Projects of rethinking historical events are often linked to a debunking of old myths or to the creation of new ones, both prone to be motivated by practical interests in the present rather than disinterested exercises of historical scholarship. The year 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. As the date gets closer, all kinds of activities are already gearing up to commemorate it, some intellectually sophisticated, some blatantly profane. There is a flurry of theological reflections about past and present Catholic-Protestant relations. The tourist agencies of states in eastern Germany are already advertising tours through “Luther land,” while American Lutherans are invited to renew their spiritual roots by following the footsteps of their revered founder. Most of the official ecumenical activities are animated by expressions of mutual respect and affections between the two big branches of Western Christendom. These events stand in splendid contrast to the violent conflicts between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, continuing a dispute between the followers of Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia (more than 800 years before Protestants and Catholics started the wars of religion that devastated large areas of Europe).
Of course more partisan interpretations of what began in 1517 occur in both communities. More conservative Catholics may still hold Luther responsible for the great schism, even while official Rome has been decidedly philo-Protestant since the Second Vatican Council. Protestants and Anglicans in Europe have largely given up their traditional anti-Catholic hostility. American Protestants are split, their attitudes to Catholicism often determined by their political rather than their theological views: conservatives side with Rome on issues south of the navel, progressives resonate with the Leftish noises coming from Latin American Catholicism (and lately from Rome itself).
On October 30, 2015, a joint Lutheran-Catholic statement was issued after a protracted consultation by theologians of both confessions: “On the Way: Church, Ministry and the Eucharist.” The opening phrase means on the way to full mutual recognition and intercommunion, which both sides acknowledge as having been the will of Jesus and as being the intended final relationship between the two communities. [As a sociologist I must observe that there is also a tacit empirical assumption here—that the disunity between churches weakens the credibility of the Christian faith. This may be true in Europe, where both Lutherans and Catholics come out of a history of state churches—and where secularization, as a decline of religion, has gone farther than on any other continent. In the United States this alleged nexus between Christian unity and the plausibility of the faith is less persuasive.]
“On the Way” was published jointly by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest and more liberal wing of Lutheranism in this country (known, not always affectionately, as Aunt Elka), and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. There has also been input from the Lutheran World Federation, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and the World Council of Churches (to which most Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches at least nominally belong despite cacophonous disagreements). This document builds on an earlier joint statement in 1993 on the doctrine of justification, which has been a major disagreement between Lutherans and Catholics: The statement concluded in a somewhat tortured argument that there really were (or were no longer) any fundamental disagreements. It therefore decided, logically enough, to withdraw the solemn mutual condemnations (so-called anathemas, “accursed be…”) between Rome and its “separated brethren” (a phrase now considered impolite).
The gist of “On the Way” is a list of “32 agreements” (there is also an honest acknowledgment of issues on which there still is disagreement). Coming to the document as a non-theologian one is likely to be less than overwhelmed by what is supposedly agreed upon; a professional theologian will of course get the subtle nuances which signal continuing disputes. One must remember that this is the work of a committee in which each member, with good will, tried to get as far as possible to sign on to a consensus without losing the “home base” (in the Catholic case that is defined by the appropriate agencies of the Vatican). Some examples: Agreement 4—the Church is apostolic because its mandate comes from the apostles of Jesus—a bow to Rome, which has that adjective in its full title. [Not a word here about the apostolic succession claimed by the Roman Catholic Church and not by the churches coming from the Reformation. When the ELCA signed an agreement some years ago with the Episcopal Church, which also makes this claim, it agreed that an Episcopal bishop would always join in the consecration of Lutheran bishops—the Lutherans, I suppose, would accept this with a wink.] Agreement 14—all baptized Christians exercise a common priesthood—a bow to Wittenberg, with its doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—here the Catholics would sign with a wink—but Catholics can defend their signing on by Agreement 21: Entry into ministry is not through baptism but by ordination—here Lutherans must wink at the de-emphasis of their cherished priesthood of all believers. Agreement 24: The office of bishop is a special form of ministry—the Greek synonym, episcope, is used here. I suppose both Catholics and Lutherans can formally sign on to a New Testament term that does not mention the (minor?) difference in understanding the status of the Bishop of Rome. Agreement 29: Christ is present in the eucharist (the sacrament of the altar). Another bow to Wittenberg: The “real presence” of Christ in the eucharist was the favored Lutheran term in opposition to the merely commemorative understanding by much of the rest of Protestantism and the traditional Catholic view of the miracle of the mass. The latter has been modified in more recent Catholic formulations, but here it is Catholics again who must wink at the implication that no differences remain.
I could go on with the list of “32 agreements”, but that would be tedious outside a divinity school seminar. I would rather ask whether, in view of all these ambiguities, this sort of statement makes any sense at all. I would answer that it definitely makes sense, if only for the purpose of strengthening amicable relations between these religious communities. But one must be clear about what goes on here and what does not.
Theological conversations between religions (usually called interfaith dialogue) and between different versions of the same religion (in the Christian case called ecumenical dialogue) can be very productive in themselves. One not only gains understanding of other faiths but of one’s own. And amicable communication between ordinary people with different religions or worldviews is an important element of civic peace, especially in a democracy. The underlying cause of all of this interaction is pluralism (which has been my major interest as a sociologist in recent years). Increasingly everyone talks with everyone else, about religion and everything else. One convenient event from which to date the veritable explosion of such conversation is the World Parliament of Religion which met in Chicago in 1893 (which was repeated with less dramatic results in 1993); among other things it marked the strong public appearance of Asian religions in America, far beyond academic circles. The ecumenical movement was institutionalized with the creation of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s gave birth to a proliferation of Vatican agencies devoted to dialogue—with non-Catholic Christians, with Jews, with all other religions and finally with the hard-to-define category of “non-believers.” All of these continue today, with different names.
One important fact to keep in mind is the wide gap between dialogue among religious professionals who are typically understood (and understand themselves) as speaking as representatives of clearly defined bodies of belief, while ordinary lay members of the communities are often quite ignorant of or uninterested in the doctrines being negotiated between the professionals. That is the difference between saying “we believe” and “I believe”: Imagine a Jewish teenager being asked what your folks believe. The Jewish kid may reply “we believe that one must separate meats and milk products in meals”; this reply may be given by a teenager who loves breakfast with bacon and eggs and who has hardly ever set foot in a synagogue. The “we” in his answer refers to a consensus out there somewhere, leaving open who shares the consensus and who does not. An observant Orthodox kid may reply “I believe that God has commanded us to eat kosher”, implying personal belief and commitment. Thus religious dialogue between theologians often resembles border negotiations between non-existent countries.
Religious pluralism compels individuals, on whatever level of intellectual sophistication, to differentiate between the core of their own faith and more negotiable elements. If one regards freedom of choice as a moral good, this result of pluralism is a benefit for faith, even for someone who chooses to abide with the tradition into which he was born. Can one make this distinction between core and periphery in the economy of faith? A good example of a spontaneous distinction, coming long before detailed theological doctrines in two Christian groups, occurred during the so-called Marburg Colloquium in 1529. It was convened by Philip of Hessen, one of the early Protestant princes who wanted a united front of the followers of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. The conversation was focused on different understandings of the eucharist, led by Martin Luther of Wittenberg and Ulrich Zwingli of Basel. Luther, exasperated by the failure to reach agreement, exclaimed “Out of you speaks a different spirit!” I think the term “spirit” refers precisely to what I have called “core” here. Luther could certainly have used the same term to describe his Catholic opponents. “Core” or “spirit”, as I understand it, does not imply that each religious tradition is a fixed, unchangeable entity. Another useful term here is that of “motif” – originally a term, used in music—a recurring signature theme, weaving in and out of variant sub-themes. Think, for instance, of Beethoven”s Ninth Symphony, with its core theme weaving in and out of variable sub-themes, until the last movement explodes in the pure core motif of the Ode to Joy. There was an interesting school called “motif research” in Swedish theology and phenomenology of religion. Its best known representatives were Anders Nygren (1890-1982), author of Agape and Eros, and Gustaf Aulen (1879—1978), author of Christus Victor.
I would say that this is a question that could be asked in the aforementioned conversation between two teenagers: “But what is your faith really about?” It is similar to the question asked of Rabbi Hillel the Elder (first century BCE)—“Could you explain the meaning of Torah while standing on one foot?” After giving his answer (the Golden Rule, quoted by Jesus some decades later), Hillel added a priceless postscript: “The rest is commentary!”