A recent note from a young Orthodox acquaintance referred to me as “irenic” in my writings. I was grateful for the description and glad that something I actually intend is also actually conveyed. I learn a lot from other Orthodox bloggers or frequent posters on other sites where the discussions can get heated (I think especially of my dear Catholic friend, Fr. Al Kimel’s Pontifications).
I have always intended to write and respond in an irenic (it means “peaceful”) manner primarily because I doubt the efficacy of anger or diatribe. Don’t get me wrong – I believe in defending the faith – but I believe it is best defended irenically. Sometimes you have to wait and cool down before you write something. When I am writing in a “defender of the faith” mode, I tend to mash the delete button several times before I’m finished.
Having said all of that – what about dialog with other Christians? Specifically dialog that is looking at differences between Orthodox and others. I had a professor who once offered the following observation (the topic was marriage counseling but it applies to ecumenical dialog as well):
As long as one person perceives there to be a problem, then there is a problem. It’s not unusual in a situation of marriage counseling to have one person say, “We don’t have any problems,” while the other spouse says, “Oh yes we do!”
In those counseling situations it is at least true that one or more persons are not listening very well. If someone perceives that a problem exists then they should be given the chance to describe their problem.
This is frequently true in conversations with others about doctrine. Some Orthodox can be overly critical of anything “Western,” which is probably overstating the Orthodox case. But it can also be frustrating to have someone tell you that the problem or difference that you perceive isn’t really there. If I perceive a problem then there is a problem – even if the only problem is within my perception. Sometimes I perceive things incorrectly.
Orthodoxy has a long habit of not articulating certain matters of doctrine. Our habit has always been to avoid Ecumenical Councils (which is why the last one was in the 8th century). Though we celebrate the Seven Councils with their own feast day, we do not look to repeat them. Councils are the result of failure on someone’s part. If it’s a heresy we are addressing, then woe to us all that some of us have fallen into heresy. And in this matter we should be like God who only chastens us for the purpose of bringing us to salvation. Councils and their decisions do not exist to condemn the unfaithful (I say this being fully cognizant of the “anathemas” pronounced at all of the Councils). But if we do not love heretics, then we are demonstrating that we do not know God – for He makes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
Which brings me back to being irenic. I know many stories about saints who spoke and acted in a less than irenic manner. Their conduct does not negate what I have said. Several serious ruptures, even schisms, in the life of the Church through the centuries have been far more the result of belligerent behavior and so-called “bad blood” than true truth-denying heresy. This was certainly the case in the early split with the so-called Monophysites. The lack of love between Christians renders it impossible for us to even say the Creed properly.
“Brethren, let us love one another that with one mind and one heart we may confess God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” This is the Deacon’s bidding to the Nicene Creed in all Orthodox liturgies. Even within the household of faith, within the same parish, we must speak irenically and strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Without such actions and speech we will not be able to properly confess God for Who He is. We may say the words, but they will be empty within the hardness of our hearts.
Thus it is that we should speak irenically. State the truth – defend the faith. This is a Godly thing to do. But doing so in peace is as important as doing it at all. According to St. James, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
But within the boundary of peace we can do much good, and even benefit others and ourselves when we disagree.