Costs of Disambiguating

Every now and then, someone floats the notion that Western Christianity might better serve God and humanity by declaring a “free play” moment, where ecclesial boundaries were suspended and the contents of extant denominations were shaken up and reshuffled — such that the “liberal” and “conservative” poles of contemporary churches could regroup together into internally-coherent theological bodies. That notion, of course, fails to reckon with the complexities of terms such as “liberal” and “conservative,” nor with the particularities that constitute churches as distinct from one another; the fantasy of spontaneous realignment might resolve certain kinds of conflict, but it would result in new sets of unstable conflicts, so no one would be much better off (we just be at each other over different topics — refreshing in the short term, but not particularly edifying in the long term).

I mention this because one conclusion I draw from the likely futility of the realignment dream reminds me that whatever definitions and distinctions we invoke to identify our church as church (as something different from a synagogue or a mosque, a benevolent society or club), we probably have to factor in a certain proportion of people with whom we disagree. The difficult part about dealing with tensions about and within the church comes from dealing with the difference between “disagreements we absolutely can’t live with” and “disagreements we have to put up with, like it or not.” When sometimes we imagine a church without the neuralgic discords that give us such headaches (and that attenuate the vigor of our mission), do we successfully manage to imagine that purified church including some of the disciples who represent annoyingly different ways of living out the Gospel? For myself — and I admit to having a very limited imagination — the only way I can do it is by thinking of particular people with whom I actually disagree, who (as it turns out) are the kinds of people who might be excluded from and “purified” congregation I might dream of. Which is essentially the church as I now inhabit it, which is one reason I would hate to see that church fracture and splinter into temporarily-homogeneous ideological adversaries.

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  1. A conservative Presbyterian gentleman and high-school history teacher, John Parrott, once told me that there is one logical criterion by which Christians can and should unite or divide and it seems to work well when I think about it: belief or not about the Eucharist.

    As I like to say all alienation from God, the flash-point of all heresy and dissent, is to do with the meeting of God and matter, of spirit and flesh. That breaks down into three subjects historically: who Jesus is, what the Eucharist is and sex. The last of course among secular people today is of the most interest and gets a big ‘non serviam’ from them.

    But back to the Eucharist: based on this Christians naturally divide into three groups, Catholic (Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian), middle-way (Lutheran, classical Anglican) and Protestant/Free Church (Calvinism, Zwinglianism etc.).

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