Sunday, August 05, 2007


I received a most encouraging email. Seems someone was looking for a new church, and they went to a place that was talking about, wait for it... brace yourself... this is really going to get radical so deep breath please... here we go... are you ready? 3, 2, 1... Postmodernity! Oh blessed five syllables... hushed silence please. Alas, typing that sweetest of thirteen-letter combinations has caused me to suddenly transfigure. Down from the mountain, millinerd, come down. You are needed.

On first thought, what could be more certain to send scores of thirsting young minds into languishing churches than replacing robust theological claims with foam from a wave of academic style that crested in 1985? My correspondent, a young hipster, was indeed the target audience of this agenda, but strangely, was not impressed. Indeed, it had the opposite of the intended effect. He was not drawn, but repelled. Later that afternoon, he consulted millinerd, and was encouraged by some posts that remain in the "post-postmodern" left-hand sidebar, hence my encouragement. My work here is done.

However, after eye-rolling at the state of contemporary Protestantism, my correspondent's eyes - longing for truth - turned to Rome. And who can blame him? The unmodified Trinity, which Catholicism is reputed to promote, will always be preferable to the Father, Son and Spirit of the Age. Furthermore, were one not attracted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, one would need a spiritual checkup. Admiring one's elder siblings is always preferable to ignoring or hating them. There may also come a time when one realizes that one is in fact the other sibling. But for the younger to wish to become the elder sibling would make for odd family dynamics indeed.

The words of Timothy George on Francis Beckwith's conversion in the latest First Things come to mind.
"A year or so before his decision, Beckwith remarked to one of his friends that he wished he had time to delve more deeply into the writings of Luther and Calvin. I, too, wish he had found time for such an encounter, together perhaps with long sojourns in Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth. He might have found deeper resources and a sturdier faith than that on offer in much of the pop evangelical culture today. He would certainly have found there a way of thinking and a pattern of Christian life much more resonant with the apostolic witness and the orthodox faith he so clearly loves."
George continues by reminding us of an obvious reality: Catholic-Protestant conversion is a two-way street.
"An authentic commitment to religious liberty, together with a genuine respect for the truth, requires that we invite and challenge one another to a deeper discipleship to Christ across the historic divides that have separated us into different communions and denominations, even as we renounce un-Christlike attitudes and techniques of proselytism. As we work and pray for Christian unity, we sometimes face ecclesial choices that are difficult to make and even harder to explain to others. While I cannot follow the path Beckwith has taken, I respect the intellectual honesty that has led him to this point, and I bid him Godspeed for the journey ahead."
George concludes with the familiar words of C.S. Lewis: "I believe that in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes."

It may be that my correspondent is genuinely called to Rome, that is, "called to a deeper discipleship to Christ across the historic divides." But his background is sufficiently Protestant that he may need to further explore genuine Protestantism - to be the younger sibling - before becoming the other one. That is to say, he may need dwell in the "heart of [the] division," not on the postmodern fringe. Unfortunately, his "relevant" church experience was a lamentable red-herring, distracting from this more important agenda. Had he joined me at the heartbreakingly beautiful service at St. Thomas' Fifth Avenue in Manhattan this morning, where the sermon was (to my surprise and delight) impeccably orthodox, his Protestant coals might have been stoked.

Protestants, granted they don't forsake their Scriptural birthright, have a purpose. They are a troubled, younger sibling - but a beloved one - in the family of God. As speculated one Catholic,
"Could it not be that [historic church] divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise..."
That italics-loving Catholic, by the way, was John Paul II (see p. 153), and he may have been onto something. It is almost certain that the Bible would not have been as fully explored had Protestantism never existed. One treasures something more when it's all you've got.

So, I would advise my correspondent, explore Protestantism; which is to say, delve deeper into the Scriptures like they're all you've got. If at all possible, avail yourself of what Mark Noll (see p. 245) called one of the rare "bilingual" options in the Pentecost of ecclesial languages - Anglicanism. In God's providence there happens to be a communion to worship in while one straddles the Protestant-Catholic divide, curdled as that communion may be in many, but not all, of its North American outposts. Or, if the Catholic urge is irresistible, find a place where the blessed sacrament is reserved. Protestants can't eat, but they can tarry with the Lord who is truly present there. It's almost as good.

Finally, consult some of the historic Protestant figures mentioned by Timothy George. But whatever you do, don't read John Henry Newman!