Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Knew Little and Cared Less

Nothing like a little Balkan (or Cretan, or Cypriot) history to decalcify one's assumptions about divided Christianity. The Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja, for example, had been baptized by a Latin bishop, and chrismated, while still an infant, by the Greek bishop of Ras. And like it or not, it is beyond question that by 1213 the monasteries of Athos recognized papal jurisdiction (an arrangement which soon dissolved).  Pope Innocent III, after all, had rescued them from a ravenous Latin despot who terrorized the Holy Mountain.  Historian Dimitri Obolensky continues:
It is remarkable that an Athonite monk [Domentijan], writing in surroundings which had suffered greatly from Latin intolerance and brutality, found words to express his veneration for the see of Rome. It is not unreasonable to see in this broadmindedness a sign that, despite doctrinal disputes and jurisdictional rivalry in the mid-thirteenth century, the belief in Christendom as a single body was still alive, even on Mount Athos (pages 145-146).
...To see in Stephen (as many historians have done) the champion of Latin traditions in Serbia, and in Sava the defender of the Orthodox Church, is to fly in the face of the evidence and to ignore that sense of a united Christendom, which in the first half of the thirteenth century still survived in the Balkans. The atrocities committed in Constantinople and elsewhere by the armies of the Fourth Crusade certainly caused most Greeks to harden their hearts to the West; but in many parts of the Balkans it was otherwise: there, a distinguished medievalist [Dvornik] has written, "people knew little and cared less about differences between the two Churches and ... cherished the naive conviction that one should remain on speaking terms with both the great Christian centers"  (pages 153-154).
Riding back from church this last Sunday with some Middle Schoolers, one asked me to explain to him the differences between Protestants and Catholics.   Having just heard a sermon on the Nicene Creed at an evangelical church, in which Catholics and Orthodox Christians were spoken of highly, he was puzzled.  I began to hold forth, but then held back, choosing instead to talk about the Christ we share in common. Yes, theological distinctions matter, I get that.  But on another level, explanations help too much.  He should never stop being puzzled.  None of us should.