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Christian Europe: An Orthodox Perspective

Constantine Scouteris

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"Europe is now at a turning point. It is a decisive moment: the kairos Europe."

"The continent of Christendom" is facing new realities and challenges. Values considered for centuries to be the bedrock of European existence are being questioned from many sides. Loss of faith, dehumanization, uncertainty and fear and even a transformation of the physiognomy of Europe have radically shaken European self- confidence. Do European Christians have the resources to confront these challenges?

Vision and plea

When discussing the question of Europa Christiana, two very critical points must be seriously considered. The conversion of Europe to Christianity is the direct result of both a vision - "during the night Paul had a vision" - and a plea for help - "there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9). With St Paul's arrival at Neapolis, the gospel was first brought to Europe. Paul of course did not confine his evangelization to cities of Macedonia, such as Philippi and Thessalonica, nor even to other Greek cities, such as Athens and Corinth, but continued his missionary journey to Rome, capital of the empire. In the course of Christian Europe's long history, the plea of the man of Macedonia in Paul's vision has been almost totally forgotten. The creation of a world characterized by self-sufficiency and even arrogance is the weakness of European Christianity, which has become too rationalized, egocentric and self-confident. What has been lost is the profound sense of need reflected in the plea for help. It must be acknowledged that what European Christians need most urgently today is God's help; and we must plead for it with the humility of the man of Paul's vision. We need to rediscover humility, as it is described by St Maximus the Confessor in his Centuries on Charity:

Humility is continual prayer with tears and hardships. This constant calling upon God for help does not permit us senselessly to grow bold in our own prayer and wisdom nor to put ourselves before others. These are the serious diseases of the passion of pride.

The vision which inspired Paul to bring the gospel to Europe was not his first. Part of his own conversion was hearing God's voice on the road to Damascus, a revelatory experience which transformed him from Saul into Paul. It is important to note that in both cases confrontation with the historical phenomenon of Jesus Christ and the new reality in him, the reality of the gospel, required revelatory, spiritual experience. It is the miracle of the Spirit which makes history accessible. There is no other way to understand history, given that the miracle of God's appearance in the historical context cannot be explained in terms of historical causality. The over-valuation of history evident in the long course of European development results in an under-estimation of what the New Testament calls "miracle". Over the centuries, this over-valuation of history has affected scholastic interpretations as well as the protracted discussions concerning the historical Jesus.

"Classical" and "contextual" theology

An examination of Paul's method of proclaiming the message of God in an extremely complex world can be very instructive for our theological orientation. Living in a world of tensions - not only political, but also social, economic and even ecclesiastical and theological - we realize more and more that we need a re-formation of our theological work and that this cannot be other than a conscious return to the apostolic inheritance. The mission of the apostle Paul is a challenge to our theological work. It is perfectly clear that his sole objective was to preach to the nations the message of God who "so loved the world" that he became part of it (John 3:16). Out of this pastoral care, Paul became "all things to all people":

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law... so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law... so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)

What more eloquent biblical justification of what is called today "contextual theology"? Indeed, I have great difficulty accepting the possibility of any authentic theology which is not "contextual". The way Paul worked when he visited Athens is significant. First he tried to find a method to communicate his message to the highly religious and educated Athenians. The way he started his speech is very significant:

"Athenians..., as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown God'. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22-23)

Thus Paul communicated the theological word in a manner related to the particular social, cultural and religious situation he found in Athens. He used an analogous approach preaching the gospel elsewhere in Asia and Europe. The more thoroughly his epistles are studied, the stronger the realization that his primary methodology in proclaiming the Christian truth was always and everywhere to take seriously into account the mentality and culture, the specific circumstances and background of his hearers. Writing to the Romans, for example, he did not hesitate to use legal language and categories.

In the Eastern patristic tradition one can find a similar appreciation for particular cultural, linguistic and historical contexts. This contextualization of theology can already be seen to a certain extent in the emergence of the theological schools (Alexandrian, Antiochene, etc.) during the fourth and fifth centuries, but it came into full flower in the missionary activities of the post-iconoclastic period. The philological work of St Cyril and St Methodius, for example, as well as their translation and adaptation of biblical and liturgical texts, made possible the transmission of the riches of the Christian faith not only to Moravia but to the entire Slavic people in their own language.

A theology which is not "contextual" can hardly be a theology of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, some further observations should be made on the issue of the so-called "classical" and "contextual" theologies.

First, the term "classical theology" itself requires some qualification. If by "classical" we mean "the old which always remains new", then the theology produced within the European Christian academic setting - which is what is usually-meant by "classical theology" - is not at all classical. On the contrary, it has often been rooted in the syndrome of superiority which has until recently permeated the academic world in Europe - the belief in the innate superiority of the European mind. It is a theology which grew within the narrow confines of its own historical, cultural and geographical context. The products of this European academic environment are undeniably impressive, creative and fruitful, but they are to a very large extent a mere continuation of baroque scholastic metaphysics. Thus the so-called "classical theology" was born and nourished within a specific context. In other cultural and historical contexts it has admittedly often been helpful for communicating and understanding the Christian message; but on the other hand it has also sometimes been a serious obstacle. To be truly classical, a theology must have universal acceptance; it must stand in any time and under any particular condition.

A second observation focuses on the content of what is today called "contextual theology". Although the intent of this term is clear - theological adaptation to given cultural, historical, geographical, etc. contexts - there is often obscurity or even confusion about the implementation of the process of contextualization. Some recent ecumenical forums and statements by some theologians within and outside Europe have placed greater emphasis on the "contextual" than on the "theological". Thus "contextual theology" often becomes detheologizing: the context - historical, cultural and even religious - becomes the ultimate criterion for theology. A genuine "contextual theology" will not destroy the harmony between "context" and "theology", either by imposing a theology produced within one academic environment on every corner of the world, nor by absolutely imposing culturo-social criteria on theology. An authentic "contextual theology" will preserve a balance between "con- text" and "theology" while remaining faithful to the fundamentals of the Christian revelation.

Theology which creates a gulf between itself and the context is not Christian theology. But again, theology which identifies itself with the context and becomes a prisoner of it is no longer Christian theology. The task of theological research is to find such a balance; those involved in theology must realize that "contextual theology" is not a path towards theological syncretism, but a responsible and serious presentation of the eternal truth of the gospel in a given context of culture and thought.

Christian truth is not a concept which can be manipulated as one wills. Nor can it be completely accommodated to human sensibilities in order to make it more perceptible. The Christian Truth is a person (John 14:6) and the responsibility of theology is to transmit this person to every historical situation and to people in every social circumstance in an accessible way. But in doing so we must realize that, although this Truth is offered to human persons, there is always a shadow around it. -For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12).

This is why the Greek fathers spoke about the mystery of theology. God appears to us as Light, that is, as clarity, but also as shadow, that is, as the presence of the hidden, of the mystery which requires humble faith on our part. There have been those in the past who have sought to put forward a completely rationalist theology, in which God is reduced to an object of logical or philosophical investigation; there are people today who think they can create a theology reduced solely and exclusively to the various historical struggles and forms of thought or even to social and religious experiences. Others think they can even construct a "theology" without God.

The ecumenical theological vocation must be clearly oriented towards an integral and holistic understanding of God and history, avoiding every form of reductionism. In the final analysis, we need to understand with all our soul and mind that ignoring the context leads theology into a kind of monophysitism, and that basing theology exclusively on the context leads to a kind of Nestorianism. I can imagine no better description of the ideal relation between theology and the context than that proposed by the Council of Chalcedon (451), in its endeavour to defend the doctrine of the union of the two natures in the one Person of Christ: "without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation".

Theology must take seriously into account that its task is to serve the world. This implies an attentive approach to the world's needs and at the same time a strong conviction that Christ came "to bring fire to the earth" (Luke 12:49). Christian theology ministers to the world, but it is not of the world (John 15:18ff.). Its diakonia and its concern are to transform the world. When Christian theology forgets this, it loses touch with its very essence. If theology is based on and follows the proclamation of Jesus Christ, and if the world has been changed by Christ, then the ultimate goal of theology is the sanctification and the transfiguration of the world.

The division of the world and its sanctification

Perhaps more than any other part of the world, Europe has experienced division on many levels. In many cases, European history is almost identical with religious conflicts and proselytism, political and national struggles, divisions along lines of social and economic status, enmities growing out of geographical boundaries and ethnic identities. Chauvinism and xenophobia coupled with outright selfishness and an unshakable belief in its own superiority appear to constitute the essence of the complicated European reality. The theme for the tenth assembly of the Conference of European Churches in September 1992 was "God unites - in Christ a new creation". What does this mean for a Europe which still experiences suffering and division despite the radical changes in recent years? Unity - are we being realistic or is it merely a dream? Does the Christian European situation justify today's divisions?

There are Christian thinkers who believe we need to rewrite the gospel to meet the existential questions of the modern human person; I think what we really need to do is to reread the gospel, overcoming historical, social, ethnic and denominational prejudices. And rereading the gospel we shall realize that the only way to overcome our divisions is to accept "the yoke" and "the burden" of Christ. We must accept the division brought by Christ himself in order to be free from our own divisions:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law (Luke 12:51-53);

We must admit it openly: the Christian way radically transcends the commonly accepted "human" way, a way which is today inevitably leading our societies not only to spiritual but also to physical and environmental suicide. Christianity is indeed a unity, in which the different parts and the different modes of expression form a unique whole. Their belonging together is clearly founded on the unity of the work of God, who has drawn near to us in the form of a servant. This unique condescension can strengthen contemporary human persons to stand up as one body and confront temptations to greed and selfishness, excessive demands, egocentrism and chauvinism in all their varied manifestations.

It is our urgent duty to realize that our Christian commitment requires us to transform our self-centered European reality into selfless love for our neighbor, for the society of which we are a part and for the world and the environment in which we live. It goes without saying that the industrial cities we have created and our highly advanced technological society are in the final analysis a mirror of our way of thought. We think in terms of division rather than of unity and integrity. We must remember this in dealing with questions such as the environmental crisis.

This means that the problems of the modern human person are not accidents external to himself or herself but are intimately related to his or her attitudes and life. They are, in fact, the natural consequences of his or her existential condition. The relation between a human being and all which is external to him or her is analogous to the relationship he or she has created with his or her own conscience. The point is that we have created for ourselves a polarized existence:

I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:23-24)

What I am trying to say is this: the European approach has created a manner of thought and life which is clearly rooted in a loss of awareness of who we are. We suffer from a profound ignorance of ourselves. We have forgotten that we are created in the image and likeness of the eternal Beauty and Life and that our ultimate goal is communion with God and harmony with the entire cosmic reality. St Gregory of Nyssa did not hesitate to adopt a language deeply impregnated with Platonic thought to bring this insight to the attention of his contemporaries:

The universe is continuous with itself and the harmony of existence knows no rupture; rather, there is a union of all beings with one another. And the conjunction of the universe is not severed, but everything continues in being, held together by the power of the real Being. Now, that which really is, is Goodness itself or something still higher, if such a name signifying the unutterable nature can be found... Therefore, this Good, or even beyond Good, is Itself alone truly existent and was giving and continues to give of Itself to those who exist both the power to exist and the permanence in existence.

Progressively, beginning in the post-Renaissance period and continuing thereafter, human persons have considered the natural cosmos to be their own possession. We as heirs of that vision have only slightly respected the sacredness of the created cosmos. This is in fact the origin of what we today recognize as "the environmental crisis". Thus, not only theology but also our outlook towards nature suffer from a fragmented attitude. On the theological level, the approach of the European mind was exported to every corner of the world as the theology. Likewise, the European attitude towards the natural world was adopted as the norm everywhere. "Progress", "development", "improvement", "exploitation" - all these are terms expressing the human relation with nature. It is urgent that we reappraise this attitude. Many believe that the ecological crisis is basically and primarily a spiritual crisis. Many speak of metanoia as the only solution to the problem - not simply regret for mistakes of the past, but a complete and existential "change of mind".

The theme of metanoia was discussed during the CEC assembly; and there was consensus on many levels that we need a re-evaluation of what we think of ourselves and, consequently, of how we understand and treat the natural world. If we understand nature as a gift from God in which divine wisdom and harmony are manifested, and if we understand ourselves as called to be "participants of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4), there is no foundation for any polarization between the human person and the cosmos.

Our vocation as human beings is always conscious that we mediate between the created and Uncreated. Our approach to the created cosmos must be based on the fact that it reflects God's wisdom and beauty and that our relationship with it has serious implications for our relationship with God.

It is encouraging that many churches today realize the urgency of the ecological problem, its spiritual dimension and their responsibility to contribute to avoiding a cosmic catastrophe and establishing a new relationship with nature. One reflection of this is the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to consecrate 1 September each year as a "Day of Protection of Creation".

The cosmological vision of the Orthodox church can make a very constructive contribution to reconsideration of the environmental issue because of its affirmation that there exists a hidden presence of the holy throughout the entire cosmos. The constant and ultimate goal of church life is the sanctification of the entire cosmos. It is a basic ecclesiological principle in the Eastern tradition that within the church, matter is taken and offered as eucharistia (thanksgiving) to God. Since, "every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights", the church ascribes glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, offering him "his own from his own".

Such an approach was exemplified in the celebration of the Orthodox service of the "Blessing of the Loaves", marking the "Day of Protection of Creation" at the beginning of the CEC assembly (1 September 1992). The blessing of the bread and its distribution to the participants expressed visually the reality that we all share the same material world, but was at the same time a reminder that the sanctification of matter and nature is an essential dimension of Christian cosmology. Ultimately, the foundation of such an approach is the theandric Mystery itself, in which the sanctification of the created world found its full realization.East and West

By criticizing certain aspects of life and thought in Europe past and present, I do not mean to deny or minimize the significance of Europe's strengths nor the importance of its spiritual heritage. It is only fair to recognize that Europe can play a very significant role and can mark the present and the future of all humankind.

When considering Christian Europe, we must always remember that it has within itself two traditions which, despite their differences in character, theological and historico-cultural visions, have in common many fundamentals which inwardly unite them. Eastern and Western European Christendom, despite their quite different evolutions, share a common Christian inheritance. This unique historical reality can be a source of spiritual strength challenging the dominance of materialism and technology in the contemporary world.

It is an historical fact that not only Western but also Eastern Christianity must be called European, given that both developed from the same primitive Christianity which was adopted by and ultimately transformed the Greco-Roman world. Thus, although Orthodoxy may be called Eastern Christianity, it would be unthinkable to identify it as "Asiatic" Christianity. Despite the fact that a great part of the Byzantine and later the Russian empires covered Asiatic lands, the historical reality must not be confused with the geographical. This is not the place to discuss this issue in all its details. The essential point is that Orthodoxy, the European East, and the European West possess a common spiritual dynamism which can confront the challenges, crises and opportunities of the new era.

In a Europe of transition, of radical changes, of enthusiasm, but also of degradation and fear, Christians must be responsible and provide a creative option. The creation of a new history is the common responsibility of both Eastern and Western European Christians.

Notes

  1. God Unites - In Christ a New Creation, working document for the 10th assembly of the Conference of European Churches, 1992, par. 58.
  2. III, 87 (PG 90, 1044bc).
  3. In Ecclesiasten, VII (PG 44, 724d-725a).
  4. Jarnes 1:17 and Prayer behind the Amvon of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.
  5. Prayer of the prophet David (1 Chron. 29:14) and Divine Liturgies of St Basil and St John Chrysostom.
  6. Cf. Gregory Palamas, Homily XVI (PG 151, 201d-204a): "The Son of God became man... in order to reveal our own nature, which has been created by God to be good... Our human nature is related to God so that it can be united with him in one hypostasis."

Prof. Constantine Scouteris teaches at the Theological School of Athens.



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