First of all, I'm sorry I've been away from the blog for so long. I worked for two weeks at a summer program at Duke University, the "Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation." I strongly recommend this program, by the way, to any of you who know (or are) intelligent, serious Christian young people who will be either rising juniors or rising seniors (in high school) next summer. I've also been trying to finish up the dissertation (at last!) and have agreed with my advisor on a target date for the defense (as soon after Oct. 15 as we can get the committee together). So it's been quite a full summer.
In my last post, I outlined the case for the "breakdown of Protestantism." In this one, I'd like to sketch a case _for_ Protestantism--specifically, for why those of us who are currently Protestants are justified in remaining so. I am not trying to persuade Catholics or Orthodox to become Protestants (God forbid!). I am not even trying to persuade Protestants not to become Catholic or Orthodox. I am trying to outline a rationale by which those of us who are not convinced that we should leave Protestantism can nonetheless be faithful to our vision of the unity of the Church, and can hold ourselves accountable to the Universal Church throughout space and time.
I've said in previous blogs that I think the norm for all of us should be faithfulness to the tradition in which we were raised. This is the normal way in which human beings reach truth--not because every tradition is equally true, but because as a rule we are only able to challenge our traditions if we submit ourselves to their discipline.
All religions contain what Justin Martyr called the "seminal Word" (logos spermatikos). As a Christian, I believe that submission to the discipline of the Logos in non-Christian religions naturally and ultimately leads people to Christ (this is not a judgment on the fate of those who do not get there in this life). Christians are able to respect those who, like the Tartar king in Chaucer's Squire's Tale, "keep the law to which they are sworn," while believing that faithfulness to the seeds of truth in that "law" ultimately tends to lead such people beyond it.
So obviously when Muslims come to the point where they recognize Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, they are no longer Muslims. When Hindus come to accept the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnation of God, they are no longer Hindus. When Buddhists accept that personal union with God in Christ is the ultimate goal of human beings (rather than a penultimate end for those not yet ready for nirvana), they are no longer Buddhists. These other religions are, in fact, other religions. Whatever points of contact they have with Christianity, they propose other ends for human existence than those proposed by Christianity. Conversion is therefore (we Christians must affirm) the ultimate goal which we desire for members of other religions, however much we may respect their faithfulness to the "law to which they are sworn."
The various traditions of Trinitarian Christianity are, however, _not_ different religions. Whatever their differences, they all propose that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the Triune God through the revelation of that God in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The particular things they claim for themselves, and the particular doctrines they espouse, are (by their own hearty confession) subordinate to that ultimate goal. Furthermore, whatever the peculiarities of their reading of history, they all claim that Jesus Christ has been confessed for the past two thousand years, and that Christians today are part of that continuing story and claim unity with all who have truly called on Christ throughout space and time.
That means that (to take a tradition with which I strongly disagree) a Baptist who becomes convinced that baptism confers grace and that paedobaptism (however undesirable) is valid is not in the same position as the Muslim or Hindu who comes to believe in Christianity. While this person's belief is in contrast with the historic beliefs of his tradition, that tradition holds as one of its central principles that no human tradition has ultimate authority. Therefore, in a sense the Baptist is becoming more fully a Baptist by rejecting the errors of his tradition.
But enough of hypothetical cases. I am myself a scion of the holiness movement. My great-great-uncle and my great-grandfather left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they believed that it was apostate and that all true Christians should "come out" from existing denominations to form a holy community faithful to Christ. My grandparents, in turn, left the church in which they had grown up in order to minister to Christians who were outside that community. I grew up in what amounted to a house church, steeped in Scripture and in a piety focused on personal dedication to Christ. I was told over and over that we should be simply "Christians" rather than giving our loyalty to any human tradition. I was taught that we should seek for an experience of the Holy Spirit that led to our total consecration to God and hence to freedom from sin.
I now believe that much that I was taught was wrong. Our belief in the "invisible Church" led us to downplay the importance of actual, organized Christian communities. More seriously, our commitment to entire sanctification and "keeping ourselves unspotted from the world" led us to look down on the flawed and worldly Christians who make up practically every actual Christian community. Our belief that the Church had historically compromised with the world led us to despise much of the tradition of Christianity (especially since Constantine), hence insulating ourselves from the challenges posed by that tradition.
I have had to reject much of what I was taught. And yet I have only been able to do this because I was trying to be faithful to the things that I was taught were absolutely central. I was taught that above everything else I should follow Jesus Christ. I find that this leads me to treat with respect every manifestation of the Christian tradition in history, however compromised with the world it might be. I was taught that the pursuit of holiness is the only thing that really matters; I have found that the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Christianity kindle in me the desire for holiness. I was taught that the Church should be countercultural and challenge the world; I find that the Roman Communion often does so more effectively than Protestantism.
None of this is, on the face of it, incompatible with conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Such converts (especially to Catholicism) often claim that they have simply come into the fullness of what they were always taught. But from my perspective this is true only in a highly theoretical sense. Allegedly all the good things of Protestantism are implicitly possible in Catholicism (leaving Orthodoxy aside for the moment). But that is not the practical reality I find. I find that the traditions of Wesleyan Protestantism foster holiness and Christian faithfulness in ways that the structures and traditions of the Roman Communion do not (the reverse is also true). The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity), the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity), the vernacular hymn-singing tradition, and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two). But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.
Conversion, by its very name, implies a radical change of heart. It implies that one's priorities have been radically reoriented, however much continuity one may experience. It requires a radical humility toward the tradition one is accepting. That is not to say that the convert has nothing to offer from her former tradition--but all such offerings must be made humbly and tentatively, subject to the new rules by which one is playing. This requires an act of ultimate trust in the integrity of the tradition to which one is converting.
It is this act of trust which I have so far found impossible in the case of Catholicism. Because it is precisely the central elements of my Wesleyan tradition that have led me toward Catholicism, I am only capable of considering conversion to Catholicism _if_ those elements can be preserved within Catholicism. I would therefore be coming in with a set of mental qualifications. I can accept the hierarchical priesthood _if_ it does not violate the underlying primacy of the universal baptismal priesthood. If I found that in practice the ministerial priesthood did not serve the universal priesthood, I would be compelled to question it. I can accept the equality of Scripture and Tradition _if_ it does not make me regard Scripture with less reverence or see it as a less central means of grace than I have heretofore done. I can possibly accept the doctrine of unformed faith if it still allows me to place my trust in Jesus Christ with the same confidence and simplicity that my evangelical tradition has taught me to do.
On the face of it, judging from the behavior of the average Catholic and the life of the average Catholic congregation, it looks as if all these things would be very difficult. Not impossible, but working uphill at every step, against the inertia of centuries and against many of the cultural and devotional patterns that have become ingrained in Catholicism. I see many converts who are doing just that. I wish them well, but I'm not sure it's an enterprise I should embark on.
In conversion stories (or stories about switching traditions, which in many cases should not be called conversion) one often finds a pattern like this: the convert tried for some time to practise his newly discovered truths within the confines of his own tradition, only to decide that this somehow violated the integrity of that tradition. But one has to question this. If the practices or beliefs in question were matters of personal taste (even if they were genuinely superior in ways that are theologically and devotionally significant), then the "conversion" or shifting of allegiance was (however understandable) frivolous and ultimately indefensible. I may prefer Gregorian chant to praise choruses, but does that justify my abandoning one group of Christians for another?
But if the newly discovered beliefs or practices _are_ necessary to a fuller incorporation in the mystery of Christ, then surely talk of respect for one's old tradition is rather disingenuous. As I said earlier, all Christian traditions claim before all else to be faithful to Christ and the Word of God. If this faithfulness involves abandonment of praise choruses for Gregorian chant, or institution of weekly communion, or adoption of prayer for the dead, then so be it. Methodists (to take the tradition I will probably embrace if I remain Protestant) claim that being Christian is more important than being Methodist. Why not take them at their word? That is to show true respect for a tradition--to challenge it to be more fully what it claims to be, rather than stuffing its good points into a metaphysical suitcase and packing oneself off to an allegedly fuller tradition (which one nonetheless finds the need to improve in myriad ways).
In this post and the previous one I've tried to outline the two sides of the dilemma that confronts me. I have no doubt that Protestantism cannot function as an autonomous expression of Christianity. What I do not know is whether it has so completely broken down that I am obligated to abandon it, or whether (as I've been suggesting) faithfulness to my own heritage and to the Universal Church requires me to remain within my tradition (a tricky point for me owing to my nondenominational upbringing) and try to coax it toward greater faithfulness (even as I submit to its disciplines and hear the voice of the Universal Church through it, however distorted by local traditions and the poisonous heritage of schism).
By posting this I am of course asking for arguments on both sides, and yet I'm tired of the whole struggle, which has gone on for ten years now. I'm less and less confident in the possibility of big answers. I think grace comes to us through the cracks in our paradigms rather than through the harmony of a grand, consistent system. A hymn here and a prayer there, the taste of God's blood in the winecup and the handclasp of an old WWII veteran whose hair has fallen out from chemo--these mean more and more to me, and confident answers mean less and less. All I ask is enough certainty to enable me to live with faithfulness and joy, enough confidence to keep me from continually second-guessing my motives (and I will tend to do this do this no matter which path I take--I can make an excellent case that either remaining Protestant or becoming Catholic is fundamentally selfish and cowardly).
I welcome your arguments and comments, but I crave your prayers.