Often Talking Past Each Other: Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian Dialog

In Ron Dart’s essay, John Chrysostom and Western Christianity, he points out correctly that back when the East and West formed one Church, Rome often came to the aid of misunderstood and prophetic saints in the East–just as the East became a place of both refuge and inspiration for saints in the West.  I also agree that it is a serious mistake for Orthodox Christians, or any Christian, to idealize just about anything in the Church: The Holy Spirit’s work in the Church is often very messy from a human perspective.  Many, many saints are virtually unrecognized in their generation.

However, I don’t think Ron has got it quite right when he suggests that the Eastern Church does not generally tell the full story of Rome’s positive involvement in Church disputes (personal and theological) during the first thousand years of (mostly) official unity between the East and West.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing any Orthodox authority disparage or leave out contributions of the West. Our Synaxarion (daily readings of the lives and events of the saints) includes many western saints and does not hesitate to speak well of Rome when Rome has done well.

That said, I do agree with Ron that it is a huge mistake for Orthodox Christians to “write off” all of western Christianity after 1053 (or whenever you chose to draw the line of separation). There have indeed been many inspiring saints and insightful authors in the western tradition since communion between the Churches was lost. Nonetheless, there are also many sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant differences between Orthodox Christian understandings of faith, spirituality, doctrine, ecclesiology and morality when compared to the official and most common western Christian understandings in these same areas. Many of these differences have more to do with the way Orthodox Christians think about these matters when compared to the way western Christians about them.  

While some of the blatant differences such as yeast in the Holy Bread, Married clergy and differences in rite are truly not serious matters and could easily be resolved. Other blatant matters, such as the meaning of Papal Primacy, the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and the Father, the nature of divine Grace, and the understanding of the fall, sin and salvation are very serious matters.  Discussion of these serious matters is often made difficult because of the more subtle (yet substantial) differences in the way Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to approach and think about these matters when compared to typical western approaches and ways of thinking. It seems to me that it is sometimes difficult for many western Christians to appreciate or even acknowledge these subtle differences and the effects they have on dialog about more blatant differences. Further, I think it is this inability or unwillingness to appreciate or even acknowledge these differences in way that sometimes lead to misunderstandings about the general Eastern Orthodox reluctance to look to the contemporary West for spiritual guidance.

I am not without hope. What is good and true wherever it is found should be honored by all who love the Truth.  Friendship and dialog between Eastern Orthodox and western Christians are important–especially dialog that includes careful listening. Learning and listening are good for everybody. It is more important to love than to be right; or to put it another way, there is no one right but God, therefore we all must learn, and love is the context in which real learning can take place.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *