Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Whither the Church?

I'd like to engage one last topic from Carl Braaten's Mother Church before I return it to the bookshelf.

In speaking on the future of Lutheranism in America, Braaten draws on the writings of German Protestant-turned-Catholic Erik Peterson from the 1930's. Peterson observes that as Protestant churches turn away from a Church based on pure doctrine (i.e. away from their confessional roots and the ties therein to the catholic/Catholic church), they are faced with three possible alternatives: (1) translate theology into universal truths that conform to the spirit of the times, (2) turn toward mysticism, or (3) take shelter in social activism.

These three alternatives are easy to find in American Protestantism, and I suggest they are hiding in a few places that may not be apparent. (Is the emergent church, for example, a case of the first alternative? What about the church growth movement?) I myself have recently daydreamed a sort of Church unity that I'm afraid was, on some level of my mind, mostly based in social activism.

The obvious solution would seem to be a retreat to our Lutheran castle (to borrow a term from C.F.W. Walther), or perhaps a Neuhausian return to Catholicism. However, (and I know this will draw disdain from certain circles), I think the Lutheran castle, to the extent that it is a dogmatic option, is sinking into the swamp that has been recognized by post-modern thought. Dogmatism isn't really a long-term option anymore. And that makes the Catholic option a bit unfruitful as well.

Braaten, near as I can tell, has his hopes pinned on a recovery of visible unity, based on apostolic faith, among catholic, orthodox and evangelical churches protected by bishops, though with eyes wide open as to the limitations therein this time. Honestly, having read this book of Braaten's on ecclisiology, I feel like I should have a better grasp of what his vision is, but having finished it last week it is already slipping from my mind and I'm left with a sketchy image of apostolic faith, episcopal leadership and lots of hard work.

Honestly, I was left with a better feeling (hope?) for the future unity of the Church after reading Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy than after reading Braaten's Mother Church. Perhaps the two visions should be combined?


*Christopher said...

Is mysticism necessarily separable from doctrine/dogma? I would argue that Chalcedon is deeply rooted in a mystical vision as in III Constantinople, defended afterall by St. Maximos, a desert mystic. Dogma is not some mere proposition to be defended but points us toward the moon so to speak. When it becomes merely a proposition to be defended, and God knows I've known folks who go that way, it becomes a dry root and even dangerous. Mysticism is a living of that experience, a living relationship, and it takes many forms within Christian practice. I know some Lutherans distrust mysticism, but Luther himself borrowed from the Rhineland mystics and was more a mystic himself in ways similar to John of the Cross than some more purely dogmatic folks like Braaten could admit. Braaten's solution for unity, as far as I've been able to understand him, really leaps over some serious ecclesiological problems currently facing the Roman Catholic Church. Thoughts?

Andy said...

I think you've hit it right on. Doctrine by itself could quite justly be added as a fourth item on the list of unhelpful models for church unity.

In the book, Braaten does make clear that he's talking about mysticism divorced from doctrine, though perhaps I didn't make that clear. He says, "when Christian mysticism loses its dogmatic basis, it degenerates into mere feeling, into forms of spirituality spawned by secularized mysticism and nourished by revivals of paganism."

mindflame said...

I think every true follower of Christ can only long to have everyone who would follow God together in one camp again. I could almost see my self with you standing outside a Catholic Church a member in exile long for the One Church to be one once more.