The concept of 'unity', in a secular or religious context, has been pursued by peoples and societies throughout history, and played a pivotal role in the formation and development of Christian identity. Orthodoxy however, seems to have been particularly sensitive to it, to the extent that one could say the whole Orthodoxy ‘project’ is predicated upon unity: either there is unity or Orthodoxy is just a phantom…
We must admit though, that unity hasn’t always meant the same thing in Church history, and there is still a certain controversy in the Orthodox Church as to the question of Christian unity. More specifically, unity started as a co-inherence of diverse Christian experiences (communicative unity), then it developed into a compatibility of interpretations regarding the Christ-Event (scriptural unity), afterwards it became consolidated as a confessional agreement (credal unity), and finally it was understood as adherence to a certain articulation of the Christian faith (canonical unity).
For the Orthodox Church, at least since the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (1204), unity has taken on a defensive character against the encroaching Christian powers of the West. The later were not only out of the sphere of canonical unity but also antagonistic to it; to such an extent that post-Byzantine Orthodox identity has been realised in a purely oppositional manner. Notwithstanding, in the 20th century the Orthodox Church has been exploring new ways of unity-building beyond the polemics of the past.
The Privilege and Limitations of History
Everything in the Church, from theology to sacraments and from administration to personal commitment, is rooted within history, reflects history and – most importantly – makes history! In other words, the Church is its own historicity – its ongoing and open-ended historicity. This entails not only the changeability of unity as a notion and reality, but also the fact that unity is whatever it is through and as the historicity of the Church. There are no criteria of unity, that is, no prescriptive unity out there, to which the Church is subjected and should conform. The unity of the Church is what is has come to be historically and what it will transform into, equally historically…
To say that theology must be historically grounded – something that theologians say more and more during the last half century or so – is of course an appreciation of contextuality, but even more it seems to imply that history is both the privilege and limitation of theology or Church consciousness. For instance, throughout the centuries it has historically become habitual to see unity in the Orthodox Church as excluding the non-Orthodox, which means that there can be no Christian unity other than the one signified by membership into the Orthodox Church.
In this sense, for the Orthodox Church the question of Christian unity cannot be addressed without taking into consideration the historicity of unity with regards to Orthodoxy. But this is a very tricky, so to speak, issue, for this historicity is not just accomplished (as to the past) but also ongoing (in the present) and unknown (as to the future). Who knows what the future - unrealised yet - historicity of Orthodox unity might look like? To be sure, it cannot be in opposition to previous realisations and embodiments, but then the field of creative interpretation is broad, very broad…
The Present Demands
Let’s take for granted that the present demands unity. The first question that one might have to answer is why unity is currently an urgent demand. Because it is a good thing, some would say. Yes, but why especially nowadays? It seems that the more global human consciousness becomes, the more unity emerges as a sine qua non for coexistence and interaction. From a Christian point of view, it could be claimed that the unity of the faithful worldwide is a priority, for it would facilitate – symbolically but also practically – the unity of the world and, by extension, a more consensual dealing with modern problems.
Needless to say, what the world might need and what the Church is called to witness are not necessarily the same thing. To phrase it differently, the unity of Orthodoxy – in terms of form, content and intention – and the unity of the world – again in light of the same terms – hardly coincide; sometimes they might only be compatible. So, we are still left with the unanswered question of why Orthodoxy should pursue the goal of Christian unity. If, as it seems, it is not for the reasons the world might demand from Christians, it might be that such a goal reflects more truly and more profoundly the Christian calling – the very calling that Orthodoxy espouses to embody within the world.
This calling relates to the faithful being true disciples of Jesus by showing love to one another. Now, it is worth reflecting a bit on our present historical situation and its demands concerning unity. In particular, if our contemporary predicament is fundamentally related to the disunity of the Christian world during the last millennium (at least) – by being an expression of it – how exactly are we going to rectify things through a unity that doesn’t really overcome the entrenched distinctions between Roman Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox? This looks like trying to solve a problem without dealing with its cause. Can love show us the way out of this conundrum?
Presumably unity between the aforementioned versions of Christianity, given their consolidated historicity, cannot be canonical or credal. This leaves us with a sort of communicative or scriptural unity as the only possible ways known from the past, in order to conceptualise and pursue Christian unity nowadays. But, as we all know too well, history doesn’t really work backwards, and it cannot repeat itself… To put it otherwise, if there is going to be a unity between Christianities (in the plural) that cannot relinquish their conspicuous distinctiveness, this unity must emerge as and through a new eidos of unity. I would even dare say that if Orthodoxy – as a postulate for all Christians and not as a given identity of some – should form the basis of this future unity, then definitely Orthodoxy must be reinvented.
In the ecumenical movement there is a lot of talk regarding likely understandings of Christian unity or comprehensive ecclesiology (teachings that pertain to the accommodation of as many versions of Christianity as possible): the Branch theory, the part vs whole theory, the different traditions/interpretations of the one Christ-Event, and so forth.
But to be honest, all these attempts betray more combination-like solutions than integral unity. What seems to be in need is a convergence of histories – already happening in our globalising era – that involves an intra-Christian syncretism (amalgamation). However, an integral Christian syncrasis that might be realised in the future requires time, but it is the only way through which one could have a minimalist core of Orthodoxy (for instance a common creed) that will allow at the same time the space necessary for history-based Christian distinctiveness.
One might say that we are dreaming or deluding ourselves. Our response would be that the above reflections are not necessarily the solution for the big picture, that is, the overall unity of Christianity, but they might be enough, just enough, for the Kingdom of Heaven to open up and shine forth through the presence and witnessing of the ‘little flock’ (Lk 12:32); the flock that will, out of love, dare take the leap of faith, the utopian leap of Orthodoxy!
ABOUT | INSIGHTS INTO GLOBAL ORTHODOXY with Dr Vassilis Adrahtas
"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a weekly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.
Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.