Penelope Adams Moon is associate professor of history at Bethel College.
In the midst of his moving account of the shared Eucharist at a recent meeting of the Catholic-Mennonite ecumenical group Bridgefolk, Darrin W. Snyder Belousek offers a passionate argument against "disunity" in the church. By the "church" Belousek means the larger body of Christ on earth. His argument is roughly this: divisions among churches and denominations and, therefore, between Christians hamper the mission of the Church, which aims for human reconciliation with God.
Belousek marshals a number of biblical mandates for ecumenism, drawing in particular on Paul's counsel to the church divided at Corinth. Rather than dwelling on earth-oriented allegiances to himself or Apollos, Paul instructed the Corinthians to acknowledge their shared baptism in Christ. With the power of Paul behind him, Belousek questions the effectiveness and even biblical validity of the adjectives most of us instinctively write in on forms asking for religious identification"Roman Catholic," "Mennonite," "Methodist," "Lutheran." In fact, we are so used to our implicitly hyphenated religious identitiesalthough the "Christian" is usually left offthat I often get a little grumpy when I encounter prospective students who have written "Christian" under religious affiliation on their Bethel College applications. What on earth does that mean?! But what tribe are you from, my dear child? Belousek's argument reminds me that the identity that should really count is the one most of us assume (and we know where that gets us!) to be self-evident.
In this regard Belousek makes a good point. Whereas the Christian community has long busied itself with building up walls between these "Roman Catholics" and those "Mennonites," concerned Christians everywhere should really be focusing on building bridges (thus, the aptly named Bridgefolk) between all the adjectified Christians so as to more effectively witness the cross to the rest of the world.
As much as I'd like to get on board with Belousek, however, I think a major thread in his argument hinges on assumption. Belousek seems to assume that difference equals disunity. "[I]f the church fractures along denominational, confessional, geographical, national, racial, gender, or class lines," Belousek claims, then the "atoning… power of the cross in the church" is impeded. While I would readily agree that division based on immutable characteristics like race and gender (sex? sexual preference?), and/or all-too-mutable characteristics like class, contravene Christ's message of inclusion, I am not yet convinced that denominations are a bad thing. What does Belousek mean when he uses the verb "fractures"? Is there mere existence of denominations evidence of a church fractured?
Let me quote just a bit more from Belousek before I offer my challenge. Belousek argues that "Faithfulness of the church to Christ's ministry of reconciliation… requires foremost that we be reconciled to one another…. This, though, is not only a matter of the church professing a single creed…(although that is surely necessary)…. Christian division thwarts the power of the cross in the church, thereby frustrating the atoningthe right-making, one-makingwork of Christ and emptying the message of the cross of its power."
Although the church has historically and in the present exhibited signs of brokenness, I am unwilling to concede that divisions in the church are debilitating or impeditive, as Belousek's earlier use of the word fractured implies. In the context of his account (the debate over whether Mennonites can receive communion during the Catholic mass), Belousek seems to call for erasing Christian difference. He isn't simply encouraging Christians to stop killing and demonizing one another. Belousek argues that denominationalism is bad; that difference between Christians is counterproductive. Here's where I gotta jump ship.
Teaching at Bethel College, I am continually amazed at the beauty of and potential embedded in difference. Ideas, understanding, growth blossom amidst diversity. Classes in which all students think alike are boring. It's the divided classes, the classes in which students boldly wear their different identities, which are dynamic. Colleges have become loud, if not entirely effective, proponents of the concept that diversity (i.e., difference) is good, desirable, optimum, a blessing. Why should it be different among Christians? Denominational diversity presents to the world the myriad ways people express their faith in God and the different ways that the Spirit has called people. The different emphases various denominations embracepeace, sacrament, ritual, contemplation, snake handlingoffer to those not yet reconciled with God a host of ways to encounter God's presence and love. These differences, though, often go beyond points of emphases to reflect dearly-held differences in belief.
Let me continue the analogy to college. Like denominations, many colleges often proclaim a commitment to various beliefs through their mission statements. With these mission statements in hand, colleges invite would-be students (some already "believers," others not) to take a place at the college's unique table. At this four-year-long meal, some students come to embrace the college's particular mission, but others simply grow by encounter; they leave changed, but not converted. The college grows, too, as a result of encountering those who are different. This engagement between people of difference challenges all parties involved to reflect on their own beliefs. In the end, and because of this encounter, students graduate as persons whose beliefs have been tested; they graduate having beliefs that have integrity. It is indeed a beautiful and poignant process.
Belousek's words make me fear for this beautiful process. What does he mean when he calls Christians to be "reconciled" to each other? Does reconciliation mean homogenization? A similar sort of question consistently arises in my American history courses. Historically, the dominant group (white Protestants) have assumed that "American" meant something specific, and, not surprisingly, something very familiar. Yet, even the shallowest historical research reveals that the meaning of "American" has significantly shifted over time, differed between certain groups, and has even changed among white Protestants. Would we argue for a single, neat definition of American? Do we Americans need to be "reconciled" to each other before we can truly begin living as Americans? Indeed no! It is, in fact, the ongoing debate that keeps the term "American" relevant. Christianity is in the same situation. The debates within Christianity (transubstantiation, baptism, reform) keep our Christian community vital, asking the right questions, turning to God for guidance, and ultimately recognizing that the truth is elusive and that we know nothing and that we are nothing without God. That is why the Catholic admission, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you" is so spot on. Even "believers" understand they don't have it all together, which is another way of saying they might have it all wrong.
I am heartened by Christian efforts to bury the hatchet. The Catholic-Mennonite dialogue nourished by Bridgefolk, like the recent Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, surely reflects Christ's teaching and help our work on earth. But at the end of the day, Catholics (and I speak from experience) believe in the importance of the sacramentsall seven of them. To celebrate the Eucharist as the body of Christ, but then invite those who do not acknowledge that it is the body of Christ to partake, seems to dilute the integrity of the belief. For Catholics, a host blessed through the mystery of the mass is no longer just a wafer. It is the body of Christ… period. Belousek misses this point entirely when he describes those Bridgefolk who approached the altar "hands held out in supplication to receive the sacred sign of grace incarnate." For Catholics, the Eucharist is no sign; it is the real presence of Christ.
For Belousek, though, this difference in belief shouldn't matterany Christian should be able to receive the Eucharist anywhere. This is an argument grounded in classic liberalism. Belousek imagines that all Christians should be able to do whatever they want in any and all Christian churches; that Christians have "rights" at all Christian tables. I'm not comfortable with this thinking. When I am invited to dinner, I am honored by the invitation and blessed by the sharing of conversation and company. And if my host pledges a belief in vegetarianism, if she believes that killing animals to feed humans is wrong, I respect her belief system while in her house. If I find myself unable to abide by her belief system (or she mine, if the roles were reversed), I might choose not to eat. But does that preclude enjoying each other's company or communing on another level? Can herbivore and omnivore be friends? Are we in need of reconciliation before we can proceed as fellow humans? Is our relationship "fractured"? On the contrary, my vegetarian host has offered me an opportunity to think about food differently and while I may not swallow her particular worldview, I have been fed by the encounter.
To be sure, there are divisions that we must focus our efforts on resolving. We cannot afford to completely embrace either homogenization or difference. Issues such as homosexuality are seriously divisive and are damaging the church and its broader mission on earth as we speak. But eliminating all division might not be the best thing. Why did Belousek not dwell on the fact that the priest read the gospel? Or that the use of vestments clearly divided celebrant and congregation? What about the Catholic emphasis on the communion of saints or the importance of the Virgin? Do we need to erase differences of belief in these areas for the cross to retain its power? Is it naïve of me to want to just focus on the fact that Christians acknowledge the saving power of Christ's death? Regardless of whether it prompts us to rethink or retrench, I just can't see how exploring difference can be a bad thing. It seems to me that rather than demanding homogeneity, we should observe each other's peculiarities with interest, asking what these differences can tell us about the world, each other, and most of all, God. We should seize the opportunity to ask how our differences can actually be assets in our common effort to bring people to Christ.
As I write this, Pope Benedict XVI has restated Rome's assertion that Christ established only one church and that other Christian churches are mere ecclesial communities. The pontiff has also eliminated some restrictions on performing the Tridentine mass (the "Latin" mass). As a former Catholic, I find these actions bittersweet. On one hand, they seem needlessly antagonistic. On the other, they remind me of my dissatisfaction with the human leadership in Rome and affirm my decision to leave the Church. Moreover, they prompt me to once again be grateful for the existence of denominations. When I found myself rudderless, having left the only Church I'd ever known, it was the very "disunity" of the global church that kept me afloat. This disunity ensured the presence of a group of people to whom the Spirit had sung a different melodya melody that I, too, heard and felt called to sing. And yet, to this day, I carry a deep reverence for the Virgin Mother and am inspired by the faith of the saints. I mark myself lucky to have had the chance to explore this fractured church of ours.