Category Archives: Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

Pope Francis’s Relic Diplomacy

by George Demacopoulos

In June of 594, Pope Gregory the Great received a letter from Constantina, the empress, asking him to send the head of St. Paul to Constantinople so that she and others might benefit from venerating the bodily remains of such a great saint. St. Gregory denied the request, noting that it was not the custom of the Roman Church to dismember the bones of the saints.

A great deal has happened between Rome and Constantinople since the sixth century, but Pope Francis’s decision last week to send the Ecumenical Patriarch an actual portion of the body of St. Peter should be understood as nothing short of remarkable. More than anything else, it is a clear indication of the pontiff’s desire to advance the cause of Christian unity.

A point of clarification might help to demonstrate why Francis’s gift is both so unprecedented and significant. Continue reading

Engaging Orthodox Theology Thoughts on IOTA from an Ecumenical Observer

by Robert Saler

Metropolitan Cathedral in Iasi, Romania

There are two dangers that Western theologians such as myself face when engaging  Eastern orthodox theology: exoticism and over-familiarity. My ongoing work as a Lutheran ecumenical observer at the International Orthodox Theological Association (first at its initial planning meeting in Jerusalem, and then recently at the full conference in Iasi, Romania) has given me occasion to ponder both extremes.

Exoticism in general can take on flattering aspects—“Easterners can solve Western theological problems if we just import their way of thinking”—or unflattering ones (“the Orthodox don’t do systematic theology; they are focused instead solely on mysticism”). The Western theological imagination has a tendency to freeze Orthodox theology in stasis for a host of reasons. Western theological conservatives may look to Orthodoxy as a bulwark against perceived creeping liberalism (particularly on culture war issues) in their own traditions. Western progressives, meanwhile, may celebrate Orthodoxy’s historic lack of biblical literalism (in the modern sense) or what they take to be its emphasis upon individual spiritual struggle over against centralized magisterial authority. The list of oversimplifications (all of which depend upon treating “Orthodoxy” as a static monolith) goes on, and a useful tonic for all of them is to witness contemporary Orthodox theology in all of its dynamicity.

This was certainly my experience at IOTA.  Continue reading

How to Respond to Religious Pluralism? Orthodoxy and the “New Comparative Theology”

by Kerry San Chirico

How should Christians engage other religious traditions? Today religious diversity has never been closer to home. Our uncle might be Jewish, our neighbor Muslim, and our sister engaged in sincere Buddhist practice. Then there is the fact that Americans are increasingly willing to borrow religious beliefs and practices deemed beneficial—yoga from Hindus, mindfulness from Buddhists, and the Jesus Prayer from Orthodox. Whether we like it or not, in the wake of our Baby Boomer parents, we do in fact live in a spiritual marketplace. Such eclecticism does not in itself make one a Buddhist, Hindu, or Orthodox, of course, but it does demonstrate an increasing permeability between religious traditions. Yet for all this admixing, some seventy-percent of Americans still identify as Christian, while seven percent identify as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Meanwhile, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, no less than one fifth of Americans are now religiously “unaffiliated.” These so-called “nones” cause scholars, clergy, and pundits to scratch their heads or wring their hands. We move, as ever, into uncharted waters.

How to respond? We can pine for simpler times. We can try to batten down our hatches, attempting to be “untainted” by such religious difference, remaining polite but fundamentally uninterested in the religious lives of relatives, friends, or neighbors. Such difference can be frightening, after all. Many who converted to Orthodoxy have experienced this same attitude from our closest relatives, who responded to our conversion with a combination of bewilderment, fear, or even repulsion.

Yet Christian love compels us to a different response. Continue reading

Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Encounters: Cultural Exchange or Real Ecumenism?

by Alexander B. Miller

History exists as much in our imaginations as in the archeology of the past, and the potency of the imaginative depends upon our ability to recreate sensory or visceral experiences.  The doctrinal exchanges between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in recent years are unlikely to make history, but accompanying cultic exchanges may make a lasting impression and lend significance to the work of theological commissions.

Communion and relationship

The July week in 1054 that witnessed the mutual excommunications of Humbert of Silva Candida and Michael Keroularios is rich with drama and outrage for Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  This narrative is deeply satisfying for our imaginations, affirming a sense of historical offense as a foundation of our ecclesial identities.  However, historians tell us that this was not the earth-shattering event that we make it out to be.  In reality, few Christians felt this division in 1054—if they were even aware that it had taken place—because ordinary Christians in East and West had no substantial relationship with each other.  Greek had long ceased to be understood in the West, even among the educated, and the East never considered Latin to be an adequate language for the finer points of theology.  Politically, the coronation of a Germanic Holy Roman Emperor undermined the Byzantine Emperor in the West.  To the extent that Eastern or Western Christians thought of each other, it was conditioned by centuries of polemic that hardly afforded the other the dignity of the Christian name.  1054 merely set a seal upon the creeping de-Christianization and dehumanization of the Other.  When crusaders sacked Constantinople, did they really think that such atrocities were committed against fellow Christians, or could they excuse themselves knowing that their victims were heretics?  When politicians and churchmen brokered reunion councils, could Eastern Christians really be expected to accept communion with the heretical Other? Continue Reading…