Why Dialogue Matters to Our Unity in a Secular Culture

UnknownIn my post yesterday I showed that the lack of Christian unity has profoundly contributed to the rise of secularism in the West. I argued that this was particularly true in the United States. Today I want to show you why this is the case.

When the Irish Catholics arrived in America in the mid-19th century there was a deep-seated bias against them, a bias promoted by a virulent form of anti-Catholicism that had been engrained in the American mind and heart from its origin. This bias led these two expressions of Christ’s presence to live in “solitudes” of cultural isolation. Over time the Irish would gain acceptance in major American cities; e.g. Boston, New York and Chicago. The Irish served gallantly in the Civil War, on the side of the North, and eventually entered mainstream society. They became extremely proud of their heritage and culture, for good reason. They were great Americans! (In Chicago, where I live, St. Patrick’s day is a huge celebration, one which includes a parade where all the politicians take part. The Chicago River is always dyed green!)

In 1960 the nation finally elected an Irish Catholic as president. But this victory came with a great cultural price tag that few understood at the time. John F. Kennedy had to speak to the Houston (TX) ministerial association before the election and assure them that he would take no orders from the pope. he went on to say that if his faith and his allegiance to the country ever clashed he would put his country first and his faith second!

It is now widely agreed that John F. Kennedy’s speech was a major contribution to his being elected president since he carried much of the “old” South, or at least enough to win the election. He also set in place the framework that we now follow–religion is solely a “private” concern and should never factor into informing the direction of the society at large. This was not the historic view of the separation of church and state but rather a major turn that allowed us to separate faith from public policy and conversation. At the time we had no idea that this move would allow for a massive secularizing movement to rush forward with little challenge from Christians for almost two decades.

By 1973 the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of abortion in Roe v. Wade. The tide had turned for all practical purposes. My commencement speaker, Dr. C. Everett Koop, would tell my class of 1973 (M.A. in mission/ministry) that a “brave new world” would follow within the lifetime of this class. He asked us to make a difference. I resolved to do so that day in Edman Chapel. From the 1960s and early 1970s a society that had been built on moral premises that were essentially informed by the Ten Commandments was moved to one that was almost entirely secular. Now there is virtually no moral foundation at all. (This is why marriage is really failing, not because gays now want to marry.) In my estimation it would take several well-taught generations of effective Christian teaching about the kingdom of Christ to even begin to restore what we lost. (This is why I often write about the death of Christendom and the “present” mission-moment of the church!)

Today Catholics and Protestants are doing much better with one another but their shared culture is secular. They can only blame themselves for this sad result. Christopher Dawson wrote: “One of the reasons that it is so completely secular is that there has been this complete cleavage of spiritual tradition and the absence of intellectual contact between Catholics and Protestants (The Dividing of Christendom).

Since the 1960s the mainline Protestant churches have tilted aggressively toward a secular rights-based view of culture, one plainly at odds with a delineated moral foundation. Glen Argan says, “Vatican II’s call for ecumenical dialogue came 50 to 100 years too late for Christians to form a united bulwark against secularism” (Western Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2013).

Yet, despite this tragic loss, our dialogue is still extremely important for the future. Christendom is over, at least in my view, but the mission of the church is not over! Our future will undoubtedly be very different from our past, something that any contact with millennials will quickly demonstrate to fair-minded people. But the need for unity is greater than ever. Why?

  1. Dialogue with one another allows us to see the great truths we share in common and how we can better evangelize in the modern “secular” world.
  2. The caricatures that we have of one another can and should be obliterated. Dialogue is a first step in this direction. Listening to the “other” person changes me and changes how I respond to my neighbors, which helps me fulfill Christ’s commandment.
  3. Dialogue will help us to understand and articulate our own faith in the new post-Christendom world in a more winsome and missional way. And our own faith will grow as we learn to engage with the larger Christian tradition.
  4. All community is ultimately rooted in dialogue, including and especially all Christian community. If the church has a future it must be in re-imagining what community looks like and how we can enter in it with all our mind and heart.

Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism–Unitatis Redeintegratio–calls us to dialogue twelve times! The ultimate goal, however, is not dialogue. Dialogue is a means, a means to unity and reunion wherever possible. The goal is visible unity and church-based union in Christ’s mission. Vatican II got this right. (I will show in a few weeks how this was one of the central reasons Pope John XXIII called for a council in the late 1950s. I have recently learned this through dialogue with Catholics who were involved in the pre-Vatican II lead-up to the council and listened to the pope share his vision of the coming council.)

Only in unity can we remove the scandal of our myriad schisms and heal our frequent divisions, divisions that powerfully destroy our witness to the world of the 21st century. Dialogue may not get us to where we need to be, at least not by itself, but it has to be the first-step if we want the Holy Spirit to empower our witness through unity. We share so much more in common than we disagree about. And we will only regain power in the public square when we speak as ONE. A new reality, one less political and angry, can emerge if we will pray together, love one another and radically seek what Jesus prayed for in John 17:21.

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