Two Sorts of “Ecumenical” Knowledge

In English the word “know” can be used for both a fact and a person.  You can know that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066; and you can also know your best friend.  Both types of knowledge are genuine knowledge, but they are not the same type of thing.  Knowing a fact is very different from knowing a person.  Spanish on the other hand has two verbs for “to know”: saber which is about knowing facts; and conocer which is about knowing people.  

Similarly, when we are doing ecumenical work there are two sorts of ecumenical knowledge, and both have their place in shaping and influencing the success of our ecumenical journey.  The Society for Ecumenical Studies most obviously aims to encourage ecumenical understanding where that means knowledge of facts (e.g. theological approaches, practices, history) about one another’s churches and traditions.  However, most of those facts, though recorded in books as data points of information, are rooted in the experience of individuals, and individuals then making up a body, living together as a church or tradition.  So for ecumenical studies to be successful, we need not only to know information, but to know one another, and to be in good relationship with one another.

Earlier this year I was on a flight to New York three days before Pentecost Sunday.  I found myself sitting next to an orthodox Jew, a scribe, named Baruch. He was joining his Jewish congregation’s international Festival of Weeks (or Pentecost) celebration.  We spoke for three hours about many things, but ended with the question “what makes community, koinonia, work.”  We agreed that at it’s heart it was good relationships.  He said to me “we find God in good relationships” and I agreed.  

We spoke about the Jewish personalist philosopher Martin Buber’s short book called “Ich und Du” or in English “I and Thou.” The essence of what Buber wrote was that when we are in personal relationship with one another something is created, that somehow being in relationship, is a third entity, something added by God.  And so being in active good relationship is a creative work, it is God’s work, and if God’s work then it should be our work.  

Buber’s reflection has I think, profound implications for our ecumenical work.  If we are to understand one another, and continue on a journey of unity together, then we need to know one another, where that implies being in good relationship with one another, for then we will see God in one another.  And if we see God in one another, though we may not fully understand everything about the facts of one another’s churches and traditions, we will be able to accept without judgment that each of us, though different from us, is “in Christ”, and if that, then my brother or my sister.  

This article by Andrew Pettman first appeared in the Churches Together for England website.

Top image of Christians praying together is from, illustration © by Michael Darcy Brown, stock photo ID: 16771802.

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