Review of Alexander, George. The Orthodox Dilemma: Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Conciliar Unity, 1st Edition. Alappuzha
District, Kerala, India. OCP Publications. 202 pp.
Review by Bradley R. Cochran -(www.theophilogue.com)
Given the seemingly endless proliferation of Protestant denominations that appear to make the Protestant movement doctrinally unstable in comparison with the other
two major Christian Traditions—Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy—it might come as a surprise that an Orthodox author would feel the need to call for healing of schisms with one of these other two Traditions; and yet Alexander’s
recent publication The Orthodox Dilemma is precisely such a call to all who claim Orthodoxy. The following may come as a revelation to those not on the “inside” of the Orthodox
Tradition: significant tensions, and even bitter schisms can exist within what seems like a unified front. Despite the ubiquitous assumptions of Orthodoxy’s unchanging identity that are often taken for granted in various ways, those
on the inside of the Tradition are in the best position to shine a spotlight on the inner divisions that appear in tension the Tradition’s reputation for having a common identity based on the same ancient teachings of the Church Fathers.
The discerning reader will take away one important truth: being unified under a common name such as “Orthodoxy” (or “Catholic” for that
matter) does not necessarily imply the kind of Christian Unity most Christians expect for a divinely instituted and guided community understood to extend the Body of Christ in a suffering world. Christians do not believe the left hand of Christ rejects
the right, or that any part of his Body rejects another part. When it appears the Body of Christ is at odds with itself, this raises questions that do not have easy answers for Christians who employ such religious analogies to describe the glory of the
Christian Church. If Orthodoxy ignores Alexander’s concerns for healing inner schisms, it will only be at the cost of this sacred analogy Orthodoxy holds very dear.
The experiences and reflections of Alexander help underscore what should be seen by Christians as a tragic disorder—not from an abstract
theological perspective, but on a very personal level. It is important to understand that the author makes important disclaimers at the beginning of this book that he believes should put his reflections in proper perspective: “I am not a learned
theologian nor an expert on Orthodox Christian theology and I have not attempted to examine deep Christological aspects” (Preface). The book contains, “random thoughts” and “life experiences” rather than heavy technical discussions
of Christology (Preface). These thoughts and stories are intended to “open the dialogue” and challenge Orthodox Christians to think more about the need for the various Orthodox Churches to take more seriously the need for unity within the
Tradition—which simply means between the various Orthodox Churches around the world. This desired unity is referred to by the author as “global Orthodox unity,” or as the title indicates: “Pan-Orthodox Conciliar
Unity” (preface). As is always the case, the author’s perspective is shaped by his own personal experiences. Chosen narratives frequently address, for example, the church schism in Malankara (India & Ukraine) and between Oriental Orthodox and
Eastern Orthodox, but are believed to be symptomatic examples by the author. Shaming is not the only goal of the author—he is careful to balance the book with positive models of unity from his personal experience as well and aims to encourage
his target audience (Orthodox believers) to strive towards healing the inner schisms as a way forward.
The critical reader should not make the
mistake of assuming this call for unity comes from a place of unlimited tolerance or generic liberality rooted in the spirit of the age. The Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE’s mission statement is presented at the outset: this includes a commitment to the
traditional belief that the Orthodox “are the true heirs to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ, which was the Church of the apostles and the holy fathers” (Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE Mission Statement, Preface). Although
the author still stands by Traditional Christology—that the one person of Christ is “truly God and truly man,” he believes the differences between the OO (Oriental Orthodox) and EO (Eastern Orthodox) can be plausibly understood as “due
to cultural, linguistic, and political influences” that coalesced into different expressions of the one true faith (Ibid.).
The author provides
a narrative in which the Church he was raised in was an intellectual/spiritual ghetto: he was never taught about “the global Orthodox family” (Chapter 1). Inevitably, however, as the child grew into adulthood and was exposed to “the
world of the internet,” this modern medium reshaped his parochial perspective (Ibid.). His “haunting” (as he describes it) developed from this experience as his curiosity and knowledge about the broader Orthodox Tradition seemed to
be at a disconnect with his disinterested local Orthodox community. One particular sore point for the author that becomes a repeated refrain throughout the book is expressed
well in the following quotation:
Most Orthodox Churches are full-fledged members of WCC (World Council of Churches) and other ecumenical bodies
that engage in annual dialogue with the Vatican for unity. … If the Orthodox Churches around the world had shown the enthusiasm, the energy and the time invested in bringing Orthodox Unity rather than investing it in WCC or in other ecumenical bodies,
we should have attained Unity within the Orthodox Family many decades ago. (Chapter 1).
Whether or not this claim reflects a naivety concerning
the possibilities, the frustration of the author stems from a perceived irony: that the Orthodox have been more concerned with healing schisms with others than schisms within.
Of the many stories told in this book, a story from the first chapter about his visit to an Eastern Orthodox church “in the Middle East” best illustrates the personal motivations of the author’s advocacy for Pan-Orthodox
Unity. Providing “the official letters from “the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia” authorizing fund raising for the “Orthodox Mission in Pakistan,” the people at this church were very warm and friendly, but the priest
“Do you belong to our ethnicity and to the Eastern Orthodox Communion?” We said that we were from the Oriental Orthodox
family. He then replied, “you are not from our ethnicity, so go to any of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but not here.” He asked us to get out of the Church and not to return as we do not belong to his ethnic background, nor to the
Eastern Orthodox Communion. He did not even say hello nor did he have a welcoming face. He did not even bless us when we kissed his hands seeking his blessings. He told us to get out of the church and never to return. … He should not
have said this to even a non-believer,… (Chapter 1).
For those concerned about the true status of Oriental Orthodoxy, the author argues
that the “pastoral letter of Patriarch John X of Antioch and All East” urged the need to seek unity between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches and hoped to “accomplish all steps towards a full sacramental unity with our brethren in the
Eastern non-Chalcedonian Churches,” based on a extensive dialogue between the two Orthodox traditions in Chambesy (Ibid.). The unfriendly spirit of the priest of that Orthodox Church is therefore implied to be not only painful for the author’s
experience, but counter to official Orthodox guidance provided by higher authority figures within the Orthodox Church. A group he refers to as “old generation Eastern Orthodox Christians” stubbornly and dogmatically hold to an “ultra-conservative”
identity that is counter productive to the official priorities of the Church as stated by the Patriarch.
Striking a virtuous balance, the author
also reports “at the same time it gives us immense happiness to understand that several Oriental Orthodox Churches share the Eastern Orthodox Church for liturgy and vice versa in several places” (Ibid.). He tells an equally vivid story about
his “enchanting” experiences in the Russian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches where ethnic and language barriers were overcome by universal expressions of kindness, love, and acceptance. In places where this is sadly not the case, the author
reminds the reader that “the Indian Malankara Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches in India are true heirs of St. Thomas the Apostle in India” and attributes the misfortune to the blindfold of schismatic intolerance (Ibid.). He places all
such narratives within a recent timeframe (2012 to 2015) lest his target audience dismiss them as reflecting an outdated state of affairs.
One of the major emphases in the book pertains to the ignorance of many Orthodox believers. Having interacted with a variety of Orthodox believers from various places, he notes that some perceive
a very happy situation in which “all Orthodox communities have inter-exchanges and have mixed marriages between different communities” (Chapter 2). This is the understanding of one of his Greek Orthodox friends who has not ventured to “any
Oriental Orthodox Christian centers nor has he ever attended an Oriental Liturgy” (Ibid.). He also laments how another Eastern Orthodox friend in Lebanon who is a graduate in Orthodox Theology had never visited the Armenian Orthodox headquarters
in Lebanon and says “there are hardly any mutual visits made by Eastern Orthodox Christians to Oriental Orthodox Churches and centers and vice versa unless they are obliged to attend ceremonies like Baptism, weddings, or funerals” (Chapter 2).
This concern extends even to the leadership of the Orthodox families. For example, when one of the Oriental Orthodox Bishops was asked whether he was planning to visit any Orthodox congregations on his trip to the Philippines, or whether he knew about
“the existence” of Orthodox Christians in that country, he was not planning on visiting nor did he even know they existed (Chapter 2). This “limited awareness” is a deep concern of the author who views it as a case of vincible
ignorance, though he doesn’t use that language to explain why he colors such ignorance with a tone of shame and godly grief.
 It is no excuse, he argues, to defend such ignorance merely on the grounds that the other group is
“non-canonical” in their faith (Chapter 6). Here he is facing the challenge of overcoming the stigma often given to the term “ecumenism” among the ultra-conservative faithful. In one of the most quotable passages in the
book, the author argues that even secular concerns warrant inter-faith dialogue between Orthodox Churches:
Inter-faith dialogue and inter-religious
dialogues are important aspects of the modern world and they cannot be ignored. We need dialogue with all religious groups and Orthodox churches have a greater role in establishing peace with other religions. (Chapter 6).
Resolving the problem will include Eastern Orthodox leaders ensuring the removal of ignorance concerning the nuances of Oriental Orthodox Christology in relation to the so-called “Monophysite”
heresy, as well as a better understanding and appreciation of the diverse theological perspectives within Eastern Orthodoxy itself (Chapter 6). On the part of the Oriental Orthodox faithful, this involves “an increase in education within Oriental
Orthodoxy itself, so that we are in a better position to correctly convey our faith, beliefs, and practices to those outside the Oriental Orthodox Church” (Chapter 6).
Bradley R. Cochran - theophilogue.com
 For those unfamiliar with the Orthodox Tradition,
a good place to start would be: Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp. For a quick summary and review, see Bradley Cochran, “Review of Ware, Timothy
(Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp,” PDF Catalogue: https://theophilogue.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/book-review_ware_orthdoxy_4.pdf
(theophilogue.com, accessed 05.03.16). To listen to the review in audio format see “Part One: Introduction and History of the Orthodox Church” and “Part Two: Orthodox Tradition and Theology,” audio posts: https://theophilogue.com/audioposts
(theophilogue.com, accessed 05.03.16).
Vincible Ignorance is a Catholic concept that suggests that some types of ignorance result from lack of due diligence in proportion to one’s circumstances. This type of ignorance can be overcome voluntarily if the person only willed to know.
Vincible Ignorance is distinguished from Invincible Ignorance. The latter results involuntarily and does not imply fault in the subject who cannot be considered blameworthy for not
overcoming such ignorance. Although the concept is official only in Catholic theology, it is ubiquitously implied in moral, legal, political, philosophical, and religious discourse. As with many concepts that have found utility across multiple
genres, the notion was popularized by the eloquent parsing of Aristotle. E.g. See his employment of the concept in his treatment of “justice”: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., Book V, trans. By Terence Irwin (Indianapolis,
Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999), I.5. Catholic developments of the concept depend largely on Thomas Aquinas’ channeling of Aristotle. E.g. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican
Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981), Prima Secunda, 76.1-4.