Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thoughts on the Spirituality of Disagreement

From Peter Gilbert's blog, De Unione Ecclesiarum, a selection from a sermon by Patriarch John (Bekkos):

For if simplicity of faith had always prevailed, perhaps people throughout the world would have had no other identifying mark of their cultic, religious differences than the fact that some of them, through baptism, have been sealed with the seal of Christ while others remain unenlightened, with no participation in grace; thus, it would have sufficed that someone be called a Christian for that person to be known, by that very fact, to occupy the heights of godliness; between the name "Christian" and the summit of godliness, there would have been no gap. Such a supreme good would have been seen in all Christians, if multifarious differences over theology had not produced innovations, both in doctrine and in the Christian name, with each heresy offering, as a sort of common name for its adherents, the name of its founder. In this way, doctrinal variety has led to a loss of blessedness for many. For what is more blessed than that all who are called by the name of Christ be adorned with a single glory of faith? so that, as far as faith is concerned, the words "mine" and "yours" — those cold terms that banish godly concord — would not be known in the Church of Christ, neither this person belonging to Paul, that one to Apollos, that one to Cephas; but all would be of Christ and would consider each other as belonging to a single Body, joined and brought together into a common, connatural bond and referred together to a single Head, Christ.
Thinking about this, I realize that heresy harms not simply the heretic that leaves, but is also a great temptation for those who stay in the Church. Even if the matter is not one of heresy, not one of doctrinal disagreement in the strict sense, as Patriarch John suggests, responding to disagreements can bring about a lack of balance in our own spiritual life:
It would have been truly a blessing if the preaching of the Gospel had forever shone brilliantly in Christ's Church in all its unspeculative simplicity. It would have been genuinely salvific if the seal imprinted by the invocation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit upon those undergoing regeneration through baptism had been seen by all as the one and only seal of godliness. But since Sextuses and Pyrrhons (I mean those people who, at various times, have discredited the true teachings by their argumentation) have thrown ecclesiastical matters so far off center that, on the one hand, unspeculative simplicity of faith now appears as stupidity to our theological connoisseurs and religious intelligentsia, and those who know no more than their confession of faith in the Holy Trinity are scarcely counted as belonging to our religion, while, on the other hand, variety and hyper-speculation in doctrinal matters are considered a form of wisdom and of nearness to God, perished is the blessedness of simplicity of faith, perished is the common salvation which was expected to be enjoyed once and for all by all who are imprinted with the seal of baptism; for theological divergence over the Trinity, united above all reason, and theoretical variety over the Unity, ineffably made Three, have splintered the Christian people into competing denominations.
Does this mean we should not contest for the faith delivered once and forever to the saints (see Jude 1.3-4)? No. But it does mean that our conversations about the faith, especially when they touch on matters about which we disagree, needs to be entered into with great care. Absent this care, and at times even with it, we can too easily lose our balance. As I told someone just this weekend, it is a sin to just be smart, even as it is a sin to turn our back on the great intellectual tradition of the Church.

We need to find a point of balance least we sacrifice one virtue for another and thereby sink into a life of vice cloaked in godliness but devoid of it.

If we are to engage each other about our disagreements, and for reasons of charity and practicality we must, we must do so in a manner that fosters godliness in ourselves and those with whom we dispute. This I think is not only an imperative in ecumenical dialog, but also in our internal conversations with the others members of the Church.

Often, to take one example near and dear to my heart (and which I mentioned in my interviews for faculty positions at both St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology), our conversations in parishes do not have little if, anything, to do with godliness. How many of us are better off as a result of our conversations about the things we disagree over? Is a growth in godliness, for myself and the person I'm speaking with, even a concern? Or is it more a matter of proving that I'm right, or at least that you are wrong?

Paul reminds us that divisions are inevitable in the Church. But he also reminds us that the occasion of these divisions, the occasion of our disagreements, will also reveal who among us is really faithful to Christ (see 1 Corinthians 11:19).

I wonder how often in my conversations with others, and especially when we disagree, I reveal myself faithful to Christ? And I wonder, and especially when I'm in the right, how often do I serve the growth in holiness of the person with whom I am arguing?

Like I said, Patriarch John's words have got me thinking.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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