Thursday, July 28, 2005

Public Transportation Eclesiology

I got on the bus this morning and shortly after a Roman Catholic priest also got on the bus and sat in front of me. After a few stops a gregarious man with a fairly heavy accent got on and sat in front of the the priest. The man turns to the Priest and says enthusiastically "Me Orthodox!" The priest was reading some papers probably on his way to some meeting or other, and looks up and nods politely and looks down. The man not satisfied says again "Me Orthodox. You Catholic priest?" The priest looks up and nods. The man repeats "Me Orthodox!" The priest nods again. The Man turns around, and I got off at the next stop.
I found the interchange interseting on a variety of levels. Why was the Orthodox man so eager to connect with the Roman Catholic priest, and the priest so clearly uninterested, or at least unaffected by the connection the Orthodox man wished to make. Also, the words Orthodox, Catholic struck me as odd from a theological perspective. Do not both the "Orthodox" and "Catholic" claim to be both orthodox and catholic. Before the Great Schism such an interchange would have made no sense. Yet it seemed to me that for the Orthodox layman he felt connected to the Catholic priest, because he was Orthodox and the priest was Catholic. There are many reasons for the man to feel this way. If he is a recent immigrant (which is possibly indicated by his heavy accent) perhaps in our Protestant and secular culture seeing a Priest even if a Roman Catholic priest on the train was a sort of familiarity in a strange and possibly hostile environment. Or perhaps it was an expression of a sort of eclesiology, or both.
Whatever the Orthodox layman wanted to make a connection and saw a certain relation between himself and the priest (though the priest did not acknowledge this connection). For some reason this sense of connection lead me to an illustration my church history professor used to show where the Evangelical Covenant church fit into the various Christian movements through history. The picture was of a tree with various branches labeled with the various denominations. Now let me say that I do not see this as good eclesiology and the point of my professors use was historical not theological. Yet, this picture and the eclesial encouter on the bus illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of denominationalism. Denominationally if pictured as it is in this historical illustration of the various branching (schisms) that have happened throughout Christian history shows the connections the way in which we come from somewhere and how we have diverged. But the issues in our current state of affairs isn't how we come out of this or that body of Christians, but the meaning of our having diverged. If I have interpreted the interchange on the bus we have two differing interpretations of the divergence of Catholic from Orthodox. One saw the continuity, the connection, while the other saw only difference and divergence. Denominationalism tries to do two things at once, retain both divergence (schism) and connection. This I think actually renders meaningless the connection, because the identity that must be preserved for the survival of the denomination is the identity based on the divergence and not the connection. Thus when many of the students in the church history class looked at the picture of the history of Christianity as a tree, they found where the Evangelical Covenant stood and were reaffirmed in their exclusive identity. While I looked at the picture and tried to follow the connection and diluted my singular identity as Covenant and/or Lutheran Pietist. Taken theologically the image affirms schism as the will of God, and uses the sense of connectionas comforting that we all come from the same place, never addressing the issue of divergence.
This is quite different from the picture of the body of Christ we find in the New Testament. The New Testament does not allow for the church to live with difference and divergence through enclaves of sameness, nor does the New Testament simply celebrate unity in diversity. In fact the unity and diversity of the New Testament neither affirms our diversity nor authorizes an enforced unity. Both unity and diversity are gifts of God, both the church in its unity and the diversity of the body are creations of the Spirit. We are all united with Christ in Baptism and joined together in the Spirit that distributes differing gifts. And ultimately the diversity that our current culture seeks to affirm and reinforce are precisely the diversity that Paul claims our identity in Christ obliterate "Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." The diversity of the Church is not in ethnicity gender sexuality, personality, nationality but in the gifting of the Spirit according to the wisdom of God. This of course does not address also the reality that there is a diversity that the New Testament identifies as being other than Christ while trying to identify with Christ. In the end the problem with Denominationalism is that it can niether account for the theological meaning of divergence nor provide the connection it wishes to affirm. And ultimately it is entirely powerless in the face of heresy, it cannot discern between a false claims of identification with Christ, it lacks the ability to discern the spirits.