Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013: Day One, “Walking in Conversation”

Jan 18th, 2013 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Today, January 18, marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has posted a web-page featuring some material for the week, including an ecumenical worship service, daily themes, Bible readings, reflections, and prayers. The over-arching theme for the week is the question, “What does God require of us?” This theme is drawn from Micah 6:6-8.

The sub-theme selected for Day 1 is “walking in conversation” (the prepared reflections and prayers for today are copied below). For some people, a serious disagreement is just the beginning of a good conversation. For others, it is the end. Regardless of one’s disposition towards debate, an increasingly hard to avoid fact of life for Christians is that we are not all on the same page when it comes to following Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. St. Paul tells us that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all” (Ephesians 4:5-6), and he appeals to us “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no schisms among you: but that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). And yet we are divided one from another; we are not of one mind concerning matters of faith, worship, and morals, and we are consequently segregated into different households of faith.

conversation

Modern forms of communication, especially the Internet, have made it easier than ever before to engage in religious conversation across confessional lines. We can strike up a dialogue with “the others” without stepping into their churches or even leaving our own homes. In my experience, the sorts of interlocutors that are encountered online have been, in one respect, representative of the kinds of people that one finds in the various ecclesial communions themselves. What I am thinking of is the sort of “conversational attitude” that Christians adopt towards other Christians who do not belong to one’s own ecclesial community and who do not embrace the distinctive theology of that community. In my experience, there are four kinds of conversational attitudes that are found within inter-confessional dialogue, with each kind being exemplified by some members of every ecclesial community of which I have been a part (Dispensationalist, Baptist, Reformed, Anglican, Catholic). What follows is a short description of each of these dispositions towards dialogue:

Fundamentalism: Based on a handful of proof-texts and stock responses, it is taken for granted that one’s own communion and school of theology is obviously correct, and that everyone who disagrees is either stupid, evil, or confused (or all of the above). Thus, true dialogue is not possible with “the others,” who, when they are not simply ignored or dismissed, must be regarded with deep suspicion. Other theological positions should be understood only to a degree sufficient to contradict them, and one should engage the others in conversation only to the degree necessary to assert one’s own position and to rebuke them, if they persist in disagreeing, for being intellectually backwards or morally bankrupt.

Denominationalism: Underneath all of our disagreements, there is a core of Gospel truth and religious practice that the various Christian communities share in common, which pith constitutes the essentials of the Christian faith. This core either (a) more than atones for the things that divide us, such that we should all just live and let live–whatever the various ecclesial communions currently have in common with one another is all the church unity that is needed for the universal Church to thrive; or at least (b) sufficiently atones for the divisions, such that the various divided communions, taken together, preserve all the unity that the universal Church needs to survive, even though we should desire and pray for further unity. Full, visible ecclesial communion might be desirable, but it is not necessary. Interlocutors can agree to disagree on dogma and morals, not only for the sake of the conversation at hand, but perpetually and in principle. Inter-confessional conversation can therefore proceed on the assumption that whatever divides Christians is non-essential to the life and mission of the universal Church.

Liberalism: There is no absolute truth in matters of religion. The substance of religion consists in devout feelings and other personal experiences. The law of non-contradiction is inapplicable to theological claims. Christian division should be overcome by recognizing this and mutually agreeing that all doctrinal claims are relative. Dogmas can be nominally retained, but will function more as poetry, a conduit for aesthetic experience and devout feelings, rather than claims about objective reality. Inter-confessional conversations, except in cases that are explicitly promoting relativism, are not a means to further ecclesial unity; rather, these conversations are a kind of group therapy in which we can all participate in order to fulfill our individual needs.

Ecumenism [1]: Religious dogmas are intended to be the correct, summary expression of the objective meaning of the word of God. As such, dogma cannot be compromised for any reason. It is over points of dogma, together with the forms of worship and church government that are symbiotic with them, that Christians are tragically divided. However, experience shows that it is not necessarily obvious to human reason, even after careful and informed study, which is the correct interpretation of Scripture. Thus, in order to overcome our differences, we have to listen to Scripture together, and try to understand one another, to carefully sort through our disagreements, to ferret out misunderstandings and find points of agreement, to pinpoint the remaining fundamental problems as well as possible solutions, so by principled means to arrive at full communion in doctrine, sacraments, and church, which unity is both desirable and necessary. This unity is the point of inter-confessional conversation.

Fundamentalism features a robust commitment to truth, and perceives the significance of doctrinal divisions. But the fundamentalist account of those divisions is undermined by the facts. In each communion that I have been a part of, I have found humble, intelligent, biblically-informed, and sincere people, who show no signs of confusion. The contradictions between the schools of theology are real, but they simply cannot in every case be chalked up to stupidity, maliciousness, and befuddlement.

Denominationalism rightly perceives elements of truth and sanctification in “the others,” and rightly celebrates the unity that the various ecclesial communities currently enjoy. However, this stance ultimately undermines the visibility of the Church, and as a result has no principled way, over and above one’s private interpretation of the Bible, to identify just what belongs to the core of Gospel truth, which is supposed to be what unites the denominations.

Liberalism, in some forms, recognizes the inward and even mystical aspect of faith. But this stance has the same flaws as denominationalism with respect to dogma, while liberalism goes even further than denominationalism in divorcing the Gospel from objective truth which can be received with the full assent of faith, since in addition to basing all theological positions on private interpretation, liberalism denies that these positions are even supposed to refer to objective reality. The proclamation of and belief in divine revelation is ultimately reduced to self-expression.

In my opinion, ecumenism can combine the virtues of the other positions while avoiding their respective vices. We cannot achieve authentic unity by compromising on dogma, but we need not suppose that the truth of the dogmas, either the ones that unite us or the ones that divide us, is self-evident. We do already enjoy an imperfect communion in faith and sanctification, but we need not suppose that this obviates the need for full communion. There is both a subjective and an aesthetic dimension to the Christian faith, but these depend upon, rather than slur over, the objective reality to which the dogmas refer. It is much more difficult to sustain an ecumenical conversational attitude than it is to lapse into fundamentalism, liberalism, or denominationalism. But it is also much more rewarding, because the quality of a conversation ultimately depends upon the goal of the dialogue. Where the goal is the reunion of all Christians in the unity of revealed truth, divine worship, and ecclesial leadership, there is a conversation worth having.

 

BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS AND PRAYERS
FOR THE ‘EIGHT DAYS’

Day 1 Walking in conversation
Readings
Genesis 11:1-9 The story of Babel and legacy of our diversity
Psalm 34:11-18 “Come…listen”. God’s invitation to conversation
Acts 2:1-12 The outpouring of the Spirit, the gift of understanding
Luke 24:13-25 Conversation with the Risen Jesus on the road

Commentary

To walk humbly with God means to walk as people speaking with one another and with the Lord, always attentive to what we hear. And so we begin our celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by reflecting on scripture passages which speak of the essential practice of conversation. Conversation has been central to the ecumenical movement, as it opens up spaces for learning from one another, sharing what we have in common, and for differences to be heard and attended to. In this way mutual understanding is developed. These gifts from the search for unity are part of our basic call to respond to what God requires of us: through true conversation justice is done, and kindness learnt. Experiences of practical liberation from all over the world make clear that the isolation of people who are made to live with poverty is forcefully overcome by practices of dialogue.

Today’s Genesis reading, and the story of Pentecost, both reflect something of this human action, and its place in God’s liberating plan for people. The story of the tower of Babel first describes how, where there is no language barrier great things are possible. However, the story tells how this potential is grasped as a basis for self-promotion: “let us make a name for ourselves”, is the motivation for the building of the great city. In the end this project leads to a confusion of speech; from now on we must learn our proper humanity through patient attentiveness to the other who is strange to us. It is with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost that understanding across differences is made possible in a new way, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Now we are invited to share the gift of speech and listening orientated toward the Lord, and towards freedom. We are called to walk in the Spirit.

The experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a conversation taking place in a context of travel together, but also of loss and disappointed hope. As churches living with levels of disunity, and as societies divided by prejudices and fear of the other we can recognise ourselves here. Yet it is precisely here that Jesus chooses to join the conversation – not presuming the superior role of teacher, but walking alongside his disciples. It is his desire to be a part of our conversations, and our response of wanting him to stay and speak more with us, that enables a living encounter with the Risen Lord.

All Christians know something of this meeting with Jesus, and the power of his word “burning within us”; this resurrection experience calls us into a deeper unity in Christ. Constant conversation with each other and with Jesus – even in our own disorientation – keeps us walking together towards unity.

Prayer

Jesus Christ, we proclaim with joy our common identity in you, and we thank you for inviting us into a dialogue of love with you. Open our hearts to share more perfectly in your prayer to the Father that we may be one, so that as we journey together we may draw closer to each other. Give us the courage to bear witness to the truth together, and may our conversations embrace those who perpetuate disunity. Send your Spirit to empower us to challenge situations where dignity and compassion are lacking in our societies, nations, and the world.

God of life, lead us to justice and peace. Amen

Questions

Where do we practice true conversation, across the various differences that separate us?

Is our conversation orientated towards some grand project of our own, or towards new life which brings hope of resurrection?

What people do we converse with, and who is not included in our conversations? Why?

(Source)

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[1] The English word “ecumenism” is derived from the Greek word οἰκουμένη, meaning “the whole world.” In the context of the Christian world, ecumenism refers to cooperation between Christians, the goal of which is the reunion of the various churches and ecclesial communities. The ecumenical movement is a response to Our Lord’s prayer for unity among believers (John 17), and proceeds on the supposition that the Church, as the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, is (or at least should be) one.

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  1. Fr. Puglisi describes Fr. Paul Wattson’s vision leading to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and his perception of the scandal caused by the divisions between Christians:

  2. Andy, I don’t know if you remember me, but I remember you well from Appalachian Bible College. I always enjoyed discussing Tolkien and LOTR with you when we had time. It breaks my heart to see you here – to have come to Rome, to traditions which are completely extra Biblical. You know doctrine very well and much better than most, so I know that you knew truth. I appreciate the admission that fundamentalism has a “robust commitment to truth”, but if you thought that we were merely “Based on a handful of proof-texts and stock responses”, then something was missing in your understanding. I know far more Baptists who understand Roman Catholic doctrine than Catholics who understand Baptist doctrine. It is a gross overstatement from my experience to say that fundamentalists know only the smallest amount of other theological positions. While true to some extent, as a whole, I would wholeheartedly disagree. For that matter, I have yet to meet one Catholic who truly understood what he believed and the doctrine of the Catholic church, much less have an understanding of what I believe. If it is true on one side, it is even more true of the other.

    You know that the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the focal point of Scripture – of His atoning death and resurrection. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” is as simple a description of salvation as one can reach and the center of the Gospel. If various churches/denominations cannot agree even on this most basic point, what remains to agree upon between them? Unity is utterly impossible if the essentials of Christianity are in violent dispute. It is a nice thought, but what is the concept of unity when Christianity itself is at stake?

    We can have unity to some extent. While I am a Baptist in doctrine, my claim is Christian. I can have fellowship with anyone who believes that the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses them from all sin. Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, Pentecostal, even Roman Catholic (although if they really believe that in all it entails, they wouldn’t be a very good Catholic) all are my brothers and sisters if they trust completely in the blood of Christ. Unity, however, does not ever trump essential doctrine. Paul was not addressing churches divided on salvation, but much more minor matters. If I must come to Christ through Rome, then Christ is inadequate.

    I know that this blog is not intended for me and I won’t post much (if at all) after this, but I’d been wondering what you were doing now. I still consider you a friend and I miss you and pray for all of you.

  3. Hey Timothy,

    Thank you for your comment. It is good to hear from you. I was using “Fundamentalism” to describe a specific kind of conversational attitude towards Christians with whom one disagrees. As I mentioned in the post, one finds “fundamentalists,” in this sense of the word, among various groups of Christians, including Catholics. So my intention was not to paint self-identified Protestant fundamentalists with a broad brush.

    Interestingly, in your second paragraph, you kind of illustrate my point about proof texts by quoting John 6:47. Everyone that I had in mind when writing this post knows about that verse, and confesses that it is indeed a glorious promise of God. However, they all interpret the meaning of that verse differently. You describe it as a “basic point,” “a simple description of salvation,” and “the center of the Gospel.” And I agree that this verse is all of those things, and more. And yet sincere, intelligent, studious Bible-believers disagree about what exactly this verse means in relation to the rest of the Gospel of St. John and the whole of divine revelation. Part of the point of my post was to say that disagreements like this should be the start, not the end, of a conversation among Christians. And the goal of that conversation should be to resolve our disagreement so to arrive at unity in the faith.

    You raise several points in passing, and it would take too long to address them all in this comment. I’ll just say that I agree with you that unity does not trump essential doctrine. But since unity is the will of God for those who believe in Jesus, then it is something that we must pursue. This website is intended to help facilitate the pursuit of unity among Christians. Although it is addressed particularly to Reformed Christians, it is intended to be a resource, and place for dialogue, for Protestants and Catholics generally, and indeed all Christians. So please feel free to read our posts and comment whenever you like. If you have particular concerns, questions, or areas of interest, you might try scanning the Index for a list of topics and entries.

  4. Bryan,

    Is this not “Waton,” but rather, Paul Wattson, cofounder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars? Or am I getting these confused? I couldn’t find a Paul Waton. (Paul Watson is an animal rights advocate.)

    This is timely, Andrew & Bryan, as the new Pontiff has caused a buzz with his outreach:
    http://www.catholic.com/blog/todd-aglialoro/christians-muslims-and-the-one-god

    Hugh

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