What follows is a version of my introduction to the Theopolis Institute’s 2015 Nevin Lectures, February 20, 2015.
If the Church is going to face the challenges of this new century, she will have to face them as a united Church. Nothing has so weakened our witness as our tragic divisions. Nothing has made the Gospel so implausible, if not preposterous. Division has deprived us of the weapons we need for the spiritual battles that are on the horizon.
We don’t pursue unity for pragmatic reasons, so we can win the culture wars. The Gospel demands that we live at peace with our brothers. John Williamson Nevin, the German Reformed theologian for whom this lecture series is named, said that the “unity of the church . . . is a cardinal truth in the Christian system,” involved in the very “conception of Christian salvation itself.” When we lose sight of the unity of the Church, we “make shipwreck of the gospel.” We share Nevin’s vision. We are passionate for the truth of the Gospel, and for that reason passionate also for the unity of the Church.
What we aim for, here at the Nevin Lectures and in our other activities, is what the Catholic theologian Paul Murray has called “receptive ecumenism.” Receptive ecumenism is an ecumenism of hospitality, welcome, and listening, an ecumenism of gift exchange. It is rooted in our acknowledgement that we do not know or possess everything we need in our own branch of the Church. Every Christian church is tempted to think it possesses all the resources to be healthy and faithful. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists””we all think that the Church will be perfected when everyone else is enlightened enough to become like us.
We are deluded. We are all Laodiceans, boasting of our health and wealth when we are poor, blind, wounded, and naked. No tradition has been spared the desolation of division. Every Christian tradition is distorted insofar as it lacks, or refuses, the gifts that other traditions have. Every Christian tradition must be as ready to receive as to give.
Receptivity does not involve diluting or abandoning our identity. In receiving from others, we are enriched as the particular kinds of Christians we are. Murray suggests that Catholics become more fully Catholic as they become appropriately Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Orthodox. We listen to each other to answer the question, “What can we learn, or receive, with integrity from our various others in order to facilitate our own growth together into deepened communion in Christ and the Spirit?” Pursuing receptive ecumenism, Christians fall in love with the presence of God in the people, practices, and structures of other Christian traditions.
If it does not mean abandoning our past, receptive ecumenism also does not leave the various Christian traditions intact. More than enrichment, more than clarification or mutual understanding, receptivity aims at transformation, at conversion. Pollinated by Baptist theology and practice, Catholicism will become something other than the Catholicism it was; enhanced by exchanges with low-church Biblicist Evangelicals, Orthodoxy will not remain the same. As one of our heroes, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, liked to say, “We respond, though we shall be changed.” Receptivity is not an easy path to unity. At times, it is not easy to recognize, much less to receive, a gift. Receptivity is as difficult””as impossible””as change.
Yet we pursue receptive ecumenism in the hope that we will all find ourselves in a place where “apparently irreconcilable differences . . . become genuinely navigable,” where impasses of long standing can be overcome. Those impasses are not overcome by relativistic indifference. Receptive ecumenism pursues truth, recognizing that the truth of the Gospel may be distorted by hardened confessional formulas. We must be prepared to remove our tribal badges when they inhibit our life together, which is life in the Gospel.
This may seem a utopian program, encouraging loyalty to a church that does not exist. In fact, the church formed by receptive ecumenism has been taking shape for a century or more. Protestants today are far more likely to read Catholic theology than their grandfathers were, and Orthodoxy has made significant inroads into Finnish Lutheranism and Scottish Presbyterianism, not to mention Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.
Admittedly, there is something to the utopian charge. We all cling to the Church in the hope of what she will someday be, the spotless Bride without wrinkle or blemish or any such thing. Yet hope is not utopian, and we encourage mutual receptiveness in the confidence that the head of the Church is the One Lord Jesus, who gave his life so that we may be made one.