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.