Review by Caleb Congrove
The essays collected in Issues and Perspectives range far and free, from questions in systematic theology to persons and topics in the history of the Armenian Church and people, ecumenism, the role of religion in the public life of pluralist societies, the present reality of Christians in the Middle East, and Christian dialogue with Islam. These issues represent lasting and urgent interests for His Holiness, Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, one of the centers of ecclesial unity and leadership within the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholicos Aram is a theologian, writer, and dedicated ecumenist. Involved in many regional and international ecumenical bodies, he served two terms as moderator of the World Council of Churches from 1991 to 2005.
Issues and Perspectives
For most readers, Aram I’s historical essays will likely serve as an introduction to his church and its tradition. One is about St. Gregory of Narek, the 10th-century monastic theologian and poet, whom Pope Francis recently added to the list of distinguished teachers venerated by the Roman Catholic Church as doctors of the Church.
Another essay, “A Culture of Dialogue,” discusses historic Cilicia, a medieval Armenian state established outside of Armenia and the origin of his catholicosate. More than a lost past to be lamented, however, the Catholicos of Cilicia finds in this “first organized Armenian diaspora” a model for lived pluralism, dialogue, and tolerance.
Perhaps all that most Western readers will know about Armenian history is the genocide, the destruction a century ago of Armenian and other Christian minorities in the name of Turkification. Though one essay is devoted to the genocide, the voice of Aram I is not mournful, timid, or backward-looking. The church never appears as an insular ethnic minority, nor one inwardly focused on its own survival. The essays in Issues and Perspectives are permeated by a bold and generous vision of engagement.
This book speaks to Westerners in a Christian voice that is distinctively and unmistakably Middle Eastern. Several essays address the situation of the Christian minority in the region and its uncertain future there. Though Christians in the Middle East have lately attracted much Western interest and concern, Middle Eastern Christians rarely figure as interlocutors and interpreters of their situation. Much of what Aram I has to say will ring new to Western ears.
Dialogue with Islam, for example, only beginning to occur to some in the West, is uniquely urgent for him (see especially “Living as Community with Islam”). In several important essays, especially “The Future of Christianity in the Middle East” and “The Arab Spring and the Christian Communities,” he urges Christians to move from isolation to engagement and to play their part in shaping a more democratic and pluralistic future for the Middle East. A few years later, this call to engagement and risky solidarity seems even more remarkably bold. But the exhortation was never naïve about the dangers. Many of his recommendations for the churches of the region — internal renewal, a more unified witness, and more organized collaboration both with Western churches and diaspora communities in the West — seem no less true, even if a hopeful future now seems in many places less likely. “Unity is accomplished by being together, reflecting and acting together, and serving and witnessing together in faithfulness to the command of Christ,” he writes (p. 146). Finally, for Aram I, though the future is admittedly uncertain, the Christian mission is not.
Opening and underlying the whole collection is a resounding insistence on the Church’s universal and evangelistic mission. (“Rediscovering the Missio Dei: A Call to the Churches”). For Aram I, mission is central to both the identity and being of the Church. Without its universal and evangelical mandate, the Church loses its purpose and cause for being: “The church does not exist for itself; it exists for a mission entrusted to it by God in Christ. The church is sent into the world; its mandate is to take Christ to the world and announce the restoration of the Kingdom of God (Mt 28:19-20)” (p. 14).
Intrinsically directed outward, the Church is ordered to the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Church’s work is not properly her own but the missio Dei, the saving and transformative mission of God. Accordingly, mission cannot be an appendage or arm of the Church and its activity, but must be its core identity. When Christians focus on self-preservation or even on merely extending or propagating their ecclesial communities, the true mission and identity of the Church is obscured. In this account, both ethnic and confessional identifications can confuse the Church’s true mission, obscuring or even threatening to replace the missio Dei.
Likewise, the catholicity of the Church points to the mystery of salvation, God’s work to redeem the whole creation in Jesus Christ (“Catholicity: Its Implications and Imperatives”). Much more than a mark, catholicity is the Church’s being because Jesus Christ is the whole and unique truth and because salvation in him is announced to the whole cosmos. Integrity in Christ is conferred through the Church’s authentic witness to the salvation God has revealed in him: “the more the Church goes beyond itself, the more it becomes truly itself; the more the Church engages in missio Dei, the more catholicity acquires its genuine meaning and articulation” (pp. 33-34).
Despite the unmistakably and unapologetically ecumenical commitment of these essays, Issues and Perspectives offers relatively little reflection on the progress of the theological dialogues that have taken place between the several families of Middle Eastern Christians. Rather, it is in this larger context of shared mission and witness that unity is to be pursued and divisions among Christians are to be overcome: “The catholicity of the church is a constant reminder that the churches must go beyond the framework of ecclesial unity and endeavor for the unity of humankind. God’s gift of unity and catholicity in Christ was a response to the broken world. The world is still — if not more — broken” (p. 29).
The volume’s final chapter is not an essay. “Notes from my Ecumenical Diary” is a collection of observations, remarks, and questions gleaned from decades of experience as an ecumenist and pastor. As Aram I writes: “From an early age, while reading, traveling or attending meetings I have been an avid note taker. My notebook has accompanied me throughout my pastoral and ecumenical journey since 1968” (p. 183). These notes offer concerns, challenges, and questions in pithy entries. Some are programmatic, about the direction of the ecumenical movement, its institutions, and dialogues. Others linger on the experience of the author’s ecumenical work: “To stand in the pulpit of another church, to preach in a language that is not yours and to address a foreign congregation are unique experiences that one can gain only through the ecumenical movement” (p. 190).
This offering of notes is personal, a gift and an invitation. They do not mount or propose an argument or a point of view, but rather share aloud his thoughts. They invite us to reflect further, to share in the commitments and motivations that have been the responsibility and dedication of his labors. But perhaps more than anything else, they represent a kind of legacy or bequeathal: “I hope that these notes will challenge the youth to engage in interchurch and interfaith relations, dialogue and collaboration with a sense of profound responsibility and committed dedication” (p. 183). Present and future ecumenists will profit from reading them.
Caleb Congrove is a high-school teacher in Ohio and a contributor to TLC’s weblog, Covenant.