Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Orthodoxy, Postmodernity, and Ecumenism: The Difference That Divine-Human Communion Makes

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Orthodoxy, Postmodernity, and Ecumenism: The Difference That Divine-Human Communion Makes

Article excerpt

When I was student at the University of Chicago, I attended David Tracy's course titled "Postmodernity." During a break, he said to me, and I'm paraphrasing, "You know, Aristotle, the Orthodox have a certain advantage--they did not go through the well-known chain of events within the West, meaning the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernity, Postmodernity--and because of this, those within the tradition have the advantage of knowing what it is like to think like a tradition." As with many, many things that Tracy said during my time at Chicago, it took me a while to fully understand what he was saying. However, with but a simple phrase, as he has done so often in his career, Tracy provided an important hermeneutical key for understanding Orthodoxy's place within the cultural situation that is now called postmodernity.

In this essay I will expand on what I think Tracy means by "thinking as a tradition," in a way that clarifies an Orthodox Christian response to the postmodern situation. I will begin by offering a brief and select summary of contemporary Orthodox theology that will illustrate a remarkable consensus around the centrality of the principle of the realism of divine-human communion for theology. Orthodoxy is, in essence, a tradition of thinking on the realism of divine-human communion manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. It is this particular core of the tradition that will shape Orthodoxy's response to central questions of a present situation, even beyond postmodernity, and that constitutes the single most important contribution that Orthodoxy can bring to ecumenical dialogue.

The Postcolonial Context

In addition to ending the long reign of the Byzantine Empire, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 silenced a long and vibrant intellectual tradition in the Orthodox Christian East, whose last notable theologian was Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). It would take nearly 400 years before a revival would occur in Russia, which is discernible in part with the establishment of the intellectual academies of the Russian Orthodox Church in various cities throughout Russia. I speak of contemporary Orthodox theology in terms of "revival" because it is often forgotten that much of the Orthodox Christian world after the thirteenth century was colonized either by the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, or the Communists. Contemporary Orthodox theology is a postcolonial attempt to shed the "effective history" of oppression so as to reconstitute Orthodoxy as an intellectual tradition that draws on its past in order to confront contemporary questions. The usual caricatures of Orthodoxy are clear manifestations of this forgetfulness: the mystical smells-and-bells form of Christianity; a hopelessly male-dominated, androcentric, and hierarchical vestige of a Christendom that is much vilified in theology today; a community that refuses to encounter the modern world in its stubborn adherence to ancient doctrinal formulations. A striking example of this forgetfulness is Friedrich Schleiermacher's description of the Eastern Church as "torpid," within which "the combination of knowledge about religion with a really scientific organization is almost entirely destroyed. But just because of this purely negative character there was the less to be said here about that Church, since it cannot be determined whether it will again step back more into connexion with the world's intellectual intercourse, and so have the strength to elicit and develop within itself an antithesis analogous to the Western one." (1)

The accusation that Orthodoxy never confronted modernity is most perplexing, because the obvious question is: How could Orthodox Christians engage modern currents of thought when the Ottoman Turks would not let them? It is true that the Ottomans did not occupy Russia, but the common opinion that Russian modernization was always a step behind the rest of Europe never takes into account the postcolonial effect of the nearly 200-year Mongol occupation of Russia. …

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