REVIEW: Encountering the Mystery

ENCOUNTERING THE MYSTERY – Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today

by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW
(Doubleday, March 18, 2008; 304 pages)

The world is in a mess and is headed for impending gloom, doom, and disaster. At least that’s one way to look at it. Another way is: The world is in a mess and is headed for an imminent, ecumenical, even interreligious, encounter. So seems the belief of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW according to his new book, Encountering the Mystery – Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today.

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, Encountering the Mystery is enlightening. No matter one’s culture, Encountering the Mystery is engaging. Regardless of one’s personal and political opinions concerning the environment, Encountering the Mystery is educational. Regardless, the book is about encountering. Rarely does an encounter exist without struggle, a struggle toward understanding. Upon reading this book, my chief struggle is in trying to understand its purpose.

I suspect that it is a plea to the world at large, primarily the European Union, to embrace Turkey. Some selling points, however, fall flat:

Turkey is, after all, the only Muslim society that has come into close contact with and warmly embraced the ideals of the Enlightment and the French Revolution (p.202).

The vita of the Patriarch and the beliefs of the Orthodox Christian Church form the introductory material and early chapters of the book; the latter half is concerned with issues of poverty and pollution – personal and national – on a global scale. Whereas the information concerning Orthodox theology is concise and handy; the platform on ecology seems plodding and reads like a mixture of keynote addresses and position papers from interfaith symposia glued together within one binder.

Essentially, encounter means to meet face to face. Therefore, the title of the book presents a paradox. How is it that one meets mystery face to face? Furthermore, when one meets mystery face to face, what does one see? What does one do? One thing is for certain: comfort is not assured. In fact, this book is quite discomforting. In order to flesh this out I must make it personal, switching from an objective review to a subjective one. I mean, according to BARTHOLOMEW, encounter requires as much.

First, let’s begin with the person of the Patriarch and why some readers, especially Orthodox Christians, might be reluctant to pick up Encountering the Mystery. Although the mainstream press – even the dust jacket of this book – claims the Ecumenical Patriarch is the “spiritual leader for the world’s over 200 million Orthodox Christians,” many Orthodox Christians view this as no more than a convenient label employed by the media, and encouraged by the Ecumenical throne, to add gravitas to his position among Church and world leaders from within a once-Christian-now-Muslim land.

Secondly, most times the Ecumenical Patriarch is found in the news it is because he’s fraternizing with someone who is not Christian, much less Orthodox. When he makes news it’s usually controversial. Especially when viewed through the lens of American Orthodox converts – many of whom have chosen, after great struggle, to leave Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, even Islam – such encounters may seem unnecessarily compromising. If you’re going to allow yourself to be called the “spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians,” at least follow the tried and true script. For instance, again from the book’s dust jacket: “He is dedicated to advancing reconciliation among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, and is an active proponent of environmental causes.”

“Yes, but is he Orthodox?” comes the question.

For example, closer to home, what is he doing to help unite the Orthodox Christians in the United States? Is he a help or a hindrance to jurisdictional unity in America? If he is a help, let’s see some encouragement and action! If he is a hindrance, he need do nothing more than he is already doing.

If the answer is “Yes, of course the Ecumenical Patriarch is Orthodox!” then that’s good news. Would that His All Holiness would struggle to bring his own house into order before inviting us to a group hug with those outside the Faith, especially those who have for centuries tried to destroy it. However, Encountering the Mystery will do little to further the True Faith. I can’t think of a single Seeker to whom I’d recommend the book. There are certain chapters, well written, that pertain to the Faith. But what a pity that the whole book, from the “spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians” is not fitting for seeking souls.

Three names offer endorsements on the book’s jacket: Dr Jane Goodall, Dr Rowan Williams, and Madeline Albright (all three are, if I’m not mistaken, Anglicans) — along with a blurb from Publishers Weekly. For certain, these are names known to the world. However, they seem misplaced on the cover of a book by the “spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.” Granted, Metropolitan KALLISTOS (Ware), a name known to most Orthodox Christians wrote the Forward; Dr John Chryssavgis, Theological Advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on Environmental Issues, wrote the lengthy Biographical Note. But, still. Who is the author’s intended audience? This is a mystery one keeps encountering.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that the Ecumenical Patriarch is basically under “house arrest” in a country dominated by the “religion of peace.” In my opinion, to truly lead the Orthodox, he needs to get out of Turkey and speak the Truth or be willing to lose his own life for speaking the Truth in Turkey. (Given all else that we know — wink, wink — is there any other way?)

Apparently, there is. This is the way that BARTHOLOMEW has chosen. It is the way of dialogue leading toward compromise. This, by what I read to my children in the lives of the saints each night, is not the traditional way of the Orthodox.

One cannot debate with fundamentalist Muslims, any more than one can debate with fundamentalist Jews or fundamentalist Christians. Their certainty about God renders global discourse or religious discussion almost impossible. The alternative is humble engagement and moderate conversation. It is an expression not only of a dignified respect toward other human beings but of a due response to God, who remains beyond all certainty and comprehension. Moreover, it is a reflection of a proper self-respect, inasmuch as one readily admits one’s limitations and imperfections (p.186).

There’s many passages, like the one above, where one might find shades of agreement, lulling one into a place of resignation, and then:

Thus, the great monotheistic religions may be said to agree not only on the one name (or the many names) of God. More fundamentally they agree on the ultimate namelessness of God. For while they may disagree on the precise content of the names themselves — that is to say, on the details of the faith that they confess — they agree on the mystery of God, who transcends all names and knowledge. Put more simply: while Jews, Christians, and Muslims may disagree on the partial truth that we know dimly about God, they in fact approach one another in their recognition that the absolute truth cannot be conceived, contained, or exhausted (p.189).

At one time in my life, having made mysticism a hobby, I would have stood and cheered such writing. Perhaps, even, if I’d read the above from another source, I could still appreciate the mystery. But when coupled with the following quote, I start to get nervous:

We stand before perhaps the greatest challenge of human history: namely, the challenge to tear down the wall of separation between East and West, between Muslims and Christians, between all religions of the world, between all civilizations and cultures. As stewards of this unique and exceptional historical moment, we must face the challenge of bridging the great divide and recognizing humanity and common values. This is surely God’s model for the world (p.205).

See what I mean about the European Union thing? He’s not talking about most backyards. In the old-fashioned days, before this “exceptional historic moment,” some would say that “God’s model for the world” has already been rejected by the Jews and the Muslims. However, even if one were called to metanoia — repentance — it does not mean the same thing as it did yesterday.

Dialogue does not imply denial of religious faith or betrayal of religious affiliation. Instead, it signifies a shift in our mind-set and a change of attitudes, what in spiritual language we call “repentance” — or … in Greek, metanoia, which literally means seeing things through a different perspective. This is why dialogue is the start of a long and patient process of conversation, not a fundamentalist drive toward conversion or some legal exchange of ideas like a contract. It is a way of learning how to listen in order to hear, so that Muslims can feel welcome and safe in Christian countries; so that both Jews and Palestinians may feel welcome and safe in the Middle East; so that all minorities in all places can enjoy the same rights and privileges as their neighbors (p.216).

Then there’s the whole “Green Patriarch” thing. I don’t want to trivialize humanity’s environmental missteps and, honestly, the Patriarch nowhere blames man, solely, for “global warming.” Yet, he says:

Thus the Eastern Orthodox Church proposes a liturgical worldview. It proclaims a world richly imbued by God and a God profoundly involved in this world. Our “original sin,” so it might be said, does not lie in any legalistic transgression of religious commands that might incur divine wrath or human guilt. Instead, it lies in our stubborn refusal as human beings to receive the world as a gift of encounter and reconciliation with our planet and to regard the world as the mystery of communion with the rest of humanity (p.99).

Huh? Even if I don’t fully understand what he is trying to say, I reject it. Forgive me. Then, verging on chiliasm (in many parts of the book), BARTHOLOMEW writes:

The natural environment — the forest, the water, the land — belongs not only to the present generation but also to future generations. We must frankly admit that humankind is entitled to something better than what we see around us. We and, much more, our children and future generations are entitled to a better and brighter world, a world free from degradation, violence, and bloodshed, a world of generosity and love. It is selfless and sacrificial love for our children that will show us the path that we must follow into the future (p.119).

God bless the children; I’m all for them! But what shall it profit a man … I mean, I hate to go all Baptist here but, wouldn’t you say that selfless and sacrificial love for God will show us the path that we must follow?

Then, after mentioning that we “‘are coworkers of God’ (1 Cor.3:9), and we are called to realize the divine plan of healing and reconciliation throughout the world ‘until all of us come to the measure of unity and maturity’ (cf. Eph.4:13)” — BARTHOLOMEW writes:

Then the Spirit of God will transform this world into the kingdom of heaven, the fallen world into a new creation, and every activity into true life (p.131).

“Really?” — I wrote in the side margin; indicating that I was, no doubt, encountering mystery here. Elsewhere, in language too PC for me to understand, he writes:

We must remind people of the significance of tolerance, which is ultimately grounded in respect for the sanctity of freedom and the sacredness of human justice (p.135).

You are welcome to explain this to me in the Comments (below).

While I’m at it — read the following paragraph, carefully, till the end — here’s another quote:

We need faith in order to hope. We need to believe. We need to work together toward a goal, always living in hope. That is the dignity and nobility of human life. It expresses the image and likeness of God, according to which we are created. And it is the greatest gift we offer to our children: that we believe and hope in a better world, a world where war is no more, where races and religions are equally respected, where the diversity of nature is celebrated, where all people have enough, and where the language of tolerance is the mother tongue of the global family in order that the God of love may be glorified. This is the world where the “kingdom has come on earth as in heaven” [Matt.6:10 (p.231)].

No comment.

His All Holiness is well aware that his actions may cause Orthodox Christians discomfort. And, before anyone starts throwing around the word heresy, BARTHOLOMEW schools us in its proper definition:

Often, conservative Christians and other religious groups are offended by the priority that the Ecumenical Patriarch gives to dialogues with other confessions or faiths, believing that there can be no dialogue on equal terms with heretics. The word “heresy” is another term that has been misused, if not abused, in the history of religious and theological thought. I am in no way undermining the importance of theological doctrine and its accuracy … However, it may be useful to remember here that the Greek word for “heresy” — airesis — does not primarily signify erroneous doctrine. Rather, it implies the conscious selection of a single aspect of truth, which one absolutizes in a fundamentalist way to the exclusion of all other perceptions of truth. We must humbly admit that all of us are guilty of this sin — Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Moreover, I am convinced that the purpose of dialogue is precisely to reveal the fallacy and arrogance of this attitude. This is the kind of humility that is expected of all those in dialogue, including the Orthodox who believe that they retain the fullness of the Christian truth (p.220).

And, there it is. The book seems to elevate dialogue above conversion, confusing finding common ground with encountering the truth. (What, by the way, is the fullness of the Christian truth?) If dialogue could ever be considered a “single aspect of truth,” Encountering the Mystery certainly seems to elevate it above all others. Dialogue, it appears, is the mystery we are called to encounter.

Learning to live in a spirit of open dialogue and mutual respect is the basis for acquiring the skills of living in community. It is the mystery of encounter (emphasis mine; p.193).

Don’t get me wrong, there’s many a good quote found within the pages of Encountering the Mystery; my copy has pencil scribblings and notes on nearly every page. His All Holiness writes poetically and convincingly. Furthermore, having read the book during the first week of Orthodox Lent, I posted some pertinent quotes regarding fasting and ascetical struggles on my blog and asked readers to guess the author. The answers to my query read like a who’s who among beloved Church Fathers, contemporary and popular Orthodox writers, bishops and theologians (e.g., Kallistos Ware, Ephrem the Syrian, Thomas Hopko, Nikolai Velimirovich, John of the Ladder, John Chrysostom, Silouan the Athonite, Basil Essey, Hierotheos Vlachos — even Stephen Freeman and Clark Carlton). This is pleasantly surprising because, I suspect, some of those who commented would probably not have Encountering the Mystery on their reading list.

And yet, there are other sections of the book that, had I posted them, would have garnered guesses of Al Gore, Al Gore (and Al Gore). Which would be unfair — some of those sections are quite good and worthy. But, we live in an age, within the Church and the world, where only certain voices are heard regardless of who is speaking. That being the case, the case could be made for Encountering the Mystery all the more. One could say that, given his background, given his experience, given his position in the Church – including his travels and ecumenical activities, not to mention being under a form of “house arrest” in a predominantly Muslim country wishing to enter the European Union – Ecumenical Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW’s voice warrants a hearing.

I just wish he’d said less. I would have liked for him to have stuck to Orthodoxy — with the same understanding yesterday, today, and tomorrow. After all, what more should one expect from the “spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians?”

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