Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dialectical, Dialogical and Reconciliatory: The Evangelical Imperative

In his speech opening the recent gathering in Constantinople of Orthodox bishops His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stress at one point the importance of evangelizing not only those outside the Church but also those who are baptized.

My first though on reading this was, well, thank God!

The need to evangelize our own faithful is something that Orthodox priests often discuss privately when we gather together, but we are sometime less forthright about publicly. Add to this that it is not at all unheard of for Orthodox Christian clergy and laity to minimize the need for the evangelism of the faithful (including the clergy). Sometimes this argument takes the form not of dismissing evangelism out of hand. More often though it is argued (at least by example) that participation in the service of the Church is sufficient.

His All Holiness points out in response to the neglect of the evangelism of the faithful "that in contemporary societies, especially in the context of western civilization, faith in Christ can in no way be taken at all for granted." Our evangelism whether it involves us with ministering to those outside or inside the Church can only "be developed or expounded [in] dialogue with modern currents of philosophical thought and social dynamics, as well as with various forms of art and culture of our times." At least in my better moments as a priest, I have taken to heart the primacy of dialog as the means of bring the Good News to others and have found it to be the most fruitful and joyful part of my ministry.

That said, there remains a central and ongoing struggle in me: Remembering that the proclamation of the Gospel "cannot be aggressive." When it is, "as it often unfortunately is; [it is] is of no benefit at all." To avoid aggression in the proclamation of the Gospel requires from me a real ascetical effort. Respecting the freedom of others, trying to find the points of commonality and convergence between us, can only proceed by an act of self-emptying (kenosis) that seems absent in much of what passes for Orthodox outreach and evangelism.

At least within the American context, Orthodox Christians seem to have often adopted a triumphalistic style of evangelism. Much of the material that we publish and much of what we say publicly seems specifically directed at convincing Western Christians (and specifically Evangelical Christians) to become Orthodox. Add to this that we produce very little that is directed to the non-Christian and it seems hard to deny that we are more concerned with proselytizing than evangelism. His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew challenges us who are more inclined to proselytize Western to undertake instead the much more difficult task of entering into a conversation with those without any religious faith, or indeed even those among us who are only marginally committed baptized Orthodox Christians.

Unlike proselytizing (which begins not with proclaiming the Gospel but by undermining the faith of those we speak with) evangelism (whether internal or external in focus) requires that we "first understand other people and discern their deeper concerns." As Bartholomew points out "even behind disbelief, there lies concealed the search for the true God." Entering into the disbelief of others, seeing it sympathetically and with compassion as a search for God, is personally challenging and to many threatening.

The empathic approach to evangelism requires that I find in my own heart the strains of disbelief, doubt and despair that are the seed bed of what the late Pope John Paul II called in Evangelium vitae

the "culture of death" or what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) called in his 2005 homily the "dictatorship of relativism." Triumphalism, and all forms of intellectual and emotional manipulation of others, is itself a fleeing from the hard work of dialog grounded in accurate self-knowledge. Ironically, these and other forms of religious aggression (what His All Holiness calls "fanaticism") are themselves also symptoms of the very culture of death that the Church condemns.

What then are we to do? How are we to proceed in our evangelism in a way that avoids aggression and take seriously the concerns of those with whom we speak? Our evangelism, as with all of the Church's ministries must (and again I'm borrowing from His All Holiness) "dialectical, dialogical and reconciliatory."

Especially given the use of the intellectually loaded term "dialectical" is tempting to read the concerns of contemporary philosophy into the above. Given the openness toward modern thought that informs His All Holiness speech, this is not by any means an unwarranted approach. While it is certainly would be worthwhile to engage the different meanings possible in the term dialectical, I think it would be more profitable to understand the dialectical, dialogical and reconciliatory character of the Church's ministry in general, and evangelism in particular, by taking my cue from the text of the Patriarch's speech.

The vision of the Church's ministry outlined in the speech is one that reflects "the connection between the unity of the Church and the unity of the world, on which the Apostle to the Gentiles insist." This dual unity "imposes on us the need to assume the role of peacemaker within a world torn by conflicts." Precisely because we are called to be peacemakers, we "cannot—indeed, it must not—in any way nurture religious fanaticism, whether consciously or subconsciously." Certainly, "When zeal becomes fanaticism, it deviates from the nature of the Church," and so "we must develop initiatives of reconciliation wherever conflicts among people either loom or erupt." While I agree that "Inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue is the very least of our obligations; and it is one that we must surely fulfill," I find myself wondering what such a dialog might look like. This is especially important, at least to me, when I wonder what such a dialog might look like pastorally.

In tomorrow's post I wish to offer one suggestion by returning to a idea I presented earlier. I would argue that we look to the Mystery of Confession as a model for a form of evangelism and ministry that is, as His All Holiness argues, is dialectical, dialogical and reconciliatory.

As always, I not only welcome your thoughts, questions and comments, but actively solicit them.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory