Orthodoxy, Ecumenism, Properly Reading Texts

At the blog of Fr. David Bird, OSB there is a post which contains David Bentley Hart’s essay “The Myth of Schism” (which seems very good to me, although I don’t know enough to judge it). Appended to the end of this post is an excerpt from a letter from Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, an Orthodox priest:

What almost always passes for Orthodox theology among English-speaking Orthodox these days is actually just a branch of the larger Orthodox picture. Indeed, it tends sometimes to be rather sectarian.
The Orthodox Church is an ancient castle, as it were, of which only two or three rooms have been much in use since about 1920. These two or three rooms were furnished by the Russian émigrés in Paris between the two World Wars. This furniture is heavily neo-Palamite and anti-Scholastic. It relies heavily on the Cappadocians, Maximus, and Gregory Palamas (who are good folks, or course). Anything that does not fit comfortably into that model is dismissed as Western and even non-Orthodox.
Consequently, one will look in vain in that theology for any significant contribution from the Alexandrians, chiefly Cyril, and that major Antiochian, Chrysostom. When these are quoted, it is usually some incidental point on which they can afford to be quoted. Now I submit that any Orthodox theology that has so little use for the two major figures from Antioch and Alexandria is giving something less than the whole picture.
Likewise, this popular neo-Palamite brand of Orthodoxy, though it quotes Damascene when it is convenient, never really engages Damascene’s manifestly Scholastic approach to theology. Much less does it have any use for the other early Scholastic theologians, such as Theodore the Studite and Euthymus Zygabenus. There is no recognition that Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West, and that only the rise of the Turk kept it from flourishing in the East. There is also no explicit recognition that the defining pattern of Orthodox Christology was formulated in the West before Chalcedon. Pope Leo’s distinctions are already very clear in Augustine decades before Chalcedon. Yet, Orthodox treatises on the history of Christology regularly ignore Augustine. Augustine tends to be classified as a Scholastic, which he most certainly was not. But Western and Scholastic are bad words with these folks. In fact, however, Augustine and the Scholastics represent only other rooms in the larger castle. For this reason I urge you, as you can, to read in the Orthodox sources that tend to get skipped in what currently passes for Orthodoxy. For my part, I believe the Russian émigré theology from Paris, which seems profoundly reactionary and anti-Western, is an inadequate instrument for the evangelization of this country and the world. I say this while gladly recognizing my own debt to Russian émigré theology.

Well said! It might surprise many of those who accuse others of being “ecumenists” that one of St. Mark of Ephesus’s close friends, this blog’s patron Patriarch, Gennadios Scholarios, was a huge fan of Thomas Aquinas, and it seems that St. Mark himself was never opposed to that kind of theology. What he called heretical were certain conclusions given by some Latins attending the Council of Florence, and it is very important to note that the Latins did not seriously try to make themselves understood to the Greeks. So while those who take themselves to be defending the Church like to quote St. Mark’s words denouncing the West as heretical, what they miss is the context which balances those words.

In addition to St. Mark concerning the West, some Orthodox also quote, e.g., St. John of Damascus concerning Islam. Again, what they miss is why this was said. St. John is being polemical in response to prior accusations from Muslims that he and fellow Christians were, e.g., idolators. But many who quote St. John are not responding to insulting accusations from Muslims, but simply trying to support their beliefs about the political danger of Islam to the West. And it must be remembered that just because a holy man insulted someone, does not make it holy for us to do the same. In a sermon St. Augustine makes the point that saints did not make insults to hurt people or to satisfy their own egos, but solely for the sake of good. Therefore, if we feel an urge to attack Catholics, or Muslims, or whoever, we must look inward and see if it is for a good purpose, or an evil one. Of course, this also goes for Orthodox (like me) who feel more urges to insult not Muslims or Catholics, but fellow, more extreme, Orthodox.

It is apparent, then, that this is a case of poor reading of texts. Those who are against ecumenism (or Islam, or whatever) sometimes have a pick-and-choose attitude to past Orthodox writings. They form their opinion, and then go find quotes from saints which, on the face of it, look like they support their position. However, when we examine why the saint wrote what they did, it becomes clear that it is not immediately applicable to the current issue. This very same tactic, in fact, is what some often do in order to try to “disprove” Christianity. For example, they may quote Mark 10:18 and say that this is so obviously Jesus claiming that he isn’t God. When, in fact, that passage can be just as well interpreted in many other ways, and context seems to suggest that their suggested interpretation is weak.

So, whatever grievances the anti-ecumenists have about the West, it seems to me like it’s often not just about theology, but more about resisting undesired Western influence. This is very fair, and their concerns about the West deserved to be heard and respected. If we are constantly accusing each other of being ecumenists, or fundamentalists, or whatever, then speaking to each other at all is pointless. St. Paul seems to have been desperate of Jerusalem’s approval, even when they didn’t immediately see eye-to-eye. I wonder, if the attitudes we have now were had back then, what would have happened to the Church?

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