Understanding Our Identity


Arturo Vasquez has written a piece for Inside Catholic that – while exploring the problems of homogeneity specifically within the Catholic church — excellently analyzes how “official” versus “traditional” religion in our cultural context is somewhat of a false dichotomy; once a tradition dies, it is gone forever, and any resurrection of it is just that, a re-creation based on source material.  It may be a good imitation, mind you, but it’s not the same.

You don’t just see this in Catholicism. Conservative Evangelicalism — which has a much more of a presence in my local area — has done a tremendous job of taking away local distinctions and making everyone, more or less, operate on the same program. So while a Church of God—Cleveland, Tenn., church may still have some mountain religion flavor, it’s not really all that different from the Assembly of God down the road or the non-denominational “House of Praise” in the next town; and if you want to break away from charismatics to those of a more generic mega-church flavor (and even their smaller-church aspirants), things really are the same everywhere you go. Some folks just do it slicker. This is nothing more than survival of the lowest common denominator.

A few excerpts from Vasquez’s piece (read the entire thing here ):

In many ways, the American experience is all about forgetting. Since this is a nation where almost everyone descends from immigrants, homogenization of cultural differences is necessary for creating a harmonious social order. It is only a matter of time before this affects the religious sphere of any given group. It is at least arguable that religion in the United States must inevitably become individualistic, consumerist, and fascinated with innovation. What came from the past, from ancestors in another time and society, must be forgotten since it is irrelevant; or at the very least, it must be subjugated to the needs and prejudices of the present.

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These Catholics — call them “Neo-Caths,” “traditionalists,” or “conservatives” — seek to satisfy their hunger for a “thicker” Faith through books, Web sites, clubs, and even specialized “niche parishes” where they are allowed their own liturgical and devotional particularities. While such aspirations are legitimate, they must be tempered by the realization that these efforts do not necessarily create an organically traditional Catholicism, but rather can be yet another manifestation of American consumerism on the religious level.

In these circles, arguments over what Tradition is can miss the forest for the trees. Having been deprived of a tradition, properly speaking, many try to recreate it using books, Internet forums, and popular media. What often results is a parody of the ancestral faith; a version in which certain practices are preserved while others are conveniently dropped. Variations on the theme of remembering and forgetting are often at the heart of the arguments among members of the Catholic right. Some want one thing done at Mass, others want another. One group says we must follow this page in the book, others say that we must follow that page. These arguments often have nothing to do with what we were taught at the home by our parents, or what was passed down to us by our forbearers. In other words, they have little to do with tradition proper, and more to do with personal taste.

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I have come to learn the hard way that such debates over what constitutes tradition have little foundation in what tradition actually is. I confess here that I first learned to pray the rosary out of a book. I had joined my local Legion of Mary as a teenager and said the rosary the way the Legion did. After a long youthful period of religious exploring, which included a stop in the Eastern Church, I ended up once again where I started from: in the house of my grandparents.

I began to pray the rosary in Spanish with them, and in the process realized that this was not the rosary I had learned as an adolescent. The method of saying the rosary that they had brought with them from Mexico was a rushed catechetical poetry, an echo of generations of prayer that I could never learn from a book. There was nothing wrong, in principal, with what I had learned as a youth, but the way my grandparents said the rosary seemed better precisely because it was old. It belonged to me. It was my birthright. It was almost in my blood.

It is that organic tie with the past that is missing in many of the polemics over liturgy, devotions, and the general shape of Catholic life in this country. When some pundits speak of capital-T Tradition, they are often speaking of a disembodied ideal that they want for everyone that was lived in the past by no one. It is found only in books, beamed to them directly via satellite feeds from the Vatican, packaged in cellophane wrap complete with a user guide. It is often disconnected from real life, and negligent in terms of the little details of the Catholic ethos. How does one pray the rosary, bless the food, decorate a home altar, etc.? Like learning to drive or raise children, there is only so much one can learn from a book (or from a blog, for that matter).

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Note: Except where I specify, I’m using “Catholic” as a generic, catchall term for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Catholics, Anglicans who want to claim it, etc. I know there are manifold differences between the groups. Likewise, I’m using a generic “Evangelical” in its most commonly understood meaning, not Reformed Presbyterians who label themselves Evangelicals.
Also note: I know Catholics don’t own the entire market as far as liturgy is concerned, and that there are plenty of liturgical Protestants. I’m just making a point.

Science fiction and comedy writer Douglas Adams once wrote that it is amazing how one’s perspective can shift by taking just one step to the left. As one who has taken more than a couple of steps to the left (or right, depending on how you define things, I suppose), I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Evangelicals and Catholics tend to view each other in reductionist terms — you know the usual, “Their worship is just routine,” “They love rock bands in church,” etc. But a lot of this can be addressed by taking a step to the left, so to speak.

In Catholic worship, the emphasis is on what the people of God do corporately, while Evangelicism emphasizes pietism. In other words, one focuses more on what can be done as a group, while the other focuses on what can be done by the individual. While I’m not making a judgment call on which is better, liturgy or “praise and worship” (ok, I am — the answer to the test question is liturgy), I am saying how you view these things requires perspective. Someone who has been told their entire life that the only thing that really matters is how they personally relate to God is going to want an environment that makes them feel like they are relating to something, and music — which everyone grants is, in some form,  a legitimate worship device — is the perfect tool for that. All of this is going to color how they see worship that is different from that to which they are used.

Meanwhile, Catholics need to explain that, while the emphasis may appear to be about everyone worshipping in the same way, the idea is to pattern worship after the heavenly worship and to — as individuals and as the Church — join in with all the saints and angels in that heavenly worship. Nevermind the fact that liturgy helps curb bizarre Evangelical happenings like people barking like dogs during worship.

Another area where this can be useful is in how churches are — for lack of better terms — designed and decorated.

For years, I heard again and again that the reason Evangelicals have bare crosses rather than crucifixes in their churches is because Jesus is no longer on the cross. Fair enough.
One day, however, I was in a Roman Catholic church, and I heard an elderly lady remark that she had recently had a discussion with her priest about how Catholics were the only ones who showed Jesus on the cross, and she was truly puzzled by it. I know that this particular issue is tied into the Catholic church’s Eucharistic theology, but the hanging crucifix is their statement that Christ’s sacrifice was and is a present reality. Though Evangelicals may disagree with the Eucharistic conclusions, most would agree with that statement.

I am not saying that there are not differences between the groups that should be glossed over. Far from it. But I am saying that it would be helpful to walk over to where they are standing and realize that — from their angle — this is how things appear. It may not be the best angle, but this is their perception; once that’s established, asking what they see is next.

So, going back to what Douglas Adams said, maybe it’s best if we all take a step to the left and then take our fingers out of our ears.

  • Edit (Jan 20, 2010): Six months after the fact, this post still seems to get a lot of traffic, which is why I feel I should explain that the objections I raised in this post are no longer objections I hold. Just keep that in mind as you read it, and pray for continued grace and understanding on my part.

In Christian circles, there are two basic narrative takes on church history.

The first is that some time after the apostles died the church in general took a turn for the worse, and that the protestant reformation did a lot of corrective work for that.

The second is that following the death of the apostles, the church stayed steady and random groups with bad ideas broke off from the church, some small and some quite large, but because of its physical and spiritual ties to the apostles and their teachings via apostolic succession, the church remained steady and maintained the apostolic faith.  (Who is that group, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox is still up for debate, of course.)

Until yesterday, I was fully prepared to accept that second proposition, thanks in part to the mess the whole of American Christianity has become and in part because, even after dropping the supposition of apostolic succession, I believe that dogma is necessary.

But there’s one big flaw in the Orthodox worldview that stops me: the idea that the Orthodox Church is the only church, and all other Christians are — to borrow a phrase from the Roman Catholics, who believe the same thing — ecclesial communities.

(There are several smaller issues, as well, such as, how do we know the saints can hear us?)

I know where the Orthodox and Catholics are coming from, both theologically and historically when they make their claims about being the Church, but to say, “The Bible says the Church is one, therefore the true Church can only be tied to one ecclesiastical structure” — I can’t do it.

I can’t look at a body of believers, wherever two or three are gathered, and say, “Nope, you guys are not part of the Church.” That’s a deal breaker, and it is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Sunday, when I was in my evangelical church contemplating becoming Orthodox, I began to grow more and more uneasy to the point of nausea about the thought, especially considering Orthodoxy’s claims about itself. After all, it’s not like becoming Orthodox is the same thing as becoming Methodist.

I still long for a connection to the ancient Church, and still can’t really endorse a cowboy-ish “me and my Bible” approach to things with no regard for the mind of the early church, who were, as the Orthodox and Catholics point out, the disciples of the disciples.

I think Orthodoxy has done a tremendous job of preserving the post-apostolic and patristic spirituality of the church, and I think Orthodox worship —patterned after the heavenly worship in the book of Revelation — is beautiful.

But I don’t think Orthodoxy is the church, and I can’t accept that them having a line of bishops  (some of whom were, ahem, heretics) all the way back to the apostles automatically regiments the majority of Christendom, including myself, to the status of Christians outside the Church.

Also, as someone who has read just enough Church history to be really dangerous, I have a problem with the idea that the Church is protected by a charism of infallibility.

So where does that put me now?

I am staying with my church (which is, warts and all, filled with people  I love), and holding a sort of third version of the two readings of history I presented earlier, one that can be termed “essentially Orthodox” — I believe in something akin to Holy Tradition (albeit broadly defined and somewhat muted without apostolic succession), shaped by the patristic mind of the early church but keeping in mind that, just like scripture, you can make the early Church fathers say whatever you want when taken out of context.

So, basically where I was.

I grew up and still live in Louisiana, which has a strong Catholic presence, and every year I knew that Lent was here even before I followed the liturgical calendar because of one thing: Mardi Gras. Big parades, beads and king cakes made their way even to the northern end of the state, which is just as likely to be populated by independent fundamental Baptists and Pentecostals as anyone whose practice even resembles Catholicism. When I go out of state (exceptions — Mississippi, east Texas and southern Arkansas), people always ask about three things: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and Mardi Gras. It’s like Mardi Gras is a part of my cultural identity, even though I’m not from the French south.

But this year, the thought of Mardi Gras — a non-holiday that is celebrated by Catholics, Baptists and atheists alike — has left me a little nauseous. Aside from the fact that the revelries these days bear a distinctly pagan flavor, it flies in the face of intention the Lenten season. Hey, we’re about to start fasting, so let’s have an orgy.

I’m not opposed to parades, beads or beer. I like the idea of random displays of public jubilation involving lots of feathers and masks. But let’s just be honest — Mardi Gras is not a joyful celebration of the coming of our salvation, a last bit of glee before we take 40 days to seriously contemplate Christ’s sacrifice. It’s an excuse for the world to co-opt the Christian calendar and get drunk…and it’s an excuse a lot of the Church likes. Pathetic.

Maybe I’m just grouchy.