Tagecumenism

Quick addendum to this morning’s posts: I’ve already heard from several Catholic friends and emailers that my comments and caveats and recommendations have no force because the Church has spoken on these matters. Yeah, I know. But I’m not Catholic, so that’s not dispositive for me. Odd that this needs to be said, but apparently it does. Those of us who don’t have a Magisterium have to approach these matters in a different way: there’s nothing that we can point to and say: That settles it. People try to do that with Scripture, of course, but, as my earlier posts demonstrate, without achieving consensus. So my argument about who should or should not be excommunicated is directed to those of us who have already been excommunicated by Rome.* I’ll try to be more explicit about such matters in the future. 

*Note to Catholic friends who will say, “You mean ‘who have excommunicated themselves by their disobedience to the Magisterium’”: I know about that too. What I have written I have written.** 

**Note to Catholic friends who think it’s ironic that I use that phrase: I’m still one step ahead of you. 

“Why is this even a question?”

Imagine a pacifist to a just-war theorist: “Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ Jesus says, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ Why is this even a question?”

Imagine a certain kind of gender-traditionalist when his pastor assigns women to read Scripture in services: “Paul says ‘Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.’ Why is this even a question?”

Imagine someone with a very different view of, for example, the ordination of women: “Paul says that in Christ there is no longer male and female.’ Why is this even a question?”

I have had such thoughts many times: Why are we even debating this? Why is this even a point of contention? How can any Christian be confused or uncertain about this? Why is this even a question? We might be tempted to say, “I wish this question hadn’t arisen in my time.” To which a wise man might reply, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

For some there are no puzzles about what to do with the time that is given us: “Paul says, Do not ‘associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral.’ Why is this even a question?” The best answer I can give is that it’s a question because Christians now disagree about what in fact constitutes “sexual immorality.” (And not just about homosexuality: consider the debates about polygamy and masturbation that have persisted in various parts of the Christian world.) In the face of such disagreement, one might reply, Paul says we’re supposed to be, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

There are always questions. Which ones arise — that’s not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the questions that are presented to us. My one consistent position in all these matters is to resist taking the nuclear option of excommunication. It is the strongest censure we have, and therefore one not to be invoked except with the greatest reluctance. Further, I don’t think the patience that St. Paul commands is to be exhausted in a few years, or even a few decades. We need to learn to think in larger chunks of time, and to consider the worldwide, not just the local American and Western European, context. Many of us tend to think that if we haven’t convinced someone after a few tweets and blog posts that we can be done with them and the questions they bring. But the time-frame of social media is not the time-frame of Christ’s Church.

In addition to the matter of time, there is also the matter of scale to consider. As I have argued before — see here for example — the notion that our sexual preferences must be respected and affirmed is simply an instance of the larger claim that each of us is, as Milton’s Satan puts it, “self-begot.” That claim is the wellspring of what has become a comprehensive ideology: a framework of belief and practice so obvious that no argument need ever be made for it. And in my judgment that ideology is so powerful and living — organic, growing, having a mind of its own — that it should rightly be designated one of the Powers, the archas, the kosmokratoras, about which I have written a bit here. Some of the people who support the Christian legitimacy of same-sex unions have actual theological and biblical arguments to make, which should be responded to in kind; but for many others that legitimacy is guaranteed simply by the theos tou aiōnos, the god of this age. They believe in sexual self-determination because that is what is believed.

The god of this age, like all Powers, is not easily dislodged from its throne, and Christians should expect the battle to be a long one. This calls for patience in more than one venue: patience in awaiting the vindication of the saints, but also patience with those who have spent their whole lives in thrall to that Power whose proper name is I-am-my-own. And we should be especially cautious in casting out those whom we see to be so in thrall because there is a very great chance that that Power exerts far greater sway over us than we are able to realize. When we focus on disciplining the errors of individuals, we are often — not always, but often — considering neither the scope (in time and space) of the issues under debate nor the beams that, in this present darkness, have made their way into our own eyes.

As Ephraim Radner has pointed out somewhere, one thing that Christians have in common is that we’ve all been excommunicated by other Christians. Given the repeated commands throughout the New Testament to seek oneness in Christ, I don’t see how we can be complacent about that shared condition, or eager to continue the practices that led to it. In the long war with the god of this world, oneness is our greatest strength, and we must always be seeking it. Divisions will inevitably come, and some of them will be necessary; but woe be unto us through whom unnecessary divisions come.

We must look for every possible way to remain in communion with one another, to work together for the cause of the Gospel; we must separate from one another only with great reluctance, and after the long exercise of Christ-like patience: we must imitate the God who is lastingly patient with us. And when we decide that must separate, basic obedience demands that we immediately begin seeking ways to restore our fellowship. These are among the marks of the true Church, I believe.

walking apart, walking together

When Christian communities decide that they must, for whatever reason, walk apart, then the question that they should all be prepared to answer is this: What are you doing to make it possible to walk together again? For to treat the decision to walk apart as the end of the story is simply to mock the prayer of Jesus that we all be one, even as he and the Father are one. It is the grossest disobedience.

So I have been very pleased to read some reflections on the recent conference at Nashotah House, Living Sacrifices: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Renewal. For instance, this post by Mac Stewart quotes Rowan Williams describing the thought of Michael Ramsey:

It is more attractive to go in quest of the real Church than to seek for the pattern of Cross and Resurrection in the heart of where we happen to find ourselves. But Ramsey implicitly warns us that the quest can be a way back to the self-defining and self-protective religious institution that always distorts or stifles the gospel. Somewhere in this is a very substantial paradox — that the harder we search for a Church that is pure and satisfactory by our definition, the less likely we are to find it.

In another post, Clint Wilson writes,

During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.

Bishop George Sumner suggests,

Amid protracted international debate, mission in communion can and should continue at the grassroots. Parishes, dioceses, and provinces maintaining initiatives of mission in communion across lines of difference are their own kind of sign of reconciliation. Obedience to the risen Christ’s command to go is as much lived out from the bottom up as the top down. This on-going and local mission in communion is a valid dimension of our common life and vocation.

Zachary Guiliano asks some penetrating questions:

God does not call us merely to submit to the counsel of our friends. That would be too light a thing, and hardly cruciform. He calls us to submit to the oppressive, perhaps even arbitrary and mysterious, judgment of our enemies, even if they are our Christian sisters and brothers, baptized all. God does not call us merely to live within the constraints of communion. He summons us to come and die for those who would deny communion, in this way to give our Yes to every No — dying to self, dying to and for the world, dying for the sake of our enemies, taking up our cross and following him. Only then, perhaps, will he raise again the weeping ruins of our division.

And so I close with a final set of questions: How far will we go in pursuing communion? Will we go even to the cross?

Guiliano’s talk was a response to an address by Ephraim Radner, and I will conclude by quoting it:

The road together, at this stage of Christian history, begins in several places. But it leads and must lead to others, so that a convergence of ways can indeed finally include one flock and one Shepherd (John 10:16). Full and visible unity, as the 1961 New Delhi Report of the World Council of Churches emphasized over and over again as the necessarily and inevitable goal of Christian ecclesial life. Benedict XVI used this phrase — “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers” — to describe his pontificate. But the vocation is Anglicanism’s as well, and so it must begin with us too. Both the vocation and the promise laid out by the Covenant remain real and compelling in this general way: we have been given a charism to maintain and extend the communion of God’s transformative life in the midst of a world of instability, fragmentation, and now, in its wake, of swirling meaninglessness. The charism is given for the sake of others.

All these words challenge me — some of them even judge me and find me wanting, and I acknowledge the power of that judgment — but they also encourage me. I commend them to any, and not just Anglicans, who prayerfully seek the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ.

against consequentialism

an unspoken Advent sermon, of sorts

In my recent involvement in the ongoing debate about sexuality and the church, I’ve heard a number of people argue that if conservatives were to treat affirmers of same-sex unions as brothers and sisters in Christ, that would serve to “normalize” or “legitimate” the affirmers. The consequences of such normalization, they say, would be to weaken the witness and testimony of Christ’s church.

It’s natural and in most cases appropriate to think about the likely consequences, outcomes, of actions. But … When people ask Jesus whether many will be saved or only a few — which is basically a question about the general or universal consequences of sin — he begins his answer by telling them to focus their attention on their own spiritual condition: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (And he adds that some of those most confident of their admission will be turned away.) When people ask whether the eighteen people who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed suffered death as punishment for being more wicked than other people, Jesus says: Nope, they weren’t more wicked than you, so repent now while you still can. When Jesus prophesies the death of Peter, and Peter replies by asking what will become of John, Jesus replies: “What is that to you? Follow me.”

I think if you put these passages together they have a common theme: Jesus asks people to obey rather than calculate consequences — and if you are going to think about consequences, focus on the consequences for yourselves of disobedience. If, as I have suggested, we are commanded to treat those who disagree with us on matters of sexuality but “confess the faith of Christ crucified” as brothers and sisters, then that’s what we have to do, regardless of what consequences we anticipate or fear. I say If because my interpretation may be wrong, but the question that I’ve raised is the one question that must be answered before we go any further. Because once we acknowledge people as brothers and sisters then a whole bunch of other commandments kick in. At every stage our only concern, it seems to me, is our own obedience to the Lord’s teaching. To say “But if I do that, then X will happen” is to invite the reply: What is X to you? Follow me.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this specific case might be, I have to say that thinking about these matters has been an enlightening experience for me personally. For many years I have understood my own Christian calling as one that encourages reconciliation and mutual understanding. (Let it be acknowledged that I have often failed to manifest the generosity of spirit required to do such work well.) I have tried to do this in a small way politically — hoping to get liberals and conservatives to have more charitable and mutually forbearing interactions, something that I do from my position as a conservative-liberal-socialist — but mainly within the church. I have hoped for many years to get rival Anglican bodies likewise to be forbearing towards one another and to seek common cause. I have tried to encourage cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, in the belief that, given the strong currents of our culture, if we do not hang together we shall most assuredly hang separately. But recently I have found myself grown very weary in well doing, despite the biblical admonition. I have said to myself, You gave it your best shot, it’s time to pack up, go home, and do something else for a change. I told a friend recently that the chief thing I have learned in my years of seeking reconciliation is that people’s enmities are their treasures, and trying to deprive them of those enmities is like trying to take gemstones from the lair of Smaug.

But just in the past few days I’ve come to realize how much my discouragement arises from consequentialism rather than obedience. I have wanted to make a difference. I have wanted to be successful. Even when I have thought of people whose efforts were belatedly rewarded — like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who went to his death thinking that his enormous gifts as a poet had been wasted, had gone for nothing — my real focus has been on that eventual recognition, which Hopkins has surely received in spades. But it’s not possible to reflect on the example of those who did not grow weary in well doing but whose efforts brought forth no obvious fruit — those who, as George Eliot says in the magnificent closing words of Middlemarch, “rest in unvisited tombs “— because nobody knows who they are. If we have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, should we not also have memorials to the unrecognized and unthanked workers of charity and kindness?

In any case, all my mental fluttering about consequentialism has come home to roost. It was a moment of powerful illumination for me when I realized that if I were to say to the Lord that I could see no point in continuing to seek reconciliation among people who did not want to be reconciled to one another, the only answer I would be likely to receive is this: What is that to you? Follow me.

 

Wesley Hill on being an Anglican

I view my Anglican confession of justification by faith as, in this sense, a gift to the Church Catholic. I want, precisely as an Anglican, to continue to hold it before Rome and the East and to commend it as the clearest way I know of articulating the singularity and finality of Christ’s person and work. I want it to affect future ecumenical discussion, and I want it to be included, in whatever transformed way, into the confessional bedrock of a future reunited church…. I’d want to write my tale of modern Canterbury pilgrimage in such a way that my distance from Rome could be seen — precisely so that I might speak a Reformational word that I hope can benefit the cause of a future visible union with Rome. Talking about what makes Anglicanism distinctive, such as I understand it, can be an ecumenical gift rather than an impediment, if done in a spirit of charity and of hope.

Here. I think this is beautiful and correct, and it’s an encouragement to me. Over the years, I have written a good deal about Christian unity (click the “ecumenism” tag at the bottom of this post for a sample), and have worked within local communities to try to build cooperation,  but I have to admit that I have become completely discouraged and don’t plan to pursue such matters any further.

This discouragement is probably a sin, and I expect that some day I will need to repent of it, but it feels like simple exhaustion (compounded by the exhaustion that arises from a decade of dealing with serious health issues in my family). I have never been able even to encourage rival factions in Anglicanism to be more charitable towards one another, much less get Catholics interested in the idea that Anglicans might have something to contribute to Christ’s Church.

It is quite possible, indeed likely, that my failure to make any progress in these ecumenical endeavors is a result of character flaws that I cannot now see but that will be revealed to me on the Last Day. Perhaps more winsome and charitable people like Wesley Hill will be able to make the difference I hoped but failed to make. This is my prayer!

excerpts from my Sent folder (1)

… When I think about the larger context of all this, I am always reminded of something Lewis says in a preface to Mere Christianity: that he got the strongest support and commendation for his project from Christians of all types who loved and were faithful to their own tradition. The deeper the Methodist got into Methodism, and the deeper the Catholic got into Catholicism, and the deeper the Orthodox got into Orthodoxy, the closer they got to one another. It was the people who stood at or near the periphery of their own tradition who were most suspicious about historic, orthodox, “mere” Christianity.

So I don’t think any particular tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, will survive the coming attacks unless it goes deep into its own resources; and I think if it does go deep into its own resources, it will thrive, in character and substance if not in sheer numbers. But this will not happen at the level of any tradition as a whole; it will happen at the level of the parish, the local community. Right now, I don’t see such “going deep” to be any more likely in one tradition than another. And I don’t think it will ever be the norm.

The Christian communities that thrive will

  • be radically Christ-centered always;
  • refuse to be therapeutic, but rather emphasize the worship we owe to the God who made and redeemed us;
  • connect imaginatively and substantively with Christians throughout the past and around the world;
  • be open to all, but reserve leadership to those who are willing to commit to radical obedience;
  • turn the other cheek and go cheerfully on when attacked by the world; and
  • recognize these practices in other communities, even those outside their tradition.

It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means that there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand. But I ask myself: but don’t we have the same Baptism? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? And you’re a witness of a likewise profound journey, a journey of marriage: itself a journey of family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism….

The question [Pope draws question mark with his finger]…. The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do it in remembrance of me – this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.

Pope Francis. For what it’s worth, I am, as I suggested yesterday, not only in full agreement with the Pope about this but am hoping that he goes further.

The Catholic and Orthodox thinkers who support the closing of Communion to all Christians outside their jurisdictions typically make two arguments in support of their position: first, that full unity is a precondition for sharing the great Meal of the Church; and second, that their exceptionally high regard for the Eucharist is what makes it so necessary that they be careful about who receives it. I don’t think either of these arguments works.

The key to these questions lies hidden in a word that Pope Francis uses: viaticum. In Catholic usage this often refers only to the Eucharist given in articulo mortis, but the Pope is quite rightly using it in a broader sense: the Eucharist is the meal that strengthens us on our way through life, we wayfarers. Each of us is a viator passing through this vale of tears towards our true home (which is not “Heaven” but this very world renewed and restored); we are in desperate need of the “spiritual food and drink of Christ’s body and blood” to sustain us on the way. If you remember the lembas (waybread) of the elves in The Lord of the Rings you will get the idea precisely.

If this is what the Eucharist is, then to argue that we Christians — those of us who share, as the Pope says, one baptism (“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”) — should achieve unity first and only then share the sustaining meal is simply to devalue the Eucharist dramatically. For if we can achieve true and full unity among ourselves without sharing it, why would we ever need it at all? Those who would withhold the viaticum from other Christians — or forbid their own members from receiving it elsewhere — are treating it not as essential provision for our journey but as a kind of dessert, a special treat for those who have already become good boys and girls.

All of which suggests that, whatever these Catholic and Orthodox leaders think they value, what they really (if almost always unconsciously) value is not the Eucharist itself but administrative control over the Eucharist. This has been a problem since the (relatively) early Church started modeling its administrative practices on the organizational structures of the Roman Empire; we have all been afflicted, ever since, by the unfortunate consequences of that imitation. It is past time that bishops in all Christian communions realize this perversion of episcopacy and choose a better way. And there could be no better place to start than to recognize the viaticum of the Eucharist for what it is, and to see the sharing of it as essential for the restoration of the Oneness which the Lord Christ wants his people to have: “Be one, even as the Father and I are one.”

The Old Hobby-Horse Rides Again

As we come towards the end of an octave of prayers for Christian unity, I’d like to suggest that one way to pursue such unity is to avoid writing essays like this one by Michael Hanby. The essay is called “The Civic Project of American Christianity.” Its subtitle is “How the Public Significance of Christianity Is Changing.” The key word here being Christianity.

Hanby goes on to say, early in his essay, that “the civic project of American Christianity … has transcended the historical and theological division between Catholics and Protestants, and that “it also transcends the division between the Christian left and the Christian right.” Thus he promises an encompassing view of this “civic project” and its future. But then he writes,

Of course, for Protestants, the fate of the United States and the fate of American Protestantism have been deeply intertwined from the very beginning, so adherence to the civic project must stem not simply from confidence that American liberty was generally hospitable to the flourishing of Christianity but from a deep, if inchoate, conviction that the American experiment itself was the political outworking of a Protestant sense of “nature and nature’s God.”

“Of course.” So when Hanby has finished his thorough and clearly expressed, though very familiar, diagnosis of what the civic project of American Christianity has come to, and enters the “What then shall we do?” phase of the essay, all references to Protestants and Protestantism disappear and he speaks only of the place of “the Church,” by which he clearly means the Roman Catholic Church. After all, American Protestantism is “of course” wholly, fully, and without dissent implicated in “the fate of the United States”; so it has nothing to contribute to the discussion at hand.

So Hanby makes initial gestures in the direction of ecumenical cooperation, and then assumes that the only meaningful conversation be had about the place of Christianity in America is an intra-Catholic one. The only thinkers he cites in the prescriptive part of his essay: George Weigel, Robert George, and the two most recent Popes.

Yes, this is a hobby-horse of mine. I plan to keep riding it. I continue to believe that the current cultural situation demands a continual engagement of Christians with one another, in preparation for addressing the world with powerful words of insight, grace, and hope. When the proponents of one Christian tradition assume that it holds in its hands all the resources needed for the flourishing of the church, and when we read other traditions in reductive and simplistic ways, then we are unnecessarily impoverishing ourselves and weakening our cause.

Let me be clear: I am perfectly happy for Catholics, or representatives of any Christian tradition, to focus on what role their particular tradition plays, what resources it offers, what problems it faces, even if that means giving no attention to other traditions. I don’t even mind the belief that Catholicism is the True Church and holds the keys to the Kingdom. What I mind is the conflation of any particular Christian tradition with Christianity tout court – especially when thinking about and planning for the future.

So let me end by quoting myself, from another post on this subject:

There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, one that struck David Foster Wallace, who was always the smartest guy in the room, especially forcefully: Your best thinking got you here. Well, if we Christians are going into exile, our best theology and worship and practice got us here. This is not a time for boasting about how much better my way is than yours. This is a time for all of us to say, Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on all of us sinners.

We should all own our share of responsibility for this situation, and not succumb to the prideful delusion that if all the other Christians just did things our way everything would be fine. It’s time for us to say to our fellow Christians, not “Here’s what I have to teach you,” but rather, “What can we all — what must we all — learn from one another?” If even going into exile can’t teach us to pursue a common wisdom, forged in collective prayer and shared penitence, I don’t know what ever will.

local culture

Which form of contemporary Christianity is best suited to living out the time of exile that is fast approaching American Christians?

This is the question that my buddy Rod Dreher asks, in response to the Trueman article that I mentioned in my previous post. As you could probably guess if you read that post of mine, I’m not happy with the formation of the question, because it encourages the kind of braggadocio that I think Trueman manifests.

But also for another reason. When people describe a faith tradition that they admire, especially if they belong to it, they tend to describe it in its ideal form. But: Trueman’s list of Reformed virtues won’t be embodied fully by all Reformed congregations — indeed, many such congregations won’t consistently embody any of those virtues.

Now, if you point this out, you’re likely to be told that true Reformed (or Catholic, or evangelical, or Mennonite) congregations will indeed do all these good things, and that those that don’t aren’t truly Reformed ( or whatever) — see the “no true Scotsman” fallacy for how this line of argument works. But even if we were to accept the logic, it wouldn’t get us very far, because we wouldn’t know how likely it is that a given congregation in a given tradition will be “true.”

So in my judgment, there is no reliable or useful answer to Rod’s question. If indeed we are entering a time of exile — and again, I think that’s an open question — then what’s going to matter is not the ideal form of any given tradition, but how congregations are living out the Gospel in the places where they are planted. And the ones doing that most faithfully in my neighborhood might belong to very different traditions than the ones that are doing it most faithfully in your neighborhood.

So I would suggest a different approach: Look at the churches in your town that are flourishing, and by that I don’t mean in attendance numbers, but in living out the Gospel message. What are they doing right? How are they strengthening their own members and reaching out to people in the community who are in spiritual or material need? Let’s figure that out, and then compare notes. Then we might figure out what virtues and practices we need to survive a time of exile.

Riding my “Christian unity” hobbyhorse, one more time

Yesterday I got a number of responses to this tweet:

Some people seemed to be misunderstanding me, so let me expand and clarify.

The key issue here arises from the title of Carl Trueman’s article: “A Church for Exiles.” Trueman’s argument grows out of his first sentence: “We live in a time of exile.” Now, I am not sure that we do: I’d like to bring back Daniel the Prophet and ask him what he thinks. (And that’s a serious, not a snarky, comment.) But for the sake of argument let’s grant the claim. We — by which Trueman means “those of us … who hold to traditional Christian beliefs” — live in exile. What is the proper response to exile?

It seems to me that the proper response would be for us to look earnestly for every possible way to draw together, to make common cause, to pray together, to build one another up, and especially, if possible, to share the Eucharist.

It seems to Carl Trueman that the proper response is to explain how his Christian tradition is better than all the other Christian traditions: “Of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile.” Then follows a long list of traits that make Reformed Christianity superior. For instance:

  • “We do not draw our strength primarily from an institution, but instead from a simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.”
  • “In the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.”
  • “Robust confidence of our life in Christ lies at the heart of what it means to be a Reformed Protestant…. We know who we are. We belong to Christ.”

I wasn’t aware that only Reformed Christians know that they belong to Christ, or trace in their liturgies the arc from Fall to Resurrection, or proclaim and study the Word of God. But Trueman seems to think that these riches are to be found only in his tradition.

Yet … he can’t think that, can he? He must know perfectly well that none of these traits is unique to the Reformed tradition, that instead they are shared by many varieties of Christianity all over the world. But in that case, why list them as Reformed distinctives, evidence of the superiority of the Reformed Way?

And — to return to my earlier point — why seek to emphasize what’s distinctive about any one tradition now, if, as Trueman believes, “those of us … who hold to traditional Christian beliefs” are all entering a period of exile, and entering it together? Is that really a time to be saying “Here are all the things we Reformed people do better than the rest of you”?

There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, one that struck David Foster Wallace, who was always the smartest guy in the room, especially forcefully: Your best thinking got you here. Well, if we Christians are going into exile, our best theology and worship and practice got us here. This is not a time for boasting about how much better my way is than yours. This is a time for all of us to say, Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on all of us sinners.

We should all own our share of responsibility for this situation, and not succumb to the prideful delusion that if all the other Christians just did things our way everything would be fine. It’s time for us to say to our fellow Christians, not “Here’s what I have to teach you,” but rather, “What can we all — what must we all — learn from one another?” If even going into exile can’t teach us to pursue a common wisdom, forged in collective prayer and shared penitence, I don’t know what ever will.

churches and self-sufficiency

There’s a danger of complacency in the Catholic approach to the Church’s future. It’s very foolish indeed not to read deeply in Protestant theology and to draw upon its traditions of worship, hymnody, and piety. And the ecumenical imperative is just that—an imperative. When a Catholic’s sense of the encompassing reality of the Church dampens his ardor for Christian unity something has gone wrong.

But dangers aside, the Catholic presumption of self-sufficiency is for the best. The conviction that our future comes from within provides an important freedom. For when we’re too dependent on negation, we allow ourselves to be defined by changing winds of fashion. That’s because what we don’t do and believe depends on what others do do and believe.

The Future of Catholicism | R. R. Reno.

I confess that I don’t see how the first paragraph I quote here can be reconciled with the second one. How can the “presumption of self-sufficiency” be “for the best” if “It’s very foolish indeed not to read deeply in Protestant theology and to draw upon its traditions of worship, hymnody, and piety”? And if you’re “drawing on” those traditions, then presumably that’s not “negation” of them, but rather affirmation — isn’t it?

I would also suggest that the distinction between “within” and “without” needs to be made with some care here. Protestant theology and worship are not simply extrinsic to Catholicism in the way that, say, Buddhist theology and worship would be. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church Protestants are operating in genuine “ecclesial communities” and are, to Catholics, brothers and sisters in Christ. The divine grace that’s at work in those communities is an outgrowth, the Catechism says, of the very grace by which the Catholic Church itself is formed and sustained. So these people and their ecclesial communities are not in any simple sense “outside” the Catholic church.

In short, I think the first paragraph I have quoted makes an important point which the second one unfortunately and wrongly denies.

Addendum: It occurs to me that I would have liked Rusty’s argument much better if he had spoken of self-determination rather than self-sufficiency.

Last Round on Oneness

So, why am I going on and on this week about Christian unity?

Because as a follower of Jesus I am commanded to seek it.

And because such unity has never been more important. Christianity in the West is struggling. Its cultural influence hasn’t been lower since the time of Augustine, and more and more of its core practices, in countries throughout the Western world, are coming under legal prohibition or at least restriction. In predominantly Catholic countries around the world Mass attendance has been declining for decades; the mainline Protestant denominations in the U. S. have utterly imploded; in many parts of the globe, the ecstasies of Pentecostalism are giving way to celebrations of the prosperity gospel; the evangelical world in which I lived for so many years has misplaced its impetus and sense of purpose. Never has there been a time when we more desperately need the resources — intellectual and spiritual — and the love of one another.

In response to this situation , megachurch pastors are lying and buying their way onto the New York Times bestseller lists, and/or bullying their staffs into obeisance; Catholic bishops are closing schools and parishes while building magnificent mansions for themselves and continuing to cover up cases of sexual abuse; evangelical and Pentecostal pastors are even more energetically pimping out their homes and freighting themselves with bling in order to become living posters for the Abundant Life; — and my Catholic and Protestant friends alike are delightedly taking snarky potshots at one another across the denominational divides.

Men in power will do what men in power always do. It’s the otherwise thoughtful, serious, faithful Christians who, it seems to me, are fiddling while Christendom burns whose attention I’ve tried to catch with these reflections. But it’s quite obvious from the responses I’ve received on Twitter and via email that no one’s buying what I’m selling here. So I’ll be quiet now; which is not the worst thing to do on Good Friday, anyway.

On Denouncing “False Teachers”

About this —

— which answered a comment of mine on Tim Challies’s claim that Pope Francis is a “false teacher”, I would say, no, they have a duty not to say so unless certain stringent conditions are met. At least, that’s my inclination. So I tried to figure out why that’s my inclination — which led me to these thoughts:

The identification of a person as a “false teacher” is a particularly strong condemnation with a clear biblical source, 2 Peter 2:1-3:

There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

It’s a sound general principle, I think, that the stronger the charge you bring against a person, the stronger should be the evidence that you have against him. With that principle in mind, here are the steps that I think a Christian should follow before denouncing another Christian — or self-proclaimed Christian — as a false teacher, or a church as proclaiming a false gospel.

1) If I, for example, “believe that Catholicism is a false gospel” and its Pope a false teacher, what is the epistemological status of this “belief”? Is it a feeling I have? A long-held prejudice? Something I’ve thought about a bit but not in a systematic way? Or a position I have reached by long and serious study? Only in the last case should I even consider uttering my denunciation publicly.

2) Have I studied the relevant writings or speeches with true charity — that is, have I read in a way that seeks to build up the love of God and of my neighbor, including the neighbor I disagree with? As Augustine wrote about biblical interpretation, in a passage that is relevant to all acts of reading, “Whoever … thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” Have I read my opponent in this way? Have I resisted the temptation to interpret him as saying what I would like to denounce?

3) Closely related: am I in my interpretation of this person or church who claims to be Christian prayerfully seeking the oneness of the Church that Jesus implores us to seek in his great farewell discourse in John 17? Jesus pleads with the Father “that they may be one even as we are one, in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Has that been my prayer also? Have I heard the appeal of St. Paul to the Corinthians? “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

4) And also closely related: Have I read and meditated on the parable of the wheat and the weeds?

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

5) Who am I? What status do I have to make public pronouncements on matters of such import? Am I in danger of “darkening counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2)? Even if I am reading with care, and reading with charity, and even if I think I have been granted an exemption to the command to let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest, do I have the wisdom, discernment, and intelligence to make a pronouncement for others to read and heed?

6) Moreover, might I, through my own limitations, end up doing damage to the cause I want to uphold? As Thomas Browne wrote long ago, “Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity: Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth: A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender.”

7) Presumably, I do not wish merely to denounce others, but to uphold and celebrate some form of Christian life and belief. Pascal wrote, “Men despise religion; they hate it and fear it is true. To remedy this, we must begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason; that it is venerable, to inspire respect for it; then we must make it lovable, to make good men hope it is true; finally, we must prove it is true.” Have I considered that, if I indeed have a strong conviction that my understanding of Christianity is the right one, there are alternatives to denunciation of others, and a vital one is the difficult task of making my model of Christianity so lovable that people will want it to be true?

8) Am I praying for those whom I believe to be in error? If not, I should dare say no word against them. And if so, have I considered that such prayer may be a superior alternative to denunciation?

I’m asking people to go to a lot of trouble before publicizing their denunciations, am I not? Indeed I am. I am also setting a standard that I have rarely lived up to. But I can’t see how we can avoid at least asking the questions I have pressed here.

That They All May Be One

PEG asks,

I’m curious: what are some practical steps that you think we could take to move forward in what you see as the right direction?

Well — since you ask — I’d say that the first necessary step is to meditate regularly on John 17:20-23:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

I know of no better commentary on this passage than John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, which I mentioned in a previous post. The whole thing is very deep and wise, but I’d want to call particular attention to the following passages:

  • Christ calls all his disciples to unity. My earnest desire is to renew this call today, to propose it once more with determination, repeating what I said at the Roman Colosseum on Good Friday 1994, at the end of the meditation on the Via Crucis prepared by my Venerable Brother Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. There I stated that believers in Christ, united in following in the footsteps of the martyrs, cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world’s tendency to reduce to powerlessness the Mystery of Redemption, they must profess together the same truth about the Cross. The Cross! An anti-Christian outlook seeks to minimize the Cross, to empty it of its meaning, and to deny that in it man has the source of his new life.
  • “Each one therefore ought to be more radically converted to the Gospel and, without ever losing sight of God’s plan, change his or her way of looking at things. Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of ‘the mighty works of God’ (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side’, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern.”
  • “This love finds its most complete expression in common prayer. When brothers and sisters who are not in perfect communion with one another come together to pray, the Second Vatican Council defines their prayer as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. This prayer is ‘a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity’, ‘a genuine expression of the ties which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren’. Even when prayer is not specifically offered for Christian unity, but for other intentions such as peace, it actually becomes an expression and confirmation of unity. The common prayer of Christians is an invitation to Christ himself to visit the community of those who call upon him: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20).”
  • “I am reminded of the words of Saint Cyprian’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of every Christian: ‘God does not accept the sacrifice of a sower of disunion, but commands that he depart from the altar so that he may first be reconciled with his brother. For God can be appeased only by prayers that make peace. To God, the better offering is peace, brotherly concord and a people made one in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. At the dawn of the new millennium, how can we not implore from the Lord, with renewed enthusiasm and a deeper awareness, the grace to prepare ourselves, together, to offer this sacrifice of unity?”

It is from commitment to these principles that unity will come, and with that unity, renewal of our hearts and minds, strengthening of our common purpose, and — in relation to my own calling especially — increasing intellectual coherence and power. I can’t imagine a better meditation as Holy Week comes once more to us.

P.S. I will write another post with more recommendations — of the kind that the world calls “practical” — but probably not until after the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord.

A Response to PEG

PEG responds graciously to my post from yesterday, but he misunderstands me, and in so doing partly confirms the point I make. He thinks I am asking him to be “wary of taking [his] faith seriously,” to stop thinking about Catholic social doctrine “as a Catholic,” and therefore to commit “a kind of intellectual self-mutilation.” Those would be pretty ridiculous things for me to ask, which is why I didn’t ask them.

Nobody builds straw men like PEG builds straw men, as I have learned to my pain over the years. But I didn’t go into detail in that post, which makes misunderstandings more likely. So let me clarify and specify a bit, using PEG’s response to help me do so. I think a telling moment there comes when he writes, “if a non-Catholic government in a non-Catholic country explicitly built its reforming program on Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, I’m pretty sure Pope Francis wouldn’t cry copyright infringement.” Well, I would hope not! But note the assumption: that Catholics are the ones with the ideas, and other people are free to use them. This made me smile because it manifests the approach to ecumenism that I’ve seen in many of my Catholic friends over the years: “You can be as much like us as you want to be! We don’t mind!”

But what I was suggesting in my post was that I’d like to see more Catholic thinkers turn that around: that is, to acknowledge that Catholics don’t own all the good ideas, that other small-o orthodox (and perhaps even some rather heterodox) Christian traditions have something to contribute to the attempt to renew our political world, and that Catholic thinkers might benefit from seeking out some of those ideas — or at least to show themselves open to such ideas by describing their projects as, maybe, “a distinctively Christian theology of economics.” Because Catholics are Christians, are they not? Surely it’s not “intellectual self-mutilation” for a Catholic to call himself a Christian. And even that slight shift in emphasis can be both welcoming to others and a reminder that Christians from different traditions can learn from one another in substantive ways. It’s worth remembering that Chesterton made contributions to Distributist thought when he was still an Anglican.

I might quote here from the great Catechism of the Catholic Church:

818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers …. All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”

I have no doubt that PEG, like all my other Catholic friends, sees me and people like me as “brothers in the Lord.” But what I think is often missing — and this was the concern I raised in my post — is the translation of that acceptance into both intellectual and practical terms. Ecumenism, in the strongest sense of that term, is always going to be hard when Catholics are involved, because their ecclesiology makes it difficult for them to come to the discussion table with an openness to admitting error. (Balancing this with the need to be “open to conversion” was something that Cardinal Avery Dulles struggled with powerfully.) All the more reason, then, for us to focus on those areas — again, intellectual and practical — where we can find common cause and common achievement.

Let us not be any more divided from one another than we have to be. As John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint, echoing Lumen Gentium, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts.’”

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

There’s plenty for the modern reader to choke on in distributist thinking. They were fiercely and unapologetically Catholic, and wanted to protect hearth and home. Belloc defended the gold standard (and was pretty improvident with money himself). They over-romanticized French peasantry and the late Middle Ages generally, and exaggerated Protestantism’s role in the Industrial Revolution. They exaggerated the role of Jews in finance and revolutionary politics, though they did both oppose Hitlerism very early on account of its anti-Semitism and eugenics. Their ideas have also been picked up occasionally by unsavory advocates of “third way”-style fascism.

But the distributists still have something to offer contemporary conservatives, namely the ideas that economic freedom is measured by the way families flourish; that economic freedom means more than just an income with a boss or a government agency at the end of it; that real freedom is the ability to say no to tyrants in both the public and private spheres. They could profit much from Belloc’s insights into how the plutocracy corrupts both representative government and the market. And they could also benefit from grounding their politics, as the early distributists did, not just in theories of liberty or trust in the invisible hand of the market, but in the supreme dignity of man.

The conservative case against capitalism. Michael’s essay is a good beginning answer to the question “Why should anyone care about distributism?” This is a topic I hope to write on in the future, but for now let me just note that a case for distributism needs to respond to two different (but related) concerns:

1) As Michael points out, the Chesterbelloc was inclined to an (often frankly ridiculous) idealization of the Middle Ages and especially the guild system, so any strong case for distributism must purge it of this dangerous nostalgia.

2) In order to argue that a large-scale move in a distributist direction would be a good idea now, you do not have to argue that it would always and everywhere have been a good idea. Indeed, one might even believe that Chesterton and Belloc were arguing for it prematurely. What the defender of distributism needs to argue is not that it is the perennially perfect model of political economy but rather that it is the model of political economy that the Western world, and especially America, needs today.

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