Saturday, 12 June 2010

Zizioulas' Eastern Critique of the West

I've been reading a good deal of Zizioulas of late (you may recall I've posted about him before). I'm particularly interested in his ideas about ecclesiology and how he regards the way we think and do things in the West. Quite enlightening.

For instance, he sees not just Protestants but the whole Western Church preoccupied with mission, so that mission governs everything about the Church and our Christian lives, including (detrimentally) our worship. For the Orthodox, it seems worship does not include preaching or proclamation of the Word. The liturgy, of course, is drenched in the Word, but Zizioulas bemoans the fact that some priests are beginning to read it rather than chant it in the liturgy. He sees this as changing the orientation of the Church.

As a Westerner, and a fortiori as an Evangelical, I value very highly preaching and proclamation of the Word and would be greatly bothered if it were banished from the liturgy. And I find the difference between chanting and speaking in the liturgy to be purely aesthetic rather than imbued with any particular theological significance. Having said that, though, I can grasp at least to some extent where Zizioulas is coming from here. The Church is constituted by what it offers, not the fact that it offers, and the act of offering is necessarily incidental to the nature of the thing being offered. That thing is Christ's eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself, to which and to Whom we are joined as His Body, and His Resurrection by which the world is redeemed. There must be a place in the life of the Church which is totally characterised by this core. We Christians are in trouble if everything we do is simply geared towards evangelism, either evangelising or preparing and training to evangelise. If we limit ourselves to that, it will necessarily cause us to lose sight of Christ Himself. We will begin to see Christ as a means, rather than as the end to which we are heading, and the desire for Whom it is our duty to cultivate in ourselves. After all, there will be no evangelism in heaven, after the resurrection. The liturgy is a foretaste of when God will be all in all, that place where eternity touches time and we worship in union with the angels and all the heavenly hosts.

What intrigues and surprises me is that Zizioulas sees this as a potential (if not actual) problem for all Western Christians, both Catholics and Protestants. If I wanted to be simplistic, I might accuse the East of the opposite error- of neglecting mission and evangelism. One could argue it historically if one wanted to- after all, after the Great Schism almost no great missionary efforts came out of the East and virtually every people group which has converted to Christianity during the second millenium was evangelised by Catholic missionaries or (after the seventeenth century) by Protestant missionaries. But then that critique is too easy. You see, I've met Copts. And I have at least a dozen tracts and booklets on my shelf which they've given me. One could travel very far before one met a more evangelical people. Moreover, I hear the Russians are going from strength to strength (and after last century, they've got their work cut out for them!). I suppose Zizioulas would probably say about these folks that they differ from the West not so much in their zeal to win souls as in the fact that they keep that to its proper sphere and reserve the liturgy for worship of God and that alone.

Another thing is that Zizioulas believes the West emphasises the cross, sin, evil and suffering too much, to the detriment of the resurrection and eschatology. This I concur with to this extent: that I don't believe we overemphasise the cross but I do think we underemphasise the resurrection. In fact, maybe it's an inherent part of the Western Christian soul. Personally, I know that Lent and the Triduum are more consonant with my spirit. I understand them even if they're not easy to live. Mind you, I do love the Easter Vigil (I think it would be fair to say that it is the highlight of my year, not just liturgically but generally) but the Easter Octave is always difficult for me. It demands much more faith.

It has been well said by someone that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine (this is perhaps slightly inaccurate- the idea that sin is inherited is not immediately apparent but certainly universal human sinfulness is). Lent and Good Friday don't really require any faith at all- just clear eyes. Easter, on the other hand, cannot be lived without faith. To look forward to the day when all will be put to rights, and to believe that in Christ that process has begun and that God will surely bring it to fulfillment- and to be joyful and delighted at the prospect for at least eight days- this is no mean feat. Feasting is sometimes more difficult than fasting. Certainly it takes more energy, both emotional and spiritual. But this is not as it should be. I'll let Zizioulas speak for himself:

[In the West,] the sacraments and in particular the Eucharist are seen as the perpetual presence of Christ's death...[However,] the truth of the Eucharist is that it does not take us to Calvary in order to leave us there, but brings us through it and beyond into the communion of saints and the glory of God.

The Church is constituted by the resurrection and so has travelled past the cross and broken through into that new creation which is filled with the uncreated light of God.

The Church that focuses on history and on Calvary will come to a halt before it reaches the end of that path. The overcoming of evil and the defeat of the devil is not our final destination. A healthy ecclesiology will lead us on beyond the struggle with evil and into the light, to gain in the divine Eucharist our first experience of the kingdom of God.

Parts of me want to counter that with Luther's theology of the cross (and the suspicion that Zizioulas is presenting a kind of theology of glory), but Zizioulas is not presenting a glory that comes without the cross but one that comes because of it. Without the resurrection, the cross is a defeat. The Church is characterised not by defeat but by victory.

All of this reminds me of John Paul II's phrase that the Church needs to learn again to breathe with both lungs. The East needs the West's emphasis on the cross. We in the West need the East's emphasis on the resurrection and Christ's ultimate victory in the new heavens and new earth. And the world needs our united lived witness to both.


Matthias said...

GAB what a thoughtful article you have presented here. I am currently reading again BIshop Timothy Wares book THE ORTHODOX CHURCH and cannot help thinking that for a long time,the Orthodox were latent as regards Mission and Evangelism and are now making up for it. they have a mission in spring street melbourne just down from the Gasworks ie Parliament,they have Missionchurches in suburbs and one country town where traditionally Anglicanism and or Protestantism would be found.
I did not expect you to counter the argument using Luther,and I as suitably impressed.But your comment that Zizioulas is presenting a theology of glory because of the Cross ,stands in sharp contrast to what is being preached in some Protestant churches-theology of glory but rare mention of the Cross nor of the consequence if one rejects the One Who died on that cross.
YES we need to have both lungs giving life giving emphasis of the cross and resurrection. having suffered under Communism,and the Copts still do in Egypt that the theology of glory through the Cross across Eastern Orthodoxy takes on deeper significance.
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

Matthias said...

GAB please find this link to a Byzantine?eastern Roman Catholicwebsite that is run out of Istanbul:
The title on this webpage is BREATHING WITH BOTH LUNGS

GAB said...

Thanks, Matthias. I've had a poke around and there is some very interesting stuff there.

Anonymous said...

And, a little apropos, Paul VI's homily which was Sunday's second reading at Office, began with "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" I agree with Zizioulas et al (though I think it was Louth who said it), that there is a vast disconnect between "low mass" and said office, and the Office and Mass of the Early and the Medieval Church.