In unity, One

The other day at lunch, the group of us were having an interesting conversation about religion. At one point, one of us remarked, “Wow, we have quite a good spread here. Catholic, Evangelical, Catholic, Lutheran…” and as he went around the circle, he ended with me, and then he faltered. “High church… liturgical…”

“Something,” I volunteered.

Moments like these make me wonder if I ought to have a “label” with which to easily describe myself. I recall an exchange I had with a friend’s father a few years ago: he had asked what I “was”, meaning, what denomination, but I answered simply, “Christian.” “How postmodern of you,” he said. I didn’t comment at the time, but I wanted to say, “Or, how early Church.” I have not avoided a label out of the desire to be postmodern or cool, or what have you. I prefer not to use the term “nondenominational” because in my experience, it ends up being yet another version of mainstream Protestantism, just without the label Baptist or Methodist. A Catholic would not feel welcome there. Yet I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able. I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen; in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God; in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life — in other words, the Creed. I am Christian.

It is my hope and dream to someday see ecumenical reform. I dream of a Church that is one holy, catholic and apostolic Church: a Church in which all of us, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, can gather at the Communion table and break bread together, believing that we are one body, because we share the one bread. A Church in which all of us recognize each others’ baptisms, bringing to fullness that we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. A Church that fulfills the prayer Jesus prayed in the garden, that we would all be one, as He and the Father are one. Not that we all have to become the same, no: in this dream is a Church in which we finally realize that the divinity of God can handle our diversity.

And because this is my dream, I must first start with myself. I come from a background that includes Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian, and that has a strong Catholic influence. I say, “Christian,” because I have brethren in all of these, and in more.

10 thoughts on “In unity, One

  1. Apodeictic says:

    I’m all for catholicity, Christian unity and recognising God’s work in other Christian traditions. So I sympathise with your position. But …

    *Nicene Creed: Filioque or no?
    *The canon of Scripture: Which books are canonical?
    * The authority of Scripture in the church: Our sole Supreme authority or does Scripture jointly share this honour with something else?

    Just answering those three questions will provide an important answer to what particular flavour of “something” you are and distinguish you from other Christians. Sure, those differences don’t necessarily mean that we can’t enjoy a degree of fellowship with one another but at the end of the day the differences are still real.

    Blessings,
    Apodeictic

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  2. Chera says:

    Thank you Apodeictic. I was actually thinking about the Filioque debate yesterday morning, as I was thinking about writing this post. I ended up not writing about it because I did not want to go on overly long. I am still working out my views on the matter, but I think I am inclined to say “Filioque” simply because, if there exists the Trinity, then it does not follow (to me) for the Spirit to proceed from just the Father, and not both. But then, to complicate things further, I will say it both ways depending on the church I’m in, because, again, if there is the Trinity, then the Father and the Son are the same anyway, and so to say “from the Father” implies also the Son. But I admit, I still have a working understanding of the debate, and there is, as always, more for me to learn.

    This will sound postmodern and new agey, but in a lot of ways, I consider religion as how we attempt to understand the divine. I acknowledge that this probably is a result of my anthropology and folklore research; however, it also means that a lot of these divisions I see as human divisions. Filioque or no, transubstantiation or no, which books or no, at the end of the day, yes, these divisions still exist; they are valuable to consider and to learn from, but they are essentially of human origin. There are so many of them because humans are imperfect: our minds are finite as we attempt to understand and interact with a divine being so much more infinite than we are. It is this understanding, that God transcends our denominational differences, that I hope for, but that I also know is a long, long way away.

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  3. Apodeictic says:

    All good insights.

    I don’t think that saying that religion is an attempt to understand the divine is postmodern and new agey at all. I think that’s an incontrovertible fact. I would join you wholeheartedly in saying that. But that’s not *all* I would say about religion.

    The anthropologist’s insight about religion is right in so far as it goes. Religion does express a human attempt and understanding the divine or numinous; religion does play a valuable social role; religious beliefs and practices can and do arise as a result of the attempt to understand the divine and in light of the social role that religion plays &c &c &c. All true and valid insights. And yet as a Christian I would want to say more than that for the simple reason that I also believe in the concept of divine *revelation*.

    Unlike the anthropologist who is looking in at a particular religion from the outside, as someone on the inside I also believe that in addition to whatever the anthropologist might have to say, Christianity is also divinely revealed truth. Not all religions would make the claim to be divinely revealed truth (eg Buddhism doesn’t) but others certainly do (eg Islam quite clearly does).

    The important thing I think is to understand that whatever the validity of the anthropologist’s views about religion in general, for the Christian there is also such a thing as *true* religion and *false* religion. From what I understand of anthropology, anthropologists are not really concerned with validating or refuting the truth claims of the various religions. That’s not what anthropology is about. So for instance, Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Muslims believe that he was a prophet sent by God who didn’t die on a cross but was taken up to heaven and that it only appeared that Jesus died on the cross. Anthropologists are not concerned with resolving this debate (or indeed the question of whether God exists in the first place). It’s completely outside of their remit. But anthropologists can (rightly) say that both the Christian and the Muslim view of Jesus are an attempt to understand the divine. After all, they both say *something* about God (markedly differing things in fact).

    But just because the truth claims of various religions are outside of the remit of anthropologists doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned with such truth claims. As Christians we can of course say that religion (including Christianity!) is an attempt to understand the divine. But as Christians we will also say that there is such a thing as true religion and false religion. Not all attempts at understanding the divine are *true*. For Christians, all attempts at understanding the divine which are not based on God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus necessarily fall short of the mark. Ultimately they are false religions, flawed attempts at giving expression to the right and proper inclination in human beings to seek meaning and ultimately the divine. But that doesn’t mean that these religions do not contain some truth or play a useful social role etc. As a Christian I can still see some truth and some worth in false religions without compromising my commitment to Jesus Christ.

    So when I can look at other religions I see them in a number of different lights: (1) these religions are a genuine attempt (or at least *can be a genuine attempt — given what I believe about the condition of the human heart it is also possible to invent a “religion” not out of an attempt to understand the divine but for other less noble purposes and I think Ron L. Hubbard’s invention of Scientology falls into this category) to understand the divine (2) while these religions can be right in some respects in their attempt at understanding the divine, anything they do get right is as a result of God’s common grace to mankind and not because of any human merit and God in his sovereignty can use them to lead people to the truth about Himself, (3) the fact that some religions get some things right is not sufficient; Jesus Christ *is* Lord whatever Islam, Buddhism, etc have to say about that (which they answer wrongly) and a multitude of other questions (which they may or may not answer rightly); ultimately all religions which are not based on God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ are false religions despite any true and useful insights they may contain.

    But differences among Christians are of a different order than differences between Christianity and the other religions. As a Christian I would categorically state that Islam,Buddhism etc are “false religions”. But differences among Christians are not on that level. As a Protestant (loosely defined!) Christian I do *not* consider Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy to be “false religions”. These groups claim to believe one God, the Holy Trinity, and believe that salvation is by God’s grace as a result of faith in Jesus and that knowledge of God comes through His revelation of Himself by the prophets, in His Son and by His apostles. In short, we believe in the same God, accept the same core self-revelation of God and believe in common that God is approached in faith and by grace. Our differences are therefore second order and are disputes about how we are rightly to understand what God has revealed in Christ (and what we hold in common).

    Now of course the true-false distinction still applies for distinctions among Christians. So for instance transubstantiation as defined by Roman dogmaticians is either true or it is not; the Spirit either proceeds solely from the Father or from both the Father and the Son; the books commonly called apocryphal or deuterocanonical are either divinely inspired or they are not; &c &c &c. But these and other questions are on a different level than the differences between Christianity and other religions.

    How are we to categorise the differences among Christians? I think we can say at least the following: (1) cultural-historical, (2) differences in emphasis (i.e. both groups believe X but one group emphasises X more than the other), (3) genuine differences of belief (i.e. one group believes X while another believes not-X). Many of the differences fall into categories (1) and (2) — even differences we might have thought were irreconcilable (3)-type differences. (3)-type differences of course exist. I’m not denying that.

    Coming back to your original point about religion being an attempt to understand the divine: Yes, many the differences among Christians are genuine attempts at understanding the divine. As long as they are attempts to understand God as he has revealed himself (and not as we imagine him to be) then we should be able to “agree to disagree”. I can live with those kinds of differences. Take transubstantiation for example. I have a view on this question and I believe my view to be right (otherwise I wouldn’t hold it!). But (for me at least since I don’t accept the pronouncements of the Council of Trent as divine truth!) God has not directly revealed the answer to the question of how Jesus is present when Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That’s a question that Christians will seek to answer in light of what God has revealed about himself. These different answers by Christians are very much an attempt to “understand the divine”. They can’t all be right, of course. And importantly there is a degree of provisionality about my own views on these kinds of questions. When pressed I will say something like “as far as I understand what God is saying about himself …”. That doesn’t apply to questions like “Is Jesus Lord?”. God has clearly answered that question and if I don’t believe that then I am no longer a Christian in any meaningful sense of that word. But it does apply to questions like transubstantiation or whether the Spirit proceeds from both Father and the Son or just the Father. By believing a particular view on these kinds of questions you don’t cease to be a Christian. So I can live with the fact that Christians differ from me on these and a whole host of other second order questions so long as we share the same starting point — viz. that these are genuine attempts to understand God as he has revealed himself (and not as we imagine him to be). The problem of course arises when we move away from the individual level to the level of the church. What is a particular church to believe and teach? (eg which version of the Creed do we recite? What is the church to teach about the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper? And so on and so forth.) But I’m not going to attempt an answer to that question here.

    Blessings,
    Apodeictic

    PS You may be interested to know that the Choir of the Queen’s College Oxford (the choir that did the Harry Potter soundtrack and in which I sing) is going to be featured on BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong program later this month. Check out my own blog for the details.

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  4. Chera says:

    It seems, Apodeictic, that we agree on many (if not all) of these points. You hit the nail on the head when you said, “The problem of course arises when we move away from the individual level to the level of the church”—and this was the very issue I was trying address. As individuals we can agree to disagree, and yet there is something fundamentally wrong when I go to Mass with my best friend, who is Catholic, and I am not allowed to take Communion with her, despite that she and I agree on all the most fundamental aspects of our religion, or when a Lutheran friend of mine is basically told she is not fully Christian because she was baptized as an infant. The fault lines that run along the boundaries of denominations have grown too deep and too wide, and the Church is suffering for it.

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  5. Apodeictic says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    Yes, the problem lies at the church level more so than at the individual level. I don’t have any definitive answers to this conundrum. This side of heaven I don’t think we’ll fully overcome our differences. But I have a few suggestions. They are hardly original of course but I raise them for your consideration. I think it is possible for a church to be true to its own convictions and yet tolerant of other views. You have raised Baptism and the Holy Communion so I shall comment on those two matters.

    But first this by way of general introduction: it’s often the case that it is easier for group A to be accepting of the practices of group B than it is for group B to be accepting of the practices of group A. If we find ourselves in group A then we need to respect the fact that the convictions of group B can’t accommodate our views as easily as our convictions allow us to accommodate theirs. For instance a (Protestant) paedo-baptist will automatically recognise a Baptist’s baptism but the converse is not so readily the case. While a Lutheran will recognise a Baptist’s baptism, a Baptist will not so easily be able to recognise a Lutheran infant baptism (or perhaps even an adult baptism performed other than by full immersion).

    So coming to baptism specifically: I think it is possible for a Baptist church to continue to be faithful to its understanding of Baptism as being for those who prefess faith and by full immersion while not excluding those who hold a different view or were baptised differently. This would require a change in thinking on the part of most Baptists but not one that would force them to give up their Baptistic convictions entirely. In short they would need to stop viewing infant baptism and adult baptism other than by full immersion as an invalid baptism (i.e. not a baptism at all) and start viewing it as an irregularly performed baptism (i.e. a baptism that wasn’t performed in the way God has ordained but which is still nevertheless valid). Such a view would continue to allow Baptist churches only to baptise those who profess faith and by full immersion (and to teach as much from the pulpit) but would also allow them to recognise the baptisms of those who were baptised in non-Baptistic churches and cannot in good conscience be re-baptised. Now not all Baptists would be willing to make this change in thought but I think some would. And no doubt this wouldn’t fully satisfy all paedo-baptists. But it’s a concrete step that can be taken to overcome some of the fellowship-breaking consequences of our differences while still remaining true to our particular understanding of Baptism.

    On the Holy Communion: again it is possible for a church to hold to (and teach form the pulpit) a particular view of the real presence (or lack thereof) without excluding those who hold a different view. This actually happens among various protestant denominations already. As an example the Reformed (eg Presbyterians) and Lutherans hold distinct views on the presence of Christ at the holy Communion but my understanding is that they don’t thereby exclude one another from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. I’m not Lutheran but when I lived in Germany I regularly took communion at a Lutheran church even though I don’t hold to the Lutheran view on the presence of Christ (sacramental union/ consubstantiation). And the pastors also knew who I was and that I was an Anglican with Reformed/Calvinist view of the Lord’s Supper. They didn’t exclude me from communion — which is exactly things should be in my view. A church can teach a particular view of the real presence (eg Lutheran sacramental union) without excluding those who in good conscience hold a different view. But again, this will be easier for some groups than others to put into practice. It is much easier for Protestants than Catholics to do. For the Roman Catholic church to adopt this mindset and say “we teach transubstantiation because we believe it to be the truth but you are still welcome to take Communion with us if you in good conscience have a different belief” won’t be easy. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t think along those lines (and of course the precise wording of the formulations of the Council of Trent make this approach difficult). But maybe one day it will.

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  6. Casey says:

    Did you ever get a chance to read the FB wall conversation I described to you? Let’s just call it my way of spreading the ecumenical ideal. As an ideal it is unlikely that we will ever reach our goal, but that certainly won’t stop me from trying. How silly if we based our dreams on their attainability!

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  7. Megan says:

    Well, I must say I thoroughly appreciated the dialogue between you two. And now… I can’t remember what I was going to say as my own response…

    Ah yes, something along the lines of, “I wish you could join me in communion and fellowship at our tiny house church, as well as the established local church which is also quite small and includes attendees from a variety of religious backgrounds. As for the house church, I have lately realized the amazing beauty of fellowship and community that exists between us, who are from different denominations, holding some different beliefs, and also how much easier this is when there are so few of us. Of course there are two factors that make our unity easier to practice: 1) We are all Protestant. I believe we would each of us accept a brother from another side of the spectrum, but the problem would probably come when we differ on how we should worship, or whether or not they considered us church… Indeed, I’m sure some Baptists would argue against us in this respect. But I can’t be sure how it would go since there are no Catholics among us; maybe that’s an illuminating condition. 2) Because we are such a small group, we easily interact a great deal on the “individual level” mentioned above, even though we also function together on the “church level.” On the other hand, even the minor differences we have as Protestants are ones that would seem, and did seem, larger when back home among large communities of “our own kind.”

    That being said, I am grateful for this time, getting to experience a body of some diversity in one accord. Our differences, which mostly fit into the first and second categories (cultrual and with different emphases, not wholly different beliefs), are minimized by two simple truths: the vastness and depth of false religion around us, as well as our commonality in being here with similar purposes. …Come to think of it, I’m not even sure what denomination some of us are…

    I was telling someone about you the other day, and what a beautiful view of and love for the Church you have, trying to explain you. Haha. Oh, I can’t wait until I’m there with you in person and we can freely discuss, face-to-face, things like this and what I’ve experienced here. Which reminds me, last week I was called, with no hesitation, a Muslim. I understood her meaning but was still taken aback a little bit.

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  8. Chera says:

    Apodeictic: Yes, the very minimum of what I hope for are those two things: 1) the recognition of each other’s baptisms as valid, and 2) the ability to share in Communion.

    Casey: Yes, you told me about that. And so true about ideals and attainability: our entire faith is based upon hope for things unseen. We are told to be perfect, when perfection is unattainable on this mortal earth. It is a process, and how can we reach it if we never try?

    Megan: You flatter me. I am always glad to hear about your experiences there and your house church; how all of you go there from different places but come together to worship and support each other. Can you imagine how much more effective the Church would be, if different churches put aside their differences, rolled up their sleeves and worked side by side? Incredible.

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  9. Sarah says:

    Did I tell you that the other day we were having conversations about whether or not authors directly addressed their audience/reader before the 19th C. And one guy (with a George MacDonald beard) referenced John. And I thought about Chaucer and some others and we determined, yes, they did. A bit off topic but I thought you might be interested 😀

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    • Chera says:

      That is interesting. Beowulf does, too; a lot of medieval epics and ballads begin with, “Listen!” Granted, this probably comes from their origin as oral tales, but it’s carried over into its written history. 🙂 I wonder if it is a valid theory to say that as long as there has been an audience, the author has addressed it. Not every author of course, but an example from every period.

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