Nation Building and The Church

Window view of the Armenian Church, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1994

Reflections on the Mission of the Armenian Church Today

A Conversation with His Holiness Karekin II
Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia

By Hratch Tchilingirian

Q. As Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, how do you see the mission of the Armenian Church today?

KAREKIN II: I would like to answer this question in two parts:

First, the general mission of the Armenian Church - throughout the centuries - has been and is the same: making faith in Christ alive and effective in the life of the Armenian nation. This was the mission of the Armenian Church yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow, in the future.

Second, based on the conditions of contemporary times, the broad mission of the Armenian Church should have a new direction. With the regeneration of our homeland - after seventy years of dictatorship - a new era has opened before us, through the fruition of the self-independence of the Armenian nation. As such, the role of the church in the life of our nation acquired a new significance and importance.

In this respect, I am convinced that today the Armenian Church in Armenia should have a new apostolate - an evangelistic role in the life of our people. Our people is in need of Christianization. The population is Christian, nominally, through its history, heritage, tradition, but we need to explicate Christian faith in such a way - in contemporary life of our people - that they may see the values that are vital to the moral health and happiness of a person and of a nation.

Q. How do you understand this new apostolate?

KAREKIN II: I use the term apostolate in the same sense as it was understood and practiced in the early centuries of Christianity, that is, activate evangelistic ministry which will penetrate into the people's consciousness and lifestyle in their application of the Christian faith. We should not feel sufficed by just preaching general Christian truths, in a theoretical or abstract way. No. But we should rather preach what Jesus says in relation to the diverse aspects of human life. What does the Gospel say about life and its dynamics. Christian faith should be connected to life. It should not be just theoretical formulations about God or the Trinity or other truths - by which people are left to think that these have no relevancy to their everyday life. For example, in Armenia, in order for our people to rebuild their country, they need work, they need to take personal initiatives and not wait for foreign or outside aid. There is a nation building process. When the Asian and African countries came out of colonialism and became independent nations, starting with India, the churches in these countries developed a theology of nation building - how to build a nation. For instance, which Christian truths contribute to the well being of a nation? Today, we should interpret the Biblical saying, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread..." [Genesis 3:19] in such a way that the soil of Armenia - the natural resources of Armenia - would become the field of work for our people. You are well aware that during the Soviet era - under the domination of the Soviet regime - people felt used and cheated by a force that was above its will and control, which resulted in a work ethic that was void of honesty and persistence.

Let us take the example of the German nation. After WWII, Germany overcame the destruction of the war and became a economically powerful nation in the world - by work force. In those days, I remember the great efforts of the German churches to make Christian faith an active and practical aspect of their peoples lives, rather than just a pietistic expression or an abstract understanding of salvation of souls. There are many other aspects in the moral sphere of our national life which need to be reformed through our Christian faith, as well as the experience of faith that our forefathers bequeathed us.

Q. How about the Armenian Church in the Diaspora?

KAREKIN II: As far as the Diaspora is concerned, I believe that the role of our church today should primarily be the transmission of our Christian faith through the revitalization of our national tradition and not just by formalistic and mere preservation of that tradition. In most countries - whether in Europe or the United States - our people live in Christian societies. The Roman Catholics or the Protestants preach the same Gospel, however, where is the specificity of the Armenian Church's mission? I believe that the specificity of the Armenian Church is in her unique Armenian coloration of Christian faith which our forefathers transmitted it to us throughout the centuries. For example, let us take the theology of the Cross. In the western societies - whether in Roman Catholic or Evangelical circles - the Cross is the abstraction of suffering. You rarely see the word "crucifixion" used in western literature. However, we need to teach our people that Christian faith is lived through sacrifice and not through complacency. Christianity is not a badge you put on your chest. Christianity is a part of your existence. Therefore, we need to tell our people that when the idea of sacrifice is lost in life, then - according to our Armenian understanding - we cannot justifiably live a Christian life.

Q. Your Holiness, could you further explain this "theology of the cross?"

KAREKIN II: Let me share with you an experience. One day, I was in Germany to deliver a sermon and there I made the distinction between the Cross and Crucifixion. I said, we are here in this Christian world to bear witness to the fact that the cross is not an ornament to wear or a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ, but it is participation in the act of crucifixion. That is to say, sharing the suffering of others, and by sharing that suffering, we manifest our love in a supreme way. Therefore, we need to transmit those traditions and perceptions that we have inherited from our forebearers. Our fathers have given a certain Armenian color to Christian faith, which springs out from Armenian experience in history and time. Second in this respect, we need to be able to explain to our people the fact that nationhood (Azkootyune) is not opposed to religion. It is nationalism that repudiates Christian faith - nationalism that is exclusivist, i.e., that which does not recognize anything beyond itself, that which absolutizes itself. Therefore, the national character of our church is a unique character and we should not ignore it. Just because we live in a pluralistic society, it does not mean that the national character of the church is unimportant. This will hurt our church.

Let me give you the example of other churches. I have lived and studied in England and I have seen how the Anglican Church is intermingled with the British nation. And this is not an obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel. In fact, recently, a new term has found popularity in theology, philosophy and sociology: the word enculturation. Whenever Christianity has been introduced into a country or has been permeated into the life of a nation, it has been influenced by the culture of that given country. But most important, in turn, it has influenced the culture of that nation. No nation, no collective entity lives without a cultural environment. In the United States, when we say American culture, we do not understand a monolithic culture, it is multi-faceted. The last time when I was in Los Angeles, the correspondent of Los Angeles Times asked me: "what do you think of America, do you believe that it is still a melting pot or a salad bowl?" I said, "I don't like neither of these expressions. For me, for my own understanding and experience of American life, American culture is a mosaic, in which the colors get their values in the harmony in which the artist puts them." Likewise for us Armenians in America, obviously we live in the American culture and we cannot consider that culture foreign to us. However, as Armenians, we can contribute to the American mosaic with our unique color - a color that has been formed and shaped through our centuries-old experience. On the other hand, if we identify hundred percent with those realities that are connected with various aspects and their consequence in life, then we lose our "saltiness," we lose our distinctive features.

That is why I believe that today the mission of our church - both in Armenia and the Diaspora - is in need of a new orientation, with a renewed energy and a clear vision. Without a clear vision, our activities become routine - without an impact on the people.

*This interview was conducted in Antelias, Lebanon, on June 22, 1994. Translated from Armenian by Hratch Tchilingirian.

Hratch Tchilingirian
Copyright © 2024 Hratch Tchilingirian. All rights reserved.