Krista's Journal: Correcting Our Blind Spots

November 3, 2005

The genesis of On Being was an oral history project I conducted, in the mid-1990's, for a place called the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, founded by the visionary Benedictines of Saint Johns Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. I interviewed 55 people — lay, ordained and monastic, from the breadth of Christian practice and across the country. Those conversations ultimately made me question the way the whole subject of religion is discussed in American life. And they left me dissatisfied with the word "ecumenism." It's not big enough to express the vividness of experience, intellect, and faith that I found in the participants in this movement whom I interviewed. One of the giants among them, Tom Stransky, states the problem most succinctly. He is a Paulist priest who welcomed non-Catholics to Vatican II for Pope John 23rd and later led Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dialogues at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside Jerusalem. He says, "Ecumenism is that which, if we had a better word for, we would have more of."

Nevertheless, by many apparent measures, ecumenism seems to have succeeded. A half-century ago, Catholics and Protestants in this country lived in mutual suspicion. A marriage between two kinds of Protestants — say, a Methodist and a Baptist — might have met with disapproval as "a mixed marriage." Now, most American families are likely to represent a spectrum of traditions, and not just by marriage. Churches of every sort have members who began their religious lives in another denomination. The new frontier — the place where, it could be argued, Christians interested in reconciliation should be expending their energy in a post-9/11 world — is beyond Christianity.

Joan Brown Campbell is quick to insist that there need not be a choice between Christian reconciliation and inter-faith work. More importantly, she and Thomas Hoyt describe how the rich, surprising, ongoing trajectory of Christian ecumenism might inform our pluralistic present.

The ecumenical movement has always grappled with the most vexing clashes of difference in our culture — clashes that seem to recur in every generation. The word "ecumenism" comes from the New Testament Greek word oikos, or house. At its inception in Europe in the 19th century, Christian ecumenism set out to reconcile "the whole house" — the whole Christian world. That movement waned during the wars and upheavals of the early 20th century. But it was reborn in the prisons and concentration camps of Nazi Europe. There, imprisoned Catholics and Protestants prayed together, consulted the same Bible, and decided that what they had in common far transcended the structures and doctrines that divided them. The World Council of Churches was founded in Amsterdam in 1948. Among its leaders were many who had spent the war smuggling Jews to safety.

In this country — and I believe this has been forgotten — the ecumenical vision underpinned and energized the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Both Joan Brown Campbell and Thomas Hoyt Jr. came to think about reconciliation with religious others by way of engagement with racial divides in that era.

The grand idea that gave rise to the World Council of Churches — of one unified Christian Church — has proven impossible, even undesirable. We are alert in our time to the beauty and strength of difference, even as we struggle to live with its reality. Along the way, ecumenists have learned not to confuse "unity" with "uniformity." They have experienced the paradox that coming to know and admire other traditions may actually root us more vitally in our own. As Thomas Hoyt describes in this hour, he's committed himself to the long haul, to reconciliation as a "pattern of life," not a one-time act, which will always defy our American longing for premature closure and easy fixes.

I am especially impressed with an unselfconscious humility in the two voices of this hour. Joan Brown Campbell speaks with gratitude of an Eastern Orthodox theologian who began every lecture with the words, "I could be wrong." Thomas Hoyt describes his discovery, in the Civil Rights movement and beyond, that in ways both profound and mundane, "we need each other — if for no other reason than to correct our blind spots, which we all have."

Even as Sunday morning services are rife with practicing ecumenists these days, moral disputes that divide us politically are tearing Christian denominations apart from the center. And questions of how to live responsibly in a world of many faiths is a question that drives back to the core of Christian theology, testing and enlarging principles of neighborliness, justice, and compassion. Ecumenism may be an inadequate word, but it remains relevant, life-giving work.

Voices on the Radio

Joan Brown Campbell

is director of the department of religion for the Chautauqua Institution and former general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Thomas Hoyt, Jr.

is a bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and president of the National Council of Churches.

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