Approaches To Doctrinal, Social And Ethical Issues From The Perspective Of Orthodox Church

Written By: on Jun 5th, 2009 and filed under Columns.

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Years ago, while serving on the staff of the National Council of Churches in New Delhi, I made friends with the director of a research institute on Sikhism. Once I invited him to a public lecture in Delhi by Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorios on Science and Faith. My Punjabi Sikh friend had till then absolutely no idea of “Orthodox Churches” or bishops. During the meeting he heard several references to Mar Gregarious as the Indian Orthodox Bishop of Delhi. As usual, the bishop, with his versatile mind, gave a brilliant lecture on the topic. My friend, the intellectual, was deeply impressed. He had no words for the appreciation he felt for the “orthodox” bishop. Nevertheless he looked puzzled. As we were leaving the conference hall, he quietly confided the puzzle to me;” But, Fr. George, why do they call him “orthodox”" He is so progressive”!? My friend knew the English language rather well.

Let me point out a few issues of “approach”. (An approach implies a perspective, a method, an attitude and a world-view):

Modern European languages in general retain a predominantly pejorative sense of the word “Orthodox”. Makers of dictionaries and keepers of prejudices seem to like it that way. So the dichotomy of the conservative versus progressive, the outdated versus modern and the irrelevant versus relevant continues to play in the ecumenical circles as well. The emergence of post-modern sensitivity has challenged the legitimacy of this dichotomy to some extent, but not always in a way useful for ecumenical dialogue. Our dialogue needs to be liberated from the clutches of traditional semantic and theological dichotomies. Our usual self-definition in opposition to the other as well as our caricaturing of each other need to be transcended in the process. St. Gregory of Nazianzus once ironically observed: “We become pious by condemning the impiety of others”. Most often our self-righteousness makes use of this convenient tool.

Another set of categories we use is “East” and “West”, apparently more legitimate and congenial than the conservative progressive pair. The Orthodox Churches, in spite of their acknowledged identification with “the faith of the undivided church” and “the church of the oikoumene,” the whole inhabited earth, consider themselves as “Eastern” Churches. This is quite understandable in the light of the “local church ecclesiology” of the Orthodox tradition. A true local Church can be local and catholic at the same time. It can manifest itself at the same time as the one Body of Christ diachronically and synchronically. Our present historical experience is that the western local church has become universal ever since the historic colonial conquests beginning with the 15th century while the Eastern churches have remained parochially local due to known historical coincidences. This has created theological and emotional imbalances in the dialogues between the Eastern and the Western church traditions.

In terms of spiritual and theological sensitivity, the East-West cultural distinction still holds good in much of our ecumenical conversation. Culture is the key here. Culture of the East, however one may define it, has cut so deep into the faith and practice of Orthodox churches that the sight, smell and sound of Orthodoxy are clearly distinguishable from those of the western churches. Theological arguments and attitudes are also shaped on these cultural lines. So it is hard to fully agree and identify with each other’s positions. We may at best make some verbal agreements as in the B E M document for instance, but the way forward from that point on is not necessarily handled by theologians but by custodians of culture whoever that may be. From obviously non-theological questions like whether the priest should carry a beard to purely doctrinal matters like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son too, East-West relationship has always been determined to a significant measure by the respective cultural attitudes of the partners in dialogue.

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