Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ecumenism Revisited

I was discussing with a friend yesterday how common religious relativism has become among conservative and liberal Christians. No, I mean that seriously. Christian unity is important; indeed it is imperative. It is a good and right thing for Christians to engage in conversation, friendship, and common mission across denominational and confessional lines. However, there are really unhealthy ways in which to talk about it.

"I'm a Baptist, because that's what I think is right for me. I'm glad that you're a Methodist, because that's what God has called you to be. It doesn't really matter because we all love Jesus."

Such sentiments mean well, but they are problematic. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, truth is not. God may very well call people to build their lives in particular denominational traditions, but I believe that if Jesus is faithful to his own prayer for unity in John 17, the trinitarian God has a trajectory in mind for all churches, that at least in the eschaton, we'll all be one. The way to build such unity is not through relativism.

When I say, it's good and of little consequence for me to be a Baptist or Anglican or Lutheran, and I say the same about your affiliation as a Pentecostal or Catholic or Methodist, I might be playing nice, but I am not being respectful. When I downplay the significance of such things, I also deny the value of those traditions.

If I am to say that the Baptist tradition has something real and meaningful and important to offer the rest of the Church of Jesus Christ, I must first say that it is of some significance for folks to be Baptists. If there is anything good in a tradition, I must first say that it matters.

Would it surprise you to hear me say that I am an Anglican Christian because I think it is the most faithful way, in this time and place, to respond to and embody the fact of God's reign in Christ? If I believed otherwise, I would certainly go and do something else. I would certainly be surprised to hear a friend confess that they did not believe their tradition to be a more faithful way - otherwise, why would they be involved as they are? However to say this is not to say that other Christian traditions are not faithful - such binary thinking gets us nowhere, and is as uncharitable as it is untrue.

I only treat my own tradition with integrity when I say that it matters that one is part of it, and that it offers particular gifts for Christian faith and practice, and that - heaven forbid - people should get on board with it.

When I can say this, I can then dialogue critically with other traditions: I can learn them, and receive the challenge they offer to my own, and how I live and understand the faith, and offer challenge to them in return. I can acknowledge the ways in which they can teach me to strive toward a move faithful obedience to Christ, and be warned away from pitfalls. If I also believe such things matter, they can learn from me and criticize me as well.

My point? We don't have tell ourselves that our differences don't matter in order to play nicely together, and it's only when we know that our differences matter very much that we can learn from one another.


Anonymous said...

Preach it. =D

Garrett said...

Would it surprise you to hear me say that I am an Anglican Christian because I think it is the most faithful way, in this time and place, to respond to and embody the fact of God's reign in Christ? If I believed otherwise, I would certainly go and do something else.

You sound like a neoclassical economist. Or at least someone who thinks that rational behavior and thought dominates our existence well out of proportion to evidence that rational behavior and thought actually dominate our existence.

I would argue that your statement could just as easily be inverted, and probably more relevant to most folk:

Would it surprise you to hear me say that I think it is the most faithful way, in this time and place, to respond to and embody the fact of God's reign in Christ because I am an Anglican Christian?

Granted, you definitely chose to be Anglican, and did so for excellent reasons that you have directly and indirectly explained here and elsewhere. But something about this post just strikes me as a really grumpy version of idealism. It sounds political, not spiritual, like something that would fit better at the RNC or DNC keynotes.

Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple fundamental errors here, one of which Garrett identifies. In fact, it might be more helpful in some cases to view the denominations as religious orders rather than as sects. From my perspective, what is powerful about the Methodist Church is Wesleyan spirituality. There are a huge variety of doctrinal viewpoints in that church, as there are and always have been in every church, but Wesleyan spirituality is a specific charism that contributes positively to the wider church. Lutheranism has a hyper-Augustinian devotion to Scripture -- which can veer into unhealthy territory at times, but which also makes a positive contribution in terms of holding up Scripture as a powerful and life-giving gift for the church. If it weren't for the outside pressure and the positive examples of these churches, Rome might very well not have restored Scripture to its rightful place and made other good changes during Vatican II.

The other error is in connecting the unicity of God's vision for the world with a need for a single church that teaches true doctrine. Doctrine develops, and there are legitimate disagreements where several sides can be lived with integrity. Some of these (say, the place of Scripture) have been going on for most of the life of the church, and sometimes they reach the point where it's hard to live in the same institutional structures. It's not relativistic to say, "Your Lutheran emphasis on Scripture, which I find excessive, nevertheless has integrity and I can respect it." At least as long as that person is willing to condemn, say, anti-body and elitist gnostic theologies, which clearly strike at core tenets of Christianity and have no place in the faith. (Just an example -- there are plenty of other things where there's no legitimate disagreement, interesting though academic devil's-advocacy might be.)

I don't think acceptance without pushing hard for converting the other is bad or disrespectful in these two circumstances. In fact, unless the setting is really conducive to discernment on doctrinal issues, this may very well be the most appropriate attitude.

(I'm also not sure what you propose instead of "Hey, it's ok, we're all Christians." I hope not a closed table, as the Eucharist is not only a sign of unity but a means for effecting it -- so it is appropriate to come to the Table with people who disagree with some of our doctrinal positions or spiritual practices.)

tom said...

I've got to agree with Kyle on this one. I think to suggest that we view denominations as different orders misses the point. Certainly there are differences is emphasis between Franciscan and Jesuits, but there is more in common than in contrast. This is not the case between denominations where the differences are often at a fundamental level and mutally exclusive to each other. If I accept the truth claims of one I am at the same time rejecting the other position as false. I recall a post that Alan made some time ago drawing attention to the disservice we do to the Body of Christ by holding that all expressions of the church are of equal value to the others.

Kyle said...

This is really helpful, guys.

Garrett makes an important point that people most often aren't part of their traditions because they've done all their homework, and have come out to their best reasoned conclusions. I happened to be in a place (as he acknowledged) that I had to find a way of being a Christian other than the Southern Baptist beliefs and practices that were on offer, or it would make no sense to be a Christian. Most of us inhabit our particular traditions because of our backgrounds and social networks. I don't think I want to say one context is to be preferred over another...

Another good question arises: how do I know that I don't really mean, "I think this is most faithful, because I am an Anglican?" I'm not sure that I can, but I think there are ways of talking that can defend me (and the rest of us) from that kind of heart attitude. I need to say at this point, however, that I didn't mean this to be a post about Anglicanism, but how we think and talk about our own Christian traditions. It might sound different after saying that. I prefer to talk about the practices and stories that are faithful, and the value I see in my adopted tradition is pragmatic: I really think it's one that can accomodate the things I think really important. I suspect that this kind of value actually precludes the "Anglican Pride" parade I'd like to throw sometimes (just being honest...). I believe that Anglicanism is a catholicism that is positioned to feed off the ancient tradition, but also to do theological dialogue in an undefensive manner. To maintain that, one must remain in a posture of openness to other Christian traditons: only the whole Church can know the whole Truth, after all.

Fr Chris, I like what you have to say here. What you describe in terms of seeing these traditions as orders within a broader conception of the Church rather than as "sects" fits better with the kind of generous dialogue I want us all to embody - it starts from the supposition that we are part of legimately Christian bodies, and that we have more in common than not.

Yet, Tom makes a very important point. Having lots of things in common isn't always enough. For a very honest example, I assume that any Pentecostal I meet is not an orthodox Christian believer. When I meet a Pentecostal Christian, I listen and try hard to find common ground and to find a reason to consider them something other than a "false brother" - all because of the prevalence of the properity gospel that has almost completely mutated that tradition. Because, after all, when we say yes to things, we say no to other things.

Chris writes,

"It's not relativistic to say, "Your Lutheran emphasis on Scripture, which I find excessive, nevertheless has integrity and I can respect it." At least as long as that person is willing to condemn, say, anti-body and elitist gnostic theologies, which clearly strike at core tenets of Christianity and have no place in the faith."

Yes. It's a willingness to do that that I mean to encourage in this post. What I'm talking about is steering some kind of nuanced course between the issuing anathemas to everybody else on the one hand, and just saying "all that matters is that we love Jesus" on the other. The former stance is an idolatry, the worship of one's own tradition and one's own rightness, while the latter responds this by refusing to explicitly value any tradition.

SaintSimon said...

I love this post and its comments. I think Kyle's approach is spot on.

You said you don't know anyone who is ina church that the disagree with - I am basically a non-conformist or anabaptist, yet I am part of an Anglican chruch because that is where God has put me, despite my objections. And I meet a surprisingly large number of 'Anglicans' who are in excatly the same boat!

Garrett said...

Well, I for one am quite satisfied with your addendum :)

The comment sounds like cool Kyle, the post sounded like thesis Kyle. Maybe you should stop spending ten hour days at Common Grounds (coincidentally, the site of the first date that has led to current marriage).

My reaction was probably fueled by the fact that I can't find a tradition in which I can work spiritually right now. I have openly announced to my folks that the next time I step inside a Baptist church will be for their funerals. And I'm convinced that every churchgoer in Ann Arbor that I've met reacts to their surroundings in some absurdly condemning way (i.e. we're in Sodom with 70% of democrats, so we have to be nuts and fight all those stem-cell peddling freaks!).

Anonymous said...

Kyle --

Given what you've said in subsequent comments, I think we do agree then. Responding to Tom, and to your approving response to him -- I think it greatly depends on who we're talking about here. I have the same grave concerns about, say, Pentecostal theology that you express. There are substantial doctrinal points that separate them from Catholic Christianity. That's significantly less the case with the Lutheran churches or the Methodist church -- it is somewhat more appropriate to view them as being part of the stream of the Christian tradition but with differing charisms.

But yeah, I do agree that glossing over the differences or acting like they don't matter is disrespectful. I'd caution that sometimes that relativistic language actually hides non-relativistic engagement underneath (people are rarely as relativistic as they act), but that can be hard to discern, and if the language is disingenuous it should be confronted anyway.

Kyle said...

Simon, I have heard that quite a bit here and there while in Britain; I really don't think I can stand behind my assertion that people either should or do search out the depths of their home (host?) tradition and are either ready or willing to defend it. I'm not even prepared to say that it's necessarily better to do that. I think that Anglicanism exists to enable people in Christian mission and discipleship, and to be part of Christ's Church, both catholic and reformed. If it's not that, I don't think it's quite so kingdom-relevant.

Thanks, Garrett. I think I understand your frustration. Do you plan on settling in the Great White North when you finish school, by the way?

I think I get you, Chris, and I agree - it depends. And lots of relativistic ecumenists (wha?) are just being polite anyway.

Anonymous said...

As a priest in a small Episcopal parish in a small town in the Diocese of Louisiana where I am surrounded by Baptists and Pentecostals, I struggle with the fact that certain churches are more instantly accessible than liturgical churches which seem to require time to grow into... I also struggle with the standard sense that program (especially for children) is far more important as people are "shopping" than, say, the fact that Christ, the Word through whom all things were made gives himself to us each Sunday... places himself in our hands and in our bodies...

One doesn't have to question the salvation of people in other "denominations" to believe that a splintered Body of Christ is not a neutral thing in God's eyes...

But what has become clear to me lately is that in the United States (at least) people line up behind an identity of "conservative" or "liberal," usually related to morality and politics, and want to place a particular parish or denomination in such a category... and everything else is secondary.

Just one experience I had recently...

The father of a parishioner was visiting one Sunday and, after a pleasant conversation during coffer hour about NT Wright's books, went on to explain how, as a result of the Episcopal Church's stand on "the-only-issue-that-seems-to-matter-in-Anglicanism-these-days" is now a member of the Reformed Episcopal Church (which didn't stop him from receiving communion at our parish--which is great as far as I'm concerned, but raises more questions). He explained further that before he was an Episcopalian he was Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic (I think in that order), and I think one or two other things in between. All of his moves had been related to moral issues (birth control, remarriage, etc.).

I didn't say so at the time (I was playing nice by not saying much of anything), but afterward I was frustrated by what seemed to me to be a kind of promiscuity and I also kept thinking that here was an example of the fact that Kant has won. The particulars of traditions are less important than the TRUE religion, which is morality.

Should moral issues trump things like baptismal regeneration, ecclesiology, Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, etc.? I don't think moral issues don't matter, but aren't they connected to ontological truth? Shouldn't what you say abot the Eucharist or Marriage as a sacrament or the Church or the Trinity will (should) have a determinative effect on the moral life?

I think so...

Father Rhodes

Weekend Fisher said...

I found my way here from a link at Pseudo-Polymath's blog. Fwiw, we've been having similar conversations over in that corner of the blogosphere. I plan to submit this post to the June edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, unless you'd care to submit it yourself.

It's really encouraging to see this kind of conversation.

byron smith said...

Great post Kyle - I read it and had three or four things to say, only to then read the comments and find that they'd already been said and discussed with grace (my main concern was whether 'momentum' in one's tradition is necessarily a bad thing, even if you haven't (yet?) done all your homework. I say this as a fellow Baptist-turned-Anglican. But this has already been addressed well). Thanks.

Kyle said...

Thank you for your helpful comments, Fr Rhodes. I've addressed them in a new post.

Fisher, I'm pleased you've enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for making the submission.

Cheers, Byron.