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Sunday, June 12, 2005

The "breakdown of Protestantism"

"John Student" asked in a comment to my last post why I thought Protestantism had broken down. Well, that is precisely the question for me. Has it? To defend the affirmative response to this question, I could refer John to Pontificator's eloquent posts over the past year or two, but then I don't agree with everything Pontificator has said by any means (he's coming from an Anglo-Catholic point of view in which Protestantism is not really a live option). So here goes:

Protestantism as a coherent form of Christianity is untenable for me because of the vital importance of the unity of the Church in both Scripture and Christian Tradition. I believe with all my heart that salvation means incorporation into Christ's Body. To be saved is to be brought into a living relationship with God through Christ, and this means that each individual believer forms an organic part of the mystical reality called the Body of Christ. So far, I think few if any Christians would disagree.

But here's the catch--this Mystical Body cannot _simply_ be thought of as an "invisible" reality. To do so is to deny both the full meaning of the Incarnation and our own nature as embodied creatures. It is not enough to say "as a Christian I have spiritual unity with all other Christians." This unity must have _some_ practical consequences for how I live my life and how I worship on Sunday morning.

It follows that any particular Christian body is a true church only insofar as it connects me with the universal Body of Christ. It must therefore either claim to be the universal Church or have a plausible account explaining how it is related to the universal Church as a part to the whole. And it must have some way of being accountable to the universal Church. For an intrinsic part of the visibility, the concrete reality, of the Church is that we can be held accountable to each other. This is one of the reasons why "spiritual unity" is so radically insufficient. (Another is that it allows us to continue to despise one another and see ourselves as superior--but that's actually just another facet of the lack of accountability.)

For many Protestants, the claim to be the universal Church (made by any particular Christian body) is an intrinsically absurd one. Of course such a claim must be nuanced, along the lines of Vatican II's clarification that non-Catholics participate to a great measure in the reality of the Church. And historically confessional Protestant churches (Lutheran and Reformed) have made such claims. Confessional Lutherans traditionally saw themselves as the one true visible expression of Christ's Church on earth. Similarly, many Reformed will say that the true Church in its fullness is the Church that holds Reformed doctrine. This approach is different from the Catholic one insofar as it makes doctrine primary--the true Church is just the Church that holds true doctrine (and administers the sacraments truly). But like the Vatican-II approach, this Protestant ecclesiology allows imperfect churches to have a measure of reality without participating in the fullness of the Church in the same way that doctrinally correct churches do.

I do not find the claims of confessional Protestantism in this regard persuasive. I do not believe that either Reformed or Lutheran theology, in their coherent, developed, confessional forms, represent the fullness (or even the fullness as it has been understood up to now) of God's revelation in Christ. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are, from my point of view, possible candidates. Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism are not. (Lutheranism is basically orthodox but wacky and idiosyncratic; Calvinism is more balanced but is seriously heterodox at several points.) None of the other forms of Protestantism can make a better claim in this regard--most, as far as I see it, don't even try.

The only tenable form of Protestantism for me, then, will be a form that can give an account of itself as a _part_ of the universal Church. But this means that the part must understand itself in relation to the whole, and it must have a way of being accountable to that whole. This is where Protestantism completely collapses, as I see it. The two forms of Protestantism with which I currently have some connection--Anglicanism and Methodism--speak of being part of the one holy Catholic Church of the Creeds, but do not in practice seem to have any way of living out this claim. This has become most glaringly obvious in the Episcopal Church since General Convention 2003, but the current crisis is just a symptom of a much deper problem.

This is what I mean by the "breakdown" of Protestantism. At the Reformation Protestants believed (with some reason) that they were accomplishing a much-needed reform of the Church that would lead to the collapse of the Papal "Antichrist" and the restoration of true Christianity in its purity. This clearly is not what happened and not what is going to happen. Again, in the 18th and early 19th centuries evangelical, revivalistic Protestants believed that through revivals and missions true Christianity was going to spread around the world, once again bringing about the collapse of false religion and ushering in the reign of Christ on earth. This too has not happened. Then, in the 20th century mainline Protestants (I'm thinking of solid, orthodox theologians like Lesslie Newbigin) believed that through ecumenism and mutual understanding Christians could get beyond their historic differences and discover the historic core that underlay their particular expressions, recognizing in each other the gifts missing in their own traditions. This too seems a failure now.

Of course Christ can bring success out of failure--it's his job description. But I see no reason to believe that any of these projects are rooted in any promise of Christ. I can see why Protestants during the heyday of each of the movements I mentioned (the Reformation, revivalism, ecumenism) saw a rationale and a purpose for Protestantism. But I can't. The earlier forms of Protestantism that saw Catholicism as an enemy were (I believe) clearly wrong, and the more ecumenical approach is incompatible with the dogmatic claims of Catholicism, and seems in practice to be fatal to orthodoxy even within a Protestant framework.

I could make a case on the other side. But this is the pro-breakdown case as I see it. I'm happy to elaborate on it further as needed.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Two extreme alternatives

In my last post, I said that I saw two basic ways of approaching the question of tradition and truth. Actually, I don't think that either of these is tenable in their "pure" form--but I'm going to describe them in that form in order to lay out the issues clearly. I will refer to them as "rationalism" and "traditionalism," recognizing that both of these terms can be used in very different ways from the ways I'll be using them.

The first alternative, "rationalism," is to see truth as something wholly outside oneself, which one can apprehend by reason and then has the duty of following regardless of consequences. In this view, our powers of apprehending truth are essentially passive receptors of the evidence presented to us by various claimants to our allegiance. Any bias on our part, whether resulting from our personal temperament or circumstances or from the shaping of the tradition in which we were raised, is seen as an irrelevant or harmless distraction. An honest and intelligent person will try to disregard such influences, or at the very least will be thoroughly on guard against them.

The other alternative, "traditionalism," sees truth as something that is only achievable by means of the tradition in which we were formed. To step outside that formation is to abandon the only framework that we have for getting at religious truth. Truth, particularly in matters of religion, is not something that we can determine by weighing evidence, or for that matter by following the promptings of our hearts (emotionalism is, from my point of view, just another form of "rationalism"--the Mormons being an excellent example of this). The framework from which we approach a question largely determines the kinds of answers we will find, and this framework has been inescapably shaped by tradition.

Of course these are not the only two possible alternatives. One could hold with the traditionalist that the framework of the mind largely determines how one approaches truth, while holding with the rationalist that this framework is (or ought to be) essentially independent of the shaping we have received from our respective traditions. But for my purposes this is either functionally identical with rationalism (since it posits a universal framework that allows us to receive truth in essentially the same way regardless of our respective traditions), or it dissolves into a useless and despairing subjectivism (as does much postmodernism--but not the forms of postmodernism that I find at all interesting or convincing).

Ecclesiastically speaking, my dichotomy results in some surprising alignments. Conservative Protestants of nearly all stripes are thoroughgoing rationalists. Liberal Protestants were at one time largely rationalistic, but these days tend to be more or less traditionalist (although they think that we can and should question and shape our respective traditions from within, often in radical ways--cynically, one could say that they tend to be rationalists about their own traditions and traditionalists about other people's!). Liberal Catholics tend to be much more thoroughly traditionalistic, though not completely so. Conservative Catholics of the kind one tends to meet on the Internet (Catholic Answers being an excellent example) are as rationalistic as any Protestant. They view tradition as authoritative--but they think that we have to determine which tradition is authoritative in a fundamentally rationalistic manner. (Catholic Answers has an astonishing tract that purports to prove the authority of the Bible from the authority of the Church, and the authority of the Church from an empirical, un-traditioned reading of the Biblical and historical evidence.) But cradle Catholics generally tend to be traditionalists (one Catholic scholar of medieval philosophy expressed to me her great puzzlement at the whole concept of conversion--it seemed obvious to her that you stick with the religion you were born into). This may be "liberal," but it seems extremely widespread even among Catholics whose basic piety and beliefs are quite conservative. Finally (lest you think that I'm simply twisting terminology around and labelling conservatives "rationalists" and liberals "traditionalists"), the Orthodox are solidly traditionalistic, except for converts and a few others. Many Orthodox take it for granted that Westerners will be Catholics or Protestants and see this as perfectly OK, while still believing that Orthodoxy is the true religion.

From my previous post, it should be clear that I find rationalism radically unsatisfactory. I do not believe that the influence of tradition is, generally and fundamentally, something to be resisted or disregarded (in fact, I don't think we _can_ disregard it, and I think resisting it is futile and silly because we will simply react against it based on the paradigm it has given us).

So what about traditionalism? I confess that I have moods in which I'm tempted to take a completely traditionalist position. I like the fact that there are multiple religious traditions in the world. I revel in the flavor of these traditions, and I almost always find something to respect in people who are deeply rooted in them. People like me, on the other hand, who float aroundseeking for the truth (granted that my floating has been done within Christianity), seem to lack depth. A rolling stone gathers no moss. And unless one simply roots oneself unquestioningly to one's tradition of origin, it's hard for a thoughtful person in this pluralistic world to avoid becoming such a rolling stone. Furthermore, converts almost always seem to go on thinking and acting based on the paradigm from which they have converted. Cradle members of the tradition attracting the converts often complain about this (at least in more "traditionalist" traditions such as Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

But there's one obvious problem with such a position for a Christian--it is fundamentally and irredeemably pagan. (In fact, insofar as Catholics and Orthodox do tend to be traditionalists, this is the strongest piece of evidence for the claim of some Protestants that these forms of Christianity have been paganized.) In fact, many works of early Christian apologetics (the _Octavius_ of Minucius Felix, for instance) oppose a Christian "rationalism" to a pagan "traditionalism." As Robert Wilken pointed out (in _The Christians as the Romans Saw Them_), many spokesmen for late ancient paganism defended a "conservative" approach to religion in which truth is fundamentally unknowable, leaving the traditions of one's society as the only reasonable and proper way to approach the divine mystery. This is not so different from the approach of many people today. But it's obviously self-contradictory for a Christian. How can we say that it was a good thing for our ancestors to convert to Christianity, but a bad thing for us to consider the possibility of conversion (whether away from Christianity, or more likely to a different tradition within Christianity)? Furthermore, even those who want to revive paganism are still caught within the same paradox, since they must convert to this revived paganism (and largely construct it anew). Complete traditionalism is not really an option for Westerners (with the exception of Jews--though we could claim that the adoption of monotheism was a kind of conversion itself). That means, of course, that the Catholics and Orthodox whom I've defined as traditionalists are either not thinking very carefully and consistently, or are not thoroughgoing traditionalists at all. (At the very least, they would have to admit that their ancient ancestors were right to be somewhat "rationalistic.")

I am probably arguing with myself here. Most likely no reader of this blog is tempted to thoroughgoing traditionalism. But I am, so this train of thought is necessary for me.

The question before me, then, is twofold: how much of a traditionalist can/should I be, and how should I apply my views to my particular situation? (I think that the way I ended my last post was misleading, since the more dubious point for me is really the practical application rather than the decision between rationalism and traditionalism itself. But I've only figured this out by the process of planning and writing this post.)

Let me sketch a brief response to the first question, which I'll go into in more depth on a later occasion.

I believe that the default option for all of us should be the tradition in which we were raised. Most people throughout human history have lived and died without seriously questioning their traditions. They were not foolish or slothful or (in the matters that really count) ignorant. They were doing exactly what they ought to have done (or at least one can reasonably assume that many/most of them were--of course folly and sloth and ignorance are real possibilities for all of us!). This is the normal condition for human beings--it is the normal way in which we become wise and good and holy.

Conversion, then, whether individual or collective, is and ought to be a rare and abnormal event. It occurs in one of two cases: when the existing paradigm has irretrievably broken down, or when a new paradigm presents itself that breaks through our previous assumptions and calls us to a new allegiance (in other words, when divine revelation occurs, or what we are persuaded to believe is divine revelation). Even in that second case, we will be drawn to the new paradigm only insofar as it addresses already felt problems with our current paradigm. So it's better to say that these two cases are two sides of the same coin rather than two separate alternatives.

Furthermore, as traditionalists point out, one necessarily carries over the questions of one's previous tradition into one's new allegiance. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out, we need to be taught what questions to ask. But I would say that to some extent this must be a pre-conversion matter (Hauerwas would most likely disagree). Unless we already have learned to ask some of the relevant questions, the new paradigm will have no hold on us. And having adopted the new paradigm, we will continue to pursue the questions we have already learned to ask, even as we learn to ask new ones.

That means that Pontificator and other Anglicans are quite right to look for a new tradition because our own is in deep trouble. It's true that there must be more than that--but an awareness of the problems of one's current paradigm is the appropriate starting point for a journey of conversion. Pontificator had no business spending his life in some kind of ecclesiastical no-man's-land dispassionately considering the merits of various traditions. He did exactly what he ought to have done--served to the best of his ability within his own tradition.

Whether I can follow him, however, is another matter. I am not at all sure that Protestantism has irretrievably broken down. As I've said in a previous post, I waver on this point in a quite alarming manner (at least to me--from the point of view of my friends it is better described as wearisome and annoying).