North Americans love to be liked. Two centuries as a minority faith in North America has often stricken Orthodox people with a desperate desire to fit in, to be like the world around them, and to minimize differences with their neighbours. For the faithful who lived under the Muslim Turks or the Communists, such a desire to get along in order to avoid arrest or execution is perhaps understandable. Living in an ostensibly free and democratic society, however, such temptations are harder to understand - and perhaps more subtle, and harder to resist.
In a recent issue of Saint Vladimir's Seminary News, Father Thomas Hopko engages the question of relating to our heterodox neighbours, in an excerpt from his book, Speaking the Truth in Love. The article represents a very visible trend in Orthodox circles in North America on the very serious question of how we should live with others - not abstract, but very real. He rightly states that there is no evangelism without dialogue, a fact testified to by evangelists from Saint Paul and the other Apostolic missions, through the missionary saints of every time and place, up to our present day. The human component of such dialogue is critical, since in meeting others face to face, we gain the chance to understand each other, to avoid the delusion of charicaturizing others, and to show our love for other people in concrete ways.
Within the Church, this dialogue means discovering the mind of Christ. The whole inherited Holy Tradition is a result of this dialogue within the Church. It bears its particular fruits of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit preserves the Church against falsehood. For so many North American converts to Orthodoxy, this is the very reason Orthodoxy drew us: it has spiritual integrity that bears the test of time, and the loving communion of the faithful has never been conquered by the gates of Hell.
One of the fruits of this dialogue in Holy Tradition is a clear consensus on the parameters of the Church, and the way it should relate to those outside. In Saint Paul's experience, the church at Corinth presented a similar challenge to ours today: a pagan society in which Christians had to struggle with the questions of how to (a) get along and (b) evangelize. There were all sorts of temptations to compromise, as well as the temptation to forget about loving others in the process of doing the right thing. In these circumstances, Saint Paul writes, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers... what communion has Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor 14-15).
Up until the last century, the standard practice of the Church was loving evangelism, with an exercise of care to preserve the faith "once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). This is the reason that modern "dialogues" with other religions, including heterodox Christians, were always viewed with great skepticism. It's the same reason that continues this skepticism amoung most Orthodox in the world today. Great missionary saints like Innocent of Irkutsk and Innocent of Alaska were quick to incorporate cultural elements of those to whom they were reaching out, but they by no means saw themselves "in dialogue" with the religions of these people.
The pervasiveness of relativism today presents a real challenge, in a way never experienced in past centuries. In the past, disputes arose out of attempt to find the truth; no one disagreed that there was such a truth to be found, although there were obviously conflicting views on what it was. Today, with a fundamental rejection by much of Western society of absolute truth, and the embrace of the idea that "no one really knows" the fullness of truth (since there is no truth to be known), interreligious dialogue becomes an exchange of speculations. The descent into relativism is quick, with the evocation of unhelpful questions such as, "what is God saying to you, dear?".
Father Hopko asks, "do we have authentic dialogue that images (sic) the divine dialogue between God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit?" (When did "images" become a verb? Does he mean reflects?) This kind of dialogue is reflected within the Church, in the communion of love and truth shared by the faithful. It does not refer to the strange expectation of such a "divine dialogue" being possible with those who are removed from - or even opposed to - Christ's Body, the Church. The Church is Christ's bride, and while we as members of Her can often be estranged from Her Divine Husband, the restoration of harmony with Christ is always our task. The "fruitful dialogue" one can expect with those outside the Church is to bring them into union with the Church. To expect anything else suggests some sort of strange spiritual polygamy, where Christ has many brides, many churches. The Orthodox faith has never entertained this idea, and Orthodox people who subscribe to this idea today have either picked it up outside the Church, or have made a purposeful search for any biblical or patristic quotes they can find to back up their innovative ideas. This should not be a surprise, since this is the way in which virtually every heresy has emerged in the history of the Church.
A different dynamic exists in dialogues with those outside the Church. Out of love for others, our burning hope is to share our joy with them: the fullness of Truth of the Orthodox faith. No other benefits count. Saint Paul reminds us that in caring about the welfare of other people, he only has one choice: "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16) . In declaring this, he rejects the social and material benefits of preaching the gospel. The evangelist also points out that his task in dialogue with others is to present the gospel "without change, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel" (1 Cor 9:18). He "endures all things lest (he) hinder the gospel of Christ" (1 Cor 9:12). It is this which allows God to act: presenting the gospel unchanged, without personal gain - including the prize of popularity, concord, or peace based on misguided expectations or diplomacy.
A further risk involves compromising the unique treasure that is Orthodoxy. If the Church is not the Church, the Body of Christ, unique, unchanging, and undefiled, what do we have to offer to others? The great love that Orthodoxy has to give is to be found in the distinctness of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection, and His transfiguration of His likeness in us, distorted by sin. The power of the Orthodox faith is that it gives us the Holy Mysteries, as well as the whole hesychist tradition of prayer. No one else has these gifts to offer the world. One consequence of so-called "ecumenical" dialogues is the adoption of the belief that they are a dialogue between the "Christian churches". When Orthodox clergy and faithful speak in terms of "deeper communion between churches", they use words which distort the facts, and confuse the faithful on both sides. As Orthodox who yearn to share the unique treasures of Christ's Church with the world, it would be less than honest, with ourselves as well as the heterodox we claim to love, to blur the fact that interreligious dialogues are nothing less than dialogues between the Church and those who have left Her, in the hope of calling all back to Her.
Sadly, those who advocate interreligious dialogue based on love and mutual understanding can sometimes give short shrift to those with whom they disagree. In the excerpt from Speaking the Truth in Love, Father Hopko seems to fall into this mode. Those who oppose interreligious dialogue must not be painted with terms such as "irresponsible, careless, cynical, (and) self-serving" participants who "must not betray fruitful dialogue". To suggest that "Christians must not oppose such dialogue," as Father Hopko states, assumes that all Orthodox are defining "dialogue" in the same way, when it is clear we are not.
Current interreligious dialogues have not borne the fruit of enlightenment leading to conversion hoped for by the evangelists throughout the centuries. Current dialogues bear a form that departs very much from the Tradition of the Church, but even more importantly, distorts the Christian understanding of love. Sadly, the end result of such dialogues does not even evoke the best behaviour between Orthodox people, rather, it leads to the very kind of charicaturizing each other that Father Hopko laments. This is a sin and a scandal, growing not simply out of Orthodox people behaving badly, but out of a distortion of the normal, Orthodox Christian understanding of the Church, and what constitutes a loving response to those outside Her.
The Fathers of the desert frequently talk about the way in which our love for God and for other people can be obscured by false loves: love of food, love of riches, love of power. Along with these loves is placed the love of being esteemed in the eyes of others. It is this kind of false love which puts us at risk in the modern environment, and which constantly tempts us, from the time we are children on the playground until the time of our death. We desperately want to be loved by the world, but as Orthodox Christians we must burn in our minds the reality that "friendship with the world is enmity with God,"(James 4:4).
It is this reality that preserved the martyrs to their end. It is this reality which preserved the Church through Islamic and Communist persecution to our present day. And it is only this which will preserve in us true love which we can share with the world.