Wednesday, 11 April 2007

orthodox, catholic AND protestant, with small letters

I've had it in mind to do this blog post for a while now.

The three (current) major organizational groupings of Christianity are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Some time before the Reformation and before the rise of Islam, the third great grouping was the Nestorians, who spread from the Mediterranean to China, but there are only 200,000 of them left now. There are other small groups that don't fit into the three large groups - the Mormons spring to mind - but for most purposes, "three major groups" is close enough for jazz.

As it happens I'm part of the Protestant grouping, which gives me more flexibility in cherrypicking bits from the various traditions. I like to say that tradition funds my exploration rather than restricting it. There is a danger in cherrypicking - you can leave out important aspects because you don't happen to like them. I'm aware of this risk. The counter-risk of taking the whole package on is that you take on some really stupid stuff uncritically because it's historically part of the whole, even if it doesn't apply well any more (or even if it was a bad idea from the start). This is the essence of being protestant-with-a-small-p: To take a critical stance towards your tradition (including, in my case, the Protestant Reformation itself and some of its historically and culturally rooted assumptions). Protestants with a capital P haven't always been good at this.

I'm also orthodox-with-a-small-o. I've talked about this before in "Orthodox, open-minded, skeptical and happy". And I'm catholic-with-a-small-c, that is, I consider myself a part of the whole Church-with-a-capital-C, which exists across time and space and merely organizational boundaries (and doctrinal boundaries, which aren't necessarily the same thing any more). I suppose - I just realized this - that the "open-minded" bit = "catholic", and the "skeptical" bit = "protestant", kind of.

I'm not sure what my point is. Perhaps it's that these labels are more useful when we think about their original intents than when we use them as the names of tribes. And that all the bits are important; nobody has everything right and nobody has nothing right.

It's also part of my continuing attempt to find a way to describe myself. I really like the Gospel of Thomas, a very likely early although non-canonical gospel text which may preserve genuine sayings of Jesus. (I treat it as a Scroedinger's cat in this regard, neither affirming nor denying.) At one point in it, Jesus asks his disciples, "What do you say I am like? Or to what will you compare me?". John says, "You are like a philosopher of the age." Peter says, "You are like a holy angel." But it's Thomas who "wins". He says: "My mouth is unable to say what you are like." I sometimes think that not only is my mouth unable to say what Jesus is like, it's unable to say what I'm like either. Apparently this is part of the point of centering prayer: you sit wordless and eventually you realize who God is and who you are beyond all the words.

I'm rambling. I'll shut up now.

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