In 1054 C.E. (Common Era) the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split in what is often called The Great Schism. There were many reasons for this including issues over theology and ecclesiastical power and organization. One of the theological issues that was at the core of the schism was over the issue of how they validated the theological claims of the Church. The West tended to value scholasticism and rational philosophical discourse as the basis for theological claims. The East valued experience through ascetic spiritual disciplines in a concept called theoria.
In the third episode of the PBS special on The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Oxford scholar, Diarmaid MacCulloch, framed it this way: In the West religious leaders tend to be theologians and philosophers. In the East religious leaders are seen more as poets and artists.
I have been wondering aloud in recent years if what is taking place in our society and in our religious institutions is the awkward attempt to heal this nearly 1,000-year split and bring the two great traditions back together again.
Heart and mind. Art and science. East and West.
I know that my own heart and soul is yearning for this. In seminary, I lapped up every theological course that I could. Every one of my electives was dedicated to the study of some angle of theology. But about fifteen years ago I noticed a shift in my preaching and in how I framed my statement of faith. I desired less to get a message across during my sermons and desired more that people had an experience. I found myself wanting to appeal more to people’s hearts than to their minds.
My statements of faith also shifted. Rather than a long treatise precisely defining my beliefs about God, Jesus and the Church I shifted toward the imprecise language of imagery and adjectives. My last two statements of faith (2005 and 2015) were written in the form of poetry where I could leave plenty of room for Mystery and Sacred Presence. I didn’t want to pin God down!
I am noticing this among our pastors as well. Over thirty years ago, we preachers used poetry in the pulpit, but I sense a shift in purpose. Those of us from that generation would often share a poem as a way of making a deeper point. Our sermons had a message and a well-placed poem often made our point for us. But, now I am noticing that poetry is often the point itself. The poems aren’t being used to point to something else, but to provide the language for an experience in itself.
It reminds me of a story that Joseph Campbell tells in his interview with Bill Moyers for the wildly popular series, The Power of Myth. He tells of visiting a Shinto priest in Japan. Campbell asks the priest, “What is the meaning of your religion?” The priest answers, “Meaning? We have no meaning. We just dance.”
What is the meaning of a rose? A snow-capped mountain? The aroma of baked bread? A first kiss?
That is the difference between the East and West. In the West we attempt to know God through rational philosophical and theological thought. In the East they attempt to know God through experience.
I experienced this difference when I rode my bike through Greece in 2014. I stepped foot in many Greek Orthodox churches and roadside shrines. I was overwhelmed by the sensual experience of icons, crosses, burning candles and incense, and bold evocative colors. I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I can tell you that I felt surrounded by God and humbled by a Presence that defied words.
I am thankful that we have good theologians among us. I am also thankful that we have poet preachers.
Maybe the Great Schism is slowly coming to an end.
We can hope.
We can do our part.
Artists, poets ask
Thinkers and theologians
Can I have this dance?
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades