Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fast Forward

This video put out by Willow Creek (an influential Evangelical mega-church in the Chicago area, for those who don't know) runs through Church history (in about 13 min.) from the New Testament to the present, specifically focusing on Christian unity. I include it here particularly for anyone who's curious what they have to say about the Church from Constantine to the Reformation (about 3:50-5:12):



Julie saw it before I did and concluded that I wouldn't like it. She was basically right, although not necessarily for the right reasons. After one pass, here are some of my general concerns:
  • As would be expected, the viewpoint is thoroughly Western. This is most apparent when the Crusades (starting around 5:12) are blamed on "the Church." The Eastern Church has enough of its own skeletons, but the Crusades were perpetrated by Westerners, and Eastern Christians were mostly on the receiving end. Considering that the video clearly assumes the standard Protestant definition of "the Church," it seems like a rather glaring oversight to ignore (or unjustly implicate) the primary alternative to Western Catholicism at the time of the Crusades.
  • As far as that goes, I'm not exactly sure why they highlight the Crusades as the one particularly negative event in Church history. The most sensible explanation is that they are a prime example of Western racism and cultural bias, though that point is not explicitly highlighted, and it would probably be too much to assume that the intended audience would get it. Perhaps it is merely to set the stage for the Reformation. The transition seems to suggest that the Reformers were responding to the Crusades in particular, though one might hope that the connection was unintentional.
  • The otherwise generally rosy picture of Church progress glosses over some important negatives. Particularly, the great missionary era of Western Christianity is presented without any reference to the accompanying problem of colonialism. Since most of the attitudes that divide Christians culturally are grounded in colonialism, it seems like a substantial omission.
  • On the other hand, the portrayal of medieval Christianity suggests nothing beyond the cloister. There is no mention of the Church that converted Slavic Eastern Europe or any of the other great missionary movements of the era, East or West.
  • Of course, the greatest problem is the overall thrust, which ignores the very real, very substantive issues that divide churches from each other. Racism, cultural bias, and ethnic divisions are a problem, to be sure. Orthodox, not least among Christians, face this problem. But there are key political and theological factors as well, most of which pre-date the modern causes of racism and ethnocentrism; a solution that brushes over them will never bring true unity.
Knowing what I know about Willow Creek, I don't think the point is to endorse liberal ecumenism, with a wholesale exchange of Truth for unity. But Evangelicalism as a movement has always had its own conservative ecumenism, which boils down the gospel to its lowest common denominator, then brushes aside all other issues as unnecessarily divisive. The vision of transcending denominational divisions is a positive one. Likewise, overcoming racism and ethnocentrism is a worthy goal. The problem is with what they sacrifice (and what they don't) to get there.

The ancient Church of the ecumenical councils worked hard to preserve unity, but it always knew unity needed its proper basis in shared faith. When that faith was endangered by theological innovation, it responded as necessary to clarify the Church's Tradition. With a more or less opposite approach, it took Protestantism very little time to fragment Western Christendom into several incompatible strands. In the centuries since, the divisions have only multiplied, despite the separate efforts of liberals and Evangelicals to unite Christianity around shared goals. I would dearly love to see unity restored, but it's hard not to be pessimistic when the root causes remain.

I don't want to over-simplify the situation. There are many types and layers of factors to be addressed, and Orthodox have their own unique contributions to the lack of Church unity in our age. As far as that goes, Orthodox have enough trouble right now with unity in their own midst. It's easy to blame them for moving too slowly on such issues, but the challenge is very real--how to live and function in this modernized, Westernized world without being conformed to its standards. And I have in mind here a tension that is not primarily between East and West; rather, as Meic Pearse says, it is between the West and the Rest. This Western trajectory, shaped by its individualism, its orientation toward progress over tradition, has been part and parcel of Evangelical development. To a large degree, the struggle is easier for Western Christianity, because it has never been engaged in the first place. And so we see a push in Evangelicalism to follow the secular trends of multiculturalism and globalism--not altogether divorced from the legitimate, biblical imperatives toward Christian unity, but the key question is, which is the real driver?

A constant source of heresies in the early Christian centuries was the attempt by various individuals to make Christian theology fit secular/pagan philosophy. The Church Fathers used philosophy where it suited, but they also criticized it whenever necessary. And generally speaking, the Truth of the Gospel was already there--in the day-to-day practices and quiet faith of the illiterate peasants--before and after the councils did their work. In the end, philosophy only complicated things. It seems to me that, when Christians let the secular trends of the day set the agenda for their own reform movements, we're walking right back into the same kind of trap. If it brings unity at all, it will ultimately be the wrong kind of unity--in fact, one that pulls us further away from any hope of true, biblical unity. The way out is back, not forward.

4 comments:

Jim Nee said...

Good analysis and closing statement. I probably shouldn't watch the video, however, for obvious reasons. ;)

Easter Dates said...

As an individual you can take a small step towards Christian Unity at www.onedate.org.

It is an on line petition to unite the date of Easter that Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox would celebrate this Feast of Feasts all on One Date.

Trevor,

With Unity Week around the corner would you would you consider writing a blog post or mentioning it in a post you where writing to help raise awareness of the petition.

In Christ,
Easter Dates

Trevor said...

Personally, I don't think there's much point to calling for a unified date right now. The Orthodox aren't even agreed amongst themselves. (Remember that the current "new calendar" was a compromise between those who wanted to adopt the Western calendar wholesale and those who wanted to stick with the Eastern.) Much of the Orthodox world would never agree to revising the date of Easter without a true Ecumenical council. Such a thing could never happen between East and West until more important theological issues were sorted out.

In any case, I think it's putting the cart before the horse. The Church got by with different dates for Easter until the first Ecumenical council. It was only sorted out in the context of nailing down theological agreement throughout the one, Catholic Church. Maybe when we're ready to deal with the core divisions we can do something about the calendar. In the meantime, any attempt would be merely cosmetic.

Easter Dates said...

Hi Trevor,

The inspiration for the OneDate site comes from the revelation of True Life in God.

In these writings, Quote:
One of the strong points of the writings given to this generation through Vassula, concerns itself with Christian unity. In her many visits to hundreds of countries, societies and communities around the world Vassula lets us know that Christ"s greatest desire concerning unity, and one which will also be the key to unity, is the unification of the date of Easter, done in humility and with love. This is echoed in the message of the 24th of October 1994 “My Spirit will bring you together; have you not heard that the East and West will be one kingdom? have you not heard that I shall settle for one date?”

So it is because of this the site has been put up.


Quote:
This petition is also the laity around the world, exercising their teaching (prophetic) role together with the hierarchy in the life of Christ"s Church.

It is therefore not only necessary to have the proof in form of the signatures, but that the petition is additionally taken by members of the different denominations that make up the church to respective clerics in its hierarchy. This will be done in the hope that this will serve as a leverage of change by these clerics then having evidence that there is a desire from the people of Christ to demonstrate unity of the heart and celebrate this great feast as one Christian family, not splintered, fragmented and divided.


In Christ,
Easter Dates