Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Response to Mir

Recently, Mir left a comment on a previous post that requires a more extensive reply than I can comfortably give in the comments section. Since it's been my idea lately to have Sunday posts focus more on religion than sf, now seems a good time to attempt an answer. If life were a comic book, Mir and I would probably be arch-enemies. I'm a formerly Evangelical Catholic, she's a formerly Catholic Evangelical, and we both love science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, life isn't a comic book.

The Church, big C, is singular. Christ's body. And I believe that the basis for being part of Christ's body is the simple gospel--"believeth on him has eternal life."

Already at the start of the discussion we have arrived at the central dilemma. What exactly makes this the simple gospel, and why have we decided the gospel is simple? If I wished, I could pick a favorite verse from the New Testament and hold it up as the essence of the gospel, but I have no good reason for doing that. (I'm rather fond of 1 Timothy 2.15 on that score and could probably make a very strange religion out of it.)

The verse Mir has quoted, John 3.16, has a particular context. The book was written in, by, and for a Christian community. The ones who have believed to which the book refers are those who are members of that community. This verse must not be read in isolation, but must be read in the light of other passages such as John 8.31, John 15.1-6, John 6.54, John 3.5, and the rest of John. The author or authors of John would not have expected anyone who believed to be able to continue in the life of Christ apart from the Church.

And then we get to the next problem. Believe in who, exactly? Jesus, presumably, but which Jesus? The Jesus of the Gnostics? Of the Arians? Of the Talmud? Of the Muslims? Of the Ascended Masters? If believing in Jesus is to have any real meaning, it must include believing definite things about Jesus, and that brings us around immediately to the very things Mir, if I understand her correctly, is trying to avoid: absolutist doctrinal statements and sectarian adherence requirements. She lists a number of titles for Christ, all of which are orthodox, but none of which give any certain statement about who or what Jesus is. An Arian could happily recite all of them.

I believe that all who truly turn to God and believe the gospel of Christ are part of the body, no matter what outward manifestation of it there is, or what church they call home.

This is an expression of the Denominational Theory of the Church. This concept did not come into existence until after the Reformation. It is essentially an excuse or explanation for rampant Protestant schism. The theory falls apart for a few reasons. First, it is hindered by the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura: the Denominational Theory is not to be found in the Bible. Second, it implies either that multiple truth claims can be simultaneously true or that truth claims are unimportant. The first option defies logic, and the second option, if true, would mean we shouldn't be having this discussion.

There are secondary doctrines that do not touch the core.

Every Protestant is forced by the lack of a Magisterium to decide for himself what is essential and what is not. If I decided, for example, that the Incarnation were a "secondary" doctrine, I would claim, as many Protestants do claim, that Jesus was an ordinary though especially wise man, and that silly beliefs like the Incarnation or Resurrection do not touch on the "core" of his teachings. The problem here is that there is no sure way to determine what that "core" is except by private preference. Issues that I consider core, and which the Church has always considered core, and which conservative Protestants consider core include doctrines like the nature of justification, a matter on which the various Protestant sects, even among the Evangelicals, are sharply divided. If only secondary doctrines are subjects of disagreement between Evangelicals, as some Evangelical leaders suggest and as Mir seems to suggest, then they are in effect saying that justification is unimportant. If this were true, that would be the death of Christianity, since it has always hung on the statement that we need to be saved and the subject of how we are to be saved.

But the Church is the one faith, and the one baptism (which is the Spirit baptism that seals, imo, but even if it is the water baptism of witness, then so be it).

"Water baptism of witness" sounds like a Baptist concept, though it may exist in other sects as well. It is the belief that baptism is a ritual with no inward effect. This is quite contrary to scripture, and it bemuses me that Christians who claim to derive all their doctrines from scripture would hold to it. Scripture describes baptism in three ways: as rebirth, as washing, and as a participation in Christ's death and resurrection. It is by its nature an initiation rite that makes a person a Christian, and so a group of first-century Semites would have seen it. Jesus refers to baptism as being born "again" or "from above," and depicts water as an inherent part of the rite (John 3.5-7). Titus 3.5 calls baptism a "washing of regeneration." Romans 6.4 says, "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death." And 1 Peter 3.20-21 compares baptism to the ark of Noah, and says plainly, "baptism doth also now save us." The view that the outward act and its effects can be wholly separated is, as far as I know, original to John Calvin, and it stems from his theology, not from scripture.

I believe that whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc, if the person looks upon Christ the Savior and says, "I am a sinner. Forgive me. You are Lord," and this is absolutely the cry of their heart and soul, and they follow, then they are His and are of the Body.

Respect for ancestors is a part of natural law, and it is embodied in the Ten Commandments as, "Honor thy father and thy mother." You should give greater honor to your spiritual ancestors. The Reformed Fathers did not risk their lives and divide the Church so you could say that sectarian affiliation and doctrine are unimportant. The reason there are Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists is because certain people were bold enough to say that truth is important, that it is not to be found here, and so we must make a new sect where it can be found. If you really believed what you are saying, you would still be Catholic because you are in essence saying that nothing over which Christians have divided is important enough to actually lead to division. Luther did not believe people could be saved in the Catholic Church because of Catholic doctrine. He said plainly that his doctrine of sola fide was that on which the Church stands or falls. And his doctrine as he taught it is rarely found among the Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Methodists.

I do not see priests in the N.T.

Too often when Catholics and Protestants argue over this issue, they argue about whether or not Christian ministers should be called priests rather than about the nature of the Christian ministry. I don't care if you call them priests. You may call them elders, presbyters, overseers, pastors, or cupcakes for all I care. The issue is whether or not their ministry includes certain God-given permissions not granted to others and whether or not this ministry is passed by laying on of hands. As for the laying on of hands, the New Testament could hardly be clearer: Acts 6.6, 1 Timothy 4.14 and 5.22, and 2 Timothy 1.6 all depict laying on of hands as a means of ritual power transference. This has roots in the Old Testament, particularly Numbers 27.23. This means a person without this laying on of hands, if he carried out the ministry of one on whom hands had been laid, would be acting invalidly. This is what we mean by apostolic succession.

I do not see adoration of Mary.

Neither do I. You're probably aware that adoration is a term for worship reserved to God. A better word here is veneration. Marian devotion was fully developed by the fourth century, and the chivalrous if not exactly doctrinal Christan viewpoint that women are more than mere mortals is traceable all the way back to the writing of The Shepherd of Hermas somewhere toward the end of the first century.

The question of Marian veneration is a non-issue, a distraction. The real issue is veneration of and prayer to saints in general. The Catholic view is that of Christ, that God is God not of the dead but of the living, and therefore Christians who have "fallen asleep" are still part of the body, able to pray on our behalf just as we pray on each other's behalf on Earth. As for offering these saints veneration, this is similar to the practice of offering veneration to certain people because of the offices they hold. We play "Hail to the Chief" when the president arrives because his office demands a certain amount of respect. Similarly, those Christians who have already run the race and claimed the prize deserve respect for having done so; and they did so only by grace, so veneration offered to them is a form of adoration offered to God.

Why is the Virgin Mary offered particularly enthusiastic veneration? Because her office is particularly unique and unusual. We have no other report of a virgin birth in scripture, and certainly no other report of a birth of Christ. The Virgin Mary was offered a particularly special grace and was able to participate in God's redemptive plan in a particularly special way. In so doing, she fulfilled the mythic motif of the cosmic virgin all-mother and became an inherent part of the entry into real space-time of the mythic round.

But now I'm getting into my own signature weirdness and had better move back into standard apologetics: at any rate, when we die and rise with Christ in baptism, we are moved into Christ's body, his family, his Church. We can call him husband and brother. Since he is our brother, we share his mother, as he tells us in John 19.27, "Here is your mother." I invite readers in particular to compare Luke 1.39-45 with 2 Samuel 6.9-16; Luke is comparing the Virgin Mary to the Ark of the Covenant, something I had to accept even as a Protestant when it was shown to me. The Ark received special attention and veneration not because gold-plated boxes deserve praise and respect, but because this particular gold-plated box carried the presence of God. Although women do inherently deserve praise and respect (carrying, as they do, both the imago dei and our offspring), the Virgin Mary carried the presence of God like an Ark of the New Covenant and so deserves special attention, not because she needs it, but because we do.

Beyond that, I can only say that Marian devotion draws people. The myths suggest a mother figure, preferably a virgin, is supposed to figure in all of this somewhere. Many non-Catholic Christians have found the rosary compelling, including me. Before I was Catholic, I made a particular and specific request for which I prayed a rosary. I cannot give details, but my prayer was immediately, particularly, and specifically answered. If God were trying to tell me that Marian devotion is a waste of time, he pulled a real boner.

I do not see confessionals.

Nor should you. Confession in the early Church was made in front of the whole congregation with the bishop present. So that the sacrament could be received more often, private confession came into practice. Irish monks invented the confessional to make the practice of frequent private confession easier. The East does not have confessionals, and though they strongly encourage confession before receiving communion, it's a more difficult process and so weekly communion is still not a regular practice there, though a number of Eastern saints encouraged it a few even came up with creative ways of making weekly confession a possibility.

Even some much-respected Protestant leaders have acknowledged that the confessional has great psychological and even spiritual benefits, though they do not acknowledge its supernatural aspects. Martin Luther insisted that the Christian should be willing to run a hundred miles to go to confession, but the practice has dropped out of Lutheranism, probably, I think, because Luther did not regard this important practice as a sacrament.

Jesus tells his apostles in John 20.23 that they have the authority to forgive and retain sin. He does not tell them how to forgive or retain it or how often it ought to be forgiven or retained or which sins ought to be forgiven and which retained. That is a matter the Church worked out with the aid of the Holy Spirit until it arrived at the current practices, which include secret confession and face-to-face confession in the West and confession in front of the iconostasis in the East. For myself, I have normally gone to face-to-face confession because I believed secret confession would hinder the priest's ability to council me after I had made my confession. When I went to secret confession once with a priest I had never met, I learned I was wrong. At any rate, I have experienced nothing in the confessional besides blessings and benefits.

I do not see rosaries.

Strange Bible if you did. I don't see guitars and praise choruses either, but that doesn't mean using such things is wrong. Over the course of the life of the Church, its members have developed a vast body of meditation methods, spiritual writings, prayers, devotions, hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Ours would be a peculiar and peculiarly dry religion if they hadn't. The rosary is a devotion that grew up and developed over time until it reached its current standard form. It is a prayer and meditation. The only elements of it that a Protestant could possibly find objectionable have already been addressed. I do not understand why the rosary ever becomes a subject in debate.

Those who are called may sit in the pews of different places, but the core, the core of what changes the heart and gives new birth to the spirit, that is found in every denomination with a sound central doctrine.

And there's the rub. Who defines "sound central doctrine"? The Arians were great Bible-users. They often knew scripture better than their orthodox opponents, and that is partly why they were so widespread and influential for so long, yet I doubt if you would say they had a sound central doctrine, for they believed Jesus was a lesser divine being of different substance from the Father. And why shouldn't they, if we have only scripture to go on? The proclamation of the Nicean Council is not plain in scripture. You believe it only because the Reformers never bothered to attack it.

The Creed is a sound central doctrine.

Which creed are we talking about? The Nicean Creed is not in your Bible. Nor is the Apostles' Creed. These are absolutist statements made by a Church who felt she had the right to make absolutist and binding statements about doctrine.

Father, Son, Spirit--virgin birth, atoning death, victorious resurrection, life through the Spirit, a judgement and resurrection to come, hope in the holy and eternal kingdom to come.

Excellent, but tell me, the Father, Son, and Spirit--is this the Trinity or a single person with three roles or three different gods? All three answers have been explored in the development of Christian doctrine, and the holders of each had their reasons that they could call biblical. You hold to the Trinitarian doctrine only because the Catholic Church told you to, not because you and every other Protestant is a brilliant scriptural scholar and mystic able to discern the Truth for himself.

I know I have brothers and sisters in churches across the globe. We may give ourselves adjectives--Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical--but what matters is CHRISTIAN.

There has been an interesting evolution in Protestant thought. In its early days, you had to follow the right teachings to be saved. After that, the Denominational Theory of the Church came into being, and now we have moved into a new phase where there is no Church at all.

I told a retired Baptist pastor, who I still regard as one of the kindest and godliest men I have known, that I was on the road to Catholicism. He told me that in his youth he had gone through a crisis similar to the one that brought me to the Catholic Church. He wondered, with all the schisms, divisions, and different denominations with different doctrines, where exactly the true Church lay. He came to a conclusion I can quote exactly: "There is no Church. There are only Christians." Though this is the only reasonable Protestant answer to Protestant schizmation, it is directly contrary to the teaching of the Bible. It contains, I think, a note of despair.

It casts believers out of the community and into the void where they have nothing but their Bible and their intuitions. It's all well and good to reply that the Church is an invisible communion, but if this is so, the Church means nothing. An invisible communion cannot discipline errant members nor settle doctrinal dispute, and it cannot be a witness to the world.

And it won't work, for if the Church is only an invisible communion, it requires each of us to decide for himself exactly what the core of Christianity is. I know I am unequipped to do that. I know it because I have observed others who have tried to state the core of Christianity, and I have observed them stating different and contrary things.

Many Evangelicals I have spoken to make the real issue not one of orthodoxy but of personal freedom, as if the Reformation were begun and Europe consumed in thirty years of mercenary ravagings in order to win Christians the right to skip church on Sunday if they feel like it. But I have found real freedom in the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy is a playground, not a prison house. I am at last really free to interpret scripture for myself (the sacred freedom of Evangelicals) because I know the Church has already wrestled with the key issues and made her decisions. I no longer have to fight with myself over how the atonement is applied to the Christian, or over whether Calvin or Arminius had a better doctrine of justification. These issues are now for me non-issues, and with a foundation of sound doctrine in place and intact, I can get onto the business of other things, such as exploring how Christ fufills the dreams of mythology. Were I still Protestant, I would be stuck on the basic issues, never able to move on from them, because I would have only my own fallible interpretation and a host of other, mutually contradictory fallible interpretations to go on. As Hebrews says, let us move onto maturity, "not laying again the foundation" (6.1). This is possible only if the foundation is firm, and it can be firm only if it is known.
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