I was recently taken to task via email by a local acquaintance who is a senior clergyman in another Christian confession. At issue was my occasional habit of using sarcasm when discussing the differences between faiths. A couple of his parishioners had attended one of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy lectures that I gave in Emmaus in the Fall of 2009, and I think appalled is probably the right word for their impression.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why someone might walk away from an encounter with me appalled, and most of them are probably pretty good reasons. Some of you know that I worked as a professional stagehand for ten years, and in that world, sarcasm is essentially the basic mode of communication. I confess that I still use it entirely too much, and I’m still working on cutting back.
Aside from my own sinfulness, though, it’s an interesting question as to whether it is ever okay to ridicule other doctrines—not just a little incredulity (which is probably the primary mode of my sense of humor when it comes to other doctrines), but actual ridicule. I actually think it’s a bad idea to ridicule other people, and I don’t believe that doctrine itself is a laughing matter, even utterly false doctrines. But let’s face it—prophets, saints and even the Lord Himself have been known to use strong language when speaking against those who oppose them. Perhaps the clearest use of sarcasm by a holy person in the Bible is when the Prophet Elias openly mocks the prophets of Baal even while they were in the midst of prayer. And if that moment of ecumenical sensitivity were not quite enough, Elias later had his ecumenical partners seized and then killed them (a scene which is depicted iconically on a small medallion my father-in-law gave to my son Elias at his baptism).
Now, I don’t think that Elias’s behavior is a normative model for ecumenical engagement. After all, he was alive in a very different time and place than our own, and in some sense we have to look at the slaying of the prophets of Baal as a sort of capital punishment for their crimes of leading the people of Israel astray.
But nevertheless, even if inter-religious engagement is not properly embarked upon by Christians with the use of violence, we can still see that, throughout the history of the revelation of the true God in true religion, first to the Jews and then to the New Israel, the Church, those who represented the faith did so with great vigor. The ecumenical “niceness” which is now the general norm in our own time is, historically speaking, something of an aberration. Throughout most of history, people who disagreed with each other over religion did so with fire, even when they weren’t using the sword. (So perhaps Elias can be rehabilitated as a patron saint of inter-religious dialogue, after all.)
This brings me to what I (yes, sarcastically) call “ecumenism with a gun.” To me, this phrase is shorthand for being a true representative of one’s religion, not compromising on its teachings or practices in order not to offend. So if I ever call someone an “ecumenist with a gun,” that’s what I mean. I don’t mean someone who attacks other people, but I surely expect them to attack what they believe are false doctrines.
Now, part of the problem with the word ecumenism of course is that it can mean anything from (1) doctrinal compromise to (2) real doctrinal engagement to (3) simply meeting together with folks from other faiths for the sake of friendship and cooperation in charitable work and common moral witness. I think the latter two of those three are worth doing, and I try to do both of them with some regularity. Usually, those two aren’t mixed very much, though I think it would be quite interesting if they were. Nonetheless, one must gauge what’s going on (especially with the third) to see if the second is going to work within those particular relationships. (I belong to an Emmaus group of clergy of various kinds, mostly Trinitarian Christians. We do not, in general, really discuss doctrine, though we once had a fascinating discussion on the spiritual character of church architecture.)
In thinking about all this, it occurs to me that there actually is a realm of vigorous discourse in which most of us are fine with an energetic pursuit and critical approach (and even assault) regarding the beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Indeed, it is almost expected that such discussions will turn into debates, and we commonly select people to conduct such raucous dialogues on our behalf, while also not neglecting them ourselves. And what realm of discourse is that? It’s politics. In politics, if you’re not pushing ahead full-bore and openly declaring the wrongness of your opponent’s ideas and even sometimes expressing incredulity or ridicule toward his stances, then you’re not doing it right.
Why is this? Why do we have no problem with knock-down, drag-out politics but want inter-religious discussion to be “nice”? I don’t think it’s out of a sense of religious charity, but rather out of a sense that religion really just doesn’t matter that much, that doctrine isn’t worth fighting over. Or perhaps we think that religion is basically private and therefore inappropriate for public debate. But if the sovereign debt ceiling of the United States is worth fighting over, isn’t eternal life for billions of God’s children worth something? And isn’t the self-revelation of the God of the universe to all of mankind a matter of public concern?
Anyway, I actually am sorry that I do indeed get carried away with my sarcasm at times. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t do it, and I apologized to my fellow cleric and asked him to pass on my apology to his parishioners.
At the same time, I very clearly remember their visit to the lecture, and I don’t think they were appalled only by the tone. I think they were (at least partly) appalled that someone was describing their religious tradition in critical terms. They engaged me during the lecture, and during that engagement, neither they nor I mocked each other but only talked specifically about doctrine and practices in direct terms. They said that I was misrepresenting their tradition, and I know that I was—but mostly in the sense that I don’t believe in it. (I did make some changes when I revised the originals lectures to become the book, and there were some corrections of errors to be made. I had gotten some things wrong, so they were at least partly right.)
But it’s not as if the advertising on those lectures was in any way misleading. The title for the lectures was also “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” and the posters and other publicity all made it clear that we were going to be looking at other faiths from the point of view of Orthodoxy. And obviously, since it was an Orthodox priest giving the talks at an Orthodox church, Orthodoxy was being presented as the right way to go.
I did send the flyer to some of my contacts in other faith traditions, but when I do that, I always preface my request for their consideration with a comment that I’m asking them only to post such things if they find it appropriate. I myself do the same. Most (though not all) of the publicity I get from other religious traditions I would never put on the walls of my church, mainly because they promote a spirituality and doctrine that are alien (and even hostile) to Orthodoxy.
As I said, I am sorry that I offended some folks. I did not know until they began engaging me that I was dealing with folks from the faith tradition in question (though I should have known better and adjusted accordingly). The vast majority of the audience were Orthodox, and the lectures were explicitly designed for Orthodox Christians (something I also noted in the preface of the book). They were not designed as inter-religious dialogue.
But my hope is that, instead of just being offended, folks who become appalled at criticisms leveled at their beliefs (though not at them personally, since that is really not the point and is not honorable) will research and see whether what I or other critics say is true. And if what we’re saying is not true (at least from the viewpoint of their own tradition), what I would like to see happen is the mounting of a vigorous response. At the very least, I would love to sit down and talk with them about this very bad impression they’ve remembered for two years and perhaps express my regret to them directly for the offense I caused.
Although these issues are apologetical in their character, I’m really not an apologist, but I do try to understand the basic apologetic issues, because they’re important. Why? For one thing, truth is worth debating and contending for. When the issue is doctrine, I fully expect to be doctrinally attacked by people whose tradition puts me under anathema. I always am a little suspicious when I’m not. I have little time for the ecumenical professionals’ “agreed statements” while the official books of other faiths officially consign me to the netherworld. (“Yes, well, technically we do curse your name and cast you into Hell because you do not believe this thing we believe, but can’t we really talk about something else, like recognizing each other’s baptisms?”)
There are, of course, inherent limits to apologetics. There are the human limits of people like me, who are not as well-versed as we should be in all the realms of religious theology that are available. And some people are simply not very well-versed in their own tradition. (I continually find a discrepancy between the official teachings of a faith and what its followers actually believe or are being taught.) Another limit is the simple reality that different people (even smart, sincere people) can look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions. But perhaps the most important limit for this discussion is that followers of disparate traditions don’t always have to be talking about doctrine.
We can be friends without that. You can tell me that doctrinal engagement is off-limits, and unless you’re actively seeking to undermine my faithful and my church, I will leave such topics alone. (Public statements invite public response, however.) I have lots of family and friends, people I love and who love me, with whom I don’t talk about doctrine. (My Baptist grandmother did happen to attend the lecture I gave which critically treated the revivalism that is the source of her tradition’s shape, but she knew what she was getting into.) We can even still talk about religion, which I find fascinating even when I don’t agree with particular tenets. And on top of all that, it’s not like we should spend most of our time on these things. Most of what believers should be doing is following the teachings of their traditions.
And even if I do not agree with the doctrines and practices of another religion, I do respect the faith of those who follow it, especially those who follow it with seriousness. Indeed, I almost always make it a point not to stir up such serious people to try to coax them into Orthodoxy. Someone who loves God and is earnestly seeking the Truth is not someone I need to seek out for prodding.
I believe that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true way, that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church, and that every single man, woman and child should be an Orthodox Christian. I hope that other religious people believe the same things about their religions. If they don’t, they are at least partial relativists, and if one is a relativist, I don’t see the point in being part of a religion. (Or they could simply be very mean—their faith is the one, true faith, but they don’t want to see other folks in it.)
But that does not mean that I or anyone else have to spend all of our time trying to make people into members of our churches. One must try to gauge the right moment to present the Gospel in its fullness (especially in terms of comparative theology). Not every time and place is the right time and place to do that—but rest assured that there is indeed such a time and place.
We should be at least as serious about religion as we are about politics. If we’re not, I have doubts about whether we really believe in that stuff, anyway.