This past week, as America commemorated the tragedy of 9/11, much was said about the gap between the Western world and the Muslim world. One important aspect that was overlooked in this discussion is the gap between the Western and Eastern church. I would like to share some of my experiences and observations in this area.
I regularly teach American Christian students on short-term study trips in the Holy Land. I often notice a weakness in their curriculum, as much time is spent studying biblical history, particularly the first and second temple periods, and the apostolic period. But when we begin to discuss the ecumenical councils and their resulting doctrinal schisms, I find that my students have spent little time studying the historical and political contexts in which church history took some of its most significant turns. Instead, their curriculum fast forwards hundreds of years to the sixteenth century, into the time of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent politics and history of this period.
Such a selective reading of church history tends to focus on the contribution of the Western Church which is understood as the normative framework of Christian theology and church tradition. Consequently, the development of the Eastern Church, in which the Arabic speaking community plays and has played a large role, is often completely ignored. Furthermore, a new branch of study in post-holocaust theology has created willingness and attached importance to understanding contemporary Jewish faith and practice. This is rarely matched with inquiry into the Eastern Church. This has led me to believe that there are far too many passionate evangelical Christians in the West who are unaware of the history, theology, and contemporary situation of the Eastern Church.
This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, this means that the role of the Eastern Church in developing and shaping both Western and Eastern Church doctrine is not properly understood or appreciated. Secondly, a wealth of theological tradition has been ignored by many in the evangelical and wider Protestant community to the detriment of their theological appreciation and understanding. Thirdly, the precarious positions of the Arabic speaking church around the world, and particularly in the Middle East, means that we are in great need of acknowledgement, encouragement and support from our western evangelical brothers and sisters. This short article will therefore attempt to explore some of the reasons why the western evangelical church is unfamiliar with Arabic speaking Christianity as a preliminary attempt to remove some of these barriers and encourage mutual understanding between the traditions, as well as to further us along the path of reconciliation in the Holy Land.
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(This text comes from the latest Musalaha Prayer Update. Other three parts will follow)
Dr. Salim Munayer is a Palestinian Christian that heads Musalaha, an organisation dedicated to the reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims.