Saturday, January 31, 2015
Protestants Should Be More Catholic, But Catholics Should Be More Protestant… Here's What I Mean
One of the most tragic things about the divisions within the Christian Faith is just how much it weakens the witness of individual Christians. The common complaint (and understandably so) among those who are not Christian is to point out how these divisions undermine the general veracity of the Christian message (chalk it up to another confused myth, right?). What's worse, when it comes to religious extremism, there really is no unified front to offer a rational/positive alternative to the crazy behavior, in part because Christians themselves are going in a hundred different directions.
Thus, in a spirit of Christian Unity, I would like to offer a few suggestions as to how we might all draw closer to one another. Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, prayed to the Father "that they (his disciples) might all be one". Yet what he said after that was even more telling. He prayed for their unity, not simply because unity is a wonderful thing, but in order that "others might come to believe that you have sent me". In other words, unity = credibility/believability of said message.
And if that weren't important enough, he then went on to point out that he wanted all of this to transpire so that everyone would "know that you (the Father) love them, even as you love me". Hence, why is this Christian unity so essential, not simply for our own pleasure, not simply so the world would believe the message, but most importantly, that the 'world may know how much God loves them.' Consequently, to not work towards Christian unity is to prevent the love of God from entering the lives of countless individuals. In light of this, we have no choice but to look at ourselves and be as self-critical as is warranted, and furthermore to find ways to draw closer to one another, without compromising what we believe to be essential to being a Christian.
Below I present five ways that we can look across the divide and find something that we may previously have considered an obstacle to unity, but instead should perceive as a kind of bridge. Disclaimer: this post applies in a general way, Protestantism is obviously not monolithic, but I do nevertheless attempt here to address those things which divide Catholics and those who identify themselves with the Reform traditions.
5 Ways Catholics Should Be More "Protestant"
1. Yes, I know we believe that the "netherworld" will never prevail against our Church, but we must take greater ownership of our parish/church. Let us not behave like spoiled children whose parents will always be there to wipe our little noses. Protestants tend to be truly involved in their church communities because they realize their indifference does not mean status quo, but rather death. It is true the Church as a whole may always be there, but if Catholics do not involve themselves more deeply in parish life, that church, along with the faith of those parishioners, will not.
2. We must stop exhibiting an embarrassing degree of Biblical illiteracy. Ignorance does not equal hilarity (there are those who see this as humorous). Some will even go so far as to make fun of Protestants for knowing their Bible, as if it were a badge of honor to know nothing about the Word of God. This is shameful. In this regard "protesting" is correct. If Catholics do not know their Bible they can hardly be good Christians. St. Jerome put it best; "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."
3. We must stop acting like it is only the priest's job to be holy, and that everyone else may go about their lives without the slightest thought about what it means to live their own vocation. Everyone is called to live the priesthood of Jesus Christ according to their own unique "call". Priests have a "vocation", yes- but so also does every baptized Christian. In this regard Luther was right to place an extra emphasis on the "priesthood of all believers," and not simply focus on the ministerial priesthood.
4. A student of mine once asked me whether or not I agreed with Martin Luther when he criticized the practice of selling indulgences. I said "Yes, absolutely. To whatever extent there is abuse in the Church it is to be condemned, regardless of who is responsible, and regardless of who is doing the criticizing." When it comes to scandal, abuse, and the need for genuine reform, Catholics should be more "Protestant" than anyone; that is, they should protest the lack of holiness in the Church, and press for reform wherever it is truly warranted. Catholics should reject the kind of clericalism that would seek to excuse sinful behavior in a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the Church. That being said, they should also avoid exaggerating the extent of the bad behavior. As much as possible the criticism should be proportional to the degree scandalous behavior.
5. Because there is a set form of worship in the Catholic Church, there is also the potential for a lemming mentality, a kind of mindless zombie-like approach to worship. By contrast, because Protestantism tends to be more individualistic, it naturally tends to lend itself to a greater degree of self-involvement and participation. While there are some aspects of worship that are non-negotiable for Catholics, it might be advisable to provide a greater space in the life of the parish for those other expressions (i.e. a community within the larger community of worshippers). This is not completely foreign to the Catholic Faith (the Anglican Ordinariate, private devotions, and 3rd Order religious immediately come to mind), for in times past the Church was often at the center of the social life of the community. Perhaps there is too much either/or when it should be both/and. Is there not room for a more individualistic spirit, without compromising the integrity of the universal? The particular focuses of each Protestant denomination could ideally work within a Catholic milieu in this way. I sometimes fancy that that is precisely why certain gifts are lacking in the Church today, not because they are not there, and not because they do not belong within the Church, but rather because they are like an appendage of the Body of Christ wandering about imagining that they are completely autonomous to it.
5 Ways That Protestants Should Be More Catholic:
1. Individual expression is essential, but individual expression alone can/will ultimately turn into a form of idolatry and self-worship. Thus, it is important not only to consider how we may want to worship God according to our own preference, but also consider how God Himself might like us to worship him. The romance of religion is not a one way street, but rather implies the prerogative of two. Hence, on the night he was betrayed, he did have a request as to how he might want us to worship him, and God forbid we should fail to "do this in memory of him".
2. It is of essence to do everything in our power to make sure that the Faith is relevant and "up to date", but we dare not do so at the expense of the Gospel itself. If there is no immutable truth to preserve, and truth is merely a matter of conformity to the spirit of the age, then we are not believing in the Gospel, but rather the age. Hence, the Faith must be more than a reflection of the times, it must in some sense be indifferent to them. God is immutable, and thus our communion with him (i.e. our worship and belief) should reflect that reality. Subsequently, Protestants must re-discover Tradition, that is, they must take under consideration the aspects of the Catholic Faith that really are trans historical, and really can trace their roots all the way back to the beginning. Part of this would involve reading the great thinkers of the Church, not to mention the early Church Fathers (viz. those who wrote in the generations following the apostles).
2a. We should not be an either/or Church, but a both/and Church. Should we be a contemporary church, or one that learns from its spiritual fathers and mothers throughout history? Yes. Should we look at Scripture and interpret it for our times, or should observe what the Church has said throughout the ages? Yes. Should we be a local church with unique characteristics which distinguish it from others, or one that is universal and united in the essentials of Faith? Yes? Should the Church be more individualistic or communal? Yes. One should never "petrify" the faith, nor should they simply see at something in constant flux. The Faith is, in a metaphorical sense, the Tree of Life, ever ancient and ever new, ever growing and developing, and ever rooted in its apostolic origins.
3. If you are Protestant it should be a positive Protestantism, let it not be a negative one. In other words, if you are Presbyterian, be the best Presbyterian you can be and know why you are what you are. There is a dreadful trend out there, which seeks to discourage Christians from holding real convictions about the Faith. What we are seeing today is a kind of Christian relativism that essentially has no regard for real Christian convictions. What is the consequence of catering Christ to our own personal whims??? Well, the most obvious result of this is reducing Christ to a kind of "Build-a-Bear". What we get is a complete genericization of the Gospels in a misguided attempt to accommodate everyone. This would seem a clever compromise in light of all the divisions, until you realize you have reduced the Christian Gospels to a book of sayings and parables. Be a Protestant, but know why you are, and more importantly "believe what you believe." If you don't believe it, do not despise those that do have conviction, rather find something that you do believe with conviction.
4. The world has enough noise and entertainment simply for entertainments sake. Silence and contemplation are the proud heritage of the Catholic Church and her saints. The notion that we ourselves must develop our spiritual muscles, not simply through sensual stimulation, but through prayer and meditation, is essential to growth in the spirit. Possessing the capacity to sit in silence before God, or to worship at a liturgy without all the frills of modern technology is- in my opinion- the very essence of divine intimacy. How impressive is it when a couple sits in silence at dinner, but only does so as a consequence of having nothing to say, or as a result of staring at their smartphones? By contrast, how beautiful is it when a couple sits in silence, but not for the aforementioned reasons, but rather because they staring lovingly into one another's eyes. This would seem to be the difference between the noise that sometimes masquerades as worship, and something that is akin to true worship and praise of God.
5. One of the best things about having a liturgical calendar is that it not only brings variety to one's spiritual life, but it aids contemplation of the various mysteries of God. Yet there is always some scoundrel out there that will argue that Christmas or Valentine's Day should be every day, and that we shouldn't need a special day on the calendar to be romantic or generous. Perhaps this is true in some other-worldly sense, but as for those (like me) who still live in the world, I need prompting and liturgical space to consider the mysteries of God. In this regard the Church understands the natural rhythms of life, striking the right balance between feasting and fasting, between triumph and tragedy, between waiting and enjoying, between romance and sacrifice. If humans are thus inclined to devise secular calendars on this account, wouldn't it make sense, given our spiritual nature, to do the same for the divine?
It might go without saying, but the truth is some of the most faithful Christians I know are not Catholic, so this blog post is certainly not about indiscriminately celebrating one group of Christians while criticizing another. What it is about, however, is getting to the heart of the dispute and encouraging both sides to heal the rift where it can be immediately healed. What it is also about is remembering what the point of emphasis should always be in any ecumenical discussion. Whoever this person Jesus Christ is, it is imperative for us to know and worship him as fully as we can. Therefore, if this debate is to go anywhere, we must avoid shallow bickering, and instead see it as an opportunity to love God (and each other) more convincingly. When I disagree with my wife on anything, wishing away the disagreement in silence or in shouting only exacerbates the problem, but attempting to understand where the primary concern lies usually leads to some kind of reconciliation. If that can be our focus, then greater unity, by the grace of Jesus Christ, seems all the more possible.