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THE PROBLEMATIC OF CHRISTIAN REUNIFICATION

The dangerous Path of Dogmatic Minimalism

 

by Georges Florovsky

 

“Then if any man shall say unto you,
Lo here is Christ, or there; believe it not”.

(Matthew 24:23)

 

The Church is one. And this unity is the very essence of the Church. The Church is unity, unity in Christ, “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The Church was and is created in the world namely for the sake of unity and union – “that all may be one” (John 17:21). The Church is one “body” – that is, the organism and Body of Christ. “For by one Spirit we all were baptized into one body” (I Corinthians 12:13). And only in the Church is this authentic and real unity and oneness possible or feasible, through the sacrament of Christ᾿s love, through the transforming power of the Spirit, in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. This is how it is and how it should be. But unity is not manifest or revealed in Christian history. It remains only an unresolved problem, and its resolution oscillates back and forth, moving towards the ultimate eschatological boundary. In Christian empiricism there is no unity. The Christian world abides in division – and not only in division but in dissent, in trouble and in struggle. In Christian history we see no more unity and agreement than in external, non-Christian history. In Christian societies, not only have the divisions which demoralize and destroy the “natural” order of life not been taken down or overcome – racial and national antagonisms have also not been reconciled or extinguished (compare with the so-called “philetism”). Moreover, in Christian doctrine itself, in the very faith in Christ, there are grounds and bases for mutual alienation, for separation and hostility, for unreconcilable arguments, for open animosity. The Christian world is divided not only on issues of this world but also on that of Christ himself. Among the Christians who are faithful to his Name, there is no agreement on him, on his acts and his Nature. This is a stumbling block and a temptation. The Church is one and indivisible in its unity. But the Christian world is divided and split. Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13). But Christians diverge on the question of him, and not only think differently but also believe differently. And they place their hope in different things. But no, the Church is not divided, has not been divided, did not divide. The Church is not divided and not divisible. And the very word “Church”, in strict and precise word usage, does not have or tolerate a plural form – unless in the figurative and untrue sense.

Nonetheless, the Christian world is in a state of dissent, conflict and – is it not time to admit it? – collapse. Let us say that what occurred was neither a division of the Church nor a “division of the Churches”. Let us more accurately speak not of disunion in the Church, but of dissociation from the Church. But the very fact of dissent and schism remains. And the Church cannot stop this schism and fragmentation of itself. Centrifugal forces not only prevail in the external world, but also penetrate into the Church itself. The Church is sorrowful and persecuted – and persecuted not only by enemies and opponents, but no less frequently by false brothers. “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2). Herein lies the fundamental paradox of Christian history. And there are epochs in which all the bitterness and pain of this paradoxical schism and collapse is experienced and endured with renewed severity. The mind is overwhelmed by this enigma of human resistance and obstinacy. How is it possible, and what does it mean? “It seems a mystery.” How will we overcome decay and death? It seems that we are entering – and indeed, have already entered – such an epoch. And the need for reconciliation and unity blazes forth. The tendency towards unity has been born and will gather strength. The idea of Christian unity and union is becoming the theme of the era, the theme of the time, the theme of history. The entire unnaturalness of the divisions, the irreconcilability and the lack of love for Christ are being laid bare in shame and alarm. But the tendency towards unity should not stop at a vague alarm and trembling of the heart. And sentimentalism over Christ is bewitchment and impotent self-deception. Unity in Christ is realizable only through sobriety and spiritual vigilance. The will to unity must mature and be tempered through penitential trials and deeds of faith.

No one would quarrel with the idea that the Christian world should be and become unified. One hardly needs to prove that it is befitting or proper to unite and reunite. But from this indisputable postulate it would be wise to draw some distinct and practical conclusions. Indeed, the major difficulty lies elsewhere: how can the Christian world become one? That is: what does it mean to become unified and be one in Christ? What is the meaning of this reunification? And where are the paths or path to unity? In history there have been more than a few, and rather too many, attempts to restore Christian unity, to realize a kind of “everlasting world”, at least for Christians. But one must realize right away: these attempts were not successful. And nothing disturbs the course of real rapprochement and unification as much as these unsuccessful attempts, of which at best there remain only bitter memories and a tired lack of hope. In any case, one must first explain and establish the sense and essence of this tragic Christian division, of what called and calls it forth and what exactly is required to overcome it. One must start with such a penitent and judgmental ordeal, however burdensome and agonizing this autopsy of the Christian world may be.

The first thing that one must feel and understand from the very beginning is that the question of division and unification cannot be settled or decided on purely moral grounds. This is definitely not a question of peace or tolerance alone. Squeezing the “union problem” into an unsuitable moral framework is misrepresenting and simplifying it. A historian should protest first and foremost against any such hasty and one-sided attempts at the moralization of history. The history of the Christian divisions can likewise not be deduced from or built on the basis of the principle of intolerance, nor the principles of pride, lust for power, concupiscence or meanness. Of course, human passion in all its power is “decked out” and exposed in the divisions of Christianity. But the initial source of these Christian schisms was not moral depravity or human weakness, but delusion. This thought may be expressed as follows. Yes, the source of the divisions is lack of love. But first and foremost, it is not lack of love for one᾿s fellows, but precisely lack of love for God – and the spiritual vision of man therefore clouds over, and he no longer recognizes his own Heavenly Father. Indeed, only the pure of heart, in the transparency of their hearts, see God. And not knowing the Father, they do not know or recognize their brothers. In other words, the source of the divisions and schisms lies primarily in the difference of opinions about the Truth.

The division of the Christian world has a primarily dogmatic sense. It is always division in faith, in the very experience of faith, and not only in formula and creed. The division is therefore overcome not so much through gentleness and brotherly love as through agreement and unity of thought – through spiritual enlightenment, in the unity of the Truth. It should be firmly stated: there is too little unity of love and in love. It is fitting to love one᾿s enemies too, and even the enemies of the Truth – and one must love them precisely as brothers, and agonize over their salvation and their addition to the assembly and image of Christ. However, such a love still does not generate true unity. Real unity of love is hardly possible without unity in and of faith. Differences in thought are always felt to be at the foundation of schisms, a different perception and understanding. This is why the schism cannot be truly overcome through sentimental brotherly love and obedience alone, but only through fundamental agreement. “Union” (unionalnyi) moralism itself contains its own “dogmatic” premises. It tacitly assumes that there were not and are not adequate reasons for the division to occur, that the entire division is only a tragic misunderstanding – that the differences of opinion seem irreconcilable only because of insufficient loving attention to one another, out of not inability but rather unwillingness to understand that despite all the differences and dissimilarities there is sufficient unity and agreement for what is most important. The isolation of the most “important” points is a highly controversial premise. It is proposed to consider the controversial point nonessential, thereby avoiding dissent. In this way, “moralism” is always a kind of dogmatic minimalism, if not outright “adogmatism”. It is nourished on and emerges from a kind of dogmatic insensibility, or difference, or nearsightedness. One may say: it emerges from the unnatural abrogation and opposition of Truth and Love. But only in Truth is there real and spiritual love, and not merely soulfulness and languor.

Strictly speaking, moralism is a dogmatic fixture, a special “creed” in which the poverty of the positive content is balanced off by the resoluteness of the negations. And a moralist not so much raises himself higher than the divisions as simply gets used to looking at them from above. This is hardly evidence of brotherly love, but it does at least demonstrate simple respect for the faith of one᾿s fellows, which in the minimalist interpretation is condescendingly lowered to the level of a personal opinion or point of view, and is tolerated and accepted as such. In such an interpretation there is not even enough sincerity. “Moralism” is a call to unite in poverty, in impoverishment, in need – not accord, but agreement in silence and preterition. This is equalization in indigence, in accordance with the weakest common denominator. This type of solution is sometimes accepted out of indifference as a means of knowing the Truth. Often, the very possibility of commonly meaningful judgments in dogma and even metaphysics is called into doubt, and the dogmas themselves are accepted in moral or moralistic symbols or postulates. Then, of course, it is not necessary to achieve unity of thought and accord in the areas of doubt and irresolution. Less seldom, people hide in minimalism out of fear and faithlessness, is desperation of achieving accord in those areas where there were the most arguments and disagreements. In a word, moralism is abstention, but not so much in humility and asceticism as in indifference or doubt. But can one be united in denial and doubt? Unification and communion must be sought in richness and fullness, not in poverty. This means: not through condescension and adaptation to the weakest, but through ascension, through striving towards the strongest. Only one image and example is and was given – Christ the Savior.

There are contentious issues for which the Church did not give and does not have simple answers. However, here too skeptical ambiguity is entirely ruled out, and the comforting “ignorabimus” is also not appropriate. For, indeed, completeness of vision was given initially in the experience and consciousness of the Church, and only needs to be identified. And for this identification, maximalism is needed – and thus unity of faith, not only unity of love. But unity of faith does not yet exhaust the unity of the Church. For the Church unity is first and foremost unity of life – that is, the unity and communion of the sacraments. True unity can be realized only in the Truth – that is, in wholeness and strength, not in weakness and insufficiency. In the identity of mystical experience and life, in the wholeness of “indivisible faith”, in the completeness of the sacraments. Real unity can only be this unity in the sacraments, taken in the entire fullness of their hieratical and theurgical realism. For this is unity in the Spirit, a true “unity of the Spirit”. There is yet another flaw in “moralism”. In it, there is too much complacency and optimism. Reconciliation seems close, possible, and not difficult – for there is not enough gravity and courage in the very perception and view of the division. Moralism is insufficiently tragic and tragedy fits badly into the boundaries of morality, even moral tragedy, and this is by far the clearest evidence of the restrictiveness of morality as such. Unification is possible only trough the experience and feat of resolving unresolved questions, not through abstention or digression from them. Here there is a certain unknown quantity which remains to be found and defined. The division itself testifies to the presence of questions. There is a problematic of division and schism. It is impossible to abolish it or replace it with sentimentalism. There are real aporia to unity; it is a difficult path. The way is hard, “a mountain road” – the way of courage and daring.

 

PART TWO: THE “DOCTRINE” OF THE CHURCH SCHISM AND THE BRANCH THEORY

The basic difficulty of doctrine on Christian reunification is that of the limits or boundaries of the Church. This is the entire problematic of St. Cyprian of Carthage. [See the following article for an analysis of the inadequacy of St. Cyprian᾿s thought]. The basic idea of St. Cyprian may be expressed as follows: the canonical boundary of the Church is inherently charismatic, so that any “schism” is a complete falling away from the Church. It is a departure from that holy land, from that holy and sacred City where the holy source pulses, the source of holy water, the mystical Jordan. This is why the schismatics have only “impure water”, used for the further profanation of what is evil rather than for its ablution. Immediately beyond the canonical boundary, the world without grace, the natural world, begins. The practical conclusions of St. Cyprian were never accepted by the Church, and Church regulations on the reunification of schismatics and heretics tacitly suggest that the Spirit breathes even in the sons of the opposition. The recognition of “schismatic” sacraments cannot be explained by “economy” alone – here there can be no ambiguous “pragmatism”, no “as if”. Nonetheless, however, the reasoning of St. Cyprian can hardly be considered to have been refuted. Of course, its premises must be narrowed and made more precise. But the very consistency of thought remains undisturbed. And his polemic with the Donatists, St. Augustine was essentially not that different from St. Cyprian. This is why there is unresolved tension between dogma and practice in this case – tension, not contradiction. The Church testifies that the sacraments are performed among schismatics and even heretics – even if it is not salvific, as St. Augustine explains, but they are at least performed in the Holy Spirit, which therefore remains alive even in schism. But this does not explain how it is possible. It is not so enigmatic that there is the hope of salvation “outside the Church”, extra Ecclesiam – to such an extent is the very fact of the unity of the abiding, Life-giving Spirit present in the schism.

This is the basic antinomy in Church doctrine. And it is not suitable to misinterpret this antinomic and paradoxical fact in the spirit and sense of the well-known “branch theory of the Church”. This would be an altogether exceptional extrapolation. The “branch theory of the Church” sees the schism of the Christian world too optimistically and happily. There are no “branches” with equal rights. It is truer to say: sick branches do not immediately wither away. Herein lies the basic fact. Canonical isolation, the loss of “ecumenism” – that is, of Catholic wholeness – the dulling and obscuring of dogmatic consciousness, even outright delusion – all of this human falseness and error still does not stop or obstruct the circulation of the Spirit. Nonetheless, this is no longer a canonical fact, and cannot be considered when building a “normal” structure for the Church. This is the fact of a supra-canonical exception, thus far unknown in history. Khomiakov expressed this best of all: “Since the Church is earthly and visible and there is still no completion and perfection of the entire Church, which the Lord decreed shall exist until the final judgment of all of creation, it creates and knows only within its limits, not judging the remainder of mankind (in the words of Paul to the Corinthians), and only recognizes as lost – that is, as not belonging to her – those who left her of their own accord. The remainder of mankind, either outside of the Church or connected to her with knots which God will not allow her to untravel, she concedes to the judgment of the great day” (The Church Is One, § 2).

Yes, there are invisible knots which cannot be severed by retreats and division and schism. But it is even less suitable to calm and comfort oneself about this invisible bond, to slight this merciful gift of unity. But one must try to accomplish, discover and execute this unity in the completeness of the Church, which triumphs in the Spirit and in truth on the earth and in historical testimony. From this point of view, every real “common cause” is more important than a direct posing of the question of reunification. For the very reality of unity and faithfulness, even if only to a slight extent, is most important of all. In this regard, doctrinal and theological collaboration and mutual ties are undoubtedly a real act of “union”, since at least in striving towards the truth of Christ, solidarity is attained. The question of reunification is most expediently posed namely as a question of truth – seek the Truth, and it will not only liberate but unite, for Truth is one and is unity. For reunification in Christian empiricism, things must change – or to put it differently, they must be transformed. Reunification cannot be thought out like the union of today᾿s empirical realities. And in the idea of unification there is more accuracy and clarity than in the idea of simple combination. Here it remains unclear who is uniting. And unification tends towards the Truth. Reunification is possible only in the Spirit and in strength, in inspiration and holiness. Therefore it will hardly come during theological conferences, at the meetings of hierarchs, hardly in Lausanne or Stockholm. And if reunification is fated to occur in history, then in any case this will be already in the eschatological twilight and on the eve of the Second Coming (Parousia), for this will already be a forewarning and anticipation of our fates from the other world. Here much is unclear, and will be explained to all in prayerful vigil and ordeal. This does not weaken the decisiveness of the commandment: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here we have no abiding City, but rather we seek the coming one” (Hebrews 13:3).

 


 

(Source: Georges Florovsky, Ecumenism I, A Doctrinal Approach BÜCHERVERTRIEBSANSTALT, 1989)

(Translated from Russian: by Linda Morris)

 


 

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