Reflections on A Shattered Ecumenism

01/23/2009 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Stephen C. Rose

[Note: I published this on my own blog today. On my blog I combine my interest in politics, theology, music and pattern language. I doubt many readers of HuffPo would expect to find a discussion of ecumenism here. But I feel it has public significance because we have seen a serious decline in the mainline churches in the US over the last half century, a decline I anticipated in the 1960s when I was an ardent ecumenist. Times have changed radically now and in the following piece I discuss some reasons why. I expect the currency of this by Huff standards will be short lived. But I see it as a sort of witness to the fact that there are some seismic issues that are broader and deeper than conventional analysis might lead us to think. In this case the issues are what constitutes a relevant theology for today and whether the churches can finally reject violence as politics by other means.]

Using these reflections as a springboard. Actually a worldly ecumenism exists even as ecclesiastical ecumenism seems to me shattered.

1. The central ecumenical question is whether Jesus can be taken to be beyond all others as the avatar or exemplar of a way for the world. Ecumenical refers to the whole inhabited earth and in essence the underlying implication of ecumenism for Christians becomes their willingness to doff their religious trappings in favor of advocating and seeking to practice a universal way. Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity.

2. Would God agree that "my church" or any church is the true church? I am so tired of the use of G-d in discourse that I almost wish to create some protocol which would make it impossible to do. That said, the one who said I am who I am is within us all as stated by Jesus and therefore by definition has nothing to do with any particular church or with the use of references that do not acknowledge the universal presence which is the basis of Jesus's good news as recounted by Mark.

3. Martin Niemoller was correct to renounce violence and the way of Abba is a way of nonviolence. Because this is so it is so ecumenism is essentially more a community of the nonviolent than it is a collection of explicitly religious folk. A major problem faced by Christians is to decide what Bonhoeffer would think now about this issue. See Bonhoeffer's Ghost.

4. Ecumenism is a reality already in place by virtue of Jesus's indication that Abba is present and that by repentance and belief we can avail ourselves of this presence and walk on a path that differs from that of religionists, lawyers and others who tend more toward what Veblen described as the predatory interests. The claim that one is ecumenical, however, should be made with fear and trembling.

5. A rejection of and turning from a history of violence, not merely ecclesiastical but in general. is assumed as a basis for a viable or consciously promulgated ecumenism. This would require a John 23-like Pope or the willingness of disparate fragments of Christendom to begin speaking and acting in accord with such a rejection.

6. Truth is truth and unity is not necessarily achieved by a process of dialog. Had runaway slaves engaged in dialog with their masters, they would likely have remained in place. The truth is true regardless. That there is diversity in understanding and expressing it and that there are cultural and other barriers to expressing or following it is the way things are. In terms of conversations among existing ecclesiastical bodies or interfaith groups. I suspect enough has been said to make conversation exceedingly difficult.

7. Dialog among denominations would benefit if participants were ordinary people and not the alleged leadership of these remarkably resilient bodies which have proved resistant to ecumenism largely because of their economic and cultural positions and a general resistance to change which is endemic to a world in which the closeness and reality of Abba is not appreciated. Based on the track record and the failure of efforts like COCU, I would say the time when denominations could forge a meaningful ecumenism is past.

8. Agreement within denominations has been hampered by cultural balkanization in the wake or the shattering of ecumenical first steps taken in the 1960s. Most denominations understand that they are quite similar but they also cling to their own prerogatives and would not accept the structural changes needed to achieve genuine grass roots renewal. Obama's faith-based efforts may do more for this than the denominations will.

9. Israel has remained remarkably faithful to the lex talionis basis of ethics and the g-d on our side mentality of the Jewish scriptures. It is more likely there will be more unity among Jewish atheists and alienated Christians than of the more orthodox breeds of both camps. Ecumenism has to do with a broad human order that really is beyond the language and understanding of churches who will not take the first step, which is the recognition of the need for a new hermeneutic that explicitly rejects sectarianism and violence.

9.5 What next? I believe the one who told Moses not to make too many assumptions regarding his/her identity is forging an extra-ecclesiastical spirituality which is beyond creed while seeing Jesus as the exemplar and embodiment of a way of life that is worthy of emulation.