You, the Church, and the World

By Father Robert Stephanopoulos

This article originally appeared in “Concern” Magazine (Volume ii, Number 3). Our thanks and appreciation to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship for granting us permission to republish it here.

Aubrey Beardsley once made the observation that Nero set fire to the Christians like giant tallow candles and that this was the only light they were ever known to have given to the world. This criticism was not the first of its type directed against Christians. There were plenty of accusers of Christianity before Beardsley. Today there are millions. Not a few have gone beyond any serious consideration of Christianity as a vital spiritual source; they simply ignore it as an outdated religion of little consequence to contemporary problems.

It is becoming painfully clear to believing Christians that they no longer hold the position of prominence they once enjoyed. There are still millions of nominal Christians, of course, but those Christians who operate and live within the spiritual framework of Christianity are a remnant, a diminishing minority. Somehow Christianity is being left behind in the creative processes of development.

Intellectually the Christian Churches are struggling to retain their old position of respectability. This, in part, can explain the encouraging output of recent literature which is attempting to provide the philosophical and theological framework for the application of Christian teaching to the vital and pressing problems of society. In the field of action, however, they have shown only a poor second best. Other militant, spiritual, and ideological movements are doing far more effective things in the field of international development, social equity, equal opportunity, poverty, peace, and human improvement. A Christian apologist is hard pressed to make his point that Christianity is relevant and effective in this world of painful and often radical social change. Let us make no mistake about it: these are the real concerns and issues in modern society and Christianity must come to grips with them in a decisive manner. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the love and grace of God “which passes all understanding” must be made effective and operative in the world of suffering and need.

This leads us to the first great challenge which our Orthodox Church faces in this country and its role in the ecumenical movement. The responsibility which we have is the same as that of every Church in the United States. Like it or not, our country is a world leader — economically, technologically, and ideologically. Out of the depths of its particular spiritual vision, its distinctive ethos, each Church must inform and constructively criticize the government in the execution of its leadership role. This leadership role is essentially moral in character and the religious communities must reflect their ethical positions in the concrete application of governmental programs and projects.

No society or culture has ever fully accepted Christianity. Christ is above and beyond every cultural expression. Still, the Church must work in its own environment and seek to bring out the implications of the Gospel in each local situation, appropriating every good thing and generally transforming the total pattern of life in conformity with the life of the Kingdom of God. In this, the Church cannot have any special advantage. It is a community of faith which can only work by means of persuasion and the power of God. It must convince others by means of genuine Christian living and gentle persuasion.

The pattern of Church-State relations in this country, the “American Experiment,” has worked best for both parties in spite of some obvious difficulties. The world is now very small. Once remote and isolated nations and socio-religious cultures have been thrown together. It is no longer possible to ignore one another; we must learn to live together and cooperate where necessity demands this for the common good. In this context, Christianity is just another religion with some good points and some bad. Historically it is functioning with certain liabilities — it is identified as “the white man’s religion,” a cover for colonial imperialism, culturally arrogant, religiously exclusive.

Yet, God’s name is glorified in and through the Christian Church. The Christian Church stands in, for and with Jesus Christ as the unique revelation of God reconciling man unto Himself. It is the community of brethren united in the bonds of love, faith, and hope with Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of God. By work and action, in life and ritual, the Church makes Christ present among men. The great task of Christianity, both collectively and through individual believers, is to manifest Christ and His reconciling love. It is how we talk and act that makes Christianity acceptable and believable. In this great task, all Christians and all Churches must share equally. They all are united in a common undertaking: to make Christianity an effective religion of love and reconciliation.

This is ecumenism in its broadest terms. Our Church has participated in it and contributed to it from the earliest recognizable beginnings. Through its most visionary leaders, it is fully committed to it today. No doubt, most people would not argue with this type of ecumenism. It is generally accepted as the only real option for rational and concerned people in our contemporary situation.

More specifically, however, the ecumenical movement desires to know what is God’s will for His Church. We are obviously and painfully in a condition of disunity within Christendom. Thus, we have the added and crucial burden of coming to terms with our own legacy of division and strife within the Christian religion. Clearly, Jesus Christ prayed for reconciliation, peace, and unity among men. He wanted all men to know of God’s redeeming and healing love, to experience it and make it operative in their lives. As the Son of God He was the very manifestation of that love, its effective operation in human terms and the means by which all men might be infected by it.

At the same time, Jesus was not afraid of an argument! He resisted evil in every form. Through His voluntary sacrifice He overcame its most violent and devastating expressions — rebellion, estrangement, and death. He desires that man be free of all those limitations to perfection and the divine life. He sought for perfect communion of man with the source of his being. Any enslavement, any compromise, any reduction of man is to be opposed by means of every divine and human power available to mankind.

Yet, even this resistance and struggle against evil He interpreted in positive and constructive terms. Love is the greatest and most powerful of emotions, at the same time an ideal to be attained and a working virtue, a gift of God and an ascetic labor. It is love, bound up with informed faith and prayerful hope, that seeks to preserve the unity of man with God.

Even here we Christians have failed. For a thousand years we have been obsessed with our divisions and differences in doctrine, polity, and worship, splintering and dividing in the process. Only in recent times have we come to the realization that isolation and inbreeding has made us insensitive to the anguished question of Paul, “Is Christ divided…? Is there more than one Christ?” (I Corinthians 1:13). History proves time and time again that the real meaning of what Christ meant in His arrival, the intention in His living among men, was lost to the human passion to divide and exclude. The  Christian community which was to proclaim to the nations “the Name above every name” has set up its own standards and signs, compromising the one absolute sign of salvation. The differences became more important than the Person who stands above and beyond them all.

It is a fundamental article of our faith, an inner conviction, that Christ is not divided. Whatever the appearance of things, Christ is still about His Father’s business, ever faithful and obedient to His will. Of this we can be confident. But to the minds and eyes of so many people, His brethren and co-heirs in the Kingdom have been left far behind still contending over legacies and traditions and institutions while the work of reconciliation and peace have been taken up by others. The parables of the chosen and favored ones who are rejected for their infidelity (e.g. Matthew 22:1-24; Luke 14:16-24) and indifference are meant for us Christians today. In the words of a convinced Orthodox ecumenical leader, the ecumenical movement…

“…is undertaken in faith, in obedience, and with a willingness to respond affirmatively to the urgings of the Holy Spirit. And the ecumenical vocation is addressed to the Orthodox Church no less than to the others, for though we know where the Church is, as a modern Orthodox thinker has put it, we cannot be sure where the Church is not.” (Archbishop Iakovos [Koukouzis] )

In a world which is struggling to meet the overwhelming needs of suffering mankind, in a time of bewildering social and scientific revolution, at a period in human history when men are fully beginning to comprehend their fundamental unity of origin and destiny, our divisions as Christians really take on a demonic character. The big questions in our times have to do with the meaning of human life and freedom, of the existence of God and His relevance for the human condition, of human destiny and dignity in the face of various dehumanizing forces — the same questions, that is, what have always faced truly religious and spiritual men. In the face of such fundamental questions and concerns, our differences must surely pale by comparison. It is time to take up these primary issues and see how they can inform human events and leave off repeating our old formula of exclusion and division.

As a Christian theologian, trained in the history and doctrine of the Church, I fully understand the significance of the historical and theological distinctions between the Churches. It would be both dishonest and unrealistic to ignore or minimize them. We must be very vigilant to preserve the truth, to be faithful to the heritage which has been handed down to us over the ages. We cannot be indifferent to the treasures we have been commissioned to hold and propagate. But, if this is part of our task, so is that of manifesting God’s love among men it witness and service.

It seems to me that Patriarch Athenagoras has seen this in all its clarity and has set the order of priorities quite rightly. He is not insensitive to theological and doctrinal differences when he appeals in the name of Christian love to Popes and other Christian leaders for reconciliation and co-operation to combat the problems of the world. The theologians have their place and make their contribution. But as a responsible world religious leader, fully cognizant of his tremendous duty to the Orthodox Church and to the meaning of Christ’s Gospel for all men, he must set the order of priorities.

Christian love takes precedence over our divisions. St. Paul says as much,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

The attitude of love and concern for the needs of other men is central to the Christian religion and it is by this criterion that we must judge ourselves and our actions. There is no questioning the fact that others — whatever their persuasion — judge us not by what we profess to believe but by how we live out and perform in deeds the articles of our creed. These are things that are important to people, not the esoteric and contentious theological distinctions we trumpet before men. Theology today should be concerned with the problems of personal and social morality, the meaning of belief and unbelief, the significance of freedom, the nature of slavery, the meaning of prayer and the role of the Christian Church in the world.  Old differences of doctrine and theology — important as they might be  — are of secondary interest. Possibly, probably, through the mutual study, interaction and co-operation of the Churches, a new, fresh climate is being created within which the solution to age-long doctrinal questions might be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Of our country, Athenagoras has said, “I owe many things to America: the meaning of democracy, the dignity and freedom of human beings, good neighborliness, and most of all, ecumenicity. I pray that America will fulfill its secret destiny.” Orthodoxy holds a unique position in American life today. It has a genuine contribution to make to the upbuilding of American life. It can draw out of the wealth of its spirituality and ascetic tradition, it can contribute of its understanding of man and the human condition, it can proclaim God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, it can stand in adoration before the glory of God and worship Him in appropriately beautiful forms.

This means it must learn as well as teach. It must learn primarily from its own rich and varied tradition. This, I am sure, is what Fr. George Florovsky means by a “return to the Fathers,” a return to the creative and liberalizing influence of our Christian ancestors. We, often without critically appreciating the fact, have preserved original and genuine Christian insights which are only now being recognized and reaffirmed by other Christians. But, it also means we have to be humble enough to learn from others too. They, non-Christians and Christians alike, have been at the forefront, confronting the problems of the world for decades while the Orthodox have either been unwilling or unable to engage in the struggle. They have learned things that we must learn now. They have profited by their engagement and we must profit by their mistakes. It is a mutual, a reciprocal, undertaking.

Our leaders must now, more than ever, truly lead the Church to a deeper appreciation of its role in America. We, as a Church, must seek to inform and appraise the nations of our contributions to the solution of international problems. We must help and pray that “American will fulfill its secret destiny.” We must be fully involved in the processes of our national life and align ourselves to the spiritual and religious forces that guide its destinies. This means, of course, that the Orthodox Church in the country must become a fully integrated Church, united in its several parts and totally oriented to its singular purpose. There are many arguments for greater unity among Orthodox Christians in the United States, not least of which is that which says that our canonical and ecclesiological (understanding of the Church) traditions demand it. Another, naturally, is the one I have outlined. We will never be accepted as a “fourth major faith” until we prove ourselves as such. In our fractured state we are not taken seriously, our weak efforts are duplicated and ineffective, and we cannot hope to encourage new converts.

How each of us as individual Orthodox Christians responds to the challenge of the age is crucial. How our stated and recognized leaders, both clergy and lay, capture the all-important sense of history and direct the progress of our Church through its present crises and toward a hopeful future will make the difference between a Church which remains tragically bound up in its past and one which is ever energized and enlivened by the power of the Holy Spirit to the everlasting glorification of God and the redemption of men.