Brief Musings on "Eighth Day Ecumenism" (and its Unsavory Alternative)

Feast of Aquilina the Martyr of Syria

Athonite_light_Square.jpegWITH APOLOGIES to Gus Portokalos, the term “ecumenical” does come from the Greek—meaning “the inhabited world.” Yet, our modern world has so laden the terms “ecumenical” and “ecumenism” with meaning and implications that everyone and no one can define them. One person may discuss “ecumenism” from a “let’s work together on social issues despite our very real differences” perspective with someone who believes that it means “truth is relative, making our differences meaningless” with someone else who uses the term to signal his expectation that everyone engages in a process to resolve their differences. The common theme? Differences. At the broadest level: name your differences. At a slightly narrower level: differences in religious beliefs. At its narrowest meaning in common parlance: differences in Christian beliefs. Of course, conversing at this narrowest level immediately begs the question, “What is Christianity?” If the answer is so-called “creedal Christianity,” then which Creed? If the answer is “Nicene Christianity,” then what is to be done about non-Chalcedonians or those who inject the filioque? All of these questions belie the fundamental principle that labels are useful to describe something in broad strokes but constitute poor vessels of categorization when one peers into the details.

So, then, what does it mean for any of us—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant—to engage properly in ecumenism? I would propose that true ecumenism (the ecumenism reflected in the oft-heard phrase “Eighth Day Ecumenism”) is bounded by three basic principles:

(1) People of goodwill, regardless of religion or distinctive religious viewpoints, can (and should?) work together in the world to achieve ends which those people each believe are “good” with means equally believed to be “good” while maintaining consistency in their viewpoints;

(2) Distinctive differences are meaningful and important. If they were otherwise, the differences would not provide grounds for distinction between religions or religious viewpoints.

(3) The Law of Noncontradiction: “A cannot be non-A.” In other words, true ecumenism does not brook compromises in which persons holding to distinctions agree that both views are true.

This last principle seems to cause citizens of modernity the greatest discomfort. Society pressures us to avoid any appearance that we might be staking a claim that a viewpoint is true and simultaneously implying that a contrary viewpoint is false. Civility does not necessarily implicate compromise of one’s integrity. Proposing that a person’s opinion is wrong does not necessarily equate to accusing that person of being bad, ignorant, or stupid.

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Consider a situation I witnessed this past May in the little gift shop at Great Lavra on Mount Athos. The little monastic store clerk asked the customer to what church he belonged. In an impressive Oxford accent, the customer responded, “I am Anglican.” The monk made the observation, “Oh, a heretic.” and proceeded to ring up the man’s purchase. When the Anglican tried to explain that he wasn’t a heretic, part of the bigger, invisible fold of Christ, etc., the monk looked up and back down again and simply affirmed, “Heretic.” And there I stood, former-Protestant/former-Roman-Catholic-turned-Orthodox guy next to my Roman Catholic son, cringing and thinking, “Oh, that’s harsh.” I watched my Roman Catholic wife cringe even on hearing that tale. The cringing reactions, though, constitute nothing more than Pavlovian responses to a societal bell that tries to ring us into thinking that honest disagreement is by nature impolite and not to be tolerated. As my son and I each concluded, the monk was absolutely correct. He wasn’t being mean or pejorative; his comment wasn’t evil or even accusatory. He was making an accurate observation worthy of respect and consideration. For the Orthodox, Anglicans are heretics—just as for the Anglicans, the Orthodox ought to be seen as heretics. Just as my son, peering through the dust of our relationships, was perfectly comfortable labelling me a heretic (for my rejection of Roman Catholic beliefs which must be believed with a divine and catholic faith) and a schismatic (for my active departure from Roman Catholicism). In doing so, however, he knows full well that he’s not accusing me of being a bad person—he’s just observing the facts.

It’s the same experience, perhaps a bit less blunt, that so many of us have had in visiting Eighth Day Books. The shelves contain a plethora of volumes representing a plethora of different views, from atheism to Presbyterianism. Of course, Warren doesn’t stock his shelves with these volumes because he believes everything they say; he stocks his shelves this way because he believes the volumes he selects articulate their distinctive viewpoints well, in ways worth observing, considering, and testing. He allows the volumes to convey their perspectives and respects his customers’ abilities to make determinations of whether those perspectives are true or not. If you ask him for volumes which contain countervailing perspectives, he’ll gladly lead you to quality sources. But, if you ask him what he believes, you won’t get an “Oh, it’s all the same” or “Your view and mine are equally valid, so let’s just co-exist”; you’ll receive a recommendation on a volume that best articulates the position to which he holds against the many others and, if you push, you’ll receive an unqualified statement of his belief. What you won’t get out of Warren is an attack.

And this is Eighth Day Ecumenism: Frank recognition and embrace, without dissembling, of distinctive differences that create divisions, cooperation with people having differing viewpoints to accomplish good in the world, and an environment that doesn’t reduce such differences either to meaninglessness or personal assaults. Anything less, however well-intentioned, is a lie that takes us right down the road to religious pluralism.

Jonathan de Jong has been reading the Inklings since he was six and credits their works for inspiring his undergraduate studies in ancient history, language, and literature. He is a long-time customer of Eighth Day Books and a member of St George Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Wichita, KS.

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