Below I'll review divisive and unfair argumentation of types that are fairly common from both sides, first from the Chesterton biography and then from a zealous anti-Roman Catholic letter. I know that reading divisive material (as shown below) can be upsetting, even when offered as examples of what we want to avoid. I have to trust to the maturity of my readers not to rise to the bait shown in these examples, but to consider instead how each side baits the other, how this approach incites further division and confirms each side in its worst opinions about the other. My hope in posting such material is not to inflame the two sides against each other, but to show that the inflammatory remarks about the differences are themselves a very real part of the problem.
The Theft of Church Property?
The particular biography which I was reading, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, is by Dale Ahlquist and was published by Ignatius Press. Comments against Protestants range from the substantively unfair but mildly voiced:
Both the strength and weakness of Protestantism is that it has borrowed its truths from the Catholic Church, but not the whole truth. (pp. 196-197)to those completely abandoning any pretense at fairness or brotherhood:
Chesterton also shows how those who attack the Catholic Faith steal from it at the same time. This is true not only of Protestantism, but also of the rest of the world. (p. 205)From a Protestant view, of course, we haven't "borrowed" anything from Roman Catholicism, much less stolen from it; we simply share the same heritage up to a certain point in history. We consider that the heritage of the united church is as much our own as that of our estranged brothers and sisters; it is the common ground on which we ought to rebuild. Athanasius and Augustine belong to the whole of Christianity, not only to the church of Rome. Just from the standpoint of Mr. Ahlquist's arguments, it's interesting that, when the question comes up whether Rome has done any borrowing or stealing as some have accused, Ahlquist says that Rome neither borrowed nor stole from others such as pagans, but is so broad-minded as to incorporate and preserve whatever was good. It's disappointing that Ahlquist's generous spirit of interpretation was not also applied to Protestants in a similar situation.
But my main concern is not Ahlquist's personal animosity towards Protestants -- or Ignatius Press disseminating it. Not only do we have the same heritage up to a certain point, but even since the breach, as estranged brothers and sisters hoping for a reunion, we have something like a "creative commons" license for materials each side has produced since. What if Protestants could not quote Chesterton or Tolkien or listen to Mozart without being accused of theft, or Roman Catholics couldn't quote C.S. Lewis or Charles Dickens or listen to Bach without being subjected to similar divisive bullying? In practice in the divided church, our own actions acknowledge that not only do we strive for unity, but that we all recognize various people who have nearly enough achieved it on a small scale.
Ahlquist provides a few more examples of the divisive and polemical approach. Here he raises a criticism that can be leveled legitimately at certain individuals and applies it over-broadly as a group smear:
The bad memory of Protestants applies to their own history as well. (p. 204)It's irksome, as a non-Roman Catholic, to know that whatever our approach to anything in the ancient or medieval church, it will be criticized mercilessly by some in Rome. When things from the united church still speak to us and we still admire and preserve these things, we're accused of "borrowing" (as if we did not share a heritage) or "stealing" (as if we had no right at all to our common history); but for those things that do not speak to us we're collectively smeared with the charge of "bad memory" (others would charge ignorance or selectivity). Ahlquist in particular criticizes on both of these two opposite fronts, so that regardless of whether or not we believe that some medieval teaching has passed the test of time, either way we can be sure of criticism from the spirit of partisanship.
What does it mean when a critic criticizes a thing on inconsistent grounds? When Ahlquist reviews the inconsistent criticisms lodged against his own church in Rome, he takes these inconsistencies as proof of her truth, her breadth, and her vitality, and in some measure as proof of the opposition mentality of the critics. It is again disappointing that Ahlquist does not apply the same type of reasoning when the group in question is Protestant rather than Roman Catholic.
Here is one final example from Ahlquist of a common misrepresentation of facts:
The Medieval Age was a time of united and devout faith. (p. 136)"United" faith in the Medieval Age? Ahlquist is not alone in arguing as if Protestants are completely unaware of the schisms -- and continuing divisions in the church -- that began long before Martin Luther was born. I'm not sure that we could say in good faith that the whole church had been united since the days of Chalcedon back in the 400's, and certainly not since the break with the Eastern Orthodox some centuries before Luther. Ahlquist accuses Protestants of being historically ignorant -- but then himself offers arguments that do not stand up to historical scrutiny. The sad truth is that persistent, unhealed divisions in the church have been a fact of life since at least the 400's, not merely since the 1500's. I wonder very much how the Copts, Eastern Orthodox, etc. view Alhquist's and others' practice of speaking as if they did not exist. Myself, I am tired of the Roman Catholics charging that Protestants have the entire and unique fault of splitting the church when it's a demonstrable historical fact that the church had not been united for centuries before that.
Pride, hatred, arrogance, greed, impatience, injustice, indifference, wilfull foolishness -- these are the things that have ruined the church. If the church were to become the strong and united body of Christ that we could together make it, in keeping with Christ's teachings, then people could nail debating points and reform suggestions to church doors all day long without causing a schism. Those who have read Luther's writings know that he never set out to cause a schism; it never entered his mind that the church was such a fragile thing that something he could do could break it. And still the divided church, such as it is, produces a steady stream of universal figures that all sides admire: Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, Barth -- these have shown that the church is not entirely broken, even as we are. Our friends to the east might mention Stravinsky and Dostoevsky and Nabokov ...
The "Whore of Babylon" Again?
Now that we've seen some examples of injustice and provocation from someone on Rome's side, here are some examples from the Protestant side, culled from an email I recently saw in a public discussion group. Like the other, it is simply the most recent example I have seen. Obviously, a letter does not have the same length or selection as a book. This one has no respected author behind it, but has all the marks of a personal rant. Still, it contains some memorable examples of petty partisanship.
The letter had the look of something often-forwarded, and contained a list of supposedly scandalous heresies and human traditions adopted and perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church in the last 1600 years. After calling Rome "the Whore of Babylon", it started its list of outrages with this less-than-stunning man-made tradition:
Wax candles introduced in church.Wax candles? The first supporting reason for calling a group the "Whore of Babylon" is wax candles? It is mind-boggling. No reason is given why wax candles are bad, or what exactly the early Christians were supposed to have used for light that would have been acceptable until the lightbulb came along, or why exactly some other form of light would be preferable to wax candles. But while this leading complaint -- candles, of all things -- strikes my funny bone, I do want to figure out what the original author's objection was to candles.
If I were to guess as to the problem with candles, I'd guess that the brief ritual of lighting and extinguishing them at the begin and end of the worship service might be seen as a needless ritual, a tradition of human origin rather than divine origin. But if candles are going to be used as a source of light -- and I don't see how candles in themselves could be a problem -- then how many choices are there for how to light them? There are only a few choices for how to do anything: carelessly, or according to a set pattern, or according to modern tastes, or according to individual preferences. If candles are going to be used at all, using a pre-set pattern of lighting and extinguishing seems like a reasonable option. Lighting them with respect shown at the altar easily becomes a ritual handed down by tradition. If Christians have freedom in worship so long as certain limits aren't passed, why not freedom to light candles with respect? I can't see a problem so long as we don't make the mistake of thinking that our own internally-developed show of respect is actually a God-given command. Following that human tradition, then, becomes more a matter of fellowship and community. Teachings initiated by man and handed down across generations are not evil of themselves; they become a problem only when they compete with or take the place of teachings initiated by God and handed down across generations, when they set aside or interfere with or claim equal status with the things of God.
The same list of shocking, stunning, horrific things perpetuated by Rome contains entries such as
The Mass, as a daily celebration, adopted.and
Confession of sin to the priest at least once a year.To be sure, the list does contain a few mentions of things that Protestants in general hope Rome would re-consider, but they are lost in a sea of misguided fault-finding and vague criticisms of practices such as daily mass. Then there's the general tone of the letter. Besides being called "the whore of Babylon", Rome is also called heretical, idolatrous and pagan. With lists like these floating around where the doctrinal points are sometimes triflingly silly but the rhetoric is hateful and abrasive, it will be nearly impossible to get to any discussion of real issues.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
So long as we treat each other in ways calculated to create raw nerves, things can only get worse. Here's one thing the Roman Catholics and the Protestants have in common: both are home to some partisan spirits who would gleefully exacerbate the differences and widen the divide. In our willingness to tolerate spite, our own side suffers as well as the other. The Chesterton biography would have done Chesterton a better service without the occasionally bitter anti-Protestant rhetoric. The letter's list of doctrinal points of disagreement with Rome might conceivably have been a helpful list for discussion, if only it were ever intended as such. Instead, the author trotted out every imaginable complaint against Rome, with a result that seemed more damaging to its author than to Rome.
So long as we each allow our own side to treat the other badly, each side loses from its own hatred, and both sides lose some measure of brotherhood with each other. More importantly still, Christ himself is made to look bad by the horrid behavior of his ambassadors.
He gave us the ministry of reconciliation. ... He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (I Cor 5:18-20)When we cannnot even reconcile amongst ourselves, we have damaged our own credibility and effectiveness with the message of reconciliation. As Paul says, Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
Related Reading: They're My Fathers Too.
More on inter-Christian rivalries and reconciliation coming soon.