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Why I am still Protestant, or Emily is right, but you don’t have to be Catholic to think so

April 26, 2010

Last week Emily addressed two central issues: the unity of the Body of Christ and sacramental theology, and pointed to them as the issues that led her to join the Catholic church. As it turns out I generally agree with her on these issues, but have no intention of becoming Catholic. Before I go much further in my exploration of these issues I would like to mention two things. First, Emily knows full well that I am writing this essay, and I am doing so with her blessing. Second, the idea that at some point we would respond to one another’s essays has been around since the beginning of this collaborative project.

Let us start with sacramental theology. The idea that the world exists in two separate forms, spirit and matter, is responsible for a lot of bad thought. The physical world can be seen, touched, and moved around. The spiritual world is much harder to influence and detect. This means that the physical world has come to mean the “real” world for many people, while the spiritual world is the world for things that aren’t really there. There’s also been a consistent tendency among Christians to call anything measurable part of the physical world and anything non-measurable part of the spiritual world. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Christians devolve into emotionalism the answer probably lies here: neither the spiritual world nor emotions are easy measurable on some neat little device with a digital readout.

The problem with this idea, beyond its bad influences, is that it is separated from the Bible which should be our guide to the spiritual reality. Neither soul nor spirit (nephesh and ruach in the Hebrew) were things without real impact on the physical world for our progenitors. A soul was what let someone live, and the spirit was similarly connected with life as breath. A living person could be referred to as a soul, and “soul” also doubled as a synonym for “self”. The very spirit upon which the spiritual realm is drawn from was, in the ancient view, deeply tied into the physical organism that calls itself a human. And this is exactly how observable reality works. Take, for instance, the following question: is the real you the you that comes through when you are tired, hungry, and have a headache, or is the real you the you that’s well-fed, well-rested, and feeling physically great? Both options presuppose that there’s a real you hidden behind the you that feels these stimuli, which I find rather dubious, but the question also points out that the you that interacts with other people and with God is not immune to what is happening to your body but is tied deeply into it. If you need further proof ask yourself about the effects of anti-depressants or brain damage, both of which alter the thing we think of as our non-physical self, but which is (of course) tied to our physical self.

There are not two non-intersecting realms, but one realm with two dimensions to it. Sacramental theology is observably real. And sacramental theology is inevitably tied to the unity of the Body.

Once one believes that matter and spirit intersect it becomes important for anyone who wishes to influence one to influence the other. If we wish to win souls, to use a term I find rather crass, we must also win in the physical world, because souls are not separate from that world. If God’s Kingdom is going to come it is not going to come on one plane but not on the other, because the world is not composed of two non-intersecting planes of reality. God’s Kingdom, which is the kind of world which redeemed souls will naturally want to see happen and strive to make happen, will inevitably involve a transformation of the physical. There will, to use some pretty non-controversial examples, not be human trafficking (but let’s call it what it is: slavery) in the Kingdom of God. There will not be wars, or murder. There will not be, to poke people a little closer to home, corporations that prey on the ignorant or weak-willed. There will not be alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling addictions, or the perverse psychological abuse that people spiral into more quietly. The order of the world will be changed, and to change it must take on the order that currently exists.

Let us speak quite frankly for a moment: when, in the temptation narratives, Jesus confronts Satan who offers him the kingdoms of the world (which he apparently owns), and when, in John (both 12:31 and 14:30), Jesus speaks of Satan as “the ruler of this world” this is not hyperbole. It is something that is observable every time you pick up a newspaper and read about a murder, a war, strife, conflict, greed, torture, rape, scandal, dishonesty, or hopelessness. The way the world is now is not right, and it operates under rules that perpetuate this state. The Kingdom of God is not coming to replace a neutral state of non-rule, but to replace the kingdom of the evil one. And every single Christian in the world is called to be part of it.

Of course the Body is one, because the Body is all aimed at a single goal, under the same authority, and through the same power. The hermit in the wilderness, praying for redemption and cleansing his own soul, is part of the same project as those who experience physical communion with one another.

So why am I Protestant? To borrow Emily’s already-borrowed metaphor, I haven’t seen many people playing soccer, and I certainly haven’t seen them in any great concentrations. I’ve seen arguments about whether the game is soccer or basketball everywhere, and I’ve realized that the hope of finding a secret soccer league squirreled away somewhere is pretty dim. Wherever I go there will be people telling me what to do, and these people will have entirely the wrong idea in their heads. (This is not to say everyone who tells me what to do is wrong, it is simply to point out the ubiquity of incorrect authorities.) But the great glory of Protestantism is that I do not have to listen to them. I, amongst a church that admits the church can be wrong and asserts that all believers are in some sense priests, can keep on playing soccer. I can keep communion as best I can amongst the scattered. And I can be assured that the reality on the unity of the Body is not illusory, in some separate “spiritual” realm, but of real consequence, even though, from this perspective, the outposts of the Kingdom might look few and isolated.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 11:14 am

    Thanks for the expansion of sacramental theology complete with linguistic backing, Eric. I like the system where I introduce an idea and you elaborate a bit!

    You and I are probably on the same page as far as the scarcity of people playing soccer very well. Perhaps I am just a little more hopeful that the soccer players out there will be better able to do it in the soccer field than the basketball court. But on rainy days in high school my soccer team found ourselves playing soccer in the gym, so I know it can be done. My blessings on you as you try!

  2. April 27, 2010 3:21 pm

    “ask yourself about the effects of anti-depressants or brain damage, both of which alter the thing we think of as our non-physical self, but which is (of course) tied to our physical self.”

    that metaphor makes perfect sense to me when considering this idea. i’ve never been able to put that into any real word, but i do believe there are some mysterious parts of our faith that could be explained by that metaphor. it’s like the “umami” in circles of faith.

  3. May 1, 2010 9:12 am

    I’m not sure why I missed out on reading this blog, since I read your other one, Eric, but I’m glad I’m reading it now. I pretty much just read this post out loud to my husband. For so long I’ve been so bothered by theology that acts like everything physical is evil, sinful flesh, and treats our bodies and our planet as a disposable thing we are flying away from. Before I even realized it, I was craving a theology which affirms the physical as created by God and part of the entire project of salvation and renewal.

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