Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Rush to the Ecumenical End Zone

I hold a personal grudge toward all millinerd readers who knew of George Hunsinger's Ecumenism and Eucharist: Let Us Keep the Feast, but left me to find it on my own now two years after its publication.  Forgiveness pending.

The book seems to revolve around this crucial insight about divided Christianity: "The most urgent and overriding goal... is not self-preservation [institutionally or personally] but reunion."  This, I am currently convinced, in addition to Simone Weil's fascinating contention that one can receive the eucharist through the eyes, remains an imperfect but at least interesting answer to the question, posed so frequently to Protestants such as myself, "Why haven't you yet converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy?"  That is to say, personal conversions do bring personal relief, but they frequently do less to ameliorate, and more to exacerbate, remaining divides.  Yes, there are many exceptions to this general rule, and one can - hypothetically - work for unity from any given fragment.  Still, the hope for greater Christian unity beyond one's personal predicament remains a compelling reason for staying with the fragment one knows best.

Guided by this principle, Hunsinger makes a strong Protestant case for the real presence via eucharistic transelementation (for which he provides ample cross-confessional documentation), asks pointed questions that the Reformed, Catholic and Orthodox communions are afraid to ask, sacramentalizes Niebuhr's Christ and Culture schema, and (of course!) concludes in the realm of art and architecture, without which his proposals can't be fully realized.  I have my disagreements, but they are overwhelmed by the fact that unlike so many, Hunsinger simply gets that Mercersburg high church Protestantism is not a personal preference for those into that sort of thing, but an ecumenical necessity.  And yet, it's the personal moments that drive the points home, such as Hunsinger relating how excruciating it is to sit through crackers and grape juice sacramental trainwrecks, or (in the Pro Ecclesia Summer 2010 discussion of the book) what it's like to eat at Mt. Athos alone.   At any rate, here's a sample:
The point of this exercise in ecumenical admonition has not been to make any one tradition look good by making others look bad.  It has only been to suggest that there are more than enough warts (defectus) to go around.  No existing church can reasonably claim to be free of them in non-trivial respects.  It is perhaps the special vocation of Reformational churches, formed as they are by the great and liberating doctrine of simul iustus et peccator, to press the point. 
It may also be our vocation, I would add, simply because we have more warts.  And how can I resist quoting Hunsinger on the good Karl Barth:
Readers familiar with my previous writings may wonder how anyone so steeped in Barth's theology could have arrived at the positions in this book.  The most general answer is that I wish to align myself with the trajectory established by Thomas F. Torrance and Alasdair Heron, who have blazed a trail before me, moving not only with Barth and through Barth on the eucharist, but also beyond and against him....
It fell to T.F. Torrance, Barth's student, to make the connection that his mentor never quite managed to carry through: "The action of the supper," wrote Torrance, "is not another action than that which Christ has already accomplished on our behalf, and which is proclaimed in the Gospel."  It is rather the very same action in a new and sacramental form.  Ecumenical theology after Barth has every reason to exploit this insight.
Indeed, without Torrance, Hunsinger "might never have seen how to get from Karl Barth to something like the ecumenical center," which is to remind us that the ecumenical center Karl Barth is not. Perhaps the Torrance trajectory also helps explain why Adam Neder's important section on Barth and the Orthodox take on divinization is an addendum, whereas Torrance and divinization required a book in and of itself.  (Protestants unfamiliar with divinization might consult this Leithart post.)  And did I mention that the book reconciling Palamas and Aquinas on divinization has already been written?  Or that Jonathan Edwards had not dissimilar ideas?  Yes, these are exciting ecumenical times, at least in the rarefied contours of academe.

I won't comment any further on Hunsinger's accomplishment, other than to say that Eucharist and Ecumenism may be, to invoke that tired cliché that is in this case appropriate, "essential reading." Christian theological discourse today can resemble a linebaker pile-up of enclave confessional theologians alongside equally dogmatic secular academic theologians.   But Hunsinger, when given the ball, managed to push his way past some fleshy defenders and get a first down for ecumenism.  The least we can do is cheer.  Granted, a look at the scoreboard is depressing, but no matter.  Someone in the stands is holding up a placard reading Jeremiah 31:10.

Next play:  Hail Mary.


W. Travis McMaken said...

I posted about this book as early as July 2009, so its not my fault! :-P


millinerd said...

Ok, you're off the hook. My fault for not reading that post.

Jon Furst said...

You may be hitting on something of a positive trend. I'm encouraged that even the Baptists are edging their way towards similar conclusions (see Barry Harvey's "Can These Bones Live?").

More warts? Come now.

millinerd said...

When global proportions are taken into account, yes, more warts. Think of the decrepitude of Mainline Protestantism, the untethered trajectory of Evangelicalism, and (if it can be counted Protestant) Prosperity Pentecostalism. At any rate, even if it's not true, it's a very Pauline maneuver.

matslacker said...

I'll read this book, Matt. Thanks for the tip. However, the comment: "The most urgent and overriding goal ... is ... reunion," seems not to square with our Fathers. For them, the "most urgent and overriding goal" was never reunion, but fidelity to Christ and His Church.

For instance, as I've referenced before in this blog, St Maximos the Confessor single-handedly scuttled a *century* of well-intentioned ecumenical effort involving the highest authorities East and West, who were seeking to reconcile divisions left at Chalcedon. They thought they had the solution in hand. Yet St Maximos brought the entire machinery of good intentions to a screeching halt. Why? Because more important than "union" is the Truth of the faith, once delivered.

And, in subsequent generations, when things cooled off, the Church clearly recognized that St Maximos had upheld the true faith and that his distinctions mattered. So the relevant portions of his theology was codified in a Council.

So union or reunion is never "the" goal, though it is a great good, and certainly "a" goal, and definitely something to sweat, cry, and pray for.

We saw the "reunion is *the* goal" sentiment expressed in a lecture awhile back by the inimitable Brian Daley, S.J.--a key figure in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue over the years. The feeling many--Catholic and Orthodox--were left with after his presentation was of witnessing the last gasps of mid-20th century-style ecumenism. The kind of thing Reinhard Hutter excoriates as "least common denominator" ecumenism. The precise problem of that movement: unity was "the" goal, not Christ.

Also, fwiw as an Orthodox "convert," my experience has brought little by way of "personal relief." As my Bishop once put it: One father, who also "converted", said once that finding Christ and the fullness of His Church was the most difficult thing he'd ever endured--until he realized that keeping Christ (i.e., learning to repent, to follow Christ's commandments, and to grow in spiritual life) was twice as difficult.

millinerd said...

That's an important point about Maximus (a global expert on which is, of course, Brian Daley). You're right about truth, as is Sarah Wilson, who said that when it comes to ecumenism, "Nothing but the sharpest and clearest truth will do. Nothing but the greatest and most generous love will do."

There is a lot of lowest common denominator ecumenism out there, but to suggest George Hunsinger or Brian Daley exemplify it strikes me as odd. Refusal to grapple with Daley's points on the filioque (as expressed in his two part Pro Ecclesia article) may be more of what Hunsinger calls "enclave theology" than a valiant stand for truth.

Hunsinger asks some pointed questions to the Orthodox church in the book: "Why must a resoution of this controversy mean that all churches should abandon the filioque clause? Why should there not rather be repentance all around for the divisiveness that has prolonged this bitter and unnecessary controversy?" I think the Orthodox communion has some hard thinking to do about that. I can say that Thomas Hopko consistently displays the kind of log in one's own eye self-criticism that Hunsinger calls for.

matslacker said...

:). I don't recall refusing to grapple with Daley's article on the filioque.

That said, it now seems that deference to the Fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople--who did not include the filioque, and who said clearly that the Creed was never to be altered--now puts one in an "enclave." Interesting: those in upholding the full weight of an ecumenical council are the enclave.

:). But seriously, if you found my remark on Daley odd, know that I wasn't the only one to found his lecture odd. It was all "unification, unification, unification," without any stated concern for truth. It's streaming online on BC's website--you can judge for yourself.

BTW, I love Daley's translations of Maximus--including some of his priceless unpublished one's.

millinerd said...

Look matslacker - this is my forum, and you will deal with the errors I project onto you!

Seriously though, I guess you didn't say that, so my apologies. What I meant to suggest is that if one engages his arguments in that article regarding unification, which is far more detailed and documented than any talk could be, then you'll find he is most certainly guided by truth. If I was giving a talk at BC, I would accent unity as well, but the heavy-lifting on his ecumenical work doesn't read that way.

I should add that I don't mean to imply that those who convert don't have to make grave sacrifices... just that those who stay do sometimes as well.

matslacker said...

Fair enough re Daley. Hey, I was hoping to be moved, educated, and inspired when he came to speak on the state of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. I brought friends. We all said: interesting on the history of the dialogue, but otherwise, meh. But I'll read the pro ecclesia piece, which sounds helpful.

Now, it's off to Church to greet our Bishop, who's on his way to celebrate Nativity with us tonight. Christ is born!

millinerd said...

12 days ago! Just kidding. Merry Nativity.

Benjamin Baxter said...

Peter Kreeft has the best treatment of Ecumenism, I think, with "Ecumenism without Compromise." It's a lecture, available for free, on his Web site.

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