On this past Monday, I had the pleasure of attending an event at Wheaton College called “A Conversation on Unity in Christ’s Mission”. If you missed the event and are interested, you can watch it here. My friend John Armstrong and Francis Cardinal George spoke honestly, thoughtfully, and graciously together. They understand a great deal about the matters about which Protestants (particularly, here, Evangelicals) and Catholics disagree. They know in detail the histories of these disagreements, and the shapes they have taken over time, far better than the overwhelming majority of Protestants and Catholics who look on each other with suspicion or contempt.
In the introductory comments Cardinal George made on Monday night, he said something which shocked me. He noted that for a long time the experience of Catholics in America has been “try to keep your head down”, because it has not been clear that the Catholic practice of Christianity has been welcome out in the open. Granting that I’ve lived my whole life after Vatican II, and that I’ve lived it as a somewhat sheltered Protestant Evangelical, I did not recognize the degree to which Catholics have been made to feel like outsiders in the American public square. Once I thought about it, though, I realized that even now, after all that time, and in a time when no Christian practice is clearly welcomed in the public square, Anti -Catholicism is still the last acceptable prejudice (as Phillip Jenkins put it in a book that only made it through one edition). And from the Protestant side of the field, I’ve started to recognize that some of our presuppositions about the difference and distance between “us” and “them” are seriously flawed. I’m going to begin to articulate some of those flawed understandings, but certainly won’t create an exhaustive list, at least not in this post.
Before I spell out what’s wrong with my team, I want to make it explicit that I do this because I think it is consistent with the teaching of Jesus:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but ado not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5 ESV)
So, before I can even begin to consider a critique of my Catholic brothers, I need to recognize the weaknesses and deficiencies in my own theology and practice. As I sat to write these very words, I realized that I was already skipping a step. See, I wanted to write to you about the faulty presuppositions we use when we critique Catholic faith, so we could correct our errors, and then perhaps move on to more soundly-reasoned criticism. However, even now the Spirit convicts me that the real first step is abandoning our critique of the other, so that we can focus our full attention on our own flawed grasp of who God is and what God is doing in the world. In essence, it calls for me to simply stop here – to tell you that you and I need to forget about critiquing Catholics (or Arminians, or Calvinists, or…whoever offends you with their “imperfect” Christian faith), just drop it here, and turn our attention to seeing where our own faith is ignorant, or idolatrous, or insufficiently thought out or lived out. Reaching for our brother’s eye is so often, and maybe most of the time, and maybe even all of the time, an effort to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t know it all, and God is engaging in a gigantic, gracious act of condescension to even listen to us. What we don’t know, quite literally, could fill the universe. If there are multiverses, it could fill them, too.
Now, of course, the problem is that I’m never going to get it all. I’m always going to have blind spots, and so are you. And for some, this means we never get past the work of introspection to the work of offering gracious, edifying critique. Of course, this too can be a trap: “listen, I’m not going to talk about your stupid ideas about ___________(fill in the blank as you see fit), and since I’m not going to, you’re not going to tell me about how I forgot the first 1,500 years of church history, and we’re all going to back out of this room and leave each other alone.” That’s not going to work, either. We need something in between. So, a modest proposal: we consider the idea that when we want to critique a particular area of someone’s faith or practice, we first examine our own beliefs and practices in that particular area to see what ways we have been foolish or insufficient. Then, recognizing that we still might be spectacularly wrong, we humbly proceed in conversation, ready throughout to hear the other side explain what we have misunderstood about their faith and practice. Does that sound like too much work? In the instant-criticism, “shoot first ask questions later” world, maybe it is. It seems like the least we can do.
So, let me start with one, simple statement of one issue Protestant Evangelicals seem to overlook in their attempt to critique Catholicism. I’m not even going to fully explain it in this post. Next time, I’ll pick up there, and we’ll build from there, if our stomachs can handle it. Here it goes:
Most Protestants don’t seem to recognize that the playing field of the disagreement between Protestants and Catholics has changed, a lot, in the last 400 years. And while a lot of the change has happened on the Catholic side, much more has happened on the Protestant side. There’s a good chance the original Protestants would not have recognized what we’re doing when we’re being American Evangelical Protestants. I’m not sure, if those people were given a choice between siding with “us” and siding with “them”, if they would all choose “us”.
Yeah, that seems like a good place to leave the conversation for now.