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Friday, May 9, 2014

Can Anything So Nebulous Be Good?

All too many times, when someone protests against something the question that comes back is, "What is your solution?" Unfortunately, Peter Leithart provides no practical solution to the problem he describes but that should not stop us from hearing his case. In a combination of speeches, panel discussion, and question answering, Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman talked about the future of Protestantism (click here for the event). For the most part, this blogpost will focus on Leithart's take on the subject. 

While Sanders and Trueman talked about some ominous possibilities for Protestantism in the near future, Leithart wants the evangelical world to move past PROTESTantism to becoming Reformational Catholics. In other words, he wants Protestants to quit identifying themselves by who they are not and, along with the Eastern Orthodox, unite the branches of Christianity into one body, the Church. We must consider ourselves members of one body because the body of Christ should never be divided.

What has Leithart concerned here are divisions within the body of Christ. And these divisions are amplified by tribalism, a subject not new to this blog (click here and there).  But while the working definition for tribalism used by this blog revolves around strong loyalties leading moral relativity, Leithart has something else in mind. Certainly, strong loyalties are involved here, but instead of  loyalties leading to relative moralism, for Leithart they cause people to look at those from designated other churches as foreigners, outsiders. And this is despite how the Reformers looked at the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, many Protestants see little to nothing of value coming from the Roman Catholic Church while not being shy in saying what they could teach the Roman Church. That illustrates a variation of what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the West during the Vietnam War:
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
We should also note that Leithart dislikes Roman Catholic tribalism as much as he does Protestant tribalism.

One more point we should add is that Leithart's suggestion about letting Protestantism die does not even insinuate that those from the Reformed tradition should forget or even compromise on doctrine. Rather, Leithart wants us to also pay attention to what we have in common. And what we have in common are the early Church councils and other material on which both Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians follow.

What makes Leithart's proposal nebulous is that he provides almost no concrete suggestions for implementing this transformation. Here, Leithart states that a Reformation Catholicism can come about only by a special work of God. But he does layout some results, some of which may not be to the liking of many Protestants. For example, we would take joint ownership of each other's failures and scandals--including the sexual scandals of some priests. On the other hand, we can also share our specific prayer concerns and victories.

What should we make of Leithart's call for the death of Protestantism especially when he leaves out a great many details? Considering the dangers of tribalism, we should warmly welcome it. The Church should not be divided let alone let the divisions become tribal. But the targeting of tribalism is something that is needed more than ever in today's world regardless of the religiosity of the tribalism. That is because the degree of loyalty involved in tribalism distorts our perceptions and our thinking and that sometimes allows us to look down on and even abuse others

So how are we going to change from our current divisions into a Reformational Catholic Church? For the most part, it will take what amounts to a miracle according to Leithart. And the timing for that is God's call. And for us Protestants, it means that we will have to let go of protesting the Roman Catholic Church while cleaving to Reformed Theology. As said before, we need to focus on what we have in common while we suggest corrections for each other. And then, perhaps, we need to  change how we frame what we see as distortions in the other branches of Christianity while remaining faithful to our views. For if we use the language employed in the discussion of the video when describing the Roman Catholic Church, Catholics will rightly detect an air of superiority and will perceive us as attempting to establish a paternalistic relationship with them rather than are relationship between equals. At this point, we will be right back where we started.

To further Leithart's cause here, he and others who agree need to present to the Protestant Church what Tim Keller called "blended insights" from his model of the churches practicing different approaches to cultural engagement (click here for the model). These blended insights must be contemporary and exclusive to each branch of Christianity. So what Leithart or others must present to Protestants to transform the current Protestant Church is to list all of the beneficial contemporary ideas and practices which Catholics exhibit but Protestants don't. Likewise, he needs to do the same for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Those in the Roman Catholic Church must return the favor regarding Protestantism and list for its followers the positives that belong exclusively to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Finally, the Eastern Orthodox Church must follow suit.

One of the ways to overcome tribalism and even divisions is to show both one's own group's deficiencies and the exclusive strengths of the other groups. Of course, it might be tricky to agree on lessons we can learn from the other branches, but perhaps this is where changing the ecclesiastical status quo to Reformational Catholicism can begin.

I know personally, as a person who belongs to the Reformed Tradition, several benefits which I have gained from Roman Catholics. First, my best friend is a Roman Catholic and I have learned more from her and her examples of showing compassion than I have from all of the authors I have read. My friend and I regard each other as mentors. Second, I have benefitted greatly from the Roman Catholic lay ministry of Ralph C. Martin. Third, I very much appreciated what Pope Francis has said about today's Capitalism. As a Protestant, I am envious of the Roman Catholic Church whose leadership has such penetrating insights into today's economics while those who follow the Reformed Tradition tend to support the economic status quo. And finally, I appreciate, and am envious of, the social consciousness possessed by many Roman Catholics, regardless of political viewpoints, which is so sorely missing in those who belong to the individualist-oriented Protestant denominations. These points of appreciation do not imply that I cannot disagree with the Roman Catholic Church on many issues. What this points do however is to level the playing field between Roman Catholics and myself so that I don't regard my strengths as indicating any kind of superiority.

Unfortunately, I do not have any contacts with those from the Eastern Orthodox Church. But perhaps it is time that I should establish some. 

The Church could also contribute to broader goals than reunification if it were to follow Leithart's proposal. Suppose we learned how to stop following the demands of tribalism, perhaps the world could do the same in just a small degree if it saw us doing so.


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