This post over on Mark Shea’s blog got me to thinking. In high school, back when 8-tracks ruled the earth, I, in the words of Agent Smith, had a revelation: of all the various flavors of Christianity I had run into, the two closest were Catholics and Evangelicals. (I had not run into Orthodox churches at that time).
What I had noticed is that the Church and our Evangelical brothers shared something our Mainline brothers did not. This might be summed up in two ideas: there is Truth, and God is trying to teach it to us. When you got right down to it, our mainline brethren seemed to believe that truth was a little more flexible, and that God was actually depending on us to figure it out on our own and report back to Him, if, in fact, he cared or even existed. How else could you *ever* entertain the notion that the basic teachings of your sect were items you could vote on, or stuff you could agree to disagree on? I read about these mainline Protestant councils and synods arguing over dogma and following one of two courses: either declare that some previously martyrdom-worthy belief turns out to be simply a matter of conscience that shouldn’t be argued over by reasonable Christians, or the differences became factions which became new churches. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The main line of puritanical Calvinism moved, over the course of a couple centuries, from stern Pilgrims burning witches and believing in the utter unworthiness and inevitable damnation of most everybody, to easy-going Unitarians who thought that, as long as you believed in an undefined Jesus of some sort and tried to be good, hey, you’re cool! Seriously, the grandsons of the double-predestined Calvinist hell fire preachers were the pastors at the first Unitarian churches. Wild. Now, Unitarianism is indistinguishable for Progressive Liberalism, even down to being totally cool with not believing in God at all.
The people belonging to the behinds in the pews tended to downplay differences that would otherwise result in unpleasantness at family gatherings. If the theologians couldn’t figure it out, then what chance do I, Mr. Average Member of the Congregation, stand? Besides, did what you believe about Jesus’ dual natures or how, exactly, salvation is effected make any difference to how you were to behave as a Christian? While you can find some really hot-blooded arguments from the early 1800s between Presbyterians and Methodists, say, where each claims that the other is leading their flock to perdition, by 1970, the only attitude I ever ran across was that it was all pretty much the same, so long as you loved Jesus. Church shopping was performed with almost no attention paid to teachings or history whatsoever – whether one ended up at Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist or even Anglican services was merely a matter of taste and how welcomed you felt. (Except for Catholic Churches, of course – they were right out!)
At the time, the idea of ‘Fundamentalism’ was just gaining currency – meaning that even a dumb high school kid had heard the term, and even formed some vague ideas, one of which was that these folks really cared about what they believed. As I remember it, the term ‘Evangelical’ was not used as much as a general class description until later.
What was clear to my teenage head was that Catholics were supposed to believe stuff, and not just whatever stuff they felt like believing – and Evangelicals felt the same way. And that a lot of the stuff we and Evangelicals were supposed to believe overlapped: we believed in one God, the father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, and so on. And we believed that we were supposed to spread the Gospel to the whole world – it wasn’t essentially a personal belief system, but rather a world-changing revelation, the story behind everything, and mankind’s only hope for happiness.
This is all beautiful. The idea that truth is up for negotiation is a form of insanity. That truth may be subtle and difficult, sure, and that no one person this side of Eternity could ever hope to grasp it all is obviously true – but this is an invitation to humility and prayer, not carte blanche to make it up as you go.
Getting back to Mr. Shea’s post: the question boils down to authority. Given the above, what is a simple honest person supposed to do? While we can always learn more, think more, pray more, that’s not going to work practically in a world where we are called to act now yet incapable of figuring it all out on our own in any finite number of human lifetimes.To follow Christ, we are going to have to accept that there is some authority who can teach us how.
Evangelicals accept the Bible as the ultimate authority, while Catholics believe that Jesus established a Church which compiled the Book, and on whose word the authority of the Bible rests. From a purely human methodological perspective, each of these approaches has its drawbacks – while its all but certain that bad Popes will come along, it is even more certain that individuals will appoint themselves pope when faced with difficult or obscure problems of interpretation. But if we look at it from a divine perspective, we can choose to believe that God speaks clearly to the sincere soul from the pages of the Bible so that all beliefs, decisions and actions can be vouchsafed as ‘Christian’ by reference to the Bible alone, or we can choose to believe that the teachings of Jesus have come down to us via the hands of the Apostles and their proper successors, and turn to Church teachings for guidance. (One of those teachings is that the Bible is the sacred Word of God, of course.)
But however we believe, we agree that belief in real non-negotiable truths is a key part of following Jesus, who declared Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Which is why, at the upcoming Walk for Life, there will be plenty of Catholics and Evangelicals. Let us pray that our other Protestant brothers may join us!