Being Eastern Catholic, writing about evangelicals

Being Eastern Catholic, writing about evangelicals July 26, 2017

Christ Pantokrator in the apse of the Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily, Italy. Mosaic in Byzantine style. - by Gun Powder Ma, 2007 (Christ_Pantokrator,_Cathedral_of_Cefalù,_Sicily.jpg) (CC BY-SA 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons
Christ Pantokrator in the apse of the Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily, Italy. Mosaic in Byzantine style. – by Gun Powder Ma, 2007 (Christ_Pantokrator,_Cathedral_of_Cefalù,_Sicily.jpg) (CC BY-SA 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons
I am Eastern Catholic, and I have spent the last week writing about the Protestant news cycle. As most of my friends and some of my readers will be able to corroborate, I am given to a bit of internal psychological ambivalence when I do such things, although I can’t seem to help myself from doing them. In this post, I will try to present myself as even more of an overthinking psychoanalytical basketcase.

Much of my personal journey into Eastern Catholicism revolves around the Umbrella Movement. This isn’t unusual as far as occupy movements go; most, including the Umbrella Movement, have a religious dimension. In most of these events, the religious dimension of protest was mostly about how protesters on the streets criticized not only the political economic status quo, but also what they saw as the collusion of what they saw a ‘religious establishment’ with that order. Occupy Wall Street spawned Occupy Catholics, if one goes along with what Nathan Schneider said about it, and demonstrators in Hong Kong formed their own street sanctuaries, protest worship bands, and theological fora, disappointed that few official religious institutions lent them their support (though many individuals did, sometimes informally, in some cases against the stances of the institutions for which they worked).

Those of us in Vancouver who stood in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement had a similar problem. While a good number of clergy, academics, and lay leaders – mostly from Protestant congregations, and sometimes the lead pastors of those – supported the movement, most were really only individuals. In fact, some who lent their public support got institutional backlash from their Chinese evangelical churches. One of the only groups to give their public support to the movement was what we knew at the time only as the Eastern Catholic Church; we later learned that the local Ukrainian Catholic bishop had given the temple in Richmond not only the permission to convene a prayer rally at the Chinese Consulate, but also a directive to temples around British Columbia and the Yukon to include prayer petitions in their liturgies for both Ukraine and Hong Kong. This, we learned later still, was in keeping with the public presence of the Kyivan churches with their hierarchies on the ground at Maidan Square earlier that year. For us as Protestants seeking justice in Hong Kong, the difference between the Protestant institutions to whose commitments we knew ourselves to be faithful and this weird Eastern Catholic Church that supported us though we didn’t know anything about it strained simple comprehension.

Like our counterparts in Hong Kong, we sought to criticize some of the Protestants in Vancouver who had gone on public record to say that Chinese Christians were not supporters of the Umbrella Movement. Naturally, we expected the Eastern Catholic clergy to go along with us as we submitted statements and open letters of our own to the press.

But the Eastern Jesuit from Richmond – now my spiritual father – who had led that prayer rally politely declined to be part of our effort. He said that he didn’t want to ‘gainsay a brother.’

We were so confused. Did this mean that, after all we had done together, he actually disapproved of what we were doing? Did Catholics, with their many rules (so we thought), have a rule framing this as some kind of, like, ‘mortal sin’ – gossip, maybe? Was it an Eastern Catholic thing to, like, be the big man and not speak ill in public of people you despise, however much you actually despised them (this is before I met my Ukrainian friends)? No, no, no, he said, you guys can go criticize your own, but how would it look like for me, someone you guys all read as on side with Rome [we later learned how much more complicated this was] to be browbeating a Protestant? Broadly speaking, he was sympathetic to our criticism and supportive of our actions, but for the sake of ecumenical optics, the most he could offer (he told us) was a theological affirmation of his own commitment to what the liberation theologians called the ‘preferential option for the poor’ and what the mothers and fathers of both the Latin and Byzantine churches had always taught about social justice.

Now that I am Eastern Catholic, I have come to share the concerns of my spiritual father – not just because he is my spiritual father (blind obedience to a spiritual father is but a shallow reading of the tradition), but more because I don’t want to play fast and loose with the contemporary realities of being the Body of Christ in the world. The truth is that Christians are divided and have been for some time; this is tragic, it is not supposed to be normal, it is untrue to who we are as the children of G-d, and it is not good. But different kinds of Christians have tried to deal with the tragedy of our schisms in different ways, and it is in dealing with this reality that I disagree with the Protestants who still call me ‘brother,’ although I too return the favour and call them sisters and brothers still, because that is also the truth of what they are (there are some who deny that I am a Christian, and I do my best not to return that courtesy when it happens). Of course, some of the Orthodox would say that the Body of Christ can never be divided and that those who are not part of canonical Holy Orthodoxy have simply severed themselves, but even in this hardline view, would it not be true still to say that such severance produces wounds that hurt and bleed with anguish?

For these Protestant sisters and brothers of mine – the ones who tell me they still see me as a Christian (and rightly so – how can it be otherwise when Christ is our Pascha?) – it seems to me that their position is that the Body of Christ is only politically divided, but at a deeper level, we are still spiritually united. As they see it, to speak of denominations, autonomous churches, and even schisms is really to play word games when the hidden reality is that the Holy Spirit has never ceased to gather a people unto himself in all the various traditions of Christianity. In the way they talk about me, they say that I simply joined Eastern Catholicism because the tradition worked for me – different strokes for different folks, as it were – but I have in their minds never really left the one spiritual church that exists beneath the surface level of all of these divisions. Some are kind enough to say that if I visit their churches, they would offer me communion, by which they hope to say that I’d accept it as a token of good faith. To be sure, I’ve never taken them up on this experiment, but I agree that within their way of seeing the world, it would be very moving symbolism indeed, much as I’d have to decline it.

These very people have a big problem with most of my writing: they see my unwillingness to intervene – ‘prophetically,’ as some of them have said it – as symptomatic of my own psychological hangups, not because of the reality of schism. While once I ferociously wrote pieces directly diagnosing Christian (by which they mean ‘Protestant’ problems), now I hide behind having become Eastern Catholic despite my calling (as they say) to be a prophet. When I protest that I have literally joined a different church and have quite knowingly relinquished my right to say anything constructive or critical about the internal workings of Protestant communities, they tell me that I am playing word games and thinking too intellectually, especially when I throw the word ‘ecclesiology’ around – it is a big word, so it must mean I’m hiding. Christ, they are saying, has called me to serve ‘the church,’ and in not being clear in my prescriptive, prophetic engagement with ‘the church,’ I’m not being faithful to what Christ has called me to do.

The real problem here, then, is this word church. I get that my Protestant sisters and brothers are using it to mean everyone for whom Christ is saviour, but – if I might use an evangelical word for a second – this is not even a biblical understanding of the term ekklesia. In the New Testament letters – and then in the writings of the mothers and fathers of the church based on this apostolic tradition – the church refers to those who have been gathered in the name of Christ in a particular city – this is what the Orthodox (me!!) call the local church, which is not to be confused with what Protestants call ‘the local church’ (by which they mean congregation – we mean it as all the apostolic Christians in a metropolitan area). These local churches are in communion with other local churches, often through their bishops, and in this way, each local church can be said to be katholike, part of the whole – Catholic. The church is not an idea, and it is not a hidden spiritual reality; it is a visible communion in the very material sense that we are supposed to be able to take communion together because, as Holy Ignatius of Antioch puts it, ‘where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.’ It is also a liturgical reality: it is the gathering of people who make real the presence of Christ in bread and wine by calling down the Spirit on these material forms, and such gatherings are local in the sense that in every liturgy, that local church’s patriarchs, metropolitan, and bishop are commemorated as the gathered people invoke the presence of G-d to be present in material form in our midst.

Of course, in the modern world, this local church ecclesiology – which is the biblical one passed down through holy tradition – has been subjected to all kinds of modern problems, which all need to be sorted out by church councils and new liturgical receptions but all wouldn’t really change the fundamental realities here (which is what really made the disappointment of the Holy and Great Council last year a real tragedy). First, since the advent of the second millennium of Christianity, the local churches of Rome and Constantinople had a falling out that dragged a bunch of local churches in communion with each of them into their divorce, which in time is how my local church – the Church of Kyiv – became fragmented in all the tragic ways that it now finds itself. Second, the local churches – Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Kyiv, for example (there are many others) – have a global reach now, both in the migration of their peoples and in the sense that because they are all truly Catholic, their traditions have been universal enough to pick up some converts along the way (me, for example, as well as most members of the Latin Church who talk a good deal about inculturation). Third, because of both the schisms between and within the historic local churches of the first millennium of Christianity and their globalization in the second millennium, it is hard to describe the places where they have been missionaries as having developed ‘local churches’ of their own, say, in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Vancouver: I am in the Kyivan Church in Vancouver and Chicago because my Patriarch is still the one in Kyiv and my bishop is technically his, and this is different from the Latin Church, which has its own patriarch in Rome and its own hierarchy of bishops, in those two places, much as the Greek Catholic splinter of the Church of Kyiv that I am part of enjoys full communion with the Church of Rome.

In the globalization of the local churches, we have also inherited their schisms, which I think is why it’s scary every time we Eastern Catholics bring up our ‘autonomy’ from the Latin Church: it sounds like schism, but it’s actually just the good old local church ecclesiology in action. All that we mean by ‘autonomy’ – and to some extent, ‘autocephaly’ (a church that is ‘self-headed’ – we do, after all, have a Patriarch in Kyiv) – is that we as a local church have always been governed by our own norms and own hierarchy, and as a local church, we are also a fully Catholic church in the sense that our autonomy does not come at the expense of full communion with Rome and seeking to restore communion with Constantinople. Wanting to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, we therefore ought to respect the autonomy of our sister churches whether or not they respect ours. For example, in terms of history, Protestants might be more properly called the discontents with the Latin Church, which means that just as we wouldn’t try to meddle in the internal affairs of our sister Latin Church with whom we are in full communion, we really shouldn’t be meddling with their discontents either, although we fully take the point that Protestants have always tried to get us Orthodox on side with them (and even once succeeded with the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril Lukaris, because of which an Orthodox council or two had to be convened to reject some Protestant doctrines). This isn’t sectarianism; this is ecumenism – we are showing our sister churches and their discontents that being in full communion doesn’t mean that we lose our sense of who we are, but that even in our differences, we can be one through the sharing of holy communion. In fact, the ecumenist Paul Murray calls this receptive ecumenism, a strategy for local churches trying to get back into communion or to maintain communion with each other to go back deeply into their own tradition, confess their own sins, and then receive each other again in a posture of humility and repentance. We don’t meddle in another local church’s business because we have our own church’s sins to confess – and believe me, the Kyivan Church, with all of the modern fragmentation among the children of Holy Volodymyr and Olha Equal-to-the-Apostles’ baptism, have plenty of skeletons in our closet.

So why write about Protestants, then? Well, frankly, because ecumenism is not just about ‘church unity.’

The word from which we get the word ‘ecumenism’ is the Greek oikoumēnē, which, quite frankly, is a word also spelled ecumene that geographers use to describe ‘the inhabited world’ (fun fact: the academic journal now known as cultural geographies used to be called Ecumene). The early mothers and fathers of the church used the word oikoumēnē to describe, say, the ancient church councils where the local churches from all over the inhabited world came to discuss the big theological issues and make canons for church practice. But what this also means is that at a deep level, Christian practices affect the inhabitation of the oikoumēnē, so it’s not like what we do within our local churches (and their discontents) stays in some insular private sphere.

In fact, the very fact that church practices can be said to be private comes from a long history of secularization that contemporary scholars are tracing to developments within the Latin Church and among its discontents. One of the most eloquent in my opinion is Charles Taylor, whose genius point in A Secular Age is that the undercurrent beneath ‘secularization’ is what he calls the ‘urge to Reform’ – reforms to centralize power in the Latin Church, reforms to sync up spirituality between the ecclesial elites and the carnivalesque masses, reforms that ultimately resulted in church people taking up temporal power to civilize the classes beneath them. In this account – and there are many others like Taylor’s – what can be said to have given birth to Protestantism is the impulse to reform everything – the church, the state, the society, the world, the oikoumēnē. In many ways, this impulse, which should properly be described as a spiritual one, is quite noble: the idea is to bring people closer to God, to make the state more just, to make society more equitable, to make the world a better place.

But what it also means is that the modern collective assumptions about religion, spirituality, and social justice that shape the contemporary oikoumēnē are basically born out of this ‘urge to Reform.’ As Taylor shows, the impulse to Reform focused a great deal on reforming the interior life of the person, resulting in the emergence of persons who thought of themselves as autonomous individuals on their own private spiritual quests that may or may not need a religious institution to frame their practice; he calls this the nova effect, the explosion of individualized spiritualities into the world that is true symptom of a secular age. As Taylor then suggests, this is not all bad, but it’s not all good either. The gains of such modern reform are obvious: a richer inner life, a more articulate version of authentic identity, the capacity to be mobilized at an emotional level against social injustice. But there are also drawbacks: the world is always a place to be fixed, not a mystery to be explored and enjoyed in a sacramental frame of love and liturgy.

I’m not saying that all of these reformist tendencies are ‘protestantizing,’ but I am saying that Protestant practices are not insular and writing about them from any vantage point is not necessarily to meddle into their internal affairs – to try to reform them, as it were. Instead, the point of writing about Protestants is to show, for example, that Eugene Peterson’s impulse to withdraw from public conversation is part of a larger trend of trying to reform the noise of the world by retreating from it, that Josh Harris’s impulse to kiss dating goodbye is part of a larger picture of trying to reform the chaos of erotic power in contemporary American civil society and politics, that Richard Mouw’s impulse to be an apologist for the People’s Republic of China’s religious freedom policy is part of a larger attempt to harness the hardline turn toward the market in the postcolonial Asia-Pacific for social, political, and religious reform.

This kind of writing – the writing that I am attempting to do about how Christians who are not in my church, such as Protestants, are shaping the world – comes out of my own church’s spiritual impulses, which is not really for ‘reform’ (although some members of my church wish it were), but really for makrodiakonia, the large-scale service rendered by our church to the oikoumēnē by discerning what are the institutions, networks, and hidden powers of oppression in the world that keep persons from being able to live out the primal dignity with which they were created. To do makrodiakonia, I need to be able to write about the world outside my church – indeed, the world that my church has a share in inhabiting – and this world, I am saying, has been shaped for quite some time by the impulse to Reform that gave birth to the Protestant communities whose practices affect us all, both for good and for ill. In this way, what Protestants do for themselves – the resolutions they pass within their denominations, the laws they use to structure their communities, the debates that they have among themselves – is really of no concern to me; it’s only their practices that affect the oikoumēnē, both for good and for ill, that are worth writing about.

In this way, what might be said about my relations with Protestants is that we are not part of the same church, but part of the same world. In addition to this, there is the tragedy of our division that has a much longer history in developments within our sister Latin Church. Ecumenism takes on both senses for me here, then: perhaps in writing about them with descriptive discernment, I might show my commitment to walking together in the world, respecting their autonomy as I hope they would respect mine but also highlighting the realities of our common home together.

I am sure that plenty of people will find more than enough to complain about with this view of the church and the world. Most will think it too complicated and argue that I should expound on a simpler reality in more facile terms. I wish that simpler version of the world – a world without schism and the complications of globalization – existed too. But as Charles Taylor suggests, is not this urge to simplicity just another attempt at reform? And is not such a drive toward the easy, coupled with tendencies toward reformational activism, precisely one of the major forces that is driving the contemporary fragmentation of the oikoumēnē?

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