A brave voice in the Wilderness: An Enthusiastic & Sincere Quest on Orthodox Christian Unity

OCP Publications- Review of The Orthodox Dilemma- 26/5/16

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The Orthodox Dilemma – Review by Fr Thomas Ninan- M. Th.  Priest of the Indian Orthodox Malankara Church. 

The ‘Orthodox Dilemma’ reflects an enthusiastic and a sincere quest on one of the most debated issues in the History of Christianity, that of Church Unity, specifically on having a common Orthodox platform, with due reference to the Byzantine and the Oriental Orthodox churches. While giving a glimpse on some of the historical issues debated among the Orthodox churches with respect to the schisms, the author tries to find relevance in today’s context by raising questions which emanate from the sharing of the real life experiences he and various other laity have had while interacting with the different churches. In essence, the book raises the pertinent question of addressing the lack of understanding at the grassroots level about the relevance of the Universality of a radiant Orthodox spirituality and life, as practiced by the Early Church, for a common and effective Orthodox witness today.

In a context where very little has been dealt with among the different Orthodox churches regarding what “Unity of churches” would mean, it sadly continues to be just a concept, discussed once in a while among interested church leaders engaged in Church dialogue. The prevalent Ecumenical Movement which came into being in the mid 20th century has unfortunately had a negative impact on the various Orthodox churches, in the way it was eventually practiced. And because there was very little understanding of this within the Orthodox churches then, it became obvious that the word “Oikumene”, as introduced in the Acts of the Apostles, is more a taboo word among the Orthodox churches today, in the way it has been practiced so far. Hence, in reality, the ancient Orthodox churches are yet to realize and practice what a true “Oikumene” would really mean as the Early Church practiced. To this end, this book is a great inspiration to anyone who would want to dream and engage with what, Unity in this sense would mean in a distinct way, which the world is yet to see and realize. The author, while dreaming of such a Unity, has sincerely tried to give a glimpse of some of the realities the differences between the Orthodox churches has brought forth. It is in a way, a mini encyclopedia for anyone wanting to delve into what these differences are all about.

The need for a sincere approach towards the understanding of “Oikumene” among the Orthodox churches remains a decision that needs to be taken today. This is in fact more a fundamental Biblical decision that needs to be taken, independent of what the history of the Church and Christianity has expressed itself with. The book gives a glimpse of the possibilities of what such a unity among the Orthodox churches can bring about, through the few attempts that have happened so far, at the grass-root level. After the various schisms that have happened in the history of Christianity, significant efforts towards Church unity by a pool of stalwarts from the Orthodox churches took place during the 20th century.

Like a star shining in the dark sky, their efforts continue to be a beacon today for all those who dream of such a reality. In fact, in the history of Ecumenism, their efforts stand out as one of the most daring features that brought together the two Eastern churches to a common table of learning. Much has happened after that in the Ecumenical World, both in the East and the West, to be able to reach a situation today where on one side, a few unsung heroes continue to bear the flag of unity while on the other side looms large the question of the relevance of such a Unity. Make no mistake, if it were for political reasons that there happened divisions in the history of the churches, there is no reason why one cannot comprehend the fact that the divisions today continue between the churches more because of the political reasons prevalent today, locally and regionally. Ethnicity, property disputes and other internal matters feed on to the political interests which keep alive the divisions between the churches. These factors are not just challenges to the cause of realizing unity among the Orthodox churches today, but, in reality are challenges to the practice of basic theological tenets of Orthodox life today, as it were in the early periods of church history. It was Aldous Huxley who commented, “Medical science has made such tremendous progress that there is hardly a healthy human left.”

Can we see a similar line in the stream of theological studies today, where theological knowledge has made so much progress that it is very difficult to find an ounce of godliness in human beings today. If Orthodox spirituality, as it is practiced today, cannot aim towards achieving godliness as its ultimate outcome, I must say it’s time we call such spirituality as something else. It was the late HH Baselios Geevarghese II, the third Catholicos of the Malankara Orthodox Church who said, “It is much more important to keep inner purity than to maintain cleanliness in the church. If not, our inner self will become a den of thieves, as Christ taught us…” Can we dream of such beauty? Is it realistic and achievable? Can we call our lives worthwhile otherwise….