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Cultural Division & Christian Unity
by Robert P. George
Christian division is a scandal. It is contrary to the express will of Christ. Nothing more profoundly impedes the fulfillment of our Lord’s Great Commission to go forth into the world and make disciples of all nations. Division among Christians is a stumbling block to many people to whom the gospel is preached. They ask: “How can I know that the Christian gospel is true if Christians themselves cannot agree about the fundamental points of its meaning? Whose gospel shall I believe: that of the Catholics? the Eastern Orthodox? the Protestants?—which Protestants? the Anglicans? the Methodists?—which Methodists? the Lutherans?—which ones? the Presbyterians?—PCUSA or PCA? the Baptists?—Southern or American? On what authority am I being asked to choose? On what basis am I to decide?”
As we enter the third Christian millennium, the scandal of division persists. Yet today the Church is experiencing a partial fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that all may be one in him. Faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Evangelical and conservative Protestants have united in the pro-life movement and in other godly causes to protect the vulnerable and heal a wounded culture. In the process, Christians of different traditions have discovered the core of faith that we hold in common, and entered into forms of spiritual fellowship with one another that go far beyond mere strategic alliances in the culture war.
For Christians who are part of this new ecumenical alliance, ancient animosities and mutual suspicions have quite simply vanished. No longer do we view each other as “heretics” or “apostates,” much less as “infidels.” Many of us find it increasingly difficult to fathom how it could be that generations of Christians did perceive and speak of each other in these harsh terms. Despite our differences, we regard each other—effortlessly—as brothers and sisters in the Lord. We joyfully work together across the old lines of division; we pray together; we support and counsel one another; we listen to—and learn from—one another; we seek understanding and, much more often than not, are able to find or establish it. Together we pray for the “complete and visible” unity that would truly be the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer.
An Impossible Task?
Of course, this new ecumenism—this “ecumenism of the trenches,” in Timothy George’s evocative phrase—has not found universal favor. There are Christians—Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics alike—who fear that it risks compromising fundamental truths of faith. So they oppose projects such as the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) initiative launched by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and they are dubious about enterprises such as Touchstone magazine.
Now, I think their opposition is misguided. But I respect and share their concern for the integrity of Christian doctrine. Truth is not negotiable. Our efforts to overcome division must not be made at the expense of truth. A unity worth having is unity in truth. Regard for truth must, therefore, shape, and will necessarily limit, what we can do in the cause of Christian unity. It is for the sake of truth that we must continue to accept, for now, a painful measure of division even among Christians who affirm the core doctrines of Christian faith that are the tenets of “mere Christianity.”
And it is painful. Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christians who work and pray together, who love and admire each other, and who understand themselves as brothers and sisters in the Lord, truly hunger for complete and visible unity. In particular, we long to share the communion of the Lord’s table. But in the absence of the full unity that such sharing betokens, it would, in my judgment, be a sin against truth. As painful as it is, our divisions as Protestants and Catholics (or Protestants and Orthodox) must be accepted until by God’s grace we are led to a more perfect unity of mind and spirit.
But can such unity ever be achieved? How could differences of conscientious judgment on important doctrinal matters in dispute between Protestants and Catholics, for example, ever be resolved? Looked at from the purely human point of view, the problem appears to be insuperable. In the best of faith, Protestants differ with Catholics and Orthodox (and, to a lesser extent, Catholics and Orthodox differ between themselves) on some very important matters.
It is true that the clearing away of misunderstandings has significantly narrowed differences in certain areas, such as the differences between Catholics and Lutherans regarding justification. Still, when it comes to papal authority, the Marian dogmas, priestly ordination, sacraments, and so forth, important differences remain. Short of one side or the other becoming convinced of the error of its beliefs, there is no way to manufacture unity. But, fortunately, Christians need not, and should not, look at the matter from the merely human viewpoint; for as the Lord said in reference to the camel passing through the eye of a needle, “nothing is impossible with God.”
The Work of the Spirit
So it seems to me that our task is to keep working together, praying together, and trusting the Holy Spirit of God to accomplish the impossible. Fundamentally, I think, our task is to get out, and stay out, of his way. I believe that if we do not put into place new obstacles to the unity of believers, the Holy Spirit can be about the task of overcoming the old obstacles. Above all, we must not permit anything of less importance than our most conscientious judgments regarding fundamental truths of faith to separate us. We must treat each other with more than tolerance, more than respect; nothing short of a generosity of spirit in the manner of the Lord Jesus himself will do.
How will the Holy Spirit unify Christians in the face of apparently irresolvable differences of conscience? I haven’t the slightest idea. What will full Christian unity look like once it is brought about? I do not know. We will all, no doubt, be surprised—just as the shepherds and magi were surprised when the promised Messiah was born in a stable rather than a palace; just as the apostles and disciples were surprised when, instead of conquering the occupying forces of Rome, Jesus submitted to crucifixion at their hands and then, “conquering death through death”—and who could have foreseen that—was resurrected.
We must never cease working together and praying for full and visible unity, but we must recognize that it will come in God’s time and on his terms. Already, though, there are signs, inklings, of what is coming. We should be encouraged by them and rise to the new opportunities and challenges they present. The Holy Spirit is at work, preparing the ground. In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint—perhaps the most remarkable document of a pontificate that has produced dozens of remarkable documents—Pope John Paul II has invited Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians to reflect with him in light of Scripture and the earliest practices of the Church on ways to reshape the exercise of the Petrine office.
This is big. Very big. So big that people are yet to get a perspective on it adequate for comprehending its significance. The Catholic faithful have scarcely noticed it. Eastern Orthodox and Protestant leaders have hardly begun to formulate so much as the outline of a response. There is in the encyclical nothing remotely approaching a demand for submission. There is no hint of triumphalism in its substance or tone. On the contrary, it is a humble and obviously heartfelt plea to think together about ways in which the papal office can be made—indeed re-made—to serve the cause of Christian unity, rather than being a point of contention among Christians. The pope has put the meaning and future of the papacy itself on the table for discussion. Who among us ever thought that he would live to see the day when that would happen?
Our Real Opponents
I have spoken of opposition to the new ecumenism by those who fear that it risks compromising Christian truth. I have said that I disagree with their opposition but respect and share their concern for the integrity of Christian doctrine. I have observed that a regard for truth shapes and also limits what can be done in the cause of Christian unity. Humanly speaking, the conscientious nature of our differences seems to foreclose the possibility of full and visible union; with God, however, all things are possible. I turn now to a different source of opposition to the new ecumenism. Here the worry is not that Christian truth will be compromised, but rather that it will be asserted.
There are today many self-identified Protestants and Catholics who reject the principles of “mere Christianity” lying at the heart of the new ecumenism. These are people who place themselves in opposition to the shared moral understandings and commitments that brought Christians of diverse traditions together in the trenches of the culture war, and which continue to provide the foundation on which spiritual fellowship is built. These opponents of the new ecumenism have cast their lot with liberal secularism on issues such as abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, marriage, and sexual morality. To them, the new ecumenism, in its unwavering affirmations of traditional Christian teachings, constitutes the ecclesiastical face of what a well-known liberal Methodist laywoman has dubbed the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
These opponents of the new ecumenism are disproportionately represented in the clergy, in church bureaucracies, and on the faculties of theological seminaries and in religious education generally. They are also over-represented in interdenominational institutions and religiously affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs). What they lack in numbers in the pews, they make up for by their control of elite structures. This control tends to be self-perpetuating inasmuch as those who exercise it effectively determine who will exercise it in the future.
The new ecumenical alliance has mostly worked outside of and around these structures. Famously, in the case of the Southern Baptists, traditionalist forces were able to wrest control from the liberal wing of the denomination. Efforts in that direction have been less successful in other mainline Protestant churches, though the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and groups associated with it in the various denominations have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the cause of Christian orthodoxy. Of course, the tendency of people who support these efforts to leave the mainline churches for Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Evangelical denominations hampers the enterprise. Still, the effect of these efforts has been salutary in keeping the liberal enemies of the new ecumenism on the defensive and, often, off balance.
How do such enemies perceive the new ecumenical alliance? How do they propose to deal with the challenge it presents to them? Well, they comfort themselves with the thought that there is no future in it, that history is on their side, that legal abortion is here to stay, that same-sex marriage is on its way, and that the new ecumenism will collapse once these facts become clear. The alliance of doctrinally and morally conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox is, they insist, merely a marriage of convenience between naturally hostile parties who happened to find themselves temporarily on the same side of a Kulturkampf at the end of the twentieth century. Being, they assume, “dogmatists” and “reactionaries” by nature, soon these conservatives will relapse into their old suspicions and antagonisms.
The New & the Old
It must be granted, I think, that the ecumenical alliance that has over the past two decades or so produced the ECT initiative, Touchstone magazine, the IRD, and a host of other formal and informal ecumenical undertakings at both the national and local levels, began as a marriage of convenience. As liberal secularism gained control of the principal institutions of cultural formation and transmission, including most mainline Protestant churches and interfaith associations, and as it pressed its agenda with an increasing relentlessness, traditional Christian believers found themselves in a campaign of resistance against a common enemy.
Working together, originally and especially in the pro-life movement, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians came to respect and admire each other for a common willingness to stand up for God’s truth. People involved in the pro-life struggle knew from their own experience the kind of courage and determination that it took to work in the movement. Catholics and Protestants knew that the costly witness given by their pro-life brothers and sisters of different traditions was born of faith in Christ and the love of God. They came to understand and recognize each other as true Christians, just as the early Christians recognized each other: by their witness in the culture.
Evangelicals found themselves heartened and inspired by the witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II, even as they were coming to respect and admire the Catholic lay men and women alongside whom they were working at pro-life pregnancy centers or protesting at abortion clinics. Pro-life Catholics were listening to Dr. James Dobson for advice on child-rearing and information on public affairs, even as they were struggling against their children’s indoctrination into feminist ideology by liberal nuns at Sacred Heart or St. Bridget’s.
In speaking of the “new” ecumenism, I follow the usage of the eminent theologian Thomas Oden. As Dr. Oden observes, however, the principles of the new ecumenism are actually very old. He dates them to the first ecumenical council, the Council of Jerusalem, in A.D. 46. Dr. Oden contrasts the new ecumenism with the “old” ecumenism of the National and World Councils of Churches, which, he observes, is actually quite recent, dating only to about 1948.
The new ecumenism is the ecumenism of “mere Christianity.” It proceeds on the basis of shared core dogmatic truths and principles of biblical morality. These are its foundations. It takes truth seriously and seeks the engagement of differences of opinion on matters disputed among Christians who subscribe to the ancient creeds and moral teachings.
The old ecumenism was the opposite of an ecumenism of the trenches. It was an ecumenism of bureaucratic elites. It aimed at joint declarations of formal agreement and the creation of interfaith institutions and bureaucratic structures of various sorts. It sought to provide for the churches what the UN provides to the community of nations. And, indeed, the parallels, for better or worse—mostly for worse—are remarkably close. It has been ineffectual where it has not been downright counterproductive. It has done little to promote genuine progress toward the unity of Christians. And it has often placed itself on the wrong side of issues it addressed. In fact, on virtually every point in dispute between traditional Christian moral teaching and liberal secularism, it has capitulated to liberal secularism.
The Great Divide
Christian division is, as I have said, a scandal. We must never rest content with it. We must pray and work for unity. But between Christians who are faithful to the gospel and professed believers who have traded in biblical morality for liberal secularism, division must be sustained. Worse even than the scandal of division is the scandal of the affectation of unity between those who do and those who do not affirm the core doctrines of Christian faith—particularly its most fundamental moral teachings.
It is not merely that the affectation of unity where it does not exist is distasteful in the way that pretenses are almost always distasteful. It is that the affectation of unity is profoundly scandalous. It tends to damage and weaken the faith of those who are exposed to it. It sends a message to them that the core doctrines and moral teachings of Christianity need not be taken too seriously. It implies that one can be a “good Christian” while disbelieving the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and while accepting secularist liberal ideas about abortion, euthanasia, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and so forth.
I am a Catholic. Yet I find myself in belief and practice much closer in faith to Eastern Orthodox and Protestant believers than to many who profess Catholicism. When I think in terms of “us” and “them,” it never occurs to me to think of Jim Kushiner, Tom Oden, Chuck Colson, or James Dobson as anything other than “us.” I think of John Shelby Spong and Joan Brown Campbell as “them,” but I also think of Rosemary Radford Reuther, Phil Donahue, and Daniel Maguire as “them.” The fact that Reuther, Donahue, and Maguire are professed Catholics is of no relevance. In the current cultural and religious context, they are on one side of the divide, while I (together with people like Kushiner, Oden, Colson, and Dobson) am on the other. In the struggle over the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage, and even the truth of key Christian doctrines, we are, I am afraid, enemies.
But someone will surely say: It is wrong, it is unchristian—indeed, it is scandalous—to think or speak in terms of “us” and “them.” It is outrageous to declare your fellow Christians to be “enemies.” This is to promote and exacerbate Christian division.
But here I say we encounter divisions that must be sustained. There is no core of common faith on which to build. There can only be resistance by faithful Christians to the secularization of the Church that is worked by those who, while professing Christianity, permit themselves to become evangelists for liberal secularist ideologies in the churches. Above all, their rejection of basic Christian moral principles makes authentic unity impossible. The gospel they preach—a gospel of “personal autonomy,” “choice,” and “liberation” from fundamental norms of morality—is simply antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It is, rather, the ideology of the culture of death. In a truly Nietzschean “transvaluation of values,” it calls what is right wrong, and what is wrong right. As a result, it leads people into sin—often deeply into sin—and places souls at grave risk.
So, I say again that the true scandal is to pretend to a unity that does not exist and cannot exist because there is nothing to base it on. The true danger for faithful Christians in the current cultural climate is to suppose that we have no enemies or, at least, that we have no enemies who profess to share our faith. We must, to be sure, love our enemies, and love them with a love that is generous and ungrudging. The Lord has expressly commanded no less. But we must not pretend that we have no enemies. That just isn’t true.
Conversion to Christ
Of course, our goal is not conquest, but conversion. Our weapons are, and must be, weapons of the spirit. We must never resort to unchristian methods, even in the cause of Christian faith. We must never forget that we, too, are sinners. We must, to be sure, be cunning as serpents in the struggles in which we find ourselves in the culture and in the Church, but we must also be gentle as doves.
Although we must not pretend to have no enemies, we must think of no one as an incorrigible or permanent enemy. In every generation, we have seen people who utterly rejected the gospel and made war on biblical morality turn (or return) to authentic Christian faith; witness Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist and atheist who is now a committed believer. We do not know today which enemies of the culture of life will, in a year or ten or twenty years, be among its greatest champions. We cannot now fathom how the Lord, working, perhaps, through our Christian witness and our acts of love of an enemy, will turn the heart of some future Dr. Nathanson. But we know that he will.
This paper was originally presented at the Touchstone conference, “Christian Unity & the Divisions We Must Sustain,” in November 2001 at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.
Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.