This morning, I just sat through a social activism meeting in the basement of a Catholic church, between two different proponents of the culture wars. They were all doing their best to be conciliatory. But no surprise, it wasn’t exactly successful.
It was painful.
I cried later that day about it. Both sides probably felt so dismissed and silenced, or dismissed and judged. I could feel it both ways. I admit I’m not exactly an impartial outsider of the culture wars, but I think I’ve seen enough of both sides to feel both their pain.
Also, I had the awkward advantage of being the only protestant outsider in their tense discussion of their current pope’s views. My faith doesn’t depend on Pope Francis’s theology. It’s a terribly vulnerable thing, having a leader to follow and love and fear for. Communal, shared identities inevitably become battlegrounds, and that is rough on everyone.
I’m not sure if it is worth the fight. Probably it is, I don’t know. But there is something far more important. There comes a point when each one of us must cry out to the Holy Spirit, and then follow our own conscience. In the end, we each will stand before God alone.
For it is written:
As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
And I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will have to give account of it in the day of judgment.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life.
And the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to what he had done.
We will each stand before God alone. So cry out to God, and then follow your conscience. I’m not saying whatever you do is fine. Of course your choices matter, and matter so incredibly much at that. I am saying, hash it out with Him personally. Talk to Him, fight with Him, talk to Him, cry out to Him, talk to Him. Rage at Him if you must, but don’t stop talking to Him. Then, with fear and yearning, do what you think is right. Because God is righteousness. So do what you think is right, what He wants you to do. Some day you will stand with Him, face to face.
And then you will know, it was always just between the two of you.
For the past 9.5 years I’ve been sorta planning to become Catholic, or struggling with it, or debating about it. I tried RCIA, and bailed right before Easter. I’ve read the Catechism, certain passages again and again. Went on retreats. Had big debates about Catholicism/Protestantism, with people coming from both traditions. Et cetera, etc. etc.
Finally last February I decided to join next Easter. I told my family, I was set.
And then, this summer, I realized I couldn’t. I’ve said that before, but deep down I was planning to become Catholic, someday. Some day I’d scrape up the gumption, tie my head into the right knot, convince myself just enough to swear the oaths without perjury, jump in and swim the Tiber.
But now I’m certain I never will ‘swim the Tiber’. I am certain with a calm, peaceful certainty. I know I am a Protestant with the same certainty that I know I am a woman. I was born a protestant, and I’ll die a protestant. That is how it will be. It is who I am, and I know it now.
It is very simple, really. You see, if I was an atheist or a Hindu, then the transition, the shift from:
Atheism –> Catholic Christianity
Hinduism –> Catholic Christianity
would not entail a rejection of Protestant Christianity. This conversion would not be a rejection of the faith of Luther or Calvin or Abraham Kuiper or John Teselle. But a “conversion” from:
Protestant Christianity –> Catholic Christianity
by its very nature, would entail precisely such a rejection.
And the honest truth is, I don’t think Luther was wrong. (OK, yeah, very wrong about his attitude to Jews and Peasants and the purported anti-christ and the Mass), but he was not wrong about a very fundamental thing: that the Bride of Christ, the Church, ultimately answers to God Alone. Not the upper echelons of her own administration. That an individual soul doesn’t “need” the higher administration folks to reach God, to hear His voice, to do what is right and just. Actually, sometimes (unfortunately too often) an individual soul has to ignore and disobey the upper administration folks to reach God, to hear His voice, and to do what is right and just.
And the truth of the matter is, no matter how I hem or haw around the issue, that is the truth of it. No matter how much I like papal teachings or can criticize the many errors of Calvinism… I still believe that.
But wait, you are thinking, most Catholics don’t believe that about the upper administration anymore. Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae and JP2’s Catechism teach that too, the importance of the individual conscience. So if they teach that now, then you can believe all that and be a good Catholic. Right? OK, that is fine, but you were born Catholic. To be a Catholic Christian, you don’t have to embrace everything some pope said in the sixteenth century, or some bull from the thirteenth century. But if I “convert” from Protestant Christian –> Catholic Christian, I am by the very fact of my “conversion”, categorically saying that that the sixteenth-century Protestant offshoot was wrong for being an offshoot. Oh, I know they were wrong about so many things, their iconoclasm, their state churches, their occasional defamation/blasphemy of sacred things, and their surrenders to rationalism and (what would become) materialist modernism and naked individualism… But they were not wrong for listening to God’s voice within their interior temple, their conscience, rather than the upper administration. Perhaps they were wrong about so many other things, ok. But they were right about that.
If you are a Catholic Christian nowadays, you can believe that too, and it is fine. But you aren’t making the shift from protestant–>catholic, you aren’t renouncing the protestant reformation/schism because you never had an affiliation to it.
But I do. And for me… I would have to “convert”. I don’t even like using that word. Going between different strands of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox) shouldn’t be called “converting” anyway. It is not. We all have the same Christ.
So that is the long and short of it. My blood and bones are protestant, because I believe that the interior conscience is categorically more sacred than any ecclesiastical authority, and that is just the way it is. I’ll always admire and respect Catholicism all my life. I’ll always feel that longing for their sacraments, as I kneel in the pew and watch others take and eat.
But we worship the same Christ, and we are more together than we admit, even now. And we will all admit our togetherness when we are finally all gathered together in Him, “up there.”
So, here I am reading other church fathers (e.g. Pope Leo, etc.), and they so often seem bound by their times….making technicalities and justifications for wiggling out of responsibilities to servile concubines, etc.
And then there is Augustine, who is so…determined, sure, consistent– consistently honoring the absolute sanctity of words, the absolute sanctity of people, through all the cultural baggage/constraints/blindnesses of the times. He starts speaking, and 99% of the time, my heart resonates with the truth he is saying, I just want to stand and cheer. I know people blame him, saying that he ruined the Church’s view of sexuality for being so down on it. But that’s all mistaken, because he didn’t ruin it, he made it right, he made it so pure and beautiful.
He’s not a grump, he’s a romantic, and the best kind too–honest and consistent and person-concerned (e.g. pastoral).
His vision is so unabashedly consistent, holy, and romantic, you just want to stand and cheer. Yes, he’s up there with the Empress Theodora in my book.
The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.
In other words… it doesn’t have authority because we said it, but because it is true. And your conscience isn’t important because its hip to talk about that right now–but because it all comes from God. God, the Truth, the still small voice, the wind. Or as my professor put it, “What has authority? Truth. Who is the highest Truth? God. People must seek truth–not through their relationship with governments (e.g. coercive power) but through their relationship with God.”
In other words…its not about us. It never was. It is about God. OK, I’m in final paper writing and this isn’t coherent, but here’s another quote that made me feel like cheering:
The family, since it is a society in its own original right, has the right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents. Parents, moreover, have the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education…
The Vicar of St Peter understands about homeschooling, about families. I wasn’t expecting this in middle of the document, about what I care most about, so it was a sweet to run into it.
And while I’m rejoicing, here’s the other awesome one:
She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.
Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.
In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization.
The Church can’t back down, not because they are awesome, but because this teaching is the Truth. This is not an issue of them being ‘above’, this is an issue of them being ‘below’, obedient to something larger than all of us–our own greatness. “This world promises you comfort. You were not made for comfort. You were made for Greatness.”
There is a way of things, and that way of things, as it was meant to be, is beautiful. It is for our own good, all of our good.
Hearing truth spoken clearly, the universe seems to change. It makes the air sweeter (and the stars brighter).
Rationally speaking, I am very hopeful and excited about Pope Francis. He has said some things that are very encouraging. I thought, finally, he’d undo all that Innocent III etc did wrong, and perhaps now would be when the protestants could all come back. (Yes, I know I’m dreaming madly.)
But I was seeing the footage of him and Benedict XVI onscreen, and tears sprang into my eyes when I saw B16’s face. There is something in B16’s face, that was in JP2’s face too, that I don’t see in Francis’. I can’t say what it is. Part of me hopes this intuition is wrong, I so badly want a good pope. But I miss Benedict. I really do, I didn’t think I would this much, but I do. I don’t understand either. Why? Why did he resign? But I trusted him 110%, in a way, more so even then JP2, can’t explain that either. And so he must’ve had his reasons for resigning.
I wonder if it is that….JP2 and B16 suffered under totalitarian regimes? Is that what it is? Wisdom does come with suffering. Augh, I don’t understand.
Then there was that lightning that hit the vatican the day Benedict resigned. It really freaked me out at the time, superstitious medievalist that I am.
I’m used to the dichotomized Catholic world, divided peculiarly into two camps. There are the devout who truly believe, believe in ancient faith and holy traditions, who bow before Presence, who sing in Latin, carrying their many bright-eyed children to the altar of God, kneeling before something Holy and Beautiful and Terrible and Greater than themselves.
There is a steadfastness of heart there. A bulwark against the ravages of other things. And yes, in that distance and austere splendor, a moment of true silence, a deep comfort, like cold water from an ancient well. For all my differences, there is something there that others cannot give. They hold on to All That Has Been Lost in this age of empty modernism, their hands cling firmly, come hell and high water. Their grip is firm, the knuckles white, holding on.
But their hands can sometimes…sometimes also be rigid and closed, more intent upon holding on than on receiving, too afraid to let slip what can so easily be lost. Oh I know they have good reason to fear, for innocence and faith and hope are fragile, fragile things. Tear the fabric, and the whole weave shall unravel. One’s own soul is, as, Thomas More put it (in A Man For All Seasons), “held in a man’s cupped hands like water…and if he should spread his fingers….”
But all the same, their hands can become closed. And sometimes blind to a part of God’s truth within those with whom they disagree. For all Truth is God’s truth, it is too great a thing to become divided up and possessed. If something is truly True, than it should be so, regardless of the teller, be he Protestant or Muslim or Buddhist. Precisely because one’s creed is true, one does not possess it, one has no monopoly upon it. (Which, btw, was Paul VI’s point when he refused to use his papal powers to update things, “Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful” because she does not have that power.)
And then there are the ‘open-minded’ ones, they are welcoming and inclusive. To my joy they were OK with me being Protestant…but also OK with you being Buddhist…and Wiccan…and OK if you don’t know much about Jesus or yourself or holiness or love and it is so OK that they should let it stay that way and never tell you anything about Him…and everything is so OK that nothing really matters… And so the temple becomes as reasonable and as empty as the rest of this hollow modern world.
There is a 1973 movie, titled “Catholics” or “The Conflict,” that pretty much nails the topic–the rigidity and fragility of the traditionalists, the velvet imperialism and hollowness of the revisionists. (Link on youtube here)
Both sides get half of it…
Now there is Pope Francis.
Some conservatives are panicking, because they think he is saying, “I respect you, so you are all OK, haha, truth isn’t objective, it can be whatever you want to make it, like a play-doh ball everyone can squish any way they want–according to their personal preference.”
I don’t think that is what he is saying. I think he is saying, “the Truth is so objectively real (outside of ourselves) that we have no monopoly on Him. Truth incarnate calls the shots, not us.”
When I first heard about his anti-gerund and Christ-the-center comment, I lost control from joy, shouting and leaping about. The bright Alabama sunlight was poured out on the kitchen floor, that dear old linoleum kitchen floor. Half a dozen of my siblings were there, laughing. My father smiled.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
I’m muddling my way through RCIA, with much internal argument and tears. [2018 Edit: I bailed six weeks before Easter, and never did finish RCIA. I’m still a protestant, and this is still my conundrum]
For all my Anglican ways….I really am rigidly dogmatic as any sectarian….at least, on two issues in particular. I just know them to be true, as I know my own mother.
(1) The validity and holiness of all devout Christians in various denominations (Calvinist/Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, etc etc). Though they are mistaken about many things, there is more truth in all of them than can be rationally reconciled, like different map distortions compressing 3 dimensions of a globe into 2 dimensions of a wall map, and each getting some things ‘more right’. Put simply, they are all in the Body of Christ. A devout Christian in one denomination isn’t particularly more (or less) rebellious to the Will of God than a devout Christian in another section of Christ’s Body. Put another way, God calls different Christians to different denominations, for reasons I do not understand, but must respect. I can disagree, but must respect, and try to understand.
(2) “Idolatry”, or the making of “gerunds” (e.g. turning a verb into a noun, or an action toward an object into a thing unto itself) is the major pitfall of the Christian life. We are in a boat, rowing toward the further shore, and we must look to the further shore, not obsess over the boat which is just a means to it. Anything in us which takes “our faith” and sets it in the place of focussing directly (as we should) on the person of God (and inextricably linked with that, the image of God in all persons)….anything that takes the focus off of that, is wrong. It becomes a sort of “belief in our works”, “belief in our righteousness”, “belief in our faith”, or even “belief in our belief” rather than “belief in God”. It is taking the means/conduit of our connection with God, and making that the thing of focus instead of God himself. It can be anything…. our own intellect, or church authority, or emotional feelings, or even our own “personal relationship” with God instead of God himself. It is all the same pitfall, the same very human mistake that all Christian denominations have been doing, and it is not good. Being Tridentine about “The Church” focusing on it at the expense of God is exactly what hyper-Calvinism does about Reason and human intellect. It is not that we can ‘get by’ without these things–we need them–but they must not become the focus, the thing to be venerated. They must only be the means to Christ, who is adored.
So…if I ever did join the RC….wouldn’t I be a “crypto-protestant”, one of those sneaky Jansenists decried by the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia for “their astonishing and absurd duplicity”? How can I believe in (medieval/Tridentine) Indulgences? Nowadays it is beautifully explained as a shared penance, which is far more palatable, but that is not what Indulgences always were. And “The Holy Mother Church”….isn’t that some serious gerund stuff…even anthropomorphizing the conduit? Isn’t anthropomorphizing non-persons dangerous, because won’t that detract from actual persons…
[by the way…. After hearing a sermon on “Holy Mother Church and her infinite wisdom”, my twin grumbled “I resent being loved by big collective nouns.” To which her husband replied, “Spoken like a true American conservative.”]
I feel I can only become Catholic if God personally wanted me to join, it must not be for my longing for a community, or poetry, but for my Christ. For me, anything else would be a personal betrayal to Him.
These are my thoughts about the HHS mandate. I should have explained this a long time ago, but I was too tired emotionally. I suppose this is too late, but here it is now.
The HHS mandate, under the new Obamacare system, mandates all employers (including religious charities and religious schools) to pay for their employees birth control pills (which, by the way, not only stop conception, but also can stop implantation of an already-conceived zygote, causing it to lack nutrients and die– hence the term “abortifacients”).
A month’s supply of birth control pills (depending on the brand) is anywhere between $10-$50.
That is between $0.33 to $1.67 a day.
In other words, if you are a young law student at a Catholic university, don’t buy a muffin with your daily Starbucks latte and voila! you can afford it.
And if you happen to be working for a Catholic Charity or Catholic School, pack a lunch just one day per week, and there is your pill money.
It isn’t a crushing expense.
And for those of you concerned about child-bearing women working at Catholic organizations who can’t afford this $0.33 to $1.67 per day, and who would very much rather swallow a pill of artificial hormones on a daily basis than purchase a couple condoms a week for three quarters at the gas station…..for those women, you can start a charity of Birth Control for Childbearing Employees at Religious Organizations Fund. I am sure you will have more than enough money for it—there are probably only a couple thousand such women in such straits (a lot of people don’t devote their life career to a Religious Organization whose core doctrines they disagree with), and I’m sure you could get a bulk discount with the Pharmaceutical companies.
Note in the poster above, there is nothing about what the Republicans are doing….but about what Religious Folks believe. That is our real crime (not the American Inquisition we were trying really hard to set up in 2013 to force everyone to become Catholic) but just our alleged beliefs themselves.
(both photos courtesy of “Americans Against the Tea Party” facebook group, I came across these in my newsfeed as a friend of mine kindly posts them for my enlightenment)
Now…think about this carefully. Republicans weren’t trying to pass a law to stop them from getting Birth Control. Nobody was trying to outlaw Birth Control in the 2012 election. We are just asking to be left alone. For those of us who choose (there is no Inquisition–you can always leave!) to join or remain in religious organizations…we are simply asking to run our religious organization (not the entire country) by our own religious principles: we just want to be left alone.
Think about those posters. What it really means is this: the government has the right to force those in (voluntary) religious organizations to violate their own principles because those religious people are jerks. So the gov’t is here to make them stop acting like jerks–for that unforgivable crime of “imposing” their beliefs by having the cheek to say that some things are wrong.
In other words….they want the Catholic Church to say “uncle”, because the people who say birth control is wrong are all nasty-hateful-intolerant-judging people. They want the Church, those judgmental medievals who say women shouldn’t be taking these pills, to fund birth control pills, and in so doing, condone it. It is a matter of principle, for both sides. It is an ideological statement for both sides. They want the Catholic Church to say to the gov’t, “OK, you call the shots about this, yes, birth control is valid medical care and not a moral issue, and hey, we are funding it now because you said so, so it is OK.”
After all, the Ancient Roman Gov’t did the same thing. They were VERY tolerant (most of the time), you could be a Christian all you wanted—just make sure you mutter a few words in front of the Official about cursing your gods, and light a pinch of incense for the genius-spirit of the Emperor. That is all. You can go home and worship your little heart out, to any gods you choose. We just want you to go through this little motion–that the Roman State (in its spiritualized form–the genius of the Emperor) gets the first little token of respect–that it matters more than your other gods, whatever they are.
Makes perfect sense after all. If we are going to build our tolerant, multi-ethnic society, we need a basis for society, and that basis is to make sure everyone acknowledges the Authority of the State first and foremost, before any of their wacky foreign gods. Just make sure they will curse their gods if the State asks them to, to show which one matters more. That’s all. And most religions, most eastern mystery cults, were fine with this.
But the Christians weren’t. Because it was a matter of principle. Because in Christianity, our words are sacred, our ‘little ritual actions’ are sacred….and we must not compromise our allegiance–first and foremost to our beautiful Christ, that incarnate god-man who knows us each by name. He isn’t an impersonal god, but a personal one: hence we value our personal integrity, because it matters to Him.
That’s why a bunch of them were eaten by lions. They had just declared their personal religion, their private god, as more important than the Authority of the State. Therefore, they are a menace to Society. Hence, the need for the lions.
I know, most Christians went along. Most did the little pinch of incense. Only some of them died, the minority who could not be intimidated into backing down (That is the story of the human race….e.g. the French Resistance under the Nazis, or the White Rose…they were always the minority).
But the ones who did go along…there is a cost in that. We feel it keenly. A compromise of our own integrity. Life is not as much worth living, when you are not free to do what your conscience requires of you. Now—to materialists and pragmatists, they think we are over-reacting over nothing.
Most human societies throughout history have thought that, from second-century Classical Rome to fifteenth-century Spain to twentieth-century Soviet Russia.
But this is America. America was different.
This was the place of Religious Freedom. Where “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”
This was a country where the Government did NOT dictate to people what they could or could not think, where the government did not dictate the ideology of the people. Now….everybody has a “religion”, an “ideology”, a “worldview”, a sense of what is acceptable and inacceptable, etc. But unlike the aforementioned human societies, this was the place where we could live in freedom before our God, serving Him according to our own conscience. Living in peace and raising our children according to our own conscience.
And so this HHS mandate is….a huge break from that. And it is intentional. It is a matter of principle for the Obama Administration and they mean it. The rhetoric of “Freedom of Worship” has replaced “Freedom of Religion”, because “worship”, unlike “religion”, is not a way of life. We can think any warm fuzzies in our heart….but we do not have the right to live it. Period.
(After all, even second-century Rome had “freedom of worship”…and so did the USSR. You just had to hike out to the woods to do it.).
And so this ‘minor’ issue isn’t so minor after all. If the American people accept this (as they appear to be doing), then this is the end of what America stood for these past 236 years. On principle, we will be no different from all those other countries, where religious dissidents are persecuted and killed on a regular basis (not that the media covers it much, so we don’t have to think about it….)
It will be full-scale surgical abortion next. I know that sounds far-fetched…but it has already happened. Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, in 2008, was going to force Catholic Hospitals to perform surgical abortions or shut down. Seriously–he was pressing for it the week before he suddenly resigned because of the Emperors Club VIP scandal. If it wasn’t for the call-girl ring leaking to the press…it would have gone through–in 2008. So no, the Catholic organizations have a reason to be concerned. They are the first on the radar. But they are not the last on it.
This will also be the beginning of…something else. Something progressive. Progressive countries like Sweden and Germany who still seize children and place them in foster care for no other reason that their parents audaciously pulled them out of the Government School System and wanted to teach them at home (in both cases, the parents were religious conservatives).
After all, “education is too important to be in the hands of parents.” (–a real quote from an Ivy Leaguer I knew). I suppose their ideological formation is too (we need the Young Pioneers). And so many things are “too important”…..
Look how they frame the debate: apparently religious people are trying to run a theocracy, we are banning birth control. This facebook ad, which popped up on my wall a couple weeks ago, puts it this way:
But what is really going on here? Is this really the Church trying to run the State….or the State planning to run the Church?
I think it is pretty clear. It is this Progressive administration that does not believe in the separation of Church and State. (It shouldn’t be that surprising—progressives never have believed in it). And that is why we are seeing the end of an American ideal, and the beginning of a brave new world.
These are some things I realized in undergrad, when I had to sort through my faith and deal with doubt, etc. Part 1 and Part 2 of that story are here.
CAVEAT: What I am about to say does NOT apply to all current Protestants or the Protestant Reformers. Many are not this extreme…I don’t mean it is exactly what they believe—but it is where the thinking/behaving ends up leading. It’s a tendency, a gravitational pull, that does not necessarily always end up there, though sometimes does….and I am picking and choosing among many different types of Protestantism, stereotyping, and generalizing in order to convey a ‘feeling’ or a ‘trend’. I am very sorry for the tone of this section, it is not good for me to bash Christians, and if I was a better writer I could communicate this better, but I’m not.
(1) Localized Holiness: They had discarded holy water and holy places and holy oil and holy blood and holy days and holy relics—because, because God was transcendent and omnipresent and must not be limited. Everywhere is special, everything created by God is blessed—but only God is holy. So defending the transcendence of God, these iconoclasts destroyed all other loci of holiness….and here five hundred years later we were left with a purely non-material ‘holy’ so far and distant, that it was easily banished across the Kantian divide…all the supernatural is neatly tucked away on the other side of that divide, stuck in a little ghetto of our mental universe….and thus everyday life had no ‘magical’ element. The church ‘sanctuary’ was ‘just a building’, the baptismal water was ‘just’ a symbol, etc…and the faith—now with all supernatural elements safely distant on the other side of the Kantian divide…could so easily be swept under the rug, or permanently exiled when it became unfashionable. And so in the early twentieth century….it was such an easy thing to let go of the supernatural for Modernism, for a respectable ‘Christianity’ that was now just a watchmaker Deist God, with no embarrassment of miracles. They had eliminated any working definition of holiness, and definition of the spiritual which could impinge upon the physical. So the supernatural realm could be easily banished, because for all intents and purposes, they had already been practicing a crypto-materialism.
(2) Trashing Tradition: And that leads to another point—mocking tradition, defying authority, pushing for a purely individual intellectual quest for Truth in the Bible alone….and yes they found the truth of the Gospel then. But “the means can conquer the message”, and that contempt for the past, the traditions of the past, the glorification of individual human reason…..how easily it led to the triumph of Atheism, of Modernism, of Postmodernism. A new generation of iconoclasts turned on the inheritance of the Protestant Reformers in turn (Christian morality and the Word of God) and trashed that too—claiming, in the same tenor, that that too was from ancient medieval traditions (which was true). Amsterdam printed polemic pamphlets attacking the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, and then Amsterdam printed pamphlets attacking all faith….(the New England Pilgrims had originally fled to Holland for religious freedom, but left for America because their own kids were losing the faith for secularism there)…. I don’t mean to simplify history, there was much good and faith accomplished and thriving holiness….but these things—iconoclasm/blasphemy, schism, rebellion—the swagger and the demolishing of tradition and the sacred–can turn in on itself, a positive feedback loop screeching into the microphone with a life of its own, repeating again and again, and the ‘means’ conquers the ‘message’. I am not saying one should never ‘move the ancient boundary stone’—but when it is done, there are many inevitable and unintended consequences. And the ‘moving of the ancient boundary stone’ should NEVER become something that is in turn glorified and institutionalized.
(3) Redemptive Suffering: Ironically, this drive to downplay Mary, downplay the Eucharist in the Mass, downplay the Saints…was all originally in order to emphasize the power of Christ’s Redemptive Suffering—once and for all—on the Cross.
But it turned in on itself, and undermined the very thing it meant to uphold….it ended with the empty cross (a mere geometrical pattern) and a dull symbolic snack (“its just bread and juice, but in it we remember…”) and—a Christian pragmatism, a definition of the Christian life that only had meaning for a Christian’s success (for God)…and no meaning for our suffering, failure, and emptiness. Our suffering had no point other than a stoic heroism, there was no need—no point—for our own bleeding and our own tears. An empty faith. Even Christ’s physical suffering was eventually downplayed, the crucifix removed, any bloody picture of him making us squirm awkwardly, and talk vaguely about justification.
And for our own human lives, this pragmatism. Suffering endured for a clear, good objective was great (the missionaries converted many souls, the martyrs who impressed many bystanders)—but it was for the goal alone. There was nothing intrinsically valuable, sacred, with the suffering itself. There was no place for our ordinary human sufferings, our ordinary human emptiness. One should succeed for God, be a glorious missionary or a happy family unit. The mentally retarded and the celibate and the powerless, well—God loves you too—but there is nothing inherently worthy in your suffering—we must keep the barrier between Christ’s Atonement and human sufferings clearly demarcated, we mustn’t fall into the cult of saints or medieval penances or love of suffering. It was all so…common sense. No place for ‘senseless’ suffering. Priests and monks and nuns—what was the point, a wasted sacrifice.
But in doing so…they stripped out the heart of the Christian faith. Christ suffered for our sins on the cross…and each one of our Christian lives is the way of the cross…to follow him. Yes, he gives us gladness and life and victory, and we should rightly rejoice in his grace and blessing…and yet God also gives us times of ‘senseless’ suffering, with no glory and no seeming goal but to suffer…emptiness and miscarriage and unemployment and loneliness. And in there is his heart, we find His breath in our lungs, His heart in ours, and suddenly realize that somehow, this too, is united in Christ’s suffering, to make All Things New.
Suffering is sacred. Christ did bleed. We do eat God’s flesh, this god-man sacrifice, and in it have life. Yes, its bloody and shocking and gruesome—but that is the point—He is Holy, the flame before Mount Sinai, this fire, this God, this love. The saints have suffered, and followed Him, and they are more holy than us, and open the path for us and urge us on. Holy water is holy, and relics do heal.
And ignoring the holiness of Mary and the saints and our own individual suffering…does not automatically ensure the primacy of our understanding of the suffering Christ as the only redeemer of the world—rather, it makes us…forget what redemption even is.
And to reject sacred symbols and images (nevermind secular ones crowd our homes), to reject the localized holiness (in relics or places or human beings) in order to remember the transcendent….is counterproductive. Because that is not the way the human heart and mind work. If “everyone is special” then “nobody is”.
Let me explain—everyone is sacred and beloved—but to grasp this, the human heart must love and treasure and revere a person, a specific one, …and then once you know that…then realize that it extends to all. Only in revering the icon, the tabernacle, does one learn to revere humankind. At least, that was how it was for me. We need the symbol, the specific, before we can understand the general. Our minds do not grasp the omnipresence of God immediately. First teach us to revere the sanctuary of the church, and then after learning that, we learn that in all the universe, God is. We must be given the Israelites’ pillar of fire first.
That is why Luther’s cry, “the priesthood of all believers” could inspire him and other sixteenth century Christians so deeply, and feel their worth and sanctity—it was because they knew what a priest was (from the Roman Catholic tradition). Five hundred years later….the phrase means absolutely nothing to modern Protestants. So far removed from the Eastern-Orthodox/Roman-Catholic traditional church…we don’t even know what that means anymore. In an effort to not ‘limit’ or ‘localize’ the sacred…we have lost the sacred. The inheritance has been spent.
At college I’d come to realize that there is a major takeover going on, of the Spiritus Mundi (or what Edmund Burke called “the Armed Doctrine” when it first manifested itself in the French Revolution). It is a secularist, materialist, utilitarian creed, that has come to wrest the children from ‘religious fanaticism’, and lead them to the Kingdom-of-Man-On-Earth, for the good of all of us (except the ones who are dead). Jacobins, Enlightenment folks (Napoleon), National Socialists, Communists, American Leftists, New Atheists….it was the same. They wanted our souls, wanted us to help them kill God and build their paradise.
Respectable modern Kant-divided Protestant Christianity has little strength for this struggle: it was not enough for me. I needed religion that was physical and medieval, holy water and the bleeding body of Christ. Real faith.
I’ll try to explain: Main-stream Modern Protestantism had given too much ground, had abandoned ‘medieval aspects’ and in so doing had lost too much, too much that was needed—(perhaps less needed in the sixteenth century-)–but now desperately needed in the twenty-first century. Without meaning to, they have denied physical (localized) holiness, they have denied tradition, they have denied redemptive suffering within the Christian life itself.
It wasn’t just Catholicism that made me realize these things. What also opened my eyes was second semester Freshman Year I took a Medieval Russian History class, which turned out to be basically Eastern Orthodoxy 101, taught by a wistful Soviet-raised agnostic. It was an amazing class—we were talking about icons (which I had thought of as ‘pagan survivals’), and she said simply “When you are far from home—don’t you kiss photographs of your parents?” My jaw dropped—because I had, instinctively kissed my cellphone with the that wallet photo of my family taped to it—exactly like an Icon. Also—we read about kenoticism, and Saints Boris & Gleb– “the holy sufferers”. And holy fools (who were often just mentally retarded—but treated with reverence as God’s beloved ones.) The truth of it all struck me with force.