When we look at the problem of Christian division today, the recognition of present-day differences and disagreement is essential. We cannot pretend that we are all in agreement.
But what should our response to disagreement be?
Many Orthodox Christians on the internet move immediately to polemics or triumphalism, and exhibit no interest in reconciliation with other Christians. In fact, they dismiss the very idea.
In making this observation, I am also offering a confession: I used to do the same thing. In all of my readings and travels as an Orthodox Christian, including my time as a seminarian, I was never given a compelling theological reason for why the Orthodox Church should engage in ecumenism. Not once.
The whole enterprise seemed to be little more than a concession or even abandonment of principle for the sake of public recognition or political gain. In short, unfaithful.
But reading widely from the works of Fr. Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), one of the greatest Russian Orthodox theologians of the last century, has provided me with a different understanding.
The key insight, I think, is that Fr. Florovsky approaches the problem of heterodoxy not exclusively from the hypothesis of ontological difference but also from the belief that there is a real ontological link between all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who confesses that Jesus is Lord does so by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3ff). A profession of faith in Christ as Lord, God, and Savior, inspired by the Spirit of God Himself, entails a divine action and marks all Christians with the Cross, separating them ontologically from the heathen.
Yet, despite our bond of common obedience, we find that as Christians we do not understand Jesus in the same way, nor can we necessarily say that we recognize our separated brethren as belonging to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
We are therefore faced with an intense paradox: there is a division, which is as real as that which binds us.
Fr. Florovsky put it this way in some unpublished notes from a lecture in 1956:
The Church cannot be divided, as Christ is never divided. But both individuals and groups can “go astray,” and fail to abide in the “fulness.” Membership in the Church is constituted by an active and faithful sharing of the “fulness.” Church is ever One and “Undivided,” but there are “schisms” in the Christendom. The main paradox of the “Divided Christendom” is that there are “separated Christians,” which are in a sense “outside of the Church” and yet are still intimately, and, in a varying measure, effectively related to Her. This paradox is the proper subject of what has been described as a “Theology of the abnormal.”
According to Fr. Florovsky, in seeking to develop a “theology of the abnormal” that makes sense of the paradox of Christian division, we should begin with the recognition of what we hold in common.
His position could be summarized in the following ten points:
(1) There is an “ontological link” shared by all Christians, to use Florovsky’s exact phrase.
(2) Therefore, we should meet each other face-to-face and discover in each other real spiritual friendship and a common bond of obedience to Jesus as Lord, God, and Savior.
(3) In meeting each other, especially in small groups and in the context of Christian friendship, we should engage in honest exchange, fully committed to the truth as revealed in Christ Jesus and as proclaimed in the Bible and the Holy Fathers.
(4) When we meet under these conditions, we will discover that there is a real and sometimes very deep disagreement amongst us that is not just a misunderstanding caused by historical accidents or politics.
(5) Therefore, while professing that the Church is one and visible in history, we are faced with what we should consider a scandal: Christendom is divided.
(6) The proper response to this scandal is a certain kind of “ecumenical quest,” i.e. an earnest, honest, loving, and thorough theological dialogue, in which we seek to understand other Christians and at the same time to give witness to the truth of Orthodoxy.
(7) The best means of accomplishing this quest is “ecumenism in time,” not comparative study of our present-day theological positions. “Ecumenism in time” calls on all Christians to engage in a mutual return to our “common past,” seeking to discover or re-discover the “common mind” of the Church of the Ecumenical Councils.
(8) This “common mind” does not demand uniformity but it presumes a “common universe of discourse.” In other words, if we engage in careful historical study, we will find that the Church maintained its unity and its “common universe of discourse” even while there were divergent theologies within it, e.g. Cappadocian and Augustinian triadology.
(9) We are therefore inspired to search for a “neo-patristic synthesis,” in which these divergent theologies can find a common expression, as has happened throughout Church history in many doctrinal disputes and after serious breaks in communion over substantial matters.
(10) Finally, one must recognize that this is a glacial process, involving very gradual progress and incremental reconciliation, exactly like the process that led to Christian division. Separation happened over centuries and centuries. Reconciliation will likely proceed in a similar manner — barring a miracle, which is always possible in history. Nevertheless, Christians should live in hope, not cynicism. Unlike what occurred during the process of division, we are no longer in geographical or cultural separation. We are already together. As a result, there is more opportunity for progress and more reason for hope — if we are willing to remain patient and balance love with truth.
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