Engaging Orthodox Theology

by Robert Saler

Metropolitan Cathedral in Iasi, Romania

There are two dangers that Western theologians such as myself face when engaging  Eastern orthodox theology: exoticism and over-familiarity. My ongoing work as a Lutheran ecumenical observer at the International Orthodox Theological Association (first at its initial planning meeting in Jerusalem, and then recently at the full conference in Iasi, Romania) has given me occasion to ponder both extremes.

Exoticism in general can take on flattering aspects—“Easterners can solve Western theological problems if we just import their way of thinking”—or unflattering ones (“the Orthodox don’t do systematic theology; they are focused instead solely on mysticism”). The Western theological imagination has a tendency to freeze Orthodox theology in stasis for a host of reasons. Western theological conservatives may look to Orthodoxy as a bulwark against perceived creeping liberalism (particularly on culture war issues) in their own traditions. Western progressives, meanwhile, may celebrate Orthodoxy’s historic lack of biblical literalism (in the modern sense) or what they take to be its emphasis upon individual spiritual struggle over against centralized magisterial authority. The list of oversimplifications (all of which depend upon treating “Orthodoxy” as a static monolith) goes on, and a useful tonic for all of them is to witness contemporary Orthodox theology in all of its dynamicity.

This was certainly my experience at IOTA. Given the quality of scholars (venerable and emerging) on the conference program, there was no question that I would be hearing academically rigorous and subtle interventions in theology, history, biblical studies, social sciences, and so on; what was not a given was that these conversations would build across the course of the conference in a manner that allowed for genuine interdisciplinary inquiry in a spirit of collegiality and good faith. But this is indeed what happened, and it was a joy to witness.

But over-familiarity is also a danger, and it was just as useful to be reminded that there are some fundamental—indeed, aporetic—tensions in how Protestants engage core theological topics and how these same topics play out in Orthodox discussions. One need not be a full-on postmodernist to acknowledge that the same terms—Trinity, anthropology, salvation, communion—can take on very different meanings depending on the historical and epistemological matrices that surround them, and so Protestant ears listening in on Orthodox debates need to be attuned to both to the possibility that historic prejudices can cause us to miss points of connection and to the danger of assimilating Orthodox theology into Western categories in Procrustean fashion.

With those two dangers in mind, I can report that this Protestant left the conference mulling on two questions, ones that I would pose to my Orthodox friends via this forum.

The first concerns the relationship between geopolitical tensions among the Orthodox patriarchates and their territories, on the one hand, and the individual’s ascetic struggle for theosis on the other. IOTA’s leadership was brave in constructing several panels dedicated to candid examination of the current autocephaly debates in the Ukraine; as a non-Orthodox observer, to go from these (very human) discussions of (very human) ecclesial arrangements to consideration of, say, Maximus’ sublime meditations on spiritual perception leads me to ask this question: it is clear that questions of ecclesial authority, autocephaly, and intercommunion matter, but in what precise THEOLOGICAL sense do they matter? For instance, if one happens to find oneself (or even joyfully joins) a church that has been placed under some form of ecclesial censure by one or more major autocephalous churches, then does that have any bearing whatsoever upon that individual’s ascesis, her spiritual state, her soul? It seems that one connection point here would be the Eucharist itself (as Metropolitan Ware indicated in his opening keynote), but in what theological sense (if any) is the Eucharist actually affected by perpetual ecclesial wranglings? Is there a real theological import to these divisions in the Orthodox world, and how are the faithful to understand themselves to be affected?

A related issue concerns the nature of division and schism in Orthodox perspective. I have argued elsewhere that Western ecclesial fissiparity tends to devolve either into desire for a centralized magisterium (as in Roman Catholicism) or willingness to continually fragment and specialize in a manner akin to the agon of the late capitalist marketplace (a Protestant tendency). I am open to the idea that Orthodoxy represents a “third way” between these two options, but my question then becomes: given the lack of centralized ecclesial authority in Orthodoxy and the diverse range of opinions on topics both peripheral and core, who or what finally defines the boundaries of what is Orthodox or not? Who “speaks” for Orthodoxy? I am aware that this touches on nuanced issues of conciliarism, reception, and so on; however, more proximately, I want to press the question on one specific (Eucharistic) front.

Lutherans, as it happens, are differentiated from most other Protestants on the question of the ontology of the Eucharist in that we believe in the full real and bodily presence of Christ in, with, and under the Eucharistic elements (Luther’s famed rejection of Roman formulations of transubstantiation being an objection to what he saw as the unnecessary importation of Aristotelian categories of “substance” and “accident” upon a Christological mystery rather than an eschewal of the ontological presence of Christ in the elements, as his later disputes with Zwingli and others would show). If my Orthodox friends were to grant that Lutherans and Orthodox are in fundamental agreement as to what is happening with the bread and wine in the Eucharist, then on what basis do we not commune together? The answer from the Orthodox side, as I have experienced it, is that “communion” implies not simply agreement about the ontology of the Eucharist but also faithful submission to the Orthodox church in its full manifestation, hierarchy and all. If that is true, though, then the question of the boundaries of Orthodoxy and who gets to finally set them becomes all the more pressing. If the Eucharist manifests the church and its boundaries, then how and by whom are those boundaries set in this fractured age, and what does fidelity to the Lord who sets the table require?

I am grateful for the chance to continue to mull on these and other questions in the company of excellent friends and scholars in IOTA, and I commend this engagement to my fellow Christians of all communions as IOTA continues its work.

Robert Saler is Associate Dean, Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence, and Research Professor of Religion and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

For more information about IOTA and the inaugural conference, visit https://iota-web.org/

Videos from the inaugural conference are available at IOTA’s YouTube channel.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.