Ryan Self, the publicist for Abilene Christian University Press, kindly sent me a pdf file containing the manuscript for Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder, a work dedicated to exploring the ecumenical thoughts of John Howard Yoder, a “celebrated Mennonite theologian” as Mr. Self properly described him in the email sent out to a some WWW bloggers drawn, I gather, from those who’ve shown some interest in the work of Professor Yoder. I’ll be writing from a Catholic viewpoint, fully accepting the items in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed and the claims of Rome that Christian churches should be united with the Pontiff of the Catholic Church, who happens as a matter of historical accident to be the Bishop of Rome, but I don’t think modern Catholics, or other modern Christians, have coherent ways to think and speak about human beings and the world we inhabit. We’ve lost contact with Creation and, hence, with the Creator.
Before going further, I’ll give three of my reasons for wanting to write some blog entries about this book and about the general subject of ecumenicism:
I was baptized in a Congregationalist church as an infant and later was re-baptized in a Campbell-Stone church in Atlanta in the mid-1980s. About five years later, I entered the Catholic Church. I wasn’t happy with the Catholic Church as a human institution and I’m still not happy with it as a human institution. I’m far from being a Catholic Triumphalist though I strongly believe that the Catholic Church is the core of the pilgrim Church on Earth. My reasons for becoming a Catholic are complex and form a novel rather than a sentence and I’ll not write the novel here. In any case, I wish to better understand and communicate my reasons for decisions made in my ongoing spiritual journey. I believe that God sent me on this journey for my own good but also to teach what I learn to others.
I respect the moral integrity of John Howard Yoder and many others from the peace churches. Professor Yoder in particular has shown the courage to witness to his belief in a radical and self-risking non-resistance. Though I support the concept of just-war, I think Yoder was right in When War is Unjust in claiming that just wars are not possible in our age.
I also have a great respect for those Christians who make a serious effort to study the Bible, including Mennonites and the members of the Campbell-Stone churches. All Christians, including Catholics, should work to develop the intelligence and honesty to read the Bible as a source of ever-fresh understandings of God’s own Creation and of the story of human salvation set within that Creation. At the same time, I think that Mennonites and many others too easily dismiss the revelations present in the Apostolic traditions which were developing even while Saul was still persecuting Christians and the Gospels were still being transmitted mouth to ear. I’ll also claim that Christians, as Christians, should be learning from God’s Creation. It’s not just a neutral setting, not the pagan world co-eternal with the God of Plato, but rather a very particular work which reflects some freely made decisions of the God of Jesus Christ. I would conjecture that Creation itself carries a lot of truths God wishes us to learn, not just that we might build better power-plants but that we might learn to think a little bit more like our Maker.
Since the number ’3′ is holy to Christians, I’ll also list three issues which we must honestly discuss if we’re to play our proper role in forming the Body of Christ.
Who is a Christian?
John Howard Yoder misstates the teaching of the Catholic Church in the essay reprinted as the ninth chapter of Radical Ecumenicity, The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church:
Roman Catholics have no difficulty with such [ecumenical] questions, for they believe, consistently and in line with the doctrines of the church, that it is possible to be a Christian only within their own organization.
There are many Roman Catholics who think they’re the only true Christians, but that’s not the teaching of the Catholic Church. This is what the college of Catholic Bishops had to say when they gathered for the Vatican II Council:
The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. [Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Section 15 of Chapter II: "The People of God"]
The name of “Christian” honors all who have received a Trinitarian baptism — “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” using water. It is, in fact, a sacrilege for a Catholic to knowingly re-baptize someone who has received such a baptism. In cases of doubt, priests will perform what is called a conditional baptism. (“If you are not baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”) So long as water — as little as a drop of spit if necessary — and the Trinitarian formula is used and the intent is proper, the baptism holds, even without faith on the part of the recipient though the graces of baptism won’t flow into the recipient until he has faith. In other words, baptism, like any Sacrament, is an objective act done for God and under His instructions and with His participation. It’s not primarily a human act of ritual convention though it necessarily becomes that as a secondary matter.
What is meant by “the Catholic faith in its entirety”?
There is the Catholic faith in its entirety which is professed by the members of the 20+ Catholic churches and also by the Orthodox churches and by a few independent Eastern churches. In the modern age, the Catholic Church has, in fact, re-established relationships, sometimes full communion, with some ancient churches in Asia and Africa. The entirety of the “Catholic faith” centers around the fullness of the Eucharistic Rite where a priesthood in the line of succession of the Apostles can consecrate the bread and wine produced by men so that it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. Those priests are acting under the delegated authority of the one true Priest, Jesus Christ who gave us this commandment:
So, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” [John 6:53(b)-54]
These are hard words? What would you expect from the incarnate Son of God? Did He come to confirm the common sense of that age or ours? Or did He come to teach us that truth is richer than any human body of common sense and we have to respond to God’s Word, to His words, and to His Creation, that we might move towards that greater truth? To move towards that greater truth is to move towards God and towards the world of the resurrected where we might share the life of God, true life.
After Jesus spoke such hard words, many of His followers went away, most certainly not because He claimed that He gave bread to symbolize His own flesh and wine to symbolize His own blood, but because He taught that His followers must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Those who wish to understand the importance of this issue can read John 6:52-71 and note the story about those who had trouble believing the words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood includes a discussion of Judas Iscariot. Christ Jesus spoke some hard words indeed.
The Catholic Church doesn’t teach that all those who refuse to accept these words as a true commandment are traitors as was Judas Iscariot. Yet, that refusal creates a difference that can’t be ignored by those churches which believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. Even those baptized properly and honored with the name of Christian cannot share communion with Catholics or Orthodox or members of a few other Eastern Churches, churches which have maintained a priesthood which can celebrate a true Eucharistic Rite, because they would be eating unworthily. The word ‘unworthily’ in this context doesn’t refer to any moral problems but rather to a lack of faith that Jesus Christ is truly present in that consecrated bread and wine. You should have faith that Christ is truly present before consuming the Precious Body and drinking the Precious Blood of Christ. Or better, you should wish to have faith that Christ might provide that faith. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.
Why is unity so important and how can it be sought?
The Body of Christ is one and yet it is composed of many human individuals who remain fully individual just as the one God is three divine Persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The Son is the link between God and man, being one of the three Persons of God in His divine nature and divine Person as He is the head of the Body of Christ in His human nature and divine Person. The Body of Christ is a multitude of individuals who are one in a real sense, as Father and Son and Holy Spirit remain individuals though united as truly one God.
We mortal men can’t simply unite ourselves to Christ the way we might join the YMCA. We can’t even realize the necessary degree of unity by gathering together for prayer services nor by consecrating ourselves to God by an effort of our human wills. The Almighty Himself has to act to bring this about and the churches which believe in the Real Presence teach that the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is the material agent of God’s act of forming us into the Body of Christ though it will be fully realized only in the world of the resurrected.
Before we can understand promises of salvation, we need to have some shared way of talking about empirical reality that we might understand what is being saved and how it is that a mortal and finite creature might be able to even tolerate, let alone enjoy, some sort of life without end. Otherwise, whether a Christian talks to a fellow Christian from whom he’s separated by historical or doctrinal problems or whether a Christian tries to evangelize a nonbeliever, he’s merely babbling. Even if they don’t understand the intellectual issues, the children who drift away from Christianity and the nonbelievers who think us deluded, sense this hollowness and dishonesty in modern Christian claims to speak ultimate truths. We can’t even speak about men in a way that makes sense in light of modern biological and medical knowledge and yet claim to be able to speak of the nature and possible salvation of this disordered creature. We retain a pre-modern view of time and space and yet claim to be able to speak about eternity.
Any readers interested in my efforts to provide a shared Christian view of empirical reality can download a book I’ve made available for free for personal use: Four Kinds of Knowledge. My general viewpoint is a Thomistic existentialism updated to consider modern empirical knowledge about Creation. St. Thomas Aquinas, seemingly an outmoded Scholastic, has been rediscovered by some modern scientists because his way of thought deals so well with empirical reality. You can find one of the best explanations of Thomistic theories of human moral nature in How Brains Make Up Their Minds by the neuroscientist and philosopher Walter J. Freeman.
I’ll end with two interesting quotes from St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians. [This commentary and many other writings by St. Thomas are freely available from Ave Maria University. Google for the download site if you are interested.]
[J]ust as a disciple reaches an understanding of the teacher’s wisdom by the words he hears from him, so man can reach an understanding of God’s wisdom by examining the creatures He made… [Page 17]
[T]he wisdom which attains to God through the things of this world is not the wisdom of this world [in the sense used by St. Paul in his dismissal of worldly wisdom] but the wisdom of God… [Page 51]