There are many ways to understand the myriad divisions within the Christian church. Most are excuses for schism and sin. Some are rooted in theology and some of this theology is important, deeply important. Yet much of this disagreement and division is rooted in misconceptions about theological issues that remain because of centuries of misunderstanding. Sometimes the reasons are rooted in prejudice more than love and deep knowledge of one another.
When I say things like this many conservative Christians begin to talk and write about relativism and compromise. I once wrote a good bit using these words. There are numerous problems with this approach but the most fundamental one is that the responses often lack the truth. Even when truth is spoken it is often spoken in a way that further adds to our divisions rather than in a way that seeks to prayerfully find solutions. Face it, it is much easier to defend the wars and battles of the past than it is to admit there were mistakes all around and the best thing we can do is to start by acknowledging this fact.
As every reader of my work knows I favor a robust ecumenism. Yet I don’t think that some of the “least common denominator” approaches take us very far into real unity. We’ve got a long way to go and we need to get there sooner than later. My reason for this is that evangelization is being negatively impacted by our myriad disagreements and the way in which we state them and continue them. So, I want to dialogue. This word had been robustly attacked by conservatives. It creates a certain fear and emotional reaction. It really should result in robust, serious dialogue, the kind that will not settle for compromise.
My good friend, Fr. Robert Barron says that some years ago he dubbed himself a “post-liberal, post-conservative evangelical Catholic.” There’s a mouthful. He adds that he needs to unpack this so you can understand what he means. So he says:
I’m a Catholic. I’m a Catholic because of the incarnational principle found in the Fathers of the Church and the Christology of Chalcedon. I’m an evangelical Catholic because Jesus is the most important event in human history and knowing who he is makes a claim on us that will change our lives. I’m a post-conservative and post-liberal evangelical Catholic because I believe that neither the polarized positions of either liberals or conservative, nor a bland middle ground between the two, does justice to the dramatic truth about Jesus. So, I want to promote a robust ecumenism, employing what I call the “virtue of bi-polar extremism.” I trust the Church because she could “consistently and poetically place the opposites side by side and allow them to coexist in all their purity, power and intensity.” I’m with Paul Tillich who thought moderation in such matters to be a pagan, not a Christian virtue.
When I first read these words, taken from a short autobiographical piece that Fr. Barron recently sent to me in preparation for our upcoming Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation (April 18-20), I was amazed at how close we are in our views of what constitutes good and bad ecumenism.
I believe Fr. Barron and I agree that the intention of Jesus is to return in the last day to find a unified church universal. We both believe that the current reality is one of sad and problematic division; division in heart, in purpose, in thinking and certainly in organizational structure (which for Fr. Barron is much more important than it is to me).
Each division in the church has a narrative behind it. There were reasons, and some of them were quite compelling, for the division(s) that occurred. Over time I have come to question the wisdom of most of these divisions even when I have understood the reasons more clearly. If I understand the sacred heart of Jesus I believe that he does not desire these divisions. They bring pain to him.
Yet no division can simply be “undone.” There are no mulligans or do-overs in history. What are we do then in a time when we are not only divided but divided over doctrinal issues that are deep and significant?
The simple answer of my own background was to make the “differences” the center of attention and then to conclude, often rather quickly, that there just was no way forward. Let me give one illustration of this point, one that is most often raised in my work with Catholics and evangelicals: The gospel itself.
The argument goes as follows: The Council of Trent pronounced anathemas against the Protestant understanding of faith and works. These “anathemas” still stand so a faithful Catholic view of the matter is simple–evangelicals preach a gospel that is false and under the ban.
On the evangelical side Galatians 1:6-9 is quoted:
6 I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. 7 It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. 8 However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. 9 I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse (Common English Version)!
It is argued, on the basis of this text, that since the Catholic Church teaches a gospel of salvation by human works it is wrong. Because this teaching denies grace then the Catholic Church teaches a gospel that is “different” thus Catholic Church has officially embraced “another gospel.” The conclusion of this approach is simple: We can have nothing to do with Catholics and their preaching of this false gospel. This is the evangelical “anathema” against Rome and the gospel of the Catholic Church.
So, if both sides anathematize one another how can we ever make any serious progress in working together as fellow Christians since one of us must be preaching a false gospel?
When the question is put in these stark, black and white, simplistic terms the person who follows this kind of (false) logic is stuck. One side is all right and other side is all wrong. Suspicion and mistrust result and no common ground can be found, except perhaps in moral and cultural struggles. What do we say to this approach?
I have answered this question for over a decade now. I have defended my answer in almost every imaginable context, Catholic and Protestant. Most listen respectfully and many understand the answer to this persistent question over time. But apologists on both sides–usually from the conservative right of both traditions–keep stoking the fires of this reasoning. The end result is that ordinary people are confused or just left behind. I am committed to answering this question in public and private. I am committed to the kind of conversations that allow us to really hear each other, to understand what we really do disagree about, and why it really matters. But I am also convinced that the right answer does not push us into a corner where we must continue to offer mutual anathemas.
Tomorrow: A Unique Opportunity To Engage in Catholic and Evangelical Understanding of the Gospel