The great wave of schism

As the Methodist church was meeting to discuss a possible, painful split in February, and even again, as Notre Dame was burning this week, this post from Fred Smith came to mind. In it, he explains how schisms often beget further schisms. Like tectonic plates in the earth’s crust, one shift seems to beget another. What does this mean for the church and the world?

Once upon a time, according to geologist Alfred Wegener in his 1912 book “The Origin of Continents and Oceans,” all the continents formed one large land mass called Pangaea. Years ago, the theory continues, Earth didn’t have seven continents, but instead one mammoth supercontinent surrounded by a single ocean. The several continents fit together like a puzzle. For years the puzzle held together, but then with the shifting of the underlying tectonic plates, the entire mass began drifting apart. No doubt, there had been minor breaks and smaller new formations but on the whole, Pangaea had remained intact. Those small fissures became permanent, widening gaps, until what had once been a single continent was carved into several. Memories and evidence of once being Pangaea remained, but the schisms were permanent.

Rifts and divisions are normal in politics, religion, economics and every other human activity too. Economist Joseph Schumpeter labeled it “creative destruction” whereby constant innovation naturally destroys the old from within – both institutions and business. It is a cycle repeating itself and constantly renewing what has become outdated and unresponsive. In fact, he wrote that these changes happen in clusters because “the appearance of one facilitates the appearance of others, and these the appearance of more, in ever-increasing numbers.” In other words, once a shift begins it spreads, and more than one industry or enterprise experiences the cycle of creative destruction.

Reading the news for the last several months makes me think about the break-up of religious cultures that have been intact for centuries. Of course, we all talk about the polarities and dissension within the American evangelical community as we struggle with defining what it means to be an evangelical. Is it a theological term or political? Is it economic or demographic? Is there even a common definition that works as well as it did in another era?

But it’s not just evangelicals. In fact, the rifts within American evangelicalism are almost superficial compared to other changes happening in religion around the world. A wave of schism is building.

In January, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople presented a decree of independence to the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that officially granted permission for the UOC to sever itself from the Russian Orthodox Church. Following that declaration, the Russian church cut ties with Istanbul, the center of the Orthodox world and the spiritual seat of over 300 million Christians. Bound together for more than a thousand years, this break is the most significant schism since the Protestant Reformation. Long connected to national politics, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has called Vladimir Putin “a miracle of God” and warned the newly independent church that, “You will forever lose the possibility of serving the unity of God’s holy churches…and the sufferings you cause to the Orthodox Ukrainians will follow you to the Last Judgment of our Lord.”

Two great religious continents once unified have finally separated over geopolitics.

In his book, “To Change the Church”, Ross Douthat writes that across every continent, in every country, Catholics find themselves divided against one another. “On one side stand the orthodox, who see doctrine and tradition as the best antidote to a changing world. On the other stand the liberals, who yearn for a Church that focuses on pastoring rather than enforcing rules. This “widening theological and moral gulf,” Douthat argues, is potentially, “wider than the chasm that separated Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and later from Lutheranism and Calvinism.”

Again, one continent composed of many subcontinents and millions of adherents beginning to divide – not just disagree.

Several articles have focused on the growing gap between Israel and American Jews. Dov Waxman writing in “Moment” magazine says, “The age of unquestioning support for Israel from American Jews is over: An era of conflict is replacing the age of solidarity. Within the American Jewish community, there are two major aspects to this divide: ambivalence and anger. On the one hand, there is a process of detachment from Israel, often expressed as indifference and apathy. But the majority of American Jews, about 70 percent, remains emotionally attached to Israel. Within that group, there is growing debate and argument about Israel, particularly about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. There is a mounting sense of frustration, and many are alarmed by the direction the Israeli government is heading. Ultimately, there is a risk that U.S. Jews might become completely alienated from Israel.”

Yet another example of historic and deep ties starting to fray. Tectonic plates are beginning to shift and collide.

I think Schumpeter was correct in noting that creative destruction happens internally and in clusters and just as Pangaea broke up and separated over a long period of time, there was a point at which the separation was complete and the structure of the world was changed.

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