BEYOND CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM:
The Church’s Witness in a Multicultural Society
People of all kinds, and especially academics, and lately even theologians, speak more and more about multiculturalism, which has become almost all over the world an every day phenomenon, which needs a proper scholarly treatment. Quite recently (2-6 October 2000) an Orthodox academic institution, the Orthodox Theological Faculty at the University “Babes-Bolyai” in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, has celebrated the 10 years since its re-openning after the collapse of the Chausescu regime, by organizing an international symposium on the very interesting topic: “Church and Multiculturalism in Europe at the Edge of the Millenium”. This event clearly shows that the time has come for Orthodox theologians to enter into the debate, deal with the subject from various perspectives, and give their witness to the world gleaning from the treasures of their rich tradition.
The purpose of
this contribution is to tackle the issue of the challenge of multiculturalism of
our time from the perspective of the Christian Mission in relation to the people
of other living faiths. Witnessing the Christian faith among people of other
religions has always been a hot issue in world mission, both in its
“ecumenical” stream and among the less ecumenically oriented
“evangelical” missionaries. The
issue at stake has always been the concern not to relativize the uniqueness of
therefore, to present the issue of Christian witness to the people of other
faiths by challenging the conventional expansionist attitude, and moving beyond
Christian universalism, religious competition, beyond even tolerance, and
towards reconciliation, honest dialogue, co-existence, and authentic witness,
for the welfare of the peoples, without betraying the fundamentals of the
Christian faith. After all, this is the legacy of the authentic Orthodox
these, however, one has to acknowledge that any dialogue among people from
different religions and cultures is both a delicate task and an extremely
difficult enterprise. On the Christian side, despite isolated cases, for more
than 60 years now - since the 1938 meeting of the World Council of Churches
(WCC) at Tambaram, India – world Christianity has affirmed that respectful
dialogue with people of other faiths is not only a necessity, but an imperative;
all the more so because of religious intolerance and fanaticism in all
religions. This conviction, also high in the agenda of the Roman Catholic
Church, was reaffirmed in the 1989 World Mission Conference of the WCC in San
Antonio, Texas, the principle reason being the humanitarian dimension. "The
needs of humanity", it was stated, "are not divided among religions,
but human needs for life, for meaning, and for hope is surely one".
We still live in a period of nationalistic outburst, which inevitably causes
religious fanaticism and intolerance, eventually undermining the peaceful
coexistence of peoples. «We (Christians) are called to be witnesses
to others not judges of them».
And in the last
world mission conference in Salvador, Brazil (1996) it was again stated that in
our mission to the world «we cannot set limits to the saving power of God».
When one comes
to the issue of Church and multiculturalism, closely related to tolerance and reconciliation,
the tension that historically existed among different denominations unavoidably
comes to one’s mind. Tolerance as a burning issue occupied the agenda and the
philosophical and theological reflections for the most part of modernity, since
the time of the famous Letter of Toleration of
John Lock (17th century CE), especially in Europe but also elsewhere. It is,
therefore, a religious rather than a social issue, although these two dimensions
epistemologically are inter-related and cannot (and should not) be dissociated.
It has become a real issue ever since the various world religions, and
especially Christianity, have come to understand their mission in terms of universalism,
and because of their legitimate conviction to remain faithful to their
fundamental truths of their faith.
In my brief
presentation: (a) I will briefly
review this basic problem of universalism,
common more or less to all Churches and and confessional entities of
Christianity. (b) I will present with
the help of cultural anthropology - and also of my (c) Orthodox tradition - the
importance of ritual for overcoming a distorted notion of universalism
developing new criteria for a multicultural ethos in Christianity. Finally (d) I
will draw some conclusions.
order to properly understand the importance of universalism, one needs to
examine a variety of terms and notions involved in current missiological
discussions, expressed by such words as mission,
conversion, evangelism or evangelization,
christianization, witness or martyria.
Following Martin Goodman’s classification, I have argued elswhere,
that in the early Christianity mission was understood in a broad variety of
ways: following the steps of Judaism, Christianity developed informative,
educational, apologetic and proseltyrizing mission to propagate its faith.
However, this pluralistic understanding has gradually given its place more or
less to a universalistic
understanding, a universal proselytizing
mission, which during the Constantinian period became dominant through its
theological validation by the great ancient Christian historian Eusebius.
However, it never became entirely dormant in the undivided Church,
with very few
exceptions of course.
Universal proselytizing mission had a significant
effect in the future of our western world, and to a considerable degree also
determined the shaping in later times of the Christian theology of mission,
Catholic and Protestant alike.
In fact, it was given fresh life by the discovery of the New World, and by the
prospect of christianizing the entire inhabited earth. It reached its peak with
the so-called African and Asian Christian missions during the last century.
This concept of “Christendom”, however, carried
with it other non Christian elements to such an extent that eventually
industrialized development in Europe and America of the bourgeois society, as
well as colonialism and expansionism of any sort, walked hand by hand with
the present Secretary General of WCC, in his book Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, has
rightly argued that because Christians at the “old ecumenical paradigm” felt
that they were called
convey to the rest of humanity the blessings of Western (i.e. bourgeois)
Christian civilization...The slogan “the evangelization of the world in this
generation” emphasizes the missionary consciousness of this early movement, in
which genuine missionary and evangelistic motives were inextricably combined
with cultural and social motives”.
a result of a more authentic Christian theology, the world ecumenical mission
suggested for the future a radical shift to a “new paradigm,” away from the
“christocentric universalism” and towards a “trinitarian” understanding
of the divine reality and towards an “Oikoumene” as the one household of
For the understanding of mission, these mean the abandonment of any effort of
proselytizing, not only among Christians of other denominations, but even among
peoples of other religions. Dialogue
is the new term which now runs parallel to, and in some cases in place of, the
old missiological terminology.
Nowadays, the problem of reconciliation and
tolerance in the religious field has become not simply a social necessity, but a
legitimate theological imperative. In the Guidelines
on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, published some 25
years ago by WCC, the people of other faiths are no longer for Christians
objects of, but partners in, their mission: “no longer the objects of our
discussions but partners in our conversation".
Christian theology of mission,
through the help of the fundamental assumption of the trinitarian theology
“that God in God’s own self is a life of communion and that God’s
involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into
this communion with God’s very life”, no longer insists on the universal
proselytizing mission, i.e. on making new converts; in other words
Christianity no longer aims “at the propagation or transmission of
intellectual convictions, doctrines, moral commands etc., but at the
transmission of the life of communion, that exists in God”.
If one now takes this understanding of mission a little further, one can argue
that the problem of overcoming the evil in the world is not basically a moral or
even a social issue. It is primarily - and even exclusively - an ecclesial one, in other words it depends on Christianity’s
identity. The moral and social responsibility of the faithful of this religious
system is the logical consequence of their ecclesial self-consciousness.
It is exactly
for this reason that so much emphasis was placed in Christianity, both in the
past and in the present, on ritual and Liturgy, without of course
undermining ethics. In dealing with Liturgy Christianity deals,
especially in my Orthodox tradition, with the very being and the identity of
the Church, which directs the community towards the vision of an ideal communal
and inclusive new world, towards the coming Kingdom of God, thus avoiding
individualistic stances, with hostile and intolerant behavior, but above all
avoiding the negative effects of the recent phenomenon of globalization, especially in its cultural and economic form.
If on the contrary the emphasis is placed on doctrine, this inevitably distances
the members of the community from the “other”, any “other” (regardless
of his/her Christian confession, or even religion, i.e. a Jew, Muslim, Buddist,
even atheist), and therefore from God, the real “Other”, leading them to
death, to hell.
I will, therefore, try to reassess the understanding of Christian mission with its consequence to multiculturalism, by reference to the liturgy and ritual. And I will do this by using both the insights of cultural anthropology and the results of modern Orthodox theology.
Before doing this, however, just as an illustration, I would like to make a
quick reference to the Bible, the most revered book of Christianity. In
particular to the famous passage of the Gospel of Matthew concerning "The
Last Judgment" (25:31-46).
The scene of the
story is an imaginative royal court in which God will judge the world at the end
of history. One can paraphrase the story by saying that human beings are judged
entirely on their behavior towards their fellow human beings. What is
significant here is that there is neither mention of faith as a presupposition
of salvation, nor of religious duties toward God (in fact there is nothing about
what we normally consider duties: we are judged on those things that we are
accustomed not to consider duties, any kind of duties, religious or otherwise;
not to mention of course that in this passage all religious or confessional
boundaries are dramatically brought down. We come face to face with the
importance of humanity in all theological considerations in that God identifies
himself not with any religious establishment, but with those to whom service is
given or refused:
"I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me", (vv. 25:35f. and the opposite vv. 25:42f;) and to their astonishment the reply was: "whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers and sisters of mine you did it for me" (v. 25:40, and the opposite v. 25:45).
mentioned at the beginning the importance of liturgy and ritual
for the identity of the Church. This importance was actually reinforced in
recent times by the social sciences, and especially by cultural anthropology.
of the most imaginative insights of modern cultural anthropologists is their
conviction that ritual, and the liturgical life in general, do not only transmit culture, but they
also "create a reality which would be nothing without them. It is not too
much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought. For it is
very possible to know something and then find words for it. But it is impossible
to have social relations without symbolic acts".
are two major understandings of the ritual.
According to the first one, ritual can be treated as a private act, functioning as a means to meet some particular
religious needs: i.e. both the need of the community to exercise its power and
supervision on the members, and the need of the individual for personal
"sanctification". We could label this aspect of the ritual as juridical.
According to the second one, however ritual functions as a means for the
upbuilding of the religious community, which is no longer viewed in
institutional terms or as a cultic organization, but as a communion and as a way
of living. We will call this second understanding
understanding of Liturgy encourages and in effect promotes a sharp
distinction between the various segments of the religious society (clergy and
laity, etc.), thus underlining the dimensions of super- and sub-ordination
within the ritual, and contributing to the maintenance of the social structure
not only within the religious community itself, but also by extension within the
wider social life. What, however, is even more significant for our subject, is
that the juridical
understanding of Liturgy develops separation and certain barriers,
sometimes even hostility, between members of different religious systems, thus
intensifying phenomena of intolerance and fanaticism.
the other end, the communal understanding
of Ritual discourages all distinctions between the various segments within the
religious communities, but also by extension within the wider social life. And
to come again to our subject, the communal
understanding of Ritual disolves barriers between members of
different religious systems, thus promoting religious tolerance, reconciliation,
and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.
What has been
so far analysed with reference to cultural anthropology, holds also true on a
theological basis. It is almost an assured result of modern theological
scholarship (biblical and liturgical) that the principle rite of Christianity,
the Eucharist, is properly “lived” not as a mere cult, but as a foretaste of
the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities
of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, with
no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between Jews and
gentiles, slaves and freemen, men and women (cf. Gal 3:28). According to some
historians, the Church was able a few generations later, with the important
contribution of the Greek Fathers of the golden age, to come up with the
doctrine of a Triune God (and much later to further develop the important
distinction between substance and energies), only because of the eschatological
experience of koinonia in the
Eucharist (both vertical with its head, and horizontal among the people of God,
and by extension with the entire humanity) of the early Christian community, an
experience which ever since continues to constitute the only expression of the
Church’s self-consciousness, its Mystery par
excellence. Therefore, if one
wants to approach any specific issue, like “The Church’s Witness in a
Multicultural Society”, one should start from this primary liturgical
experience, the eucharistic eschatological experience, the matrix of all
theology that produced all theological interpretations of this experience.
since it is a common place to relate any Christian understanding, and
especially that of mission, to Christ, I will also refer to His teaching, life
His teaching, however, and especially his life and work, cannot be properly
understood without reference to the eschatological expectations of the Second
Temple Judaism. Without entering the complexities of Jewish eschatology, we
could say very briefly that it was interwoven with the expectation of the coming
of the Messiah. In the "last days" of history (“the Eschaton")
he would establish his kingdom by calling the dispersed and afflicted people of
God into one place to become one body united around him. The statement in the
Gospel of John (11:51-52) about the Messiah's role is extremely important. There
the writer interprets the words of the Jewish High priest by affirming that
"he prophesied that Jesus should die...not for the nation only but to gather
into one the children of God who are scattered abroad."
the Gospels Christ identifies himself with this Messiah. We see this in the
various Messianic titles he chose for himself, or at least as witnessed by the
most primitive Christian tradition ("Son of man",
"Son of God", etc., most of which had a collective meaning,
whence the christology of "corporate personality"). We see it as well
in the parables of the kingdom, which summarize his teaching
proclaiming that his coming initiates the new world of the kingdom of
God, in the Lord's Prayer, but also
in his conscious acts (e.g. the selection of the twelve, etc.). In short,
Christ identified himself with the Messiah of the Eschaton who would be
the center of the gathering of the dispersed people of God.
It was on this
radical eschatological teaching of the Historical Jesus about the Kingdom of God
that the early Church has developed its ecclesiology, on which its missionary
practice was based. This teaching is reflected in images of the Church as the
Body of Christ, as Vine, and especially as unity. The apostle Paul in particular
was absolutely convinced that all who have believed in Christ have been
incorporated into His body through Baptism, completing with the Eucharist their
incorporation into the one people of God. The 4th Gospel develops this radical
eschatological teaching even further in regard to the unity of the people of God
around Christ and their incorporation into Christ's body through the Eucharist
Christianity believed that the Eschaton had already entered history, and that
the Church as an eschatological community becomes a reality each time they
gather in one place to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. The mission of the
early Church stems exactly from their awareness that they are the Kingdom of God
“on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10 par).
were commissioned to proclaim not a set of given religious convictions,
doctrines, moral commands etc., but the coming Kingdom, the new eschatological
reality, which had as its center the crucified and resurrected Christ. They were
called “holy”; because they
belonged to that chosen race of the people of God. They were also considered a
“royal priesthood”; because all of them, without exception (not just some
special cast such as the priests or levites) have priestly and spiritual
authority to practice in the
diaspora the work of the priestly class, reminded at the same time to be worthy
of their election though their exemplary life and works.
And finally, they were called to walk towards unity ("so
that they may become perfectly one”, John
sum, the Church according to the Orthodox theology is identified not by what it is given to it in the past, nor by what it is as an institutional reality in the present, but by
what it is supposed to become at the end of time, at the Eschaton.
At the same time, the Church’s mission is to be understood as a dynamic
journey of the people of God as a whole towards the Eschaton, with their main
rite, the Eucharist, being their point of departure. There were, of course,
periods in which the center of gravity moved from the (eucharistic)
experience to the (Christian)
message, from eschatology
to christology (and
further and consequently to soteriology), from
(the Kingdom of God), to
the bearer and center of this event (Christ,
and more precisely his sacrifice on the cross);
and all these resulted in certain aggressive, unpeaceful and intolerant
conclusion is to be drawn from the above skechy analysis, this is an affirmation
that the “old paradigm” of the religious “exclusivity” must give its
place to a “new paradigm”, the main focus of which will have to be the
priority of “communion” with the “others”. Only then, will Christianity
avoid imperialistic expansionism and confessionalist attitudes. Only then, all
kinds of nationalistic and phyletistic behaviour will definitely and once and
for all be overcome, thus contributing to the struggle for the unity of
humankind through tolerance, reconciliation and cooperation, and for the unity
of all creation, through a real concern for a just and enviromentally
Having said all
these, I do not by any means suggest that the Church should abandon her mission,
even to the end of the world. After all the mission is not an “option” but an “imperative”,
the sine qua non of her existence. What I suggest is to witness in a tolerant, loving and reconciling way their proleptic
experience of God’s rule (i.e. the Kingdom of God), gained in their liturgical
communal life. After all, the task of the Church is not so much accepting, and
believing in, the abundant love of God (which leads to a “confessional and
religious exclusiveness”), but exemplifying it to a multicultural world
through a peaceful and tolerant witness (this can be labeled “ecclesial
inclusiveness”). This new understanding of mission goes beyond any caricature
of proselytism; for the real aim of evangelism is not to bring the nations and
the people of other faiths to our own religious "enclosure"; its real
aim is to "let" the Spirit of God to use both the faithful and those
to whom the faithful bear witness, to bring about God’ rule. According to this
understanding, everything belongs to God, and to his Kingdom; in more simple
terms it belongs to the new eschatological reality. The Church in her
institutional, i.e. historical, manifestation does not administer all reality,
as it was believed for centuries; she only prepares the way to that reality.
far more importantly, this sort of Christian mission will go far beyond the
religious sphere in the conventional sense. The real mission of the Church has
to do with the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of the
“household” of God.
through such an understanding of mission one can expect much easier to overcome
the corrupted hierarchical order both in society and in the priestly ministries
of the Church; such a hierarchical
order is a reflection of the fallen
reality and not of the kenotic divine one. This will inevitably result in the
proper traditional (i.e. Orthodox) “iconic” understanding of all priestly
ministries, but will also lead to a more authentic “conciliar” status in all
sectors of Church life (i.e. full, unconditional, and inclusive participation of
the entire Christian community to the priestly, royal and prophetic ministries),
and to a genuine community of men and women.
 What follows was originally prepared for that event. Since,
however, I have not succeeded in presenting it personally, I thought it
would perfectly fit to dedicate it to my colleague Alexander Goussidis upon
his retirement, a scholar who has served for years the fields of Pastoral
and Social theology.
F.R.Wilson (ed.), The San Antonio
Report. “Your Will be Done”. Mission in Christ's Way, WCC
Publications, Geneva 1990, p.125.
Ibid., p. 26.
Chr. Duraisingh (ed.), Called to One
Hope-The Gospel in Diverse Cultures, , WCC Publications, Geneva 1998,
p.62, quoting The San Antonio Report, p.
these terms the last two have been widely adopted in “ecumenical”
circles as the more appropriate for a genuine and authentic Christian
mission (cf. the most important documents and books on the issue: e.g. Common
Witness. A Joint Document of the Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church
and the WCC, WCC Mission Series, Geneva 1982; the relevant to our
subject document Common Witness and
Proselytism; also I.Bria
(ed.), Martyria-Mission, WCC Publications Geneva, 1980.
Even the Mission and
Evangelism-An Ecumenical Affirmation, Geneva 1982, WCC Mission Series
Ç1985 , is an attempt to correctly interpret the classical missionary
terminology. Cf. also the most recent agreed statement of the
Dorfweil/Germany Consultation of KEK with the European Baptist Federation
and the European Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (12-13 June
1995) with the title: “Aspects of Mission and Evangelization in Europe
Today”), whereas the imperative validity of all the other have been
retained as the sine qua non of the Christian identity of those belonging to the
“evangelical” stream of our Christian tradition (cf. the tension in the
recent history of the world christian mision, which resulted in the tragic
separation and the eventual formation of the Lausanne Movement for World
and Proselytism. An Orthodox Understanding”, Eucharist
and Witness. Orthodox Perspecrives on the Unitty and Mission of the Church, WCC
Press-Holy Cross Press, Geneva, Boston, 1998, pp. 29ff.
Goodman in his book Mission and
Conversion. Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1994, has discerned four different
uses of the word “mission” in modern scholarship of the history of
religions, and consequently four different understandings of what has come
to be labeled as “Christian mission”: (i) The
informative mission. The
missionaries of this type feel “that they had a general message which they
wished to impart to others. Such disseminators of information may have had
no clear idea of the reaction they desired from their auditors...(The aim of
this attitude) was to tell people something, rather than to change their
behavior or status.” (p. 3). (ii) The educational
mission. “Some missionaries did intent to change recipients of their
message by making them more moral or contented...Such a mission to educate
is easily distinguished from a desire to win converts.” (ibid.). (iii) The
apologetic mission. “Some missionaries requested recognition by
others of the power of a particular divinity without expecting their
audience to devote themselves to his or her worship. Such a mission was
essentially apologetic. Its aim was to protect the cult and beliefs of the
missionary.” (p.4). Finally, (iv) The proselytizing
mission. According to Goodman, “information, education, and apologetic
might or might not coexist within any one religious system, but all three
can individually be distinguished from what may best be described a
proselytizing...(the aim of which was) to encourage outsiders not only to
change their way of life but also to be incorporated within their group.”
Goodman, Mission and Conversion ,
Bosch, Transforming Mission. Paradigm
Schifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis Books New York, 1991, has
discribed through the “Paradigm-Shift-theory” the development of
Christian understanding of mission down to the most recent ecumenical era.
was the conviction that the "Decisive hour of Christian Mission"
had come that impelled John R. Mott to call the World Mission Conference of
1910, with the primary purpose of pooling resources and developing a common
strategy for the "world's conquest" for Christ. The task of
"taking the Gospel to all the regions of the world" was seen to be
of paramount importance. On the recent history of Christian mission see
J.Verkuyl, Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction, engl. transl. Grand
Rapids Michigan 1978.
Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm
Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications Geneva 1991
(translated with modifications from the Germen original Ökumene
C.Kaiser Verlag München
development is a radical reinterpretation of Christology through
Pneumatology (cf.John Zizioulas, Being
as Communion, SVS Press New York 1985), through the rediscovery of the
forgotten trinitarian theology of the undivided Church (cf. A.I.C.Herton
ed., The Forgotten Trinity, London,
Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, WCC,
Geneva, 1990 (4th printing). Cf.
Stanley J. Samartha, (ed.), Faith in
the Midst of Faiths Reflections Ôn Dialogue in Community, WCC,
Forth in Peace, WCC Press Geneva 1986, p. 3.
More on this issue in the recently adopted by the WCC
Mission Statement, entitled Mission
and Evangelism in Unity Today
this passage in the Orthodox liturgical tradition has been placed at the
outset of the most important and holy period of the Church life, the Great
Lent. (cf. A.Schmemann, Great Lent, SVS
Press Crestwood 1974).
What follows comes from a joint paper with Dr. D. Passakos, read at an
international symposium on “Ritual
and Ethics”, hosted by the oldest University of Europe, the
University of Bologna, under the title: “Ritual and Ethics.
A Theological and
Cultural--anthopological Approach to the Sacrament of Repentance”. The
proceedings of that symposium are expected to be published by the Scholars
Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the
Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul,
1966), p. 62.
What follows is taken from my book Eucharist and Witness, pp.51ff.
John Chrysostom’s comment on the relevant petition of the Lord’s Prayer:
“(Christ) did not say ‘Your will be done’ in me, or in us, but
everywhere on earth, so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted,
and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this
respect be henceforth between heaven and earth”.(PG
57 col. 280).
J.H.Elliott, The Elect and the Holy,
1966, has redetermined on the part of the Protestant biblical theology the
real meaning of the term «âáóßëåéïí éåñÜôåõìá»,
which has so vigorously discussed since the time of Luther. Cf. R.Brown, Priest
and Bishop: Biblical Reflections, 1971.
Cf. my article “Óôáõñüò:
Centre of the Pauline Soteriology and Apostolic Ministry”, A.Vanhoye
[ed.], L’Apôtre Paul.
Personnalité, Style et Conception du Ministère, Leuven
1986, pp. 246-253.