Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Staying Protestant Powerpost

Happy Halloween, er... Reformation Day. The lamest church calendar day ever it is true (Schism! Yippee!), but also an occasion to drop the rare, dreaded - more for length than strength - powerpost. The last time it culminated extended wrangling with the less impressive strands of Christian PoMo. The powerpost enables one to, in a way, move on - which is especially important with the potentially paralyzing Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox issue. While I don't claim to have permanently resolved matters by churning out a brawny powerpost (patent pending), it is a sign of temporary resolution, an indication that I won't be bringing up the topic as often in the future.

A recent two-part discussion culminates a long history of extended reflection. Stanley Hauerwas' contention that one doesn't have the right to be Protestant without asking oneself every day why one is not Catholic is a good corrective to Protestant prejudice. On the other hand, asking oneself that question every day can be crippling. And so, for a complicated set of reasons, I am Protestant.

A few observations on those of us who wrestle with becoming Catholic or Orthodox:

1. It's an inescapably local question. Princeton may be rich in many ways. It's not rich spiritually. The limited options in my community exacerbates these questions. A wealth of options for an orthodox Protestant might, in turn, lead to no such struggle. Some peculiarly local developments are in fact what permit me to write this post.

2. Apologetics is secondary. When peeling back the layers of ignorance that constitute much Protestant polemic there comes the shocking realization that many, perhaps most Catholic and Orthodox doctrines make beautiful sense. But this is, of course, not the same as to say all their claims are necessarily true. Doctrine matters, but doctrine - when already within the boundaries of Trinitarian orthodoxy - plays a much smaller role, it seems to me, than individual calling. Debates on these matters too quickly devolve into Biblical or historical calculation games, in which the object tends to subtly shift from who's right to who's smarter. The scandal of disunity is, instead, a shoal on which our logical necessities should be shipwrecked. It is a mystery to be lamented, not a puzzle to be solved.

3. This leads to the inescapably subjective nature of this question. "We sometimes face ecclesial choices that are difficult to make and even harder to explain to others," wrote Timothy George in response to Francis Beckwith's conversion. Thank goodness these matters are "subjective" and not a matter of mere apologetics - this keeps us on our toes before our Lord and not dependent on our cleverness. Opposite conclusions can, therefore, stem from equal faithfulness. Of course I may be empirically wrong in my decision to stay Protestant, but it may also interest some Catholics that my conclusion was both generated and confirmed in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I believe in the presence of Christ there as definitely as I do in his more Protestant promise that "wherever two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them."

Subjective as these things may be, there is still the need to articulate one's personal calling. And in this, the Bible verses already discussed have been of great assistance. Although I am interpreting them playfully, I could not be more serious in their citation. Here they are (including the initial one cited by Lewis). Spinal Tap fans will be delighted to see the list now goes to eleven:

The Verses:
1. 1 Cor. 7:20.
2. Luke 11:27-28.
3. Mark 7:8
4. Matt 8:20.
5. Gal. 5:6-8.
6. Exodus 20:17.
7. Matthew 3:9.
8. Acts 7:48-49
9. 1 Kings 12:23-24.
10. John 20:21-22
11. Romans 11:11
In addition, there are a few key quotes, some of which I've mentioned before. Most are from C.S. Lewis. I realize, by the way, it may not be cool for the cutting-edge Christians to still like C.S. Lewis. This interview with Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham, responsible for the recent Wardrobe film and the forthcoming Prince Caspian and Screwtape movies, may change that. I refer those who still think Lewis uncool to the title of this blog.

The Quotes:

1. Northerness: This is a general principle that, according to S.M. Hutchens, kept Lewis from becoming Catholic. The fact that Lewis called it "northerness" conveniently ties it to the money comment below, but Lewis meant that childhood longing described in Surprised By Joy, which is perhaps better expressed in Father Wisdom's counsel in Pilgrim's Regress:
Feel no wonder that these glimpses of your Island so easily confuse themselves with viler things, and are so easily blasphemed. Above all, never try to keep them, never try to revisit the same place or time wherein the vision was accorded to you. You will pay the penalty of all who would bind down to one place or time within our country that which our country cannot contain. Have you not heard from the Stewards of the sin of idolatry, and how, in their old chronicles, the manna turned to worms if any tried to hoard it? Be not greedy, be not passionate; you will but crush dead on your own breast with hot, rough hands the thing you loved. But if ever you incline to doubt that the thing you long for is something real, remember what your own experience has taught you. Think that it is a feeling, and at once the feeling has no value. Stand sentinel at your own mind, watching for that feeling, and you will find - what shall I say - a flutter in the heart, an image in the head, a sob in the throat: and was that your desire? You know that it was not, and that no feeling whatever will appease you, that feeling, refine it as you will, is but one more spurious claimant - spurious as the gross lusts of which the giant speaks. Let us conclude then that what you desire is no state of yourself at all, but something, for that very reason, Other and Outer. And knowing this you will find tolerable the truth that you cannot attain it. That the thing should be, is so great a good that when you remember "it is" you will forget to be sorry that you can never have it. Nay, anything that you could have would be so much less than this that its fruition would be immeasurably below the mere hunger for this. Wanting is better than having. The glory of any world wherein you can live is in the end appearance: but then, as one of my sons has said, that leaves the world more glorious yet.
Hutchens explains that the passage embodies Lewis'
deep suspicion of realized eschatology, precluding identification of the True Church (or the heavenly Narnia, or Britain) with any of its present, earthly forms. This conviction is also at the heart of Protestant ecclesiology, which in its purer form does not arise from mere anti-Catholicism, but from a positive vision of the nature of reality and our manner of comprehending it, a vision far older than the Reformation-era confessions on the nature and identity of the Church in which it came forward with such force.
2. Mystery of disunity: This is from Lewis' correspondence with an Italian Catholic priest (conducted in classical Latin).
That the whole cause of schism lies in sin I do not hold to be certain. I grant that no schism is without sin but the one proposition does not necessarily follow the other... what would I think of your Thomas More and of our William Tyndale? All the writings of the one and all the writings of the other I have lately read right through. Both of them seem to me most saintly men and to have loved God with their whole heart: I am not worthy to undo the shoes of either of them. Nevertheless they disagree and (what racks and astounds me) their disagreement seems to me to spring not from their vices nor from their ignorance but rather from their virtues and the depths of their faith, so that the more they were at their best the more they were at variance. I believe the judgement of God on their dissension is more profoundly hidden than it appears to you to be: for His judgements are indeed an abyss.
It's not a far leap from that to this from John Paul II's Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
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...
3. Essential Unity: There's this interesting passage from the preface to the French edition of La Problem de la Souffrance:
As a Christian, I am very much aware that our divisions grieve the Holy Spirit and hold back the work of Christ; as a logician I realize that when two churches affirm opposing positions, these cannot be reconciled. But because I was an unbeliever for a long time, I perceived something which perhaps those brought up in the Church do not see. Even when I feared and detested Christianity, I was struck by its essential unity, which, in spite of its divisions, it has never lost. I trembled on recognizing the same unmistakable aroma coming from the writings of Dante and Bunyan, Thomas Aquinas and William Law.
To this I can add that Michael Foster quote from Mystery and Philosophy:
It was in studying the doctrine of the Trinity that I came to realize that unity is not a simple thing... Now I am wondering whether in discussing the desired unity of the Church we do not too easily take it for granted that we know quite well what unity means... What if the unity God wills for His church be a unity which, like His own unity, we have not yet conceived in our minds.
These quotes are not meant to excuse or explain away divisions, but to make sense of Christ's presence despite them.

4. Immature and Unsaintly Disputants: Ultimately the scandals of our schism is, as any Reformation era historian will tell you, not a purely doctrinal affair. In the History of Sixteenth Century Literature Lewis wrote:
The process whereby 'faith and works' become a stock gag in the commercial theater is characteristic of that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation. The theological questions really at issue have no significance except on a certain level, a high level, of the spiritual life; they could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure. Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant - I had almost said the Pauline - assertions without compromising other elements of the Christian faith. In fact, however, these questions were raised at a moment when they immediately became embittered and entangled with a whole complex of matters theologically irrelevant, and therefore attracted the fatal attention both of government and the mob. When once this had happened, Europe's chance to come through unscathed was lost. It was as if men were set to conduct a metaphysical argument at a fair, in competition or (worse still) forced collaboration with the cheapjacks and the round-abouts, under the eyes of an armed and vigilant police force who frequently changed sides. Each party increasingly misunderstood the other and triumphed in refuting positions which their opponents did not hold: Protestants misrepresenting Romans as Pelagians or Romans misrepresenting Protestants as Antinomians.
The Claim

I started these quotes with "northering" and I will end with the north as well. A most effective way to make sense of the strange calling some of us have to Protestantism is to consider the analogy, first used by Calvin in his Reply to Sadoleto, of Protestantism to the northern kingdom. Divided Israel is our primary Scriptural resource for fathoming the divided church. In his commentary on 1 Kings, Leithart explains that Israel's divisions were God's judgement. It was a "twist" that God initiated in response to twistedness, for "to the blameless, God shows himself blameless... but to the crooked, God shows himself crooked" (Psalm 18:25-26). Our fate could have come straight from Dante's Inferno. Our divisions are crooked, it is therefore no wonder that people want desperately to make such easy sense of them, but also no wonder that this is perhaps ultimately impossible.

The rule to follow in these matters in conscience. The Vatican's ecumenist in chief, Cardinal Walter Kaspar, said as much when he visited here a few years ago. I didn't need a Cardinal to tell me this, but it helps. The catch in that counsel is what happens when one's conscience gets better informed. My conclusion is one example of what I believe to be both better information and a discernment of personal calling. My conscience keeps me Protestant. Hier stehe ich.

This is a long post, and one might suspect I am compensating for clear justification with excess material. But I can boil down my reason for staying Protestant to one sentence. As much as I believe in the primary authority of Scripture and faith's priority in salvation, there are probably more Catholics and Orthodox Christians who believe this today than there are Protestants, so that won't be the sentence. Instead, the sentence is this: I am decidedly more certain that the unity of Christ's church has been lost than I am of Catholic and Orthodox claims to still possess it.