Lunch today was with a good friend I have locally, who describes himself as “Post-Charismatic” and “Ortho-Curious.” He is seminary educated and works in the teaching staff at a mini-mega-church (basically the same style as a mega, but without the thousands of people). We eat lunch and drink coffee together regularly, watch movies together, and he has been to my house many times. It has been wonderful over the past few years to have a local friend who is both outside of the Orthodox Church (and so not someone who has any vested interest in our relationship except as friends) yet who is also very much interested in Orthodox theology and worship.
One of our perennial topics of discussion is the theological background that he came from (but is no longer invested in)—the Word of Faith Movement. This is the larger theological world that the Prosperity Gospel comes out of. We talked about this again today, especially preacher Creflo Dollar’s recent infamous attempt to crowdfund himself $65M for a new private jet.
What struck me as we talked is how this action by Dollar (yes, that is his real name) is a real issue in my friend’s circles. It’s controversial. Some people think it’s ridiculous (like my friend), while others think it’s just fine. One of his interlocutors on social media defended Dollar by saying that her own pastor preaches on Sunday morning in Georgia, then takes his private jet to California to preach there in the evening. This is his normal routine.
We could of course lampoon these people here and ask what makes one preacher so special that such enormous resources are needed to get him around so that people can hear him in person on two coasts in a single day.
But what especially occurred to me today is that this situation is so far removed from my own theological world. Yes, Orthodoxy has its problems, too. (We do.) But any priest or bishop who tried to get the world to hand him $65M for a private jet would probably not be too far from deposition. We at least pretend to be ascetical.
But there is nevertheless a whole world in which this subject is something that actually needs to be discussed. It’s serious. It’s not a joke for them. This is, for many, within the bounds of the possible and even the normal. Lots of people take prosperity preachers seriously, else they would have no audience. And their audience is not confined to a bunch of uneducated dupes. There are thoughtful, faithful people there for whom this theology makes sense.
That can be tough to remember when we come face to face with religious traditions that are not our own. I’ve been guilty of not remembering this. I have sometimes treated other religious doctrines and practices as isolated pieces of ridiculous silliness that no one could ever take seriously.
But people do take these things seriously. And it seems perfectly rational within their community to do so.
The best sort of ecumenism is the kind based on actual friendship and brotherhood, the kind based on taking seriously what someone else believes, even if you cannot agree with it. This is the sort of ecumenism which actually does witness to the truth, because it treats the other person as an actual person.
The kind of ecumenism which seeks to compromise on doctrine for the sake of some vague togetherness, as well as the sort which just attacks the other (which probably doesn’t go by ecumenism, of course), does not actually take the other person seriously, because neither engages the other person in his integrity and his faith.
I am always wary of those who say that they are “speaking the truth in love” yet have no actual love evident. (If you have to tell someone that he is being loved, then he is probably not being loved.) I am likewise wary of those who would set aside the truth (usually calling it “dogma”) in the name of love, because they also have no actual love evident. Truth is not the enemy of love, nor is love the enemy of truth.
Love always seeks to engage the person for who he is as a coherent person with beliefs which are coherent and consistent for him. That’s the only basis on which an authentic witness to the truth can happen.