Several years ago I heard Ross Douthat say that he thought, given the 20-30 years of good will that had been built up between Protestants and Catholics, it may soon be time for some frank discussions of our differences and a healthy parting of ways. Douthat’s words have come to mind several times recently as I have observed the ongoing discussion surrounding the editorial positioning of First Things and the broader questions raised by the end of bourgeois Christian politics.
They came to mind again as I read Dr. Jacobs’ reflections on the Mortara essay and the debate surrounding it. Here is what I think is the key section of the post:
Imagine that I, an Anglican, were the editor of First Things, and I published an essay by a priest of the Church of England arguing that Elizabeth I was perfectly justified in carrying out her lengthy persecution of English Catholics, since she was ordained by God as His royal servant implementing the True Biblical Faith in England, and the Roman Catholic Church by contrast is the Whore of Babylon as described in the Revelation to John. Imagine further that I responded to criticism by saying that I don’t agree with that argument but find that it challenges me in salutary ways. Would Catholic readers of the magazine be mollified by that explanation? I suspect not — even if my wife were a Catholic and my children were being raised in that communion.
Of course, the real-world First Things would never run such an essay, any more than it would run an essay by a Muslim arguing that the right and proper place of Christians and Jews in the world is dhimmitude under a restored Caliphate, or one by a Jew arguing that Christianity in all its forms is necessarily and intrinsically anti-Semitic and should therefore be repudiated and marginalized by all right-thinking people.
As I read the above, I found myself thinking “I’m not actually bothered by any of this.” This could, perhaps, simply be the result of a Presbyterian reading an Anglican. One (Anglican) friend of mine wryly noted that it is perhaps unsurprising when an Anglican says, “well, if that’s true then this absurd thing follows from it,” and a Presbyterian standing nearby says “yeah, that sounds good. … Wait, you were joking?”
Political Theology and History
Even so, I think there is something more going on here. We should begin by simply noting that history suggests there is something off about Jacobs’ use of Elizabethan England as a reductio: What I think he is saying—and if I’m wrong I’ll happily be corrected—is that most of the first 200 years of Anglican history are good fodder for a reductio ad absurdum argument. After all, the anti-Catholicism of the early Anglican church did not begin with Elizabeth, and a large part of the reason the Glorious Revolution happened nearly 100 years after her death is because the thought of a Catholic monarch was so unthinkable to the English people.
But it is not simply Elizabeth’s anti-catholicism that concerns me. The underlying principle behind both that and the integralism of many young Catholics is similar: A polity that is consistently Anglican or Catholic will probably have difficulty accomodating Christians who do not belong to the official church. Indeed, this is not a uniquely Anglican or Catholic problem: The entire reason we have Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania today is that dissenting groups coming to America were not welcome in Puritan New England. And so we ended up with Baptist Rhode Island, Catholic Mary-land, and Quaker Pennsylvania.
To be sure, we do not have to like that this was historically normal and we certainly don’t have to agree with it. One can argue that the sooner we abandon that era and mode of thought as western Christians, the better. It’s entirely possible to dismiss that older past as being a worse alternative to the present.
But the move that was made historically to avoid these complicated questions was essentially a move to indifferentism, attempting to marginalize points of distinction in order to avoid conflict. And the historical record seems to suggest that it is very hard to relativize some doctrines without relativizing others of greater significance—thus we end up with Lewis’s Tashlan in The Last Battle or, more recently, the benevolent and indulgent impersonal force that many mainline Protestant churches and liberal Catholic churches worship. (Ecumenism!)
When I consider that path, it is difficult for me to say that the liberal move toward relativizing some doctrines in the search for broader ecumenical agreement is obviously superior to the older approach to political theology as found in most western branches of the church.
Comment isn’t blandly ecumenical; it’s just Protestant.
But there is a second point to make here: Jacobs’ quite reasonably notes at the end of the piece that today’s First Things, with an ed board that is either predominantly or entirely Romanist doesn’t fit with the ecumenical vision of the non-profit that supports the magazine. Jacobs, as someone who still supports that broad vision, now finds himself drifting more toward Comment, a publication put out by the traditionally Dutch Reformed think tank Cardus and currently edited by Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith.
This makes good sense, but not perhaps for the reasons Jacobs suggests. In his post, Dr. Jacobs seems to suggest that there is an old First Things that essentially lived exclusively in the living room of the Mere Christianity house. That ecumenical vision may no longer exist at today’s First Things, but it can now be found at Comment. I think that this is a bad read on where the magazine is, though I could be wrong.
If anything, Comment strikes me as being on its way toward something like a Reformed spin on today’s First Things. But, by virtue of being Reformed, it relates to liberalism differently and can be a larger tent than a predominantly Roman institution. But this is not because it is committed to the living room of the Mere Christianity house and tries to avoid traipsing into one of the individual rooms. It is, rather, because Comment is reformed and that reformed thought supplies the principled means for retaining a big tent in a way that Rome does not.
The Parting of Ways
As late modern liberalism continues to fail, the way forward for Christians is not to double down on our commitment to Mere Christianity at the expense of understanding our particular ecclesial homes. Rather, we must, while recognizing our shared residence in the house of Mere Christendom, begin to spend more time in our particular rooms, developing a better understanding of how Baptists or Catholics or Reformed or Anglicans can best understand our current moment. This is actually quite in keeping with the spirit of Lewis himself, a man who spent a great deal of his time in the living room but also knew the Anglican chambers of the house quite intimately and served in many capacities in the Church of England.
This is why the work of the Baptists at both 9 Marks and the Center for Baptist Renewal is so important, and why the work of Reformed groups like Cardus is similarly vital. Indeed, this sort of historical retrieval work is what undergirds the work we do in the Davenant Institute and at the Calvinist International. And, of course, it is a key aspect of the work that the Roman Christians at the Josias and Tradinistas have been doing. (I’d be remiss to not mention the Bruderhof and their publishing house, Plough, as being an Anabaptist example of this same phenomenon.)
Moreover, as we mature and develop into our particular traditions, that will necessarily force us to confront difficult questions about our relationship to other traditions. This is not a bad thing! As my friend Jose Mena, himself a member of the Tradinista group, put it in his recent piece for Fare Forward,
Rejecting the liberal order, we find ourselves rejecting one version of ecumenism. “Evangelicals and Catholics together in support of capitalism and the liberal state and sexual orthodoxy” is no longer an option open to us. And so, away from the fog and vagueness of indifferentism, there will be a sharpening of distinctions between Christians of different traditions. As others have begun to point out, how exactly you respond to the problems of the liberal order will depend a great deal on how you answer basic ecclesiological questions. But if it can feel like a parting, it is a parting that drives towards final unity. The liberal order was a false peace in the Christian world, one that let us retain our differences by pretending they didn’t matter. They do matter, and we should always be as deep in our resources as we can be—and as sharp up against our interlocutors as we can be—in the pursuit of unity in truth. We should have confidence in that eventual unity, because of our common baptism in the name of the common good who is Christ to whom we all confess our allegiance, and we know that it is His effectual prayer that we will be one.
Thus our parting of ways will not be final. We will be one. And yet for now we struggle with the many ways in which late modern liberalism has become discredited and the sort of ecumenical projects that it inspired appear naive and short-sighted.
Certainly, Mere Christianity is still a thing that exists—and it is my fervent hope that Mere Orthodoxy can be a depot of sorts that connects the various groups emerging in different church circles—but then “depot” is precisely the point: A depot is a place we pass through on our way to a final destination. The depot is still significant, of course. It is connected to many different places and, thus, holds within it something of all of them. And we should, obviously, do our best to make sure that it is pleasant as a place in itself and that it does its job to help people move from one place to another peaceably—indeed, it may well be a place where people figure out their final destination. So the work such places do is vital and the need still exists. But a depot cannot be a final resting place.
The boomers bequeathed to us ECT—a statement that sought to define a tent large enough to accommodate Catholics and Evangelicals alike. But as the world that birthed that statement has begun to disintegrate we have found that the tent itself is collapsing as well. The point is not that ECT is bad in itself—I reread the statement while drafting this piece and was surprised by how well it held up. The problem is that the broad set of principles the piece describes do not provide an adequate base for the sort of return-to-first-principles questions that our current era calls forth. And returning to first principles means that the continued points of tension, points that the ECT statement speaks of quite well, have become that much more significant as we consider questions of religious life in a fracturing western world.
Thus, as we define these key principles we will inevitably find ourselves drawn more and more into the riches of our particular ecclesial tradition, be it Anabaptist, Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, or something else. This discovery need not lead us away from friendship, but it may lead us away from fellowship in certain ways. There is loss in that, of course. But there is also gain: As we become better acquainted with our particular room, we will be that much more versed in the first principles of our tradition’s understanding of the Christian society. And, equipped with that knowledge, we are more prepared to create communities of life and refuge for ourselves and for the refugees of a decaying modernity.