Ecumenism with a Gun

Statue of Elias on Mt. Carmel

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.

17 comments:

  1. Father, bless. While I sympathize with your intent to present Orthodoxy, and while I (being a sarcastic sort myself) further sympathize with your use of sarcasm as a tool, the portion of this post dealing with the person offended by what they perceived as the mischaracterization of their faith tradition was interesting to me for this reason. When I became Orthodox, one of the most telling signs that I was on the right track was when people warned me what was wrong with Orthodox belief, and they got it completely wrong.

    We ought to be careful to be charitable to our brethren. Sarcasm has its place, but it needs to be sarcasm that is as accurate as possible (and having heard the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy podcasts, I think you are). Sarcasm that creates a caricature of another Christian faith is not going to be very persuasive. I am Orthodox today in large measure because I found the criticisms of Orthodoxy by non-Orthodox to be false caricatures. We ought be careful (and again, I think you are) to ensure that we speak of our brethren in the kindest way, particularly when we are criticizing their beliefs.

    My $0.02.

    1. I think that mischaracterizations are inevitable when looking at a faith from the viewpoint of another. To see a faith as its faithful see it, one has to be among the faithful. For Roman Catholics, papal infallibility makes perfect sense, but as a non-RC I cannot possibly present it as making perfect sense.

      So, yes, we must always take care to try our hardest not to caricature other faiths, but we cannot help but misrepresent them as long as we are not representatives of them.

        1. The question is: More useful for what?

          If one is teaching a class to one’s parishioners to try to introduce them to other theologies and how to respond to them, then turning such a class into a dialogue is not really going to work. In any event, there are plenty of examples from both Scripture and the saints’ writings that are precisely a description and answer to heterodox religion—even sometimes when directed at heterodox believers.

          If one is talking with a friend who belongs to another religion and comparing beliefs, then, yes, dialogue can be useful, but unless one is a relativist, it has to be remembered that the rules for such dialogue are not going to be premised on doctrinal compromise. As an Orthodox Christian, for me the teachings of the Church are not matters of negotiation.

      1. Actually, my old life as a charismatic consisted of daily mis-characterizations of the pop-evangelical, charismatic world simply because if I were honest about my basic religious-worldview I would have to face the fact that I was in dire contradiction to the historic Church. I found that many of my seminary professors also mis-characterized their own denominational persuasions to “save face” in otherwise embarrassing religious banters with other faiths.

        Its the old psychological situation of post-decision bias, where one favors their choice simply because they chose it, and develop protective mental-filters which prevent them from accepting new and contradictory information about the ‘rightness’ of their choice. Offense is bound to follow when one is protecting his own presuppositions rather than engaging in open and honest inquiry.

  2. “For one thing, truth is worth debating and contending for. ”

    Hear! Hear!

    As one who also uses too much sarcasm and tries to dismantle the pattern in my own family, I’ve learned this with certainty: nothing kills honest, growth producing communication like sarcasm.

  3. Father,

    I agree with the substance of your post. If those parishoners were Catholic let me apologize for them being so damn thin-skinned. For them to be that easily “offended” even if you were overly sarcastic shows a lack of confidence in one’s own faith tradition. Fire away at the Pope, indulgences, purgatory … … my Church has been criticized for 2000 years (and alot of that criticism was/is valid) and is still around so I’m not going to get my panties in a wad. And if you weren’t in some sense critical of those and other doctrines, well you wouldn’t really be Orthodox.

    That being said, I have seen some pretty bad caricatures of Catholic doctrine/theology from some Orthodox and a lack of understanding at how much interpretive leeway is still granted even on dogmatic issues for the Catholic. To aggressively “attack” another faith tradition one had better be pretty damn well read. And it should be done primarily with charity, with only the occasional use of the gun. I’ve found asking questions of the other side and making them answer those questions is much more enlightening to both parties that a simply bombastic approach of spewing factoids which may or may not be accurate and which probably won’t gain much traction anyway.

    That’s enough stream of consciousness for one night. BTW, this is Pete from Jim Thorpe, I came to Vespers awhile back.

  4. Father, bless.

    I, too, struggle with sarcasm. It’s useful only in NYC, where its use signals you trust the other person not to be offended. That’s an affirmation (strangely enough) of closeness,.

    The caricature thing works two ways. Often a person who charges us with caricaturing their religion cannot tell us why what we’ve said is inaccurate. In such cases, I have concluded that the description is not a caricature at all, but is their doctrine, accurately stated but simply without the usual euphemisms.

  5. Father, bless.

    I’m not sure I’m ready to take a decisive position on sarcasm; you left out that Elijah had said, in modern terms, “Maybe [Ba’al] can’t come to the phone right now.” Sarcasm is to be listed in the Philokalia among the lists of vices, as the humor that I wrote about in “On Humor” at http://JonathansCorner.com/humor/ – and I write this as someone who contributed to the Onion Dome with more where that came from.

    But bracketing the question of sarcasm, I believe both that ecumenism needs a gun, and that it is possible without sarcasm. http://JonathansCorner.com/ecumenism/ is mighty offensive to some Catholics, but it does so without sarcasm, and while I’ve been told I have Catholicism deeply wrong, I am not aware of a Catholic finding sarcasm.

    I would ordinarily expect polemics with a gun to work better without sarcasm. When I remember (in a non-religious context) polemics with a gun and sarcasm, I remember stopping at the sarcasm and not moving on to the point that had motivated the sarcasm.

    I think polemics with a gun persuades better when sarcasm is not in the mix.

  6. “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.)”

    One addition/nuance that I have to offer is that there are points of opinion where in a certain sense Orthodox should be (as you frame it here) relativists. Romans 14 comes to mind, where adherents of different opinions are told to live together as the Church. In theology, there is dogma and doctrine, where the question of heresy matters, and theologoumena and theological opinion, where differences may exist. Doctrine and dogma are the most important and generally the most interesting, but theologoumena creep in to discourse.

    In “Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough” at http://JonathansCorner.com/creation/, there is reference to two points:

    1: It is a problem to bring Protestant young-earth Creationism and creation science into the Orthodox Church.

    2: I believe in old-earth Creationism.

    But there is a difference in how they are presented: the first one is a major point and it comes with gun. The second position is more mentioned than argued, and it is mentioned in something like a “full disclosure” attitude, without driving home the point that the reader should adopt this view. The first point is meant as a concern related to dogma and doctrine, and importing elements of heterodox tradition into Orthodoxy. The second is meant as a theologoumenon, if it even reaches this level, and it is raised without the implication that disagreement is harmful to Orthodoxy. In fact I give an explicit blessing to people who in simplicity believe in a young earth as most saints have.

    The basic distinction (about doctrine and dogma on the one hand, and theologoumena or theological opinion on the other hand, not about origins and importing heterodox elements into Orthodox Tradition) is one that is properly Orthodox, and I would point out explicitly that something like this is shared between Orthodoxy and Christian ecumenical partners to whom you would prefer both to be able to say “I agree” and “I disagree” at different times. The problem is that for a conservative Protestant, the boundary line between dogma and opinion is essentially C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, where adoration of the Theotokos, Thomism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism are all options within bounds, and for more liberal ecumenists who seek not to integrate Christian confessions but world religions, the dogma is essentially liberal or radical activism (although it is never put in these terms). The basic categories of “required” and “we can agree to disagree” seem to be there, ALWAYS be there; the problem is where people draw the line. A conservative Protestant may see you as taking one position within mere Christianity; you will see him heterodox and outside of Orthodox Tradition, even Orthodox opinion. And he may be frustrated you don’t reciprocate when he classifies you as having equivalent beliefs (the same goes for Catholics, too).

    Now doctrine does matter and the boundary between dogma and opinion is that of Orthodoxy and Holy Tradition, not a competitor such as I outlined above. But the line is there.

    1. The problem is that for a conservative Protestant, the boundary line between dogma and opinion is essentially C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”, where adoration of the Theotokos, Thomism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism are all options within bounds…

      I think that was true for Lewis, but I don’t believe it’s true for most conservative Protestants. Indeed, in my own (mainstream Evangelical) upbringing, all of the things you name were denounced to me on different levels as various kinds of heresy, not simply matters of opinion.

      1. Point (partially) taken. My own experience from an Evangelical background was more of mere Christianity, but I’ve run into enough of the other sort. At Calvin College (I was not a Calvinist), the “born and bred” Calvinists may have been ignorant of how you could be a Christian except for along Calvinist lines, but showed more curiosity than hostility in dealing with non-Calvinists. But then there are the “much more Calvinist than John Calvin” types, and that’s a completely different ball of wax.

        I remember one discussion where a hyper-Calvinist said, “Out of all the books in the Bible, Romans is the one that most makes sense.”

        I said, “Of all the books in the Bible, Romans is the one that’s most like [his name].”

        But then I don’t remember having any such conversation with born-and-bred Calvinists.

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