This weekend, I had the blessing of attending The Climacus Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Founded and organized by the intrepid David Wright and held at the beautifully-designed St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, the speaker’s list read like an ecumenical “best of” in Christian thought: including Andrew Kern, president of the Circe Institute; Vigen Guroian, professor of Ethics and Theology at the University of Virginia; the University of Kentucky Platonist David Bradshaw; and Gary Gregg, Christian fabulist and political philosopher. Topics included in-depth discussions of the nature of the sacraments; popular culture; literature and the classics; and, of course, saints and sanctification.
Because of other commitments and family circumstances, I was unfortunately only able to attend the two-day conference on Saturday afternoon. But, even in the very short time I attended, what I saw thrilled me.
Children ran happy and free through the rather large audience, mothers and fathers watched attentively, and priests—looking sagacious in the way that only Orthodox priests can—asked serious and thoughtful questions of the speakers. The atmosphere was truly alive—with faith and with reason.
Eighth Day Books (Wichita, Kansas), perhaps the best Christian Humanist bookstore in America, had a large display of great Christian works, as did the monks of Holy Cross Hermitage of West Virginia. Food and drink (organic coffee, to be sure) seemed to appear and flow in great abundance.
The whole event really was, I can write without exaggeration, a true feast. Wright, the director, should be justly proud of what he accomplished.
As I drove back to Michigan Saturday evening, a number of thoughts struck me, some of them conflicting, and many of which I’m still trying work out.
Catholics and Evangelicals Together: Time to Call it Quits?
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Though raised a Roman Catholic in central Kansas, I left the faith (all faiths, except some kind of vague form of agnosticism) for many years. Before my adult return to the Catholic Church, I happily explored Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Orthodoxy. I read some about evangelicalism as well, but until I actually met really serious evangelicals at Hillsdale College, I had always thought of evangelicals in the way they presented themselves on TV in the 1980s—as con men, ready to claim an old person’s money (and, yes, I must admit, as a child of the 80s, I can hear Bono: “My God ain’t short of cash, mister”).
As is probably obvious from my possibilities, the high liturgical tradition has always attracted me—even, strangely enough, during my agnostic period. But, frankly, as a younger man, brought up in a very conservative and ethnic German heritage, Orthodoxy seemed a little too eastern for me, a little too mystical and mysterious.
Additionally, as a professional historian of western civilization and the American tradition, I have always been focused on connecting with Protestants. I have taught the western tradition and the Reformation and Counter Reformation for sixteen years now. While I teach the great schisms between East and West of the 700s and 1054, they seem to lack the drama of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a cathedral door on October 31, 1517.
I have also, for the past sixteen years, been very interested in movements such as Catholics and Evangelicals Together. Such an alliance, on paper, makes great sense to me. But, again, I must admit, after having taught at a primarily Protestant school for 12 years, I have had more disturbing and unfruitful discussions regarding the nature of the Eucharist (that’s just idolatry, Dr. Birzer), the priesthood (a priest—ooh! Gross!), or the Catholic Church as a “repressive whore of Babylon” than I care to admit or repeat.
I’m always shocked and suspicious when a person has to describe his beliefs by what he is not more than by what he is.
And, I’ve watched more ranting anti-Catholic sermons by R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur than I can stomach.* These two and their followers are as tacky as they are ignorant.
[*In my comments regarding innumerable discussions with Protestants, I would like to exclude—explicitly—Missouri Synod Lutherans. They seems as serious and as interesting as any Christians I have met in my forty-three years of life, and I have nothing but respect for the ones I know.]
Time for Catholics to Look East?
But, time and time again, when I look East, I see faith, mysticism, and intellectual excitement. As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I wonder if we Catholics should look not to Geneva but to Constantinople and, perhaps (though rumor has it that the Russian Orthodox are the most anti-Catholic among the Orthodox churches), to Moscow.
The catechism makes Roman Catholic connections with the Orthodox quite explicit: “With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound ‘that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.’”
The Orthodox Churches, of course, possess a heritage as long and as deep as our own. In this sense, as the catechism implies, we are equals, separated by unfortunate accidents of history and by East and West. We have much to learn from them: the maintenance of traditions (we can be certain the Orthodox churches have embraced neither handholding during the Lord’s Prayer nor homilies about the most intimate details of a priest’s personal life or the movies he happens to like, nor Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen drivel); the call to holiness; and the unity of faith and reason, while still preaching a profound reverence for the mysterious and the unknown.
While I would never argue that we should give up any kind of ecumenical dialogue with Protestants, I do think we should recognize that while all Christians are our brothers, some are more brotherly—and, frankly, more interesting—than others.