perspective of Orthodox Christianity that historically sought to embody the Christian faith in the language, culture, ethos, and lifestyle of particular peoples and nations. This formation of "nations" (as distinguished from states), in a way that respected the local identities and cultures of believers, was characteristic of Byzantine missions from the earliest history of Eastern Christianity. James Stamoolis, an Evangelical Protestant scholar, in his work Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1986), emphasizes the importance of this approach for Orthodox Christianity. He says, "The incarnational approach, the translation into the vernacular, yet more than the translation, the very embodiment of God's truth in the language and culture of a people, has been the hallmark of the best of Orthodox mission work."
The Secular Assault on All of Christendom
In many ways, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is no different from Roman Catholicism and the various strains of Protestantism as they face the modern world. The secular character of the modern world's ethos and values militates against the values of faith. In like manner, numerous particular issues serve to challenge both thought and practice of the Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet period. The shock of having to deal with issues of public concern is great.
Numerous issues of popular culture, pastoral goals, and methodologies assault Orthodox Churches of the former Soviet bloc. Some of these, for example, are numerous sexual issues (such as birth control, homosexuality, abortion, venereal diseases, and AIDS), interfaith marriages, the family, child abuse, divorce, human rights, racism, criminal justice, war and peace, ecology, health and healing, death and dying, and euthanasia. These and numerous other moral and social questions challenge these churches in a unique way, since in the 70-year period of Soviet domination it was not possible even to reflect on most of them, much less address them pastorally.
Orthodox Temptations: Ethnic Infatuation and Political Conformity
There is an all-too-easy movement from a legitimate "incarnation of the Orthodox Faith in the ethnic cultures of peoples" to submersion of the Faith to ethnic interests--what could be called an "ethno-cultural caesoropapism." Thus, the danger exists for the Gospel of salvation, the integrity of ecclesial life, and the catholic vision of the Christian mission to be submerged in the deep waters of religiously sanctioned ethnicism or nationalism. True, this has been condemned frequently by Orthodox writers and even by an important Council of the Orthodox Church, which dealt with Bulgarian "ethnoplyleticism," yet it remains a thorn in the side of Orthodoxy.
The failures produced by an uncritical and too-close relationship of the Orthodox Church to its ethnic and cultural associations came to the fore precisely during the Soviet era. Both non-Orthodox and Orthodox critics have documented these failures and what might honestly be called betrayals. Thus, Carnegie Samuel Calian, a Presbyterian scholar and student of Orthodoxy, noted that the Orthodox Church under the Ceausescu regime in Romania was "an example of misapplied "symphonia" eclipsing Orthodoxy's prophetic responsibility and faithfulness to truth and justice. In retrospect, it can be seen that the Romanian Orthodox Church paid too high a price in its uncritical support of the state" (Theology Without Boundaries: Encounters of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Tradition [Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992], 73).
No one, however, on the American scene has been more critical of the Orthodox Church in these situations than the Orthodox priest and ethicist Alexander F. C. Webster, in his controversial volume, The Price of Prophecy: Orthodox Churches on Peace, Freedom, and Security (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993). Focusing primarily on the Russian and Romanian churches, he severely criticizes both churches for the absence of a sufficiently distanced stance allowing for more ecclesial integrity before the militantly atheistic governments of those two nations.
Evangelicals and Indecent Proselytism
Many Orthodox Christians [also] ask if the proselytizing influx of Western missionaries is spiritually and morally justifiable. Seeking with extremely limited means to reevangelize their own peoples, instead of help and cooperation, these churches find their work undercut by every manner of proselytizing effort. It is as if the Orthodox Churches and their at least nominal constituencies in these nations are being treated as some sort of ecclesiastical carrion, to be picked apart while still on their knees after 70 years of battering by militant atheism. In the view of Orthodox, simple human decency in such a situation would seek rather to assist these fellow churches in ministering to their natural constituencies. I seek for what Ion Bria has called, in another context, "a time of grace" for the Orthodox Churches to assume their work in each of these nations, to address their problems, and to reevangelize their nations. Needless to say, such a "time of grace" cannot be limitless, but ethically and morally speaking, the Western world should recognize that simple human decency demands it.
Persuasion Versus Legislation
On the part of the Orthodox, however, there must come an acceptance one day of the truth that the old means of state/church accommodation will never return. This means that the means available to the Christian Church are those that it had available to it in the pre-Constantinian period. Jaroslav Pelikan begins and ends his book, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), with a quotation from Goethe. It summarizes the message that the Orthodox must hear and respond to in the post-Soviet period: "What you have as heritage, take now as task; for thus you will make it your own." This return to earlier traditions for Orthodoxy must also mean a renewed respect for freedom and a stronger commitment to the method of persuasion and spiritual example, on what should be a level playing field. There is a case to be made for a return by the contemporary Orthodox Church to an early church and patristic commitment to freedom. This is a commitment to the "Voices of Religious Liberty in the Early Church," as expressed [in] the title of an article by Everett Ferguson (Restoration Quarterly 119 [no. 19, 1976], 13-22). In that article, passages from early church writings provide what seem to be very contemporary and modern perspectives that need to inspire Orthodox to a renewed understanding of mission and ministry in the new millennium that is dawning.
With some of these early Christian judgments on religious freedom, I conclude. From Tertullian: "It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion--to which free will and not force should lead us"; from St. Athanasius: "The truth is not preached with swords or with darts, nor by means of soldiers; but by persuasion and counsel"; from St. John Chrysostom: "It ill befits Christians of all men to correct the mistakes of the erring by constraint. God crowns those who refrain from evil by choice and not by necessity. The priest has much to do also in gathering up the scattered members of the church. The shepherd can recall a wandering sheep with a shout, but if a man errs from the true faith, the pastor has need of great effort, perseverance, and patience. The wanderer cannot be dragged by force or constrained by fear. Only persuasion can restore him to the truth from which he has fallen away."
Stanley S. Harakas, "Difficulties in the Orthodox-Western Encounter: An Orthodox Ethicist Shares Two Contrasting Perspectives,"
East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 7-9.