The second chapter of Being and Communion, of which I recently finished my rather interrupted summaries, deals with “Truth and Communion” and serves to highlight the interrelatedness of Christology and ecclesiology. Zizioulas outlines how, for the Fathers, truth comes to be identified with life and with true personhood which is given to us in Christ and in the communion offered in His Body the Church. Such truth is fundamentally ontological; it is an expression of what is, of a reality that exists beyond the fragmentation of our fallen existence.

In reflecting on these themes I could not help but be struck by how they jar with many contemporary assumptions about the Church, at least in the western circles that I come from and am sometimes exposed to. There seems to be a false antithesis between the Church as institution and the Church as a community of individuals. The latter may see themselves as in opposition to the former, or they may co-operate with it pragmatically, or they may identify themselves in various ways with the institution. But there seems to have been a break in our consciousness of what it means to be the Church, of what it means to celebrate the Eucharist in unity with the bishop who recapitulates his Church, of what it means for the Church to birth us and form us in communion.

There are no doubt various reasons for this which relate to the loss of the awareness of Christ’s presence in the Mystery of the Church in the western Church in the second millennium, some of which I may try and post more on again. On the one hand, there were developments that strengthened the role of the papacy and resulted in a focus on the Church as institution (and undermined not just the role of the bishops but also their theological significance). And, on the other hand, there was the break that occurred with the institution in the Protestant Reformation, which also had earlier antecedents and parallels in some later Catholic approaches.

However, underlying this, and making it possible, seems to be a loss of ontological identity. In a recent post, Father Gregory Jensen of Koinonia highlighted a text by Christos Yannaras on “Pietism as an Ecclesiological Heresy”. While Yannaras refers in the first instance to Protestant pietism, he clearly sees it as having earlier roots and parallels in other traditions. In its focus on the individual and its “social” understanding of the Church, pietism “undermines the ontological truth of Church unity and personal communion.”

Once the Church denies her ontological identity – what she really, essentially is as an existential event whereby individual survival is changed into a personal life of love and communion – then from that very moment she is reduced to a conventional form under which individuals are grouped together into an institution; she becomes an expression of man’s fall, albeit a religious one. She begins to serve the “religious needs” of the people, the individualistic emotional and psychological needs of fallen man.

Yannaras sees such pietism as heretical, even though it is difficult to name it as such, for one of its characteristics is the undermining of any speech about heresy by prioritizing “love” over “dogma” and by disconnecting religious distinctiveness from truth.

Pietism undermines the ontological truth of the Church or totally rejects it, but without questioning the formulations of that truth. It simply disregards them, taking them as intellectual forms unrelated to man’s salvation, and abandons them to the jurisdiction of an autonomous academic theology. Pietism preserves a formal faithfulness to the letter of dogmatic formulation, but this is a dead letter, irrelevant to life and existential experience.

In that particular, this real denial of the truth of salvation differs from previous heresies. It does not reject the “definitions,” the limits of the Church’s truth; it simply disconnects this truth from the life and salvation of man. And this disconnection covers a vast range of distinctions and nuances, so that it is exceptionally difficult to “excommunicate” pietism, to place it beyond the bounds within which the Church’s truth and unity are experienced. But this is precisely why it is perhaps the most dangerous assault on this truth and unity.

Such perspectives are extremely difficult to challenge for their assumptions are deeply rooted in “the historical and cultural conditions which have shaped western civilization over the last three centuries” such as “the spirit of individualism, rationalism and utilitarianism, the priority given to rationalization, the myth of ‘objectivity’ and the ‘values’ it imposes…”

I find this a sobering analysis but also one that illuminates many of the attitudes that I seem to come up against. One of these, as I’ve alluded to before, is the split between spirituality, dogma and Church. In this the Church comes to be seen in abstract institutional terms, dogma as something for that is relegated to an academic theology disconnected from the life of faith, and “spirituality” emerges as an autonomous discipline independent of Church and dogma and even as the possibility for undermining them. This seems to me to be remarkably akin to the dynamic that Yannaras is speaking about in pietism, but, as he notes, acknowledging its heretical nature is not easy as it is so deeply rooted in our society and, furthermore, it seeks to undermine the very notion of heresy.

Another point worth noting, and perhaps coming back to, is that I sometimes find myself wondering whatever happened to the rediscovery of the living reality of the Church in the theological and liturgical renewal of the twentieth century. Yannaras’ argument would suggest that such a renewal was always going to have a hard time because the cultural factors militating against it are so deeply ingrained. Thus recovering the Mystery of the Church as an ontological reality will continue to require a deep and ongoing conversion.