At the Lutheran Cathedral of Lund earlier this year, “in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517,” Pope Francis spoke of the opportunity to move “beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” This would require, he said, looking again at our collective past, seeing the “sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith,” yet recognizing that we, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, “closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

The pope’s address raises the thorny question of how we can look again at our past without “closing in on ourselves” all over again, perhaps more with a feeling of resignation than condemnation and violence. If that happens, the “common journey of reconciliation,” despite all good intentions and every common ecumenical prayer service, is likely to have been a tragic path.

Episcopal theologian Patrick Henry has suggested how we might remember more constructively—and perhaps with a more comic than tragic resolution.[1] If I might start with a few of his points:

We should recall that the present is not as unmovable or permanent as it may seem; with God’s grace, we may be able to move beyond its seemingly intractable divisions. Henry recalls looking over the ecumenical content for a commemorative issue of the liturgical journal Worship. The index for the first 30 years (1926-56) included these subheadings under Reformation: “anti-liturgical revolution,” “cause of deChristianization,” “Eucharist denied,” “ignorance as cause,” “nationalism as cause,” and “truths of grace not prominent.” We have come a long way.

We should always try to return to the sources. Henry writes that we should resist the charms of “chronological snobbery.” This is C.S. Lewis’s counsel that we should take care to read old books, not because they are mistake-free, but because they contain different mistakes. Therefore, “they will not flatter us in the errors we already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.” But Lewis claimed that we would receive the very same benefit from reading “the books of the future”; we simply cannot order them. As such, the evil twin of chronological snobbery is chronological regret. Snobbery and regret alike prevent us from learning from the past, which is often more foreign to us — and much more generative — than we might suppose.

In contrast to these twin dangers, Henry mentions the example of his teacher, the late Anglican priest and historian Henry Chadwick, who was deeply involved in ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. Chadwick had written a classic work, The Early Church, in 1967. Oxford University Press prevailed upon him to revise the work. Henry asked Chadwick about his plans, to which Chadwick responded, “I’m re-reading all the sources.” Henry was sure that by all, Chadwick meant all; he was acknowledging the “unending mystery and depth of the world,” even to someone with Chadwick’s erudition. (That revision would appear in 2001, when Chadwick was 81.)

Henry recalls the example of other ecumenical historians, convinced that there would be something new and fruitful in our common sources, such as the great Methodist churchman Albert Outler, in the library of Christ Church, Oxford, reading the same volumes of Greek Fathers that John Wesley had read.

The present is not necessarily as unmovable or permanent as it may seem.

If we must re-remember, we also have to forget some things, particularly “a kind of theological sensibility that just knew error when it saw it,” deeply ingrained though it may be. The art of forgetting has played a role in ecumenism. When in 1966 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, met Pope Paul VI in Rome, the two prelates said that they “wish to leave in the hands of the God of mercy all that in the past has been opposed” to mercy, and repeated the words of St. Paul: “Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark” (Phil. 3:13). The pope had earlier, with Patriarch Athenagoras, removed from memory and committed to oblivion the fateful excommunications of a pope and patriarch in 1054.

If simply forgetting the past does not seem altogether realistic, Henry, as he has elsewhere, suggests the use of humor. He praises, as the motto for an ecumenical coat of arms, the counsel of Erasmus’ Folly, that we “make mistakes together or individually, … [and] wisely overlook things.” Henry even thinks that we need a new hip-hop musical: Erasmus. This raises the question of humor’s role in the ecumenical movement. In Redeeming Laughter (1997), the late Peter Berger claimed that humor really does have a cognitive content, even if joke analysis is usually an ill-advised venture. Humor creates “another reality” in the midst of our otherwise ordinary reality — it inserts a “finite province of meaning.” Humor can perhaps do two things for the ecumenical movement.

The first is probably what Henry has in mind. In an earlier book (The Ironic Christian’s Companion), Henry opposed Folly’s counsel of “wisely overlook[ing] things” to “our worship of expertise and our obsession with always being right.” Humor, as Berger says, posits its “effervescent” reality against the “dense, heavy, compelling” reality of the present, and, in doing so, opens the possibility for surprise and rediscovery amid an otherwise rationalistic dogmatic immobility or other ecclesial facades. Think of that old joke about a papal encyclical called Cum grano salis. Humor can usefully loosen our grasp, unclench our jaw.

But, I think, there is a second possibility in humor that goes beyond this suggestion. Berger suggests that humor, besides posing a temporary “effervescent” reality against the pretensions of the everyday, can construct an actual “counterworld”—an upside-down world pointing to “that other world that has always been the object of the religious attitude.” This is the counterworld of Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum or Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” or St. Basil the Blessed of Russia, whose bloody gifts to the tsar were at once grotesquely ridiculous but true as they pointed to the sheer cruelty of Ivan’s executions of the innocent.

This is the counterworld that Berger insists is the truth that exists alongside our ordinary world in the same “immense tension between the kenotic Christ of the Passion and the Christus Victor of Easter morning.” After all, our Lord was nevertheless crowned the “king of folly” by Roman soldiers. Paradoxically, we must become fools before we ever become wise (1 Cor. 3:18). There is a deep and true irony at the heart of things.

Now, we might wonder if ecumenism can construct a counterworld before the heavy realities of our inherited divisions. The heavy realities of those divisions were hardly absent at Lund. The Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women; the first woman to serve as the Lutheran archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelen, read the Gospel at the service. A statement signed at Lund by the pope and Bishop Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, recognized the yearning of members of their communities to share the Eucharist at one table and the unresolved pain of interchurch couples who cannot commune together. The pope and president acknowledged “this wound in the body of Christ” that still needs healing, 500 years later. But still, in this scarred present, pope and Lutheran archbishop, Catholics and Protestants, prayed together, commemorating what many Catholics can only see as a disaster and many Protestants look on with triumphalism.

It may all seem ridiculous. What difference will an ecumenical prayer service really make? Perhaps there is a hard facticity to Christian division, and we will never move beyond our intractable “controversies and disagreements.” If so, the ecumenical journey will merely be tragic, even if beautifully so. But if there is a world opened up by all the laboriously composed ecumenical documents that have never quite led to consensus and all the prayer services that cannot yet include the Eucharist and in the canonical messiness of pastoral provisions, and that ecumenical counterworld proves to be more real than all our present divisions — well, we’ll see who the joke is really on.

Until then, prayerfully remember where we have been, read old books, forget what should be forgotten, and have a sense of humor. If there’s an Erasmus musical, go see it.

Footnotes

[1] Patrick Henry, “Creative Remembering—and Prudent Forgetting—on Our Way to Christian Unity,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 52.2 (2017): pp. 287-309.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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