On exclusive truth-claims; or, What I Believe

June 30, 2008

Last week I was informed by one of the readers of this blog that he questions whether I “actually believe any exclusive claim to truth.” And, he says, because he suspects that it is the case that I do not “actually believe any exclusive claim to truth,” he sees no reconciliation between himself and me, and will always oppose me.

Let me simply say, first, that my love of truth, and my belief in its reality, ought to be sufficiently clear to any unbiased reader of this blog. Likewise, my belief in the articles of the Christian faith as enounced in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and my acceptance of the authority of Holy Scripture and of the teachings of the ecumenical councils cannot, I think, be seriously questioned by anyone who knows me. I endeavor to be a faithful Christian, and, at the same time, a thinking one. I do not think that having faith excludes asking pointed questions. I do not think that studying John Bekkos, and thinking that, on certain matters, he got things right, is inconsistent with being an Orthodox Christian. In truth, I do have questions about the origin of Christian divisions, and the justifiability of their continuation, and what implications these things have for me personally in my attempt to live a Christian life. If I did not have real questions, I would be, I think, a very poor scholar, and a pretty arrogant, small-minded human being. But those are issues I prefer to take up with my father-confessor rather than with the blogging public, and most Orthodox priests to whom I have asked the question have encouraged me to persevere with my studies.

As for believing in any “exclusive claim to truth”: it is true that those Orthodox hierarchs and theologians for whom I have the greatest respect — men like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Archbishop Demetrios of New York, and Patriarch Bartholomew — do not generally go about, beating their breasts, affirming that the Orthodox Church possesses exclusive claims to truth, as though, by virtue of being Orthodox, one automatically regarded all Catholics and Protestants as heretics. Most of these aforesaid bishops tend rather to say that the Orthodox Church possesses the fulness of saving truth, that it possesses Jesus Christ, who is the truth, and that, where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church. Most of them would further affirm that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are, in some sense, sister Churches, that their separation has impoverished both of them and brought incalculable damage to Christianity, and that, just as the Catholics are asked, in charity, not to proselytize the Orthodox, so also the Orthodox ought not to present the Orthodox faith to Catholics in such a way as to imply that, unless they cease to be Catholics and become Orthodox, they cannot be saved. Most of these men would acknowledge that there is some legitimate sense in which the Bishop of Rome exercises a Petrine primacy; they would like to see that primacy clarified so that its exercise, at least with respect to the Christian East, corresponds more to the manner in which it was exercised during the first Christian millennium when the Churches were, for the most part, in communion. Most of them are understandably worried that, without such clarification, the Orthodox would, in any future union, be subject to the same sort of harassments and liturgical deformations as have been suffered by Eastern Catholics over the centuries in their various unions with the See of Rome. All of these bishops and theologians see Orthodoxy as revealing the truth of God, in a definitive and saving way that speaks directly to the human condition. All of them see Orthodox theology as possessing peculiarly valuable resources for addressing contemporary problems in areas like the environment; none of them, I suspect, would wholeheartedly agree with Cardinal George Pell of Sydney when he affirms that concern over issues like global warming is a manifestation of “pagan emptiness.” All of them see the fundamental emphasis of Orthodox theology on the truth and freedom of the person as essential and non-negotiable and as vital for authentic Christian life.

I agree with them on all of this. And, because I agree with them on all of this, I remain an Orthodox Christian. I remain an Orthodox Christian, in spite of the fact that, on many issues, I tend to think that the Catholics are probably right. I often find that my intellectual perception of agreement with the Catholic position is counterbalanced by a dislike of the spirituality, or at least, a sense of its foreignness. (This perception is, I should note, not less palapable in the case in most Eastern Catholic churches I have visited, and in some respects more so.) I do not think I could leave the Orthodox Church without experiencing permanent spiritual homesickness. By leaving, I might achieve a kind of intellectual consistency, and perhaps might even find a job, but I would be an unhappy man.

For reasons like this, I am content to allow the ecumenical process to take its glacial course, rather than to take the unilateral action of leaving the Orthodox communion, an action that would bring me no joy, but the deepest regret and misgivings. But I endeavor to speed up the glacial motion of ecumenical dialogue, if at all possible, by applying the heat of intellect to points of especial dogmatic frozenness. Perhaps foolishly, I retain some hope of a reconciliation.

The frozen dogmatic assumption to which I have sought to apply especial warmth is the assumption that the local Constantinopolitan synod of Blachernae of 1285 was right in condemning John Bekkos as a trinitarian heretic, a man who taught two causes in the Trinity. I am convinced that that synod misrepresented his actual views. At the same time, I would agree with those contemporary scholars, like Dr. Alexandra Riebe, who question the extent to which Bekkos can be said to have “converted” from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. That he changed his mind in some essential way about the justifiability of the division is undeniable; that he altered and transfered his fundamental ecclesiastical allegiance is not. I do not claim that Bekkos was faultless, or that the Orthodox Church should now be expected to discard its dogmatic teaching in order to accommodate his views. Yet I do think that Orthodox thinkers ought to be able to recognize that the Orthodox dogmatic teaching, to the extent that it crystallized around the views of Gregory of Cyprus, represents a fairly narrow interpretation of the patristic evidence, an interpretation that, whatever its current usefulness for ecumenical discussion, was originally meant to exclude Latin triadology, not to encompass it. Gregory the Cypriot made his own “exclusive claim to truth”; it was, effectively, that the Greeks had the truth, and the Latins could be damned. Bekkos’s claim was, rather, that the Greeks had the truth, and the Latins did too, and that there was therefore no reason, except for blind pigheadedness, why they should not be in communion with one another. Somehow I tend to think that Bekkos still deserves a hearing.

“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible for you, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:17-18 )

I think it is important for me to recognize that St. Paul’s words here apply to bloggers as well as to other people. If I am unable to treat Photios Jones as a fellow Christian, what good is it for me to treat Catholics as such? Although I think his way of expressing his opinions is unnecessarily confrontational, and that it does constitute “badgering tactics,” I do not deny that he has some legitimate point. I should, in fact, read Siecienski’s dissertation, along with all the various other things I need to do. And that Orthodox Christians have the right and duty to proclaim the gospel, according to the traditional dogmatic understanding of the Orthodox Church, is not something I would want to deny. But there are different ways of understanding Orthodox dogmatic tradition, and different ways of proclaiming it, as a glance at contemporary Orthodox literature would quickly make apparent. Not all these ways exclude an honest attempt at understanding the theological positions of other Christians; indeed, some would say that, without such effort, the Orthodox position itself inevitably becomes falsified (as I think it was falsified in the case of Fr. Justin Popovic). At any rate, in my own scholarship, I have sought to engage in that effort at mutual understanding, and I don’t think it disqualifies me from being a faithful Orthodox Christian. If Mr. Jones thinks otherwise, he is entitled to his opinion; but he is no longer entitled to express that opinion freely on my blog.

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