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A Paradox Of Modern Popular Religion

Ecumenical dialogue as 'border negotiations between nonexistent countries'


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From a 2013 interview by Gordon College’s Gregor Thuswaldner and the eminent sociologist of religious Peter Berger:

GT: What I like about that particular book is that you invited colleagues from different traditions to talk about how they would formulate their own middle ground. I recently had a conversation with a German Catholic theologian, who was shaking his head when I mentioned to him that the denominational boundaries are breaking down in the United States, that one could grow up Baptist, attend a Mennonite college, become a member of a Nazarene church, marry a Reformed person, and send their kids to an Episcopalian school. This may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but maybe it is not too far from reality. How is it possible that denominational boundaries and the different theological frameworks they’re supposed to provide seem to have lost their relevance. Was that foreseeable fifty years ago?

PB: It was beginning then, and I think one reason is that the dogmatic formulations of different religious traditions are still meaningful in describing in broad outlines what the tradition is still about, but professional theologians take it much more seriously than most people in the pews. Take a very concrete example. A friend of mine who is a Lutheran theologian was very involved in this. It took several years. They had a committee of theologians that tried to reconcile Lutheran and Roman Catholic views of justification. And after years of negotiation—I’m sure in comfortable hotels in Germany or Switzerland or wherever—they arrived at a formula both sides could accept. Most people, lay people couldn’t care less. They didn’t know what the original dogmatic formulations were, and they were not concerned about finding compromises. In a nasty moment, I called many such negotiations “border negotiations between nonexistent countries.”

Let me give another example, not to talk all the time about Lutherans. There’s an interesting Catholic/Orthodox dialogue going on, again between theologians. And some of them have agreed that basically they agree on so many things. They’re really the same. Leave out the political aspect of this, but even from the point of view of the average believer, if you spend ten minutes at the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox church and ten minutes in a Roman Catholic mass, you understand these are totally different pieties. And whatever the theologians have decided is the same, the little old babushka who kisses the icon knows that what she does is different from the Catholics down the road. So I think in answer to your question, the denominational divisions basically define theology, and for most lay people, the theological distinctions are not terribly real.

“Border negotiations between nonexistent countries.” Ouch. But true.

What’s interesting is how this goes both ways. Berger is completely right about the Catholic/Orthodox differences. Some of my Catholic friends who are favorable disposed towards Orthodoxy have what is, in my judgment, an overly optimistic view of the prospects for reconciling the Great Schism. In my heart, I wish they were right, but Berger is right: these are totally different pieties. There’s no reason for Catholics and Orthodox to avoid opportunities for fellowship, of course, but you don’t have to be a theologian to grasp how very different the two forms of Christianity are in experience.

I couldn’t have understood this until I became Orthodox, and grew in my own Orthodox piety. Prior to becoming Orthodox, I assumed that Orthodoxy was more or less Catholicism with Byzantine characteristics. Now, having been Orthodox for about as long as I was Catholic, it seems to me that the differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism are significantly greater than the differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism, and almost as great as the differences between Catholicism and low-church Protestantism.

To be honest, I couldn’t give you a satisfying account of why that is, theologically, but I can tell you that it is. You readers who are Byzantine Catholics, I’d love to get your perspective.

On the other hand, one of the biggest religious changes I’ve seen in my lifetime has been the collapse of denominational consciousness within Protestantism. Sometimes I will hear from my mom or someone else in my hometown that somebody our family knows is now going to the (Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, nondenominational charismatic) church now, having left the (Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, nondenominational charismatic) church. This didn’t happen much when I was a kid in the 1970s. I’ve joked in this space before about how my family didn’t go to church often, and the church we didn’t go to was the Methodist Church, because as my father put it, “the Drehers have always been Methodist.”

When I was younger, and more theologically engaged, I looked down on that attitude. I kind of resented my dad for being mad at me for leaving Methodism in my 20s. He knew nothing at all — seriously, nothing — about what made a Methodist a Methodist. He wouldn’t have been able to tell John Wesley from Johnny B. Goode. But this was our family’s tradition for as long as anybody knew.

Now that I’m older, I understand that this is how it is for most people. The kinds of theological questions that preoccupied me in my 20s were not the kinds of questions that preoccupied most religious people in my 20s. And they’re not the questions that preoccupy me now in my 50s. I am not saying that the questions aren’t important — they are! — but that most people aren’t interested in exploring denominational distinctives, and holding hard and fast to them. Don’t get me wrong here: I believe these things are important. But based in part on my particular experiences, and based also on simply having gotten older (and wiser, or duller, depending on your perspective), I understand my father’s stance much better.

Even though I was for more intellectually interested in tradition and theology than he, my father was more traditional than I can ever hope to be. Why? Because he did not consider that he had a choice on religion. He was functionally indifferent to theology; what mattered to him was being faithful to what our family had always (“always”) done. It never would have occurred to him to have set out to do the heavy lifting of figuring out which Christian church was the true one, or most truthful one. Like I said: we didn’t go to church often, and the church we didn’t go to was the Methodist church. It was generally understood in local culture that you didn’t change churches unless you got married to someone outside your own church, or something significant happened in your life. If you changed churches, the last thing anybody would have wondered about were your theological convictions.

That has changed significantly. There’s more churn than there once was. As we know, this is true of US society. This is not too hard to explain. Many churches have preached Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for decades — vague theological uplift. It shouldn’t surprise us that when the informal taboo against church-hopping eroded, people would come to choose churches for non-theological reason (e.g., “She said she just wasn’t being spiritually fed at her old church”). As Peter Berger said, the borders between churches and theological traditions have in many ways ceased to exist meaningfully at the popular level.

And yet, some borders still matter — as Berger notes — at the popular level. When you’re a Protestant and you walk into a Catholic church, you know that something very different is going on there, and vice versa (though given the postconciliar Protestantization of Catholic church architecture and interior design, this is much less obvious in some places than in others). Visit an Orthodox church, and the contrast is even more vivid — perhaps surprisingly so for Catholics, who might reasonably have thought that given the strong Marian piety of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox church was closer to their own faith than it actually is.

I find this paradox of popular Christianity — borders collapsing, but remaining strong at the same time — fascinating. What do you think?



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