There are some things that we tend to take for granted. We think they are statements so true that we never question them, never analyze, never contemplate alternatives. Such I think is the issue of ecumenism, the formal organized efforts to re-unite all Christian faiths, or more broadly, unite all dispirit faiths throughout the world into one.
Ask anyone, and most will agree, that God wishes such a thing. After all, there is but one God, or so most of us believe, however we may define that. And so therefore, it seems to be that there must be one perfect understanding of God which is embodied in some one faith, or so most believe. Of course, the rub is that all to many different faith traditions all claim to have the most perfect understanding.
Efforts to achieve such a union have been worked on for years by any number of organizations. The World Council of Churches is but one. But even from it’s inception, there have been those who have refused to join. Mostly it seems because there is always a requirement by some that certain basic principles of belief must be agreed upon. And that never happens, and so efforts are always stymied. The situation only becomes worse, when we move beyond Christianity into the numerous faith traditions of the world. How can there be a basic principles agreement? Other than “do unto others” most everything else is too different in concept to be the basis for agreement.
As a former Catholic, I of course was taught the necessity of at least a return to unity among Christians. If you haven’t guessed, Martin Luther is roundly criticized for tearing the Church asunder. The Eastern Church is given less culpability, though I am not sure that is deserved. In any event, what Luther began, clearly had no end. The numbers of new Christian groups multiplies at the rate of nearly 3,000 per year, and is now in the vicinity of some 35,000.
Catholics, at least those of a traditional orthodox persuasion see this as a horror, and await the “return” of the flock to the Mother Church. Of course, the awaited “returnees” have a rather different take on the issue. Not only are they, for the most part, uninterested in “returning” to Mother Church, but they await Mother Church to recognize that indeed it should be coming to them, as the true Church.
You see this all gets ugly very quickly. Nothing much gets accomplished when participants begin arguing about who is the “original” church, is there an original church at all, and what was the original teaching and doctrinal truths of that church. Having witnessed some of these “discussions” I can tell you they are brutal. Take a swing by Catholic Answers forum some time and be prepared to be insulted if you are non-Roman Catholic. You will soon learn that your faith, whatever it might be is polluted and silly, never apostolic, and is but one of those things warned of by Paul and others. Non-Catholics are, whatever their denomination, led by false prophets. Only return to the Mother Church with complete obedience to her word is sufficient to return to grace.
If you wish to approach from another way, try some of those fundamentalist evangelicals. They consider the Roman church that which is spoken of in Revelation. Not Rome, as in the emperor, but the very same Roman Catholic church. They of course aren’t returning anywhere, and they are sure there can be no unity until everyone agrees that scripture is literalistically true in every word. Welcome to creationism folks.
So, those of us who would wish for more unity, and less division, know that nothing like that is possible in any future we can so far see. And what’s more, we find it hard to see how that could ever happen. For goodness sakes, many of us can testify that whatever our faith tradition is, we are internally often badly split on serious issues. The Roman Catholic church certainly is, with any number of groups that run the gamut from strict and almost backward looking practices and dogma to those who are highly liberal and progressive in their outlook. There is sadly, badly veiled contempt held by both sides in this.
The Anglican church itself is clearly at odds within itself over issues of homosexuality and women. It would not surprise me to learn that there are other divisions as well. From what I have learned in my brief time as an Episcopalian, some of this is sadly vicious as well, with both sides taking increasingly hard lines.
The same is true of Baptists and other evangelicals, between those who are hardliner and those who favor a more moderate and progressive view. It is no doubt true that differences exist in probably every defined denomination. Those new “sects” have to appear for some reason, and the reason is, one assumes, that someone decided that their church had strayed from the “true” teaching and after futile attempts to get it back on track, some or many left and started their own church.
That is the state we find ourselves in unfortunately. It is not something I thought much about, except to think that those who were engaged in the attempt to forge bonds of agreements must be true saints to do such work. It was not anything I thought about until a few weeks ago.
Last week, many of you know, I was received into the Episcopal faith. Prior to that, I met with one of the priests of my parish to discuss things. The purpose was two fold. First, it was for them to answer questions I might have about the Church, but secondly it was about them getting an idea of where I was coming from theologically in order to determine whether the Church would be a good fit for me. Additionally, I’m sure they wished to get a handle on what ministries I might fit with, and how versed I was in biblical and theological issues.
We were talking about issues of difference, and I suggested that I found so much of interfaith dialogue frustrating because it always got bogged down in doctrinal differences instead of simply working on common problems. Poverty and social issues really don’t require that we are all on the same page regarding the issue of consubstantiation for instance.
Barbara suggested that it was probably not the best idea in the world to spend our time trying to “unite” doctrinally. I recall, taking that in, but being busy with other things, I let the significance of that statement wash over me with little recognition. She offered that we all have unique and special things to contribute to the great fund of Christianity, and unity would no doubt discard some of that.
Later, when I had time to digest and review that conversation, I saw that indeed, I had never considered whether the movement to unite was worthwhile. And, after having considered it for some weeks, I’m rather convinced Barbara was right.
Perhaps, we as this huge mosaic which we call Christianity are better off doing our separate things. Perhaps what is missing is the ability to recognize and respect that we all come to the table, enriching the full tapestry of Christianity by our differences. Perhaps it is through the fullness of our unique offerings that the clearest and most complete picture of God’s kingdom emerges.
I have long thought that the probability is that we have almost all of us, gotten it quite wrong. We have to one degree or another attempted to construct a faith that is faithful to what we understand to be the message of Jesus. Given the plethora of opinions on that, just in the first two centuries following his crucifixion, I’d say we have but a limited clue of it really. Things, as we move through the centuries, just get worse.
Just one example will suffice. Nowhere did Jesus ever suggest that a priesthood need be either male nor celibate. True, the men who wrote about his ministry, long after his crucifixion I might add, did not declare that Jesus picked women and named them apostles. That of course may mean no more than that the writer of the gospel or letter or such never understood it that way. But more clearly Jesus never restricted the priesthood to a celibate lifestyle.
That came much later, through the Spanish church. And since it was later adopted through what was then Christendom, it has stuck. Now the Roman church declares that said ideas (celibacy and male priesthood) is the will of the Holy Spirit and thus they have no power to change it. Convenient, but hardly definitive I would say. If you talk to Roman Catholics who adhere to the belief in celibacy and to a male priesthood, they will surely tell you that the Church has no power to change this. This is God’s will, evidenced by “tradition” which is synonymous with God’s will in their opinion. In other words, we never thought about doing it differently, so the fact that we have done it one way for a long time, is evidence that this is the way God wants it. Lousy logic I’d say.
So it hardly seems to me that today, we have gotten it more right than they did in say 50 CE or so. And that’s just Christianity. Things get no better, and only get worse when we add in all the other faiths, some of whom believe things quite drastically different than what is taught in Christian circles. Yet they have a rich heritage, and deep wisdom as anyone who has read sacred texts in Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism can attest.
Many of the eastern faiths offer a breathtakingly beautiful explanation of God and humanity. So much resonates with us. We can recognize truth in what are otherwise foreign doctrines and beliefs. We are enriched and opened in amazing ways. We benefit greatly. We are enlarged spiritually, fed with good food.
So I have come to a new conclusion about interfaith dialogue for the purpose of joining ourselves into one homogeneous and should I suggest bland concoction called Christianity. I think it’s a bad idea. I think we should stop worrying about it and arguing about it. I think we should worry about poverty, disease, and all the ills that face the world. We don’t have to agree about apostolic successions and Eucharistic prayers to address hunger do we? I think God might prefer we address those issues first.