What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

Published Date: January 1, 2000 | Topics: Philosophy, Religion

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[This article was Robert P. George’s contribution to “A Millenium Symposium.”]

Anyone gazing into a crystal ball with the aim of divining the future of relations among members of different religious communities in the new millennium would do well to remember how things appeared as recently as 1965. In the euphoria occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, observers looked forward to a flowering of ecumenism and perhaps even the reunification of the Christian Church. Official interfaith commissions were formed to reexamine issues that had historically divided Eastern and Western Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews. Denominational leaders sought opportunities for interfaith cooperation, and theologians explored possible compromises and new understandings to overcome differences in areas of doctrine, discipline, and authority.

One thing seemed certain: the ecumenical action would be on the left wing of the various religious communities, not on the right. Traditional Catholics, conservative Protestants, and observant Jews were viewed as part of the problem, not part of the ecumenical solution. After all, interfaith dialogue would require “flexibility,” “openness,” “tolerance”—virtues of the religious and sociopolitical left (it was supposed), not the right. Indeed, the “rigidity,” “dogmatism,” and “authoritarianism” of conservative religious believers would (it was thought) make them obstacles to the dialogical enterprise. Ecumenism would have to proceed despite anticipated conservative resistance.

Then came the culture war.

The massive assault of the secularist left—largely acquiesced in and very often abetted by the religious left—on traditional Judeo-Christian moral beliefs about sexuality, marriage and family, and the sanctity of human life brought conservative elements of the various religious communities together in the pro-life/pro-family movement. In the beginning, the pan-orthodox alliance was understood by religious conservatives themselves as a sort of marriage of convenience. And even today there are religious conservatives—including some who are active in the movement—who view it that way. (Perhaps it goes without saying that liberal critics of the pan-orthodox alliance are certain that the alliance can never be anything other than a marriage of convenience.)

What is remarkable, and what was in 1965 surely unpredictable, however, is that at century’s end an alliance that began as a marriage of convenience in the moral-political sphere would, without anybody planning or even foreseeing it, blossom into a genuine—and profound—spiritual engagement. As things have turned out, the serious ecumenical action is almost entirely on the religious right—and we have the cultural depredations of the left to thank for it. God really does have a sense of irony, if not humor!

Today, traditional Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, evangelical and other conservative Protestants, and believing Jews are not only working, but praying, together. Interfaith cooperation in pursuit of operational objectives in the culture war (e.g., banning partial-birth abortion, preserving the institution of marriage) has occasioned the emergence of genuine, and unprecedented, spiritual fellowship.

The ecumenism of the pan-orthodox alliance is what Baptist theologian Timothy George calls “an ecumenism of the trenches.” It unites Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews, who have in common very practical worries about what Dr. Ruth has in mind for their children and what Dr. Kevorkian has in store for their parents. It brings together people from different communities of faith who listen to Dr. Dobson for advice about parenting and to Dr. Laura for reassurance that they aren’t crazy.

Occasionally, pan-orthodox ecumenism takes the form of theologians and denominational officials sitting down to hammer out joint statements about “justification” or other doctrinal matters. More often, though, it happens when people of different religious traditions find themselves praying together in front of abortion clinics, marching together for life, and working together to assist pregnant women in need.

Although it sometimes takes the form of interfaith worship, it more commonly manifests itself in informal shared prayer, counseling, and mutual spiritual support among people who got to know each other not necessarily in church or synagogue, but at a school board meeting where they had come together to protect their children against, say, indoctrination into the mystery cult of secular sex education.

To focus on the “grass roots” ecumenism of the pan-orthodox alliance is not to suggest that it lacks an intellectual core or that it swings free of the judgments and actions of religious authorities in the various traditions. Andrew Sullivan may or may not be correct to say that First Things is the “spiritual nerve center of the new conservatism,” but it is surely the intellectual nerve center of pan-orthodoxy. The influential initiative known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is the most prominent of many programs of the Institute on Religion and Public Life (which publishes First Things) aimed at deepening ecumenical engagement. And religious officials from the Pope and Catholic leaders such as Richard John Neuhaus, to national evangelical leaders such as Chuck Colson and Bill Bright, to notable rabbis such as David Novak, Marc Gellman, and Daniel Lapin are doing their parts to encourage the pan-orthodox movement and consolidate (and, where possible, formalize) its ecumenical achievements.

The ecumenism growing out of the pan-orthodox alliance is the real thing—it is ecumenism that takes religious faith, and therefore religious differences, seriously. It neither ignores nor trivializes (much less relativizes) the important points of doctrine, discipline, and authority that divide Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews. It proceeds not by pretending that all religions are equally true or that doctrinal differences don’t matter, but rather by respectful engagement of theological disagreements.

But this creates a puzzle. How can there be genuine spiritual fellowship between people who sincerely consider each other to be in error on profoundly important religious questions? Protestants and Catholics differ over issues of sacraments, priesthood, papal authority, the Marian dogmas; Jews and Christians disagree about whether Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah promised to the Jews, the eternally begotten son of the heavenly Father, the second person of the triune God.

The spiritual fellowship of the pan-orthodox alliance has been made possible by the promotion of interfaith understanding. The experience of the past three decades reveals that the misperceptions and mistrust that long impeded pan-orthodox fellowship in the days before the culture war were rooted in misunderstanding of the scope and content of religious differences. By largely eradicating misperceptions and overcoming mistrust, the pan-orthodox movement has been transformed from a mere marriage of political convenience. Without ignoring their differences, orthodox Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews, have, in other words, come to understand and appreciate that what they have in common goes far beyond a common morality. They share a larger set of beliefs—a worldview—that includes much that is common in theology, anthropology, sacred history, and religious practice.

Protestants need not accept Marian doctrines to understand that Catholics are truly Christians and not “worshipers” of Mary. Catholics do not compromise such doctrines when they understand Protestants who decline to accept them as Christian brothers. Christians do not abandon their belief in the divinity of Christ when they join Pope John Paul II in recognizing Jews as “elder brothers in faith.” Nor do even the most traditional Jews turn from the Torah when they acknowledge Christians as worshipers of the one true God rather than as pagans and idolaters.

What about the future of the pan-orthodox alliance?

Because it is built on a strong base of shared understanding and common worldview, I am confident that it will flourish in the twenty-first century. I have no doubt of its capacity to survive defeats, should they come, in the moral-political struggle. I am even hopeful of its capacity to survive victories—though that, of course, is the far greater challenge.

Will there be bumps along the way? Of course there will be. The “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative has been vigorously opposed by some conservative Protestants and received only tepidly by some traditional Catholics. A lack of agreement on moral issues such as capital punishment and contraception could prove divisive. Catholics and Southern Baptists may continue to squabble about whether the United States should send an ambassador to the Vatican. Many Jews are offended by Baptist and other evangelical ministries directed to their conversion. Some Jews think that Catholic apologies for past anti-Semitism aren’t sufficient; some Christians think that Jewish accounts of the intellectual origins of the Holocaust often overlook the pagan and anti-Christian sources of Nazism.

If the pan-orthodox alliance is to flourish, there are certain developments that must occur. The process of healing the racial divide within American Christianity must begin in earnest. Grass roots spiritual engagement must bring about the fellowship of black and white believers. Of course, this is mainly, though not exclusively, an issue for the black and white evangelical communities, though Jews and Catholics have, as John DiIulio observes, an important supporting role to play in facilitating reconciliation. And believers from the black churches must be welcomed into, and must be willing to join in, the pro-life/pro-family movement at every level—including its leadership. There are black evangelical leaders such as Boston’s Rev. Eugene Rivers who are certainly able, and appear to be willing, to step into the breach.

In the area of Jewish-Christian relations, important intellectual work must be high on the agenda. Christian thinkers following the lead of the Pope must press more deeply to understand the Jewish core of Christian faith and the continuing religious significance of living Judaism. Jewish scholars must similarly work to achieve a theology that respects and makes sense of the Christianity that spread God’s Torah throughout the world.

Perhaps none of this will happen. It is possible that yet again the problem of interfaith relations will deceive the crystal ball. Whether unanticipated, even unimaginable, events will derail the pan-orthodox alliance, God alone knows. But for those of us who, from our various traditions of faith, seek to do His will, there is every reason to hope that He will continue to bless our cooperation.

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