The Orthodox Church has, for the better part of a century, been talking about holding a global council, often labelled the ‘great and holy synod.’ As we are repeatedly told, this will be the first such synodal gathering in the Christian East since the last ecumenical council of Nicaea met in 787 to deal with iconoclasm.
Catholics watching the lead-up to this council will be only too aware—as I have discussed here and here—of the promises and the perils of synodal gatherings in the life of the Church, whether East or West. Synods or councils, ancient or modern, are always a gamble, always a source of surprises one did not expect at the time, and almost always a source of confusion—or at the very least considerable hermeneutical debate, after the fact. Sometimes, it is hard to resist the thought that it would have been better never to have held a council if one’s goal is a neat, over-tidy faith with no messy questions or problems—if, that is, one wants to live in a morgue rather than the Church of the living God.
But one can have no idea, when calling for a council, what those surprises will be, or whether and how they will manifest themselves, so one proceeds in the blithe hope that the risks will not outweigh the benefits. What benefits might we hope to see from an Orthodox synod this Pentecost if it happens? Picking up where I left off nearly two years ago now (“Some Thoughts and [Unsought] Advice on Holding Church Councils”, March 18, 2014), let me offer some wild-eyed hopes for this Orthodox synod.
The Orthodox themselves generated a lengthy list of things a future council should attend to. This list has been in circulation for over sixty years, and includes items such as updating fasting requirements, dealing with divisions over the Julian vs. Gregorian calendar, ecumenical dialogue, liturgical reform, and internal jurisdictional divisions, including the question of primacy both within Orthodoxy itself and in its once and future relationship with the bishop of Rome.
All of these questions are weighty, and I have myself given no little reflection to a few of them on CWR and elsewhere, especially the questions of primacy and jurisdiction, and of fasting. But let me not get into those questions again. Let me, instead, attempt here something of an imaginative-speculative exercise which, as a university professor, I force myself to undergo several times each semester. It is not an easy exercise, and I have no reassurance that I ever complete it with anything like thorough-going success, but it is, I submit, a worthwhile exercise.
When I started teaching here at the University of Saint Francis nearly a decade ago now, I read James Lang’s helpful book Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year, in which he counsels professors in each class to offer, at least once a semester, the “Who Gives a Damn” lecture: who gives a damn about the Byzantine iconoclast crisis? or the debate over the two natures of Christ? or the rise of nominalist philosophy? He also encourages faculty to allow students to pose that question at any point in the semester about any matter under consideration.
Doing so often makes for vigorous and bracing classroom discussions in which students are allowed to ask: why is today’s chapter about events 800 years ago relevant to me in 2016? Why do I need to know about this arcane political debate, or tortured bits of mathematical formula, or complex set of causes of World War I? Why should I care? Though challenging, and sometimes a little disconcerting because you never know where the conversation will go, our “Who Gives a Damn” sessions are ones I have come greatly to love as my students and I both open up windows to try to see better or at least a little differently.
These questions are precisely the ones that Orthodox Christians should be asking whether or not the council happens. (As of this writing, the Russian Church, to the surprise of precisely nobody, is trying to scupper the council because they are bullies and fear they will not be able to control the whole thing.) Why does a council matter? Who gives a damn whether it meets or not? What relevance will this have not just to Orthodox Christians around the world, but to other Christians and, perforce, to the world itself?
For it is obvious—I hope!—to the Orthodox themselves that in today’s hyper-connected world, no council can take place in secret, and no council can be seen as an exclusively Orthodox preserve, having nothing to do with, and nothing to offer to, other Christians in particular and the world in general.
Instead the council must be prepared to interrogate itself: who gives a damn not just about this meeting, but about Orthodox Christianity itself? Why is it relevant? Why should I care about these people in their strange hats, with their long beards, longer liturgies, and exotic looking icons and churches bearing off-putting ethnic designations?
That is not a flippant question, and the answer to it is not difficult to surmise: millions of people around the world care about Orthodox Christianity, and millions more could potentially care if Orthodoxy did a better job of explaining itself and showing the world what it has to offer. With the press attention focused on a council, Orthodoxy has a privileged moment unlike any other in over a thousand years to reach myriads.
But to what end? What will all that attention be directed towards? Old men in debates over the diptychs, or trying to decide whether fish with/without backbones may be eaten during Lent? Patriarchs debating who has jurisdiction over tiny parishes in far-away countries (e.g., Qatar) of which we know nothing (to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain’s infamous dismissal of Czechoslovakia in 1938)? If that is what comes of it, the media will quickly lose interest, and most people, Christians included, will yawningly ignore the rest of the gathering.
Here, with complete seriousness and sincerity, let me make the most ardent of pleas to the fathers of any upcoming council. I offer this not only as a scholar but especially as a lover of the Christian East in all her maddening messiness: deal with “housekeeping” questions if you must—fasting, calendars, primacy—but before and above all else answer the world’s “Who gives a damn?” in clear, compelling ways that showcase the beauty and splendor of the East. Give people real, repeated, and unforgettable insights into Christianity in its Eastern forms. Show people, seriously but not sanctimoniously, why it was an Orthodox writer, Dostoevsky, who said that “beauty will save the world.” Show the world the beauty not just of liturgy and iconography, but also the beauty that comes “when the brethren dwell together in unity,” as the psalmist puts it.
Let the council, in other words, be a theophany, a place for the world to glimpse the beauty of God and to gain insights into the God of beauty. Let the council be a place where everyone points not to their own narrow or nationalistic agenda, but instead points to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Let the council be a place of evangelism before all else and in all else.
I know many who, of course, will say “That’s not what councils are for.” But anyone who reads anything about Vatican II knows that councils are complex gatherings that do many things in addition to their officially stated purposes. And anyone who reads, or recalls, the massive media attention that Vatican II garnered will be able to tell Orthodoxy that its council will be a unique opportunity, unlikely to come again for centuries, and it should squeeze every last drop out of it for the glory of Christ and the spread of His life-giving message. The world today needs Christ more than ever, and Orthodoxy has unique and often under-utilized resources to make him known to the world in singular and saving ways.
Evangelism—no matter how many Orthodox like to froth at the mouth when I say this—goes hand-in-hand with ecumenism. But I have never, ever entertained notions from the swinging Sixties that “ecumenism” means we gut doctrine, junk creeds and liturgy, and sit around holding hands while singing guitar-driven songs about peace and brotherhood. No sane Catholic or Orthodox ecumenist or hierarch has ever advocated any of that rot.
Ecumenism must lead us to unity in the truth who is Christ, which is the same point as evangelism: Christ, and him alone. If done right, the upcoming Orthodox synod can be both evangelical and ecumenical, showing the world, including the Catholic Church, the face of Christ in unique and compelling ways that can be beneficial to all of us.
My hope and prayer is that any Orthodox gathering will realize it has much to offer not just to the world, but also to the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy has much that Catholics desperately need. In saying this, I am not for a moment granting a hearing to the triumphalistic and sanctimonious Orthodox apologetics one so often encounters on the internet. In saying this, I have in mind a passage from a book written by one of the foremost Roman Catholic theologians of our time, the English Dominican Aidan Nichols. In his 1999 book Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church in Culture, Nichols wrote this:
At the present time, the Catholic Church, in many parts of the world, is undergoing one of the most serious crises in its history, a crisis resulting from a disorienting encounter with secular culture and compounded by a failure of Christian discernment on the part of many people over the last quarter century from the highest office-holders to the ordinary faithful. This crisis touches many aspects of Church life but notably theology and catechesis, liturgy and spirituality, religious life and Christian ethics at large. Orthodoxy is well placed to stabilize Catholicism in most if not all these areas (p.186; my emphasis).
It is, of course, too much to expect any one Orthodox synod to deal both with Orthodoxy’s own internal issues and also to offer assistance to the much larger challenges besetting the Catholic Church. But a council could at least begin this process. And having met once, that very experience of meeting could relieve much of the anxiety about such an unknown entity as a council. We all have the experience of realizing that, having surmounted a hurdle once, it is often progressively easier to do so again each subsequent time. Having had a council in 2016, it could be easier to do so again in 2017, 2018, 2019, much as Vatican II met in multiple sessions over several years. The work could be spread out and accomplished more carefully and at greater length. There is no need to rush. Indeed, rushing would lead to disaster.
So let the work begin in serene patience and prayerful petition of the holy, consubstantial, and life-creating Trinity. Let the work end with the good news that the world so desperately needs to hear: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs giving life! No other message will make such a long-expected, long-delayed council worth the effort.
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