Orthodox America

A More Positive Approach

by Fr. Ian Prior

The Holy Apostle St. Paul urges us in his epistle to the Philippians (4:8) to have a positive attitude towards the world around us, to affirm and to dwell upon what we find to be good and true. He gives us a good example in his famous sermon preached on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17). He was not blind to the evil inherent in the paganism of his listeners, but at the same time he found something which he could be positive about, and which he could affirm as being good, and this provided a foothold, as it were, for the successful preaching of the Gospel. By contrast, we Orthodox in the modern world tend to see life in starkly black and white terms: either something is wholly good and of God, or it is wholly bad and of the enemy. In reality, much is grey, and if we fail to see the bad in the good, and the good in the bad, we become bigoted and blinkered.

The genius of the father of lies can be found in the fact that much of his work contains a spark of goodness and truth. If all his attempts to cast the world into hell reeked of evil, few would be deceived. Deception and damnation often occur because the spark has been perceived but the darkness engulfing it has been ignored. For example, desiring to work for a more just society, for the alleviation of poverty, and for a fairer distribution of the world's wealth and resources, many have embraced various forms of Marxism; in turn, they have been embraced by its darker reality. Does this mean that we should not attempt to respond to all that is good, particularly if it is to be found in an unlikely quarter? Should we constantly live in fear of deception, and retreat into the security of a black and white world?

The path of the Christian lies between what are often extremes. Considerable discernment is required to thread our way safely through the minefield of the world's confusion and evil. While heeding St. Paul's words, we must at the same time avoid the traps which are often set before us when we make ourselves more vulnerable and responsive to the good. Ecumenism presents us with a good example of the difficulties of negotiating this path, which involves both affirmation and negation. Many have been deceived because they have perceived something good in the ecumenical movement, but they have not been sufficiently on guard against its hidden agenda-the notion that there is no visible Church, that truth is relative and that there is no such thing as heresy. All this is part of the devil's ploy and must be roundly rejected as paving the way for the antichrist. This dark side of ecumenism was clearly evident at last year's assembly of the World Council of Churches in Australia, which laid great stress on contact with Australian aborigines who worship their ancestors and demon spirits. The gathering opened with a native cleansing ceremony involving smoke from burning gum leaves and a traditional ritual with a 'message stick'. As near naked and painted men danced, assembly delegates were obliged to pass through the pall of dense smoke. "The rite was linked with a Christian understanding of the cleansing and refining fire of the Holy Spirit," reported the WCC's Ecumenical Press Service. A local newspaper displayed the headline, "All Faiths Are One With God-WCC." The account which followed began,"The WCC took ecumenism to its farthest limits at the week-end, suggesting Muslims, Hindus and others achieved salvation in the same way as Christians and warned the latter against 'narrow thinking'."

While rejecting ecumenism's nasty pitfalls, we must take care not to fall into the opposite trap-as many do-completely rejecting contact with heterodox and opening ourselves up to pride, a judgmental spirit, self-righteousness, even hatred. With such an attitude we cannot possibly fulfill our awesome responsibility to witness to the fullness of faith found within the Holy Orthodox Church. We should not, of course, participate in the various ecumenical bodies which exist today-experience shows that this does not lie in the interest of Truth-but there are many opportunities for informal contact and the development of friendly and fruitful relations with those who profess love for Christ, which we ought to pursue. Those who through no fault of their own, who through the "accident" of birth, find themselves Protestant or Roman Catholic, should receive our especial love and concern. Most are not heretics in the strict sense of the word because they have not consciously rejected truth; many are struggling to find it. Here already is a spark of goodness, but we can catch sight of it only if we are open-hearted and have a positive approach.

St. Innocent of Alaska, in his missionary endeavors among the Tlingit Indians, gives us a good example of how to steer this difficult path of affirming the good and rejecting the bad. He wrote in his journal, "Their traditions are but a mixture of lies and fabrications, even so...in their mythology can be seen traces of true history, as for example, in their tradition of the Flood." The Tlingit name for the Great Spirit was El, the same as one Hebrew word for God, and this for St. Innocent was a sign that there was some good, there was at least a glimpse of truth in their traditions; the fact that fallen spirits were much at work amongst the native peoples did not mean that all was diabolical.

Although we live in a fallen world, man is not utterly depraved, and God's Spirit is not totally absent from what He has made; otherwise all would cease to exist. We must shun the world insofar as it opposes God and bears the mark of the enemy, but at the same time we must embrace and love it insofar as it draws us to the Creator. The path to salvation is called narrow not because we are called to be blinkered and to see the world in starkly black and white terms, but because it is the path of repentance which is difficult to tread, and demands a single-mindedness of intention. This single-mindedness should not be a narrow-mindedness in the sense which ecumenists would accuse us of possessing. Our relationship with Christ which deepens as our repentance deepens, enables us to love our fellow-men of what-ever creed or race, and to be positive about their glimpses of Truth, without compromising Holy Orthodoxy. A positive approach lays a far better foundation for evangelism than does a negative and judgmental one. If the Holy Church is to be truly rooted in the West, we must break out of our all-too-often ghetto mentality and have the courage to tread the perilous path that is before us. It would be a great tragedy if the words of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, "narrow but saved", were to become our epitaph.

Fr. Ian Prior
Community of St. Ninian, Scotland