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Towards a hermeneutics of difference at the crossroads of ecumenics.

Archbishop William Temple once called the ecumenical movement the "great new fact of our time". Were he alive today he would no doubt be challenged as to who was included within the circle of his "our". He would discover that ecclesial life is more heterogeneous than he imagined, that while experiences may be contemporary, insofar as they occur on a common temporal plane, they nevertheless remain fundamentally different to one another. He would probably find himself questioning whether it was ever meaningful to speak of the ecumenical movement as if it were one, or whether it made more sense to speak of multiple ecumenical movements. The Archbishop would find that the common vision he and others believed they brought to the ecumenical table has given way to far greater diversity than they ever imagined possible - and this around the very table they had helped to construct. But then he could not help realizing the irony in the fact that the diversity of voices around a common ecumenical table today is the realization of the "great new fact" which he helped initiate. He might even go so far as to formulate it as an agenda for ecumenical theology, marking the permanent imperative of openness to others which challenges each community and person of faith in the world today.

Here then is a definition of the great new fact of our time: to be ecumenical is to be permanently open to others in dialogue. To be in permanent dialogue is to be responding to multiple voices from outside the circle of one's own identity, voices calling one to cross over the boundaries of one's own experiences. Ecumenical theology seeks to address the imperative of the other. It compels communities and persons of faith to be accountable to others beyond their own identities. "Ecumenical" persons are conscious of the multiple communities of Christian faith and identity that exist in the world today. They demonstrate a willingness to abandon the false security of their own self-identity, in order to cross over the boundaries of difference in a movement of metanoia. In short, ecumenical theology represents a shift from being "inner-directed" to being directed towards the other, whether in judgment or grace.

As they do so, ecumenical persons find themselves meeting others along the way, others who have crossed boundaries of their own and have travelled along roads that are different. In such encounters ecumenical theology takes on the characteristics of a conversation at the crossroads of the journey.(1) Here people of different identities gather at a common meeting place. They have an opportunity to listen to one another, and to challenge one another to faith. It is not mindless chatter which takes place at the crossroads. It is a spiritual praxis of dialogue, preparing people and churches to live the life of koinonia that God intends for all humanity and creation.

Because it is transformative such conversation is, in the words of the fifth world conference on Faith and Order that gathered in August 1993 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, "the call to metanoia and kenosis". Under the heading, "Steps Along the Way," paragraph 27 of the final report from Section I of the conference continues:

As we strip ourselves of false securities, finding in God our true and only identity, daring to be open and vulnerable to each other, we will begin to live as pilgrims on a journey, discovering the God of surprises who leads us into roads which we have not travelled, and we will find in each other true companions on the way.

In the pages that follow I would like to make a contribution to the project of ecumenical dialogue which is taking place at the crossroads of the churches' pilgrimages. I do so conscious of the major crossroads that have already been reached in the ecumenical journey, and of those that still lie before us. Anticipating the future, I would like to call for a fuller appreciation of the diversity which the churches encounter at the crossroads, in order to help them journey on with one another.

To these ends we are prompted by paragraph 28 of the report from Section I from Santiago de Compostela, which states:

As we travel the way of pilgrimage, we will need to be able to understand each other's theological language and cultural ethos. We would be assisted in our journeying by inter-contextual dialogues appropriately sponsored by regional ecumenical organizations, and in our interconfessional dialogues by a renewed Faith and Order study on hermeneutics, and new ways of doing theology which provide more adequate tools to express community on the way to the goal of visible unity.

In line with this call to the churches, I would like to explore a more adequate "ecumenical hermeneutics of difference" that would enable churches to understand the diversity encountered in their dialogue at the crossroads. Through the lens of this hermeneutic of difference we can examine specific concerns which embrace both' unity and diversity. Along these lines I will briefly examine the conciliar theme which has occupied much of the recent conversation. Openness to the "permanent newness of meaning" is ultimately grounded in that permanent openness to one another and to God, which is a task of the ecumenical movement precisely because it is a mark of divine koinonia.

Towards a hermeneutic of difference

First, then, the step towards a hermeneutic of difference. No church can today escape the multiplicity of traditions that characterizes the Christian way.(2) Christian communities in the modern and post-modern worlds find themselves living with increasing diversity in expressions of faith, in ever-closer proximity to one another. It is not uncommon today to discover "evangelical" and "catholic" convictions coexisting side by side within the same Christian congregation. Often a single community embraces within its own membership those who find their faith nurtured by charismatic, revivalistic and eucharistic forms of expression. New, complex fusions of multiple cultural and ecclesial forces in more or less stable syntheses are no longer the exception but the rule, at both the local level and at the trans-congregational levels of ecclesial life. Churches in the ecumenical movement today would do well to attend to the multiple forces and expressions that trace across their religious fields and make themselves manifest in their various places of worship. They might find that what they take to be centres of ecclesial life are already crossroads. And they might discover that ecumenical theology can assist them not so much with constructing a new centre as with mapping the crossroads.

In these endeavours, however, churches are hampered by the lack of an adequate ecumenical hermeneutics. Most of the hermeneutical models employed in the ecumenical movement this century have been adapted from Western philosophical systems that have extolled uniformity or singularity of meaning. The hermeneutical methods that have been employed by ecumenical theology have for the most part been characterized by the "metaphysics of presence" that mark the Western onto-philosophical project.(3) This philosophical tradition, according to its critics, "consists in suppressing or reducing all forms of otherness by transmitting their alterity into the Same".(4) Too often in its pursuit of consensus or convergence the ecumenical movement has failed to appreciate the "alterity" of Christian traditions. By the same token, continuing differences among various branches of the movement are perceived to be signs of its failure rather than expressions of its success. Not surprisingly these same ecumenical hermeneutical models have been rather closely tied to the dominant ecclesial interests of the North Atlantic churches and have had more than a whiff of imperialism about them. A more adequate hermeneutics might allow us to recognize the increasing diversity of Christian traditions, including their conflicts and tensions. as a mark of the openness that is characteristic of God's new event. In the dialogue of our differences, even when manifested as disagreements or through refusals to join together in a common witness, the ecumenical movement might well be accomplishing its task.

What does such a hermeneutics of difference look like? Perhaps in this regard the figure of a West African deity known as Eshu-Elegbara might be of assistance for ecumenical theology.(5) The deity of the crossroads, Eshu is invoked when one reaches decision-making points in life which open up options for failure or success. He is a trickster, tripping up those who are not careful around him. This is so because Eshu is the god of languages. The divine linguist, he alone knows all the languages of the other gods and of humankind. If one wants to speak to a god, one must thus speak to Eshu, who will interpret what is said to the intended receiver. And if one is not careful to pay Eshu respect, he will easily misinterpret or misrepresent what is said, creating misunderstanding. He creates recognition, but misrecognition as well. He turns words inside out, turning one thing into another.

While often depicted in humorous ways as a clown, a trickster, or even a monkey, Eshu embodies the deepest forms of wisdom. Robert Farris Thompson recounts one of the legends of the Yoruba about an event at a crossroads of the history of the gods.

[A]ll the deities made their way to heaven, each bearing a rich sacrificial offering on his or her head [to present before the High God]. All save one. Eshu-Elegbara, wisely honouring beforehand [Ifa] the deity of divination with a sacrifice, had been told by him what to bring to heaven - a single crimson parrot feather (ekodide), positioned upright upon his forehead, to signify that he was not to carry burdens on his head. Responding to the fiery flashing of the parrot feather, the very seal of supernatural force and ashe, God granted Eshu the force to make all things happen and multiply (ashe).(6)

In his study of the African American literary tradition, Henry Louis Gates Jr identifies the ashe which Eshu carries with the very wisdom and power the High God used to create the universe. Gates notes that it is what the Greeks called logos, "the word as understanding, the word as the audible, and later the visible, sign of reason. Ashe is more weighty, forceful and action-packed than the ordinary word... [It] is the force of coherence of process itself, that which makes a system a system."(7)

Equipped with ashe or logos, Eshu is the divine interpreter or translator who loosens knowledge and deciphers the ambiguities of reading and understanding. He is the counterpart to the Greek god Hermes, the divine embodiment of understanding, the doctor of hermeneutics. Like the winged Hermes who shuttles between the world of the gods and humankind, Eshu is depicted "with one leg longer than the other", for he walks in two worlds at once. He is double-voiced, for he must be able to speak multiple languages and meanings at once. Meanings, for Eshu, are "both multiple and indeterminate".(8) In his activities he reveals the dense, ambiguous, dynamic qualities of languages and texts. He adds the rhetorical dimension of language to the semantic, and in doing so shows us how, at the crossroads, the one act of speaking/hearing or writing/reading can give rise to a multiplicity of perceptions, understandings and responses.

Gates retells one of the better-known myths of Eshu, the story of two friends who made a vow of friendship without considering the "god of indeterminant meanings". The story recounts how Eshu then put their friendship to the test. Putting on a cloth cap whose right side was black and left side was white, he went riding between the two men while they were at work in their fields. Of course one saw the cap as black, the other as white. Later in the day, one friend asked the other if he had seen the man with the white cap. Of course the other friend had seen him, but the cap was black. With this the two friends fell into a fight which ended only when Eshu returned to show them that they were both right, pulling from a pocket the two-sided cap.(9)

So it is with the events of the modern ecumenical movement. Radically differing understandings have resulted from the events, conferences, texts and traditions of the movement. Some have insisted the cap is black, while others have argued that it is white, or indeed neither. Over the course of the last century the ecumenical experience has pointed in the direction of more diversity among the churches of the world, not less.(10) An adequate ecumenical hermeneutics is needed that can not only account for the diversity of perceptions and understanding that have accompanied the texts and events of the movement, but also recognize such differences as appropriate to the ecumenical task, even when the immediate result appears to be further conflict and tension.

Our search for an ecumenical hermeneutics would therefore appear to begin with the practice of dialogue itself.(11) To this end the work of the twentieth-century Russian literary theorist of dialogue, Mikhail Bakhtin, provides important insights.(12) Bakhtin criticized the dominant philosophical and hermeneutical schools of his time for postulating monological theories of speakers and language.(13) Unitary models that postulate singularity of meaning and purpose were themselves expressions of what he called "the centripetal forces of language".(14) They struggled, in his view, to overcome the multiplicity of meaning that results from what he called the "heteroglossia" of language. For Bakhtin, every moment of speaking was an instance in which opposing centrifugal and centripetal forces were at work, centralizing and decentralizing meaning at the same time.(15) Furthermore it was true for the entire range of human experience, which was thoroughly infused with language. Each moment of experience occurs at the intersection of multiple social and historical forces. Each moment of experience is thus both at a point of historical convergence and at a point of historical divergence. The resulting historical life of language is "a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity" of multiple meanings, a polyphonic dialogue.(16)

Every instance of speaking happens from within a dialogue. Our words are "dialogized" from within, argued Bakhtin. In every moment of speaking we are responding to something that was said before, and anticipating things that will be said afterwards. When we use words we receive from them directives from the past, and these same words offer directives for the future. Words bear along the history of their multiple contexts, including the varied meanings and understandings of their users through different languages.(17) The very words we use in prayer, as well as in theological reflection, are already pluralized in meaning. They achieve further meanings through our usage and these add to, rather than detract from, this fundamental pluralization of meaning. For Bakhtin every attempt at reduction of meaning ironically adds to the history of meaning, adding to the multiple meanings of a particular word, symbol, phrase or theological doctrine. No single statement is capable of encompassing its full, dialogical meaning. The separate thoughts, words, sentences, deeds, events and languages that converge in any dialogical instance of experience cannot be summarized or subsumed within a closed system of thought or practice. Along these lines Bakhtin observed:

It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that in principle cannot be fitted within the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential [sobytiina] and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses.(18)

It is even possible to imagine such a surplus and potential of meaning in a dialogue where all are speaking "common" words, common phrases, or common creeds. The French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu has provided a more detailed examination of the manner in which this polysemy operates from within the economy of a socio-linguistic field, particularly in modern experience. Bourdieu argues that the rise of the modern nation-state brought about a unified, normal or standard national language which has been both a strategy and an effect of national consolidation. But the nation-state did not achieve a unified ideological domain, despite repeated attempts by successive national regimes across the political landscape of the modern world. Resistance to the unification of language can be found in the polysemy of language itself, a fact that no national regime has been able to extinguish. Thus the unification of political or (national) religious language was accompanied by the diversification of meaning found within it. Bourdieu summarizes his argument concisely:

Religion and politics achieve their most successful ideological effects by exploiting the possibilities contained in the polysemy inherent in the social ubiquity of the legitimate language. In a differentiated society, what are called "common" nouns - work, family, mother, love, etc. - assume in reality different and even antagonistic meanings, because the members of the same "linguistic community" use more or less the same language and not several different languages. The unification of the linguistic market means that there are no doubt more and more meanings for each sign.(19)

He goes on to conclude:

Hence there are no longer any innocent words. This objective effect of unveiling destroys the apparent unity of ordinary language. Each word, each expression, threatens to take on two antagonistic senses, reflecting the way in which it is understood by the sender and the receiver.(20)

Bourdieu's analysis is primarily concerned with the polysemy of language in the political context of the modern nation state. But we can easily see the application of it to the ecclesial context as well. Ecclesial Christian life symbolized its orthodox consensus through a common creed, and achieved its effect through common doctrinal (linguistic) formulations. But whether it be the ancient church or the modern nation-state, the results have been much the same. Common words have taken on historically divergent meanings, reflective of differing historical, cultural, or social experiences and identities. Any analysis of meaning must of necessity then take into account the different social positions, interests and contexts in order to understand its multiplicity.

In his investigation of religious language in the modern context Bourdieu notes a particular ability to achieve what he calls "the ideological effect of the unification of opposites or denial of divisions which it produces..." A religious language, he argues, is particularly able to speak to multiple groups at the same time.(21) Unveiling this ideological effect of religious language requires careful delineation of differences in meaning and understanding, perhaps correlating these with class, racial, gender and ethnic interests. Here Bourdieu does not reduce the "symbolic efficacy of political and religious languages... to the effect of the misunderstandings which lead individuals who are opposed in all respects to recognize themselves in the same message." He recognizes the generative capacities of creative religious speech which enables it to become valid for both dominant and dominated groups. (We could point to numerous situations where Christian communities formed among the dominant and the dominated, and where common theological concepts or beliefs served alternatively as a means of oppression or as modes of resistance.) Bourdieu's analysis challenges us to pay more careful attention to the concrete social locations from which differences of meaning and understanding emerge. In short, we must take care to analyze which side of the road we were on to see whether the cap was black, or the cap was white.

Permanent openness to dialogue

I have defined ecumenics as the dimension of the Christian churches expressive of their dialogical character, and I perceive in the ecumenical movement an expression of the dialogical character of the Christian faith itself. The ecumenical movement is a permanent site for the positive appropriation of dialogue. In this sense ecumenism represents the permanent openness of Christian communities to their own futures, the future of the world and the future of God. Participants in the movement need not agree on a single purpose or goal towards which they are journeying, nor on the linkages among their various perspectives. "From the very beginning," wrote Ernst Lange, "the ecumenical movement has never really been certain of its goals. The main reason for this is that quite different and even conflicting motives have been operating."(22) Indeed, the movement has often seemed to its observers to contain several truths which resist being reduced to one or the other. But lack of agreement need not be a sign of weakness or shallow commitment. The tension-filled ambiguity and even disunity of ecumenical discourse and experience can be indicative of the strengths of the movement. If truth requires a plurality of consciousnesses and voices, and if truth cannot be fitted into a single consciousness or ascribed to a single voice, then the diversity of voices speaking to each other and even against each other in ecumenical dialogue holds the potential for offering a greater measure of the truth.

Over the course of its history the World Council of Churches has made numerous attempts to address the tensions which exist between ecumenical "truths". Most recently there has been the attempt to achieve some form of linkage between two separate historical endeavours within the movement, one which has sought unity among churches in matters of faith and order, and another which has pursued concerns for social justice. In a paper delivered at a 1993 WCC consultation in Ronde, Denmark, Anna Marie Aagaard noted that the relationship between the theological quest for unity and the social responsibilities of the churches has remained problematic throughout the past century of ecumenical discussion. Aagaard perceived the failure to be that of establishing the linkage between justice and unity, or ethics and ecclesiology, a project she concluded needed to be pursued now at the level of the churches themselves.(23) Paul A. Crow Jr, in his paper at Ronde, referred to the division between these two camps as "a destructive polarization". Crow's paper voiced a hope to see the end of this conflict "by claiming a common vision and agenda through the two ecumenical prisms we represent".(24) He anticipated the final statement of Ronde, which asserted an "essential interconnectedness" between these two perspectives, and emphasized that common ground already exists between them.(25)

The Ronde consultation did not rest content with an assertion of common ground, however. It added its collective voice to a long line of WCC projects and conversations which sought to realize the interconnections which are deemed to be essential to the nature of the church. Indeed the WCC, from its inception, has sought to realize the interconnectedness of the churches in its capacity as a council or "fellowship" (koinonia) of churches. In recent ecumenical discussions within the WCC one hears repeated reference to the themes of koinonia, covenanting, commitment and "conciliar process". Ronde's final statement emphasized the dialogical character of these terms, and the dialogical experience out of which they emerge. Among its concrete recommendations to the WCC was the following:

A more conciliar style will be facilitated by cultivating the art of listening. Participants in dialogue again and again need to translate into their own vocabulary terms that others use rather than attempt to impose their own vocabulary. Similarly we need a basic respect for different starting points - the activist, the academic, the ecclesiastical, for instance.(26)

The significance of these different starting points becomes clearer only through their discussion. At Ronde these differences were articulated primarily from within the institutional framework of the WCC itself, but they reflect wider ecumenical differences which have their roots in global political reality. At Ronde the two ecumenical parties were identified by Jose Miguez Bonino as those concerned with theological issues and those concerned with socio-ethical issues.(27) But a decade earlier Miguez Bonino had pointed out that there have been two general global political forms of oikoumene within the ecumenical movement over the past century. One of these he called an "oikoumene of domination", the other an "oikoumene of solidarity".(28) The former he identified as the oikoumene of Western ecclesial domination, linked with the modern "capitalist-bourgeois historical project". Its project, Miguez Bonino asserted, was

to integrate and unify alii the lands of the earth into a single oikoumene, tied together by economy, penetrated by democracy and integrated by Western scientific-technological reason.(29)

In this oikoumene an alliance was struck between segments of Protestant and Orthodox Christendom which sought to reconstruct the mythical unity of one "Holy Catholic Church". A concrete historical past for this universal church was asserted at the cost of defining away dissent and resistance as heresy. But the totality of the Christian movement was never so "unified" or "universal". The illusion of such was only reached after the fourth century C.E. through a synthesis of ecclesial and social-political imperial power. The application of analogous forms of such power to achieve unity has since been repeated many times by the churches in order to eliminate dissent and suppress ecclesial difference. In the modern ecumenical movement this mythic memory of a unified Corpus Christianum has provided powerful ideological justification for efforts to achieve the unity of the churches on idealistic theological grounds. Concrete cultural and socio-political factors dividing churches of the world have been relegated to the category of being "non-theological" - as recently as the report from Section II from the world conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela in 1993.(30)

Miguez Bonino pointed out that this is not the whole truth, however, for there has been "another reality", one that he called the "oikoumene of solidarity".(31) This oikoumene of solidarity has been manifested in concrete, prophetic signs that incorporate factors otherwise regarded as "non-theological". In his paper at the Lima meeting of Faith and Order in 1982 (the same meeting that approved "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" for discussion and response by the churches), Miguez Bonino pointed to the "contextual perspective" as the one which identified these factors as also "theological". Things look different from this side, he indicated:

The questions of race, sex, class, are thus not extraneous elements "ideologically" introduced in the discussion of unity, but the necessary disruption of our "premature" unities which have incorporated "the form of the world".(32)

The differences manifested in these divergent perspectives, be they intra-institutional or global, give to common ecumenical texts a dialogical dimension. The polysemy of ecumenism to which they have contributed has been apparent from the early days of the movement.(33) At times the differences have been manifested more sharply, as during the 1960s, most notably in the 1966 word conference on Church and Society in Geneva, and again in the 1968 general assembly of the WCC in Uppsala. Overall they require a more complex understanding of the "conciliar" event than has characterized ecumenical discussions. Ronde only began to touch on the problems of meaning which are located in the term "conciliar".(34)

The indeterminacy of meaning and interpretation not only resides in the use of the adjective "conciliar"; it resides more fundamentally within the very nature of the World Council of Churches itself, in its very self-understanding as a "council".(35) Many within the ecumenical movement have perceived the ultimate objective of the movement, and of the WCC itself, to be a mode of ecclesiastical unity achieved by something with the authority of a universal (ecumenical) council representing the divided churches of the world. Amidst the global social upheavals of the 1960s, the 1968 Uppsala assembly of the WCC stated in Section I of its final address,

We must continue to seek the unity of all Christians in a common profession of the faith in the observance of Baptism and the Eucharist, and in recognition of a ministry for the whole church.

Noting hindrances that keep churches from realizing the imperative "to make visible the bonds which unite Christians in universal fellowship", the Message continued:

The members of the World Council of Churches, committed to each other, should work for the time when a genuinely universal council may once more speak for all Christians, and lead the way into the future.(36)

The appearance of the phrase "once more" in the text of the Message suggests that there was once, in fact, such a "universal council" that spoke for all Christians. A more critical appraisal of church history tells us otherwise. The cultural-linguistic and political-ecclesial particularities of the ancient councils precluded any possibility that they spoke for all Christians of the world. Many Christian communities and believers remained outside the "orthodox" consensus forged through successive ecumenical councils. Significant differences in meaning and interpretation were found even among those who embraced the authority of the councils, or who affirmed the linguistic formulations the councils forged. Many saw the cap black, many saw it as white, and a significant number found that either way the linguistic markers were not sufficiently clear.

A year prior to the Uppsala assembly, the 1967 Faith and Order commission meeting in Bristol had already noted the historical particularity of the Nicene Creed, and the differences in perceptions that accompanied it historically. The Commission's study report, "The Importance of the Conciliar Process in the Ancient Church for the Ecumenical Movement", recommended that the modern ecumenical movement limit its conciliar process "primarily to the type of ecumenical councils of the Christian Roman Empire", due to their determinative position for the churches of the world. At the same time the study noted the political nature of the imperial councils of the ancient church, and the manner in which they created division as well as unity.

It was already evident when churches which lay outside the boundaries of the empire or which were in opposition within the empire rejected the imperial councils for political, as well as theological arid religious reasons. Subsequent history has brought the problem much more clearly into the foreground in a way that could not have been seen at the beginning of the Christian empire. After this has been recognized, we can no longer simply return to the example of the first Ecumenical Councils.(37)

From the perspective of a dialogical hermeneutics of difference, the meanings which emerged from the subsequent history of the councils are part of the meaning of the conciliar events themselves. The meaning of the councils cannot be reduced to the events themselves, nor even located solely within their own historical domains. Even the opposed interpretations "adhere" to the overall event dialogically.

In a similar manner, no modern council could, by itself, contain the fullness of ecumenical truth. Whatever "unity" it achieved would not be final or closed, but would instead be immediately open to further dialogue, diversity and even disunity, due to the centrifugal forces that are at work in history and in language. A genuinely universal council that seeks to speak for all Christians would, in Bakhtin's terms, be a "dialogized" event of convergence and divergence. While all who participated might even come to agree on a common statement of faith, the meaning and interpretation of such a statement would already, in the moment of its production, be plural, multiple and contradictory. To such a council participants would bring their already dialogized understandings of faith; from it they would undoubtedly carry further dialogized understanding and practice.

Uppsala's hopes for a universal council were rekindled by the WCC's 1983 Vancouver assembly's call for "a conciliar process of mutual commitment (covenant) to justice, peace and the integrity of all creation".(38) Some hoped that this process would reveal a "convergence" in the social-ethical sphere, paralleling the ecclesiological convergence the churches had reached through the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry process. From this perspective the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) programme was an anticipation of the effort at Ronde to link the ecumenical concern for justice with the search for unity.(39) For others, the possibility that churches could speak together with one accord on social problems seemed once again to offer an alternative to the search for ecclesial unity through work on questions of faith and order. Despite repeated expressions of concern surrounding the ambiguity of its ecumenical terminology, the JPIC programme formed after the Vancouver assembly continued to utilize the language of "covenant" and "conciliar process" to characterize its goals. Expectations were strengthened by the success of the 1989 preparatory European regional assembly in Basel, a conference described as "the first major meeting of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches since the great schism".(40)

Against the background of these expectations, the 1990 world convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation which was held in Seoul proved to be a disappointment. From the perspective of a hermeneutics of difference, we can see in Seoul the resurgence of centrifugal forces. Significant divergences were already expressed prior to the convocation. The Roman Catholic Church informed the preparatory committee at the beginning of 1990 that it would not officially co-sponsor the event. Orthodox concerns had been raised about the meaning of "covenant" and "conciliar".(41) Some Orthodox theologians also perceived the process to have failed to integrate theology of creation and the sacraments, leading to the charge that "Seoul's theology was irrelevant and its resolutions, reflections and affirmations were mainly based on the horizontal secularized ethic of classical humanism".(42) A wide chasm was experienced in the Seoul convocation itself between churches of the "North" and those of the "South", that is, those of the North Atlantic world and those of Latin Americans, Asians, Africans and Africa Americans.(43) Seoul turned out to be a moment more of centrifugal than centripetal ecumenism.

A common confession of faith among the churches of the world, be it in theology or ethics, seems to be a more distant reality at the end of the century than it was at the beginning. The diversity of the Christian movement in the world today is far more imposing than William Temple and his generation could have imagined. At the same time the openness of the churches of the world to one another's differences has also increased considerably, despite recurring complaints to the contrary. The fact is that churches of the world are far more cognizant of their differences and diversity, however they choose to respond to them. But considered from the perspective of a dialogical hermeneutics of difference, such increasing diversity among Christians of the world can be seen to be a sign of strength and vitality instead of weakness, failure or decline.

In the end a hermeneutics of difference compels us to acknowledge that the search for unity and the resistance to full unity are both characteristic of the overall ecumenical reality. This should forewarn us against asserting the "failure" of the ecumenical movement merely on account of its inability to achieve full ecclesial unity. The movement continues to embody the diversity of the hopes for conciliar reconciliation and the dissent against it. By the same token, the ecumenical movement should continue to seek to become more inclusive, even of those who resist its pursuit of inclusiveness. Fuller representation of the meaning of the conciliar experience will encompass the voices of consensus as well as dissent, for no single perspective even of ecumenics itself is capable of representing the entirety of the truth. The fullness of the meaning of the ecumenical movement remains unrealizable, for ecumenics is, by definition, that dimension of history which is open-ended and unfinalizable. Ecumenical history proves to be polyphonic and thus incapable of being reduced to a single narrative. The movement is born of the plenitude of perspectives of world Christianity, and is still alive with multiple possibilities.


1 In his reflections upon a 1984 WCC symposium at Cartigny, Switzerland, Werner Simpfendorfer refers to this aspect of ecumenical theology as conversation in the transit lounge of the airport terminal; see p.x, in Thomas Wieser, ed., Whither Ecumenism? A Dialogue in the Transit Lounge of the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva, WCC, 1986. I prefer an image of the "crossroads", however, as it is closer to the ground upon which most people walk.

2 See George Tavard, "Tradition in Theology: A Methodological Approach", in Perspectives on Scripture and Tradition, Joseph E. Kelly, ed., Notre Dame, IN, Fides, 1976, p. 118.

3 For a sustained critique and hermeneutical alternative to the Western onto-philosophical project of the "metaphysics of presence", see John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1987.

4 Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas, Oxford, UK, Blackwell, 1992, p.6. writing of Levinas' critique of the ontological project from Parmenides to Heidegger.

5 Eshu is known among the Yoruba and Fon of West Africa. He survived the middle passage among the slave ships to emerge again in the Afro-Caribbean religions as Papa Legbas, and even made his way into the African American culture of the U.S. in a popular folk character known as "the signifyin' monkey".

6 Flash of Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, New York. Vintage Books, 1984, p. 18.

7 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, New York, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp.7-8.

8 Ibid., p.25.

9 Ibid., p.33.

10 See for instance the exponential number of new churches, denominations and ecclesial movements founded over the course of the last century, catalogued by David Barrett, ed., The World Christian Encyclopedia, New York, Oxford University Press, 1982.

11 On ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, see Leonard Swidler, "The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue", Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20/1 (Winter 1983), pp. 1-4; and more recently, the article by Peter Neuner, "Dialogue, Intrafaith", in Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, Nicholas Lossky et al, eds, Geneva, WCC/Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991, pp.287-291. For a study of dialogue in the Faith and Order movement, see Kuncheria Pathil, Models in Ecumenical Dialogue: A Study of the Methodological Development in the Commission on "Faith and Order" of the World Council of Churches, Bangalore, Dharmaran Publications, 1981.

12 For a fuller discussion of Bakhtin's dialogical theory in relation to the ecumenical movement, see Dale T. Irvin, Hearing Many Voices: Dialogue and Diversity in the Ecumenical Movement, Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1994, especially chapter 1, "A Dialogical Affair", pp. 1-34.

13 Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Michael Holquist, ed., Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981, p.269.

14 Ibid., p.270.

15 Ibid., p.272.

16 Ibid., p. 277.

17 For Bakhtin the possibility or impossibility of translation of words, utterances and texts from one language to another is thus closely related to the dialogical character of language itself.

18 Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, p.236 (emphasis and brackets original). For a full study of Bakhtin's dialogical theory, see Michael Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World, London, Routledge, 1990; and Michael Gardiner, The Dialogics of Critique: M.M. Bakhtin and the Theory of Ideology, London, Routledge, 1992.

19 Language and Symbolic Power, John B. Thompson, ed., Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp.39-40.

20 Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, p.40.

21 Ibid., emphasis original.

22 Ernst Lange, And Yet It Moves: Dream and Reality of the Ecumenical Movement, E. Robinson, trans., Geneva, WCC, 1978, p.107.

23 Anna Marie Aagaard, "Churches Committed to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation", in Costly Unity: Koinonia and Justice, Peace and Creation, Thomas F. Best and Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, eds., Geneva, WCC, 1993, pp.9-21.

24 Paul A. Crow, Jr., "Ecclesiology: The Intersection Between the Search for Ecclesial Unity and the Struggle for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation", ibid., p.55.

25 Ibid., p.84.

26 Ibid., p. 104.

27 Jose Miguez Bonino, "How Ecclesiological is Our Problem?", ibid., p.60.

28 Wieser, Whither Ecumenism?, p.27.

29 "A 'Third World' Perspective on the Ecumenical Movement", Towards Visible Unity: Commission on Faith and Order, Lima 1982, Vol. I: Minutes and Addresses, Michael Kinnamon, ed. Geneva, WCC, 1982, p.60.

30 Paragraph 21, p.6.

31 Wieser, Whither Ecumenism?, p.28.

32 "A 'Third World' Perspective on the Ecumenical Movement", p.66.

33 See Dale T. Irvin, Hearing Many Voices: Dialogue and Diversity in the Ecumenical Movement.

34 Aram Keshishian, Conciliar Fellowship: A Common Goal, Geneva, WCC, 1992, examines in detail the multiplicity of meanings found in ecumenical usage of the term "conciliar".

35 See W.A. Visser 't Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, WCC, 1982, especially Appendix V on pp. 112-120, the Toronto Statement of 1950, "Statement on 'The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches'".

36 Norman Goodall, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968: Official Report of the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Uppsala, July 4-20, 1968, Geneva, WCC, 1968, p.17.

37 Faith and Order Commission, New Directions in Faith and Order. Bristol, 1967: Reports - Minutes - Documents, Geneva, WCC, 1968, p.52, emphasis mine.

38 D. Preman Niles, ed., Between the Flood and the Rainbow: Interpreting the Conciliar Process of Mutual Commitment (Covenant) to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, Geneva, WCC, 1992, p.2.

39 At the same time Faith and Order was trying to relate classical unity concerns to contextual theologies and issues such as racism and sexism through the programme "The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community". See the book Church and World: The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community, Faith and Order Paper No. 151, second, revised printing, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1992. For a survey of Faith and Order's work in the field of contextual theology since the 1960s see Thomas F. Best, "Beyond Unity-In-Tension. Prague: The Issues and the Experience in Ecumenical Perspective", in Beyond Unity-In-Tension: Unity, Renewal and the Community of Women and Men, Faith and Order Paper No. 138, Geneva, WCC, 1988, pp.1-33.

40 Between the Flood and the Rainbow, p.5.

41 See Thomas Best, "From Seoul to Santiago: The Unity of the Church and JPIC," ibid., pp.134-137.

42 Gennadios Limouris, "New Challenges, Visions and Signs of Hope: Orthodox Insights on JPIC," ibid., p. 111.

43 In a presentation entitled "Justice with Peace: From Whose Perspective?" Oh Jae Shik summed up this latter divergence experienced by participants: "The fundamental issue here relates to a gap in credibility. People in the North and people in the South have different historical experiences... Nobody questions the fact that we have to live together. But very few have given time to think through how our affirmations may be realized and made credible in a historical process" (ibid., p. 155).

Dale Irvin is professor of theology at New York Theological Seminary.
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Author:Irvin, Dale T.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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