by Robert Saler
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