Thursday, April 2, 2009

JPII remembered & Orthodoxy

by Rod Dreher, Cruncy Con

Amy Welborn notes that four years ago today (April 2), John Paul II died. She quotes a First Things essay by Fr. Thomas D. Williams, on why JP2's faith that we were entering a "new springtime" could not be seen as shallow optimism, but something deeper. Excerpt:

So what did he discern? The first significant sign of spring does not involve twittering birds and pink buds. What we see first is slush and mud: The world in spring gets uglier before it gets prettier. That, after all, is why T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month: Winter kept us warm, covering earth in forgetful snow.

In the slush and mud of his own day, John Paul II saw something emerging: a meltdown of formerly frozen ideologies and consolidated problems. People's disillusionment with the therapeutic promises of Freud, the voluntarism of Nietzsche and the utopianism of Marx may not lead to a sudden embrace of Christian faith, but it does prepare the way, just as the Prodigal Son's hunger brought him back to his father's house. We can witness an opening to and hunger for spiritual realities, located in a generalized dissatisfaction with what the world offers.

Please God, yes. As Walker Percy said, what else is there? It might be worth recalling a piece I wrote some years back, when I was a Catholic, defending John Paul's cultural vision against some extreme narrow-mindedness from a few knotheads of what is now my church. I still stand by this piece. For all my frustration with JP2 over his handling of the sex-abuse scandal, he was probably the foremost Christian prophet of our time. Excerpt:

Unlike his Orthodox counterparts, this pontiff lives in the real world. He understands that if Christianity is to survive, much less thrive, in the third millennium, believers cannot afford quarrels over past grievances. There are deep theological divisions between East and West, and any ecumenism that etends otherwise is false. But isn't working more closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause? The pope knows that the key question in the era of post modernism and globalization is not what brand of Christianity the world will follow; it is whether the world will follow Christianity at all.

It is said that the Greek Orthodox regard John Paul as a symbol of the Westernization they despise. Who are they kidding? The pontiff who was the scourge of the militant atheist ideology that made martyrs of millions of Orthodox believers is the same man who is the fiercest enemy of the secular Western juggernaut. Have the Orthodox been paying attention for the past two decades? Do they read his stuff? Maybe not. The late Alexander Schmemann, the eminent Russian Orthodox theologian, lamented his faith's "complete indifference to the world," claiming that official Orthodoxy lived in a "heavy, static, petrified" world of "illusion." Orthodox consciousness "did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great's reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life," Schmemann wrote in his private journal. "In brief, it did not notice history." John Paul does.

Well, I don't completely stand by that piece. I would have phrased things somewhat differently were I to write it today; I understand now why the filioque clause is a much bigger deal than I knew then. But I still believe basically as I did then: that we cannot and should not say the theological differences between us are not serious, but now is not the time to keep a practical and instrumental unity around certain causes. The Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement isn't about converting Evangelicals to Catholicism, or vice versa. It's about bringing traditionalist members of the two great Christian traditions together to work together on issues of mutual concern. Boy, would I ever love to see Orthodox and Catholics Together. Maybe somebody should start that. Metropolitan Jonah is in Dallas this weekend. If I have the chance to speak with him, I'll suggest it. Hey, you never know. Springtime is bustin' out all over.

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