Encountering the Patriarch’s Book

The year 2008 saw the release by Doubleday Press of a book written by (the cover reads) “His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew”, entitled Encountering the Mystery. (It is one of the few books I have read in which the author’s name is twice as long as book’s title.) It is intended as a guide for the average person to help their “understanding Orthodox Christianity today”, and so represents His All Holiness’ attempt to introduce the average man in the street to Orthodoxy. It is fairly concise at 236 pages of text, and well-written, as one would expect from someone as well-educated as the present Ecumenical Patriarch. I found it an enjoyable read. But the more I read, the more dissatisfied I became with it, until at the end of this volume by “the Green Patriarch” I felt somewhat as C. S. Lewis felt at the end of his reading of what he called “the Green Book”1. That is, to quote my favourite Oxford don, “that I shall have nothing good to say” of it, even though the reverend author was “doing the best he knew”.

It begins well enough. His opening profile and brief history of the Orthodox Church is fair and balanced. I did think it a bit odd that his sections on the History and Role of the Ecumenical Patriarch ran to more pages than did his History of the Orthodox Church, but this is understandable, if perhaps, some might say, a little self-serving. In introducing the Faith itself, he begins by speaking of “Liturgy and Icons” (mostly icons). His next chapter addresses the Patristic approach to theology, and the following chapter, monasticism. Then comes a brief introduction to prayer and fasting, and a quick word about sacraments. In his sixth chapter, he speaks of “the Wonder of Creation”, and here is where he really hits his stride. Here also, I suspect, begins the real point of the book. Anyway, the chapter on the wonder of creation speaks of the environment, and goes on for 31 pages, compared to the previous chapter on “Spirituality and Sacraments” (the prayer chapter), which is only 14 pages. Given that he writes twice as much on the environment as he does on prayer, I see why he has been styled “the Green Patriarch”. Here is where his heart, it appears, really lies.

His next chapter I thought also reveals something of his true interest. Entitled “Faith and Freedom”, the Patriarch discusses human rights and religious tolerance at some length. (This also runs to 25 pages, much longer than his discussion on prayer.) Then comes what I take to be the core of the volume, his chapters on “Transforming the World”. These include discussions of “social justice”, “poverty and globalization”, as well as “interfaith dialogue”, “racism”, and “peace”. Much of what he says in this core is wonderful. But it was in this core that my disquiet and dissatisfaction grew and overflowed, so that I felt the Green Patriarch had written the Green Book.

It was not just that everything he said was in strict accordance with the rigorous canons of current political correctness, to the point that one could turn this section into a drinking game. (“Every time he says something fashionable and politically correct, take a shot.”) It was, more importantly, that he did not speak of what was currently unfashionable and politically incorrect—namely, the Gospel. Never once in the book, either in his opening chapters introducing the Orthodox Faith, or in his later core chapters discussing interfaith dialogue, did he say that Jesus Christ was Lord and God, that He is the Saviour of all the world, and that all can only find hope by repenting and turning to Him. This is the heart of Orthodoxy and its timeless message to mankind, and I did not hear him sound the trumpet of truth a single time. I did, however, find some astonishing distortions of truth, so as to set the Ecumenical Patriarch’s distinguished predecessor St. John Chrysostom spinning in his grave.

Take, for example, Patriarch Bartholomew’s assertion that “the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, explicitly declares that Christians and Jews must not be coerced into conversion”, so that “there is no religious ground on which the faith of Islam can be used to justify disputes between Christians and Muslims”. Such a statement is breathtaking, and can only be explained by willful ignorance of both what the Koran actually says, and of how Muslims have historically acted on what it says about “disputes between Christians and Muslims”. (Compare surah 9:123, chosen from a multitude of such Koranic verses: “O you who believe, fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find hardness in you”. Coercion indeed.)

Or take, for another example, his assertion that “the Orthodox Church derives its appreciation of other faiths from the early teaching of Saint Justin the Philosopher and Martyr”, and that “Justin rightly believed the Word of God may be discerned and discovered in classical writers as well as in other religious worldviews”. Once again, the distortion is breathtaking. St. Justin did indeed speak of seminal truth in pagan philosophy, but at the end of the day, he was still calling on the pagans to repent and become Christians. Whatever apologists like Justin Martyr might say about truth in paganism as they made their case before the world, claiming all truth was Christian truth, the Church still called those pagans to renounce “Satan, and all his service, and all his works” when they were baptized (from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, roughly contempraneous with St. Justin). That Satanic “service” was the cult and worship of the pagans. Whatever truths pagan philosophy preserved, the Christians still called their pagan neighbours to renounce their “other religious worldviews” and serve Christ alone. The Fathers were not the exponents of religious pluralism that the author of Encountering the Mystery would make them.

Here then is my main quarrel with the Patriarch’s book: he distorts the actual message of the Church and its Fathers, so as to refashion historical Orthodoxy into something politically acceptable today. When he says that “the fact that the perception of adherents to one religion differs from the perception of adherents to another faith community means little other than the fact that…we naturally differ from one another”, we hear the voice of a relativism which has betrayed the Gospel. In fact, the perceptions of religious adherents often differ from each other because their religions actually differ. Not everything can be put down to mutual misunderstanding.

He goes on in the next paragraph to assert “the confession of this fundamental truth about God and ourselves incites within each of us the Socratic admission with regard to our ignorance: the one thing that we do know is that we do not know anything!” (italics original). Of course no one denies that the whole truth is always bigger and richer than our individual perceptions of it. But it is still the case nonetheless that we know Him who said “I am the truth”, and that it is through His Church that the full and manifold wisdom of God is revealed to the world (Jn. 14:6, Eph. 3:10). Our creaturely limitations do not mean that we lack the whole truth of God, or that we do not have Christ’s salvation to offer the world. We do have God’s truth, and are commanded by Him to offer it to the world. But it is just this eager willingness to offer Christ’s salvation to the world that I cannot find in the Patriarch’s book.

Perhaps, more than the necessity of living in an essentially Islamic world (let’s be honest about the state of Turkey), this practical religious relativism is why the Patriarch cannot seem to advance beyond a mere desire for peaceful coexistence with Muslims and those of other faiths, and why he seems unable to urge his Muslim neighbours to convert to Christ. “Our goal”, he writes, “is to promote a peaceful resolution of disagreement about how to live in this world, about how to share and use the resources of our planet”. This is a worthy goal. But it is not the mandate of the Church. Our goal and mandate is to glorify God and call all to repentance and faith in Christ. Christ did not say, “Go into all the world and peacefully coexist”, but rather, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who disbelieves will be condemned.” (Mk. 16:15-16) I admit that this is a tough sell in Turkey, and I am glad (coward that I am) that I live elsewhere. But it is still our divinely-given message and mandate. It is the only real hope for sinful, dying men. And it is the only mystery truly worth encountering.

1Mentioned in his The Abolition of Man.