17 August 2005

Baptists and Catholics.

Baptists and Catholics are at two extremes of addressing a fundamental question in Christianity, what has God been up to for the last 1800 or so years. I grew up in an ELCA Lutheran Church and it had always been one of those questions that lurked at the back of my mind.

The Old Testament tells a story of God's involvement with the Jewish people for thousands of years. There is a gap in the "intertestamentary period", but it picks up again in the New Testament. OK, so there Jesus lives a life, his apostles spread the "Good News" to the Mediterranian for a generation or two, we get to the Revelation of John and everyone is sitting around waiting for the apocylpse, which was supposed to happen soon, and then what?

Well, we know what happened next historically. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches, with some early religious battles during the waning days of the Roman Empire and a number of "heresies" which were largely successfully suppressed, went on to dominant the Christian faith for more than a millenia, until the Protestant Reformation tipped the apple cart. Meanwhile, the Jews are regrouping in the diaspora, and Islam arises about a century after Rome falls and takes the Middle East, North Africa, important outposts in Asia, and some of the Balkans by storm.

In the Catholic view of the world, the period after the New Testament is not empty of God's intervention in the world. The gap is filled with what I call "the tradition". There are the hageographies (Lives of Saints) that tell the stories of the martyrs and mendicants familiar to anyone who has studied art history. There are scholarly works, beginning with the four "Latin Doctors" and culminating in St. Thomas Aquinas. There are tales of miracles, successions of Popes in communication with the Pope, holy orders that arise, are reformed and are supplanted, there are Crusades, that are Cathedrals that are built and relics that are honored. Lots of stuff is going on. God is still present on Earth in an active way.

The state church Lutherans and Episcopalians whose churches emerged after the Reformation didn't entirely abandon this tradition, although it was de-emphasized to the point where many American children raised in those faiths barely know that it exists. But, the successive waves of new denominations that followed, particularly in the United States, made a more radical break. Many of these American Christians, the Baptists among the most prominent among them, simply threw out the entire Catholic Tradition material as corrupt. They strove to return to the "early church" of the New Testament, give the Bible an unreasonably high authoritiative standard as the literal truth, and found themselves staring a new dilemna in the face. Where had God gone during the last dozen plus centuries? Baptists reject historical-literary type criticism, by and large (at least the conservative ones do), but were left with a doctrine that argues both that God is both pervasively involved in the everyday lives of every schmoe in the South and that there is no reliable account of any involvement by God in the affairs of this Earth from about 200 AD to 1800 AD, when its own testimonies began to develop.

Neither approach is a satisfactory one. On one hand the Baptists were right about the Catholic tradition being significantly corrupted as a historical source. The Lives of Saints are closer in genre to superhero comic books than they are to biographies. No serious historicans today believe them to have more than a seed of truth. The embellishments are too similar and crude. Often the stories are anachronistic or otherwise flawed. On the other hand, a huge historical blank slate isn't consistent with a Baptist view of a personal God who is busy intervening in the universe. Why wouldn't someone have written it down? Why would the record be so corrupted? The bile spewed by many Baptist preachers that it was all due to Catholic corruption is unconvincing.

A faithful person would look for a more satisfactory synthesis of these conflicting stances. I'm not a faithful person, so it isn't hard for me to conclude that the Catholic tradition rings false because it is false, and that the Baptists are wrong, not in the absence of evidence of God intervening in the world for a millenium and a half or more, but in their belief that God has intervened in this world in the last couple of centuries. But, the disconnect is notable, and I think it will play a part in the evolving four ring circus of American Christianity, as conservative Protestants, Catholics, moderate to liberal Protestants, and black churches try to work out their respective futures in a world where the rest of the developed world is becoming more secular, and the Christianity in new and different forms is catching fire in much of the developing world.


Anonymous said...

"...Catholic tradition rings false because it is false..."

You call Catholic tradition false, and earlier corrupt, without a shred of facts to back your claim, yet you admit that the Catholic church which was founded by Christ has an unbroken 2000 year history. Yes, some saints' lives seem mythical, but that it hardly grounds to declare a faith false or corrupt.

The fact that only the Catholic church has this unbroken history of sacred tradition argues strongly that the Catholic faith is the one true Christian faith and all others false. Regardless of how much the false Christian churches would like to see the Catholic church fail, the catholic church is continuing to grow at about 11-14%/yearly while Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists are decreasing at similar rates. Only evangilicals (pentacostalists) are growing faster, and the trend is that many of their converts are beginning to switch to Catholicism.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I certainly didn't intend to argue the entire issue of the truth of Catholicism in a single post. The point was merely to touch on one issue that divides two Christian denominations.

The Orthodox Church has a tradition just as old, if not older than that of the Catholic Church, so in that regard you are incorrect. Moreover, the Hindus, Taoists and Buddhists have unbroken traditions which which predate Christianity, which casts doubt on the veracity of Christianity at all by that reasoning.

Also, the trends in Catholic membership growth are more muddy than you suggest. The Latin American and most of the European Catholic Church are in crisis. In Latin America, evangelical groups are steadily eating away at Catholic identification. In countries like Italy and France, participation in church rites has fallen to record lows. In the United States, their are twin movements in Catholic Church membership. The figures for white, non-immigrant Catholics look remarkably like those of mainline protestant white Christians. Most of the growth in American Catholicism comes from immigrant Hispanics (who are themselves more likely to be Protestant than the residents of their countries of origin). At the clerical level the trend is even more pronounced. The American wing of the Roman Catholic Church is importing priests from Latin America in large numbers because it cannot find enough candidates in the United States. The U.S. figures also show Catholicism merely breaking even with population growth, not increasing its share of the population.

In India, Catholicism is growing, but receiving a quite small and declining share of new Christian converts.

Most of the growth in the Catholic Church worldwide is in places where there have not traditionally been many Catholics at all, such as Africa (hence the, in the end unfounded, rumors that an African Pope might have been appointed).