On Ecumenicism

I listened to a podcast this weekend talking about the demands on apologetics past and future. The gist being that the apologetic project has been largely concerned with rational epistemology for a very long time, echoing the modernist milieu it was operating within. The spirits of the age, if you will.

That is to say, apologetics (think, The Case For Christ) wanted to prove that yes, this stuff actually happened, so you have a sound reason to believe that it did, and (after connecting a few dots) therefore Christian belief is warranted.

But the winds have changed. Suddenly the primary apologetic question is no longer “Is the Christian faith true?“, but “Is the Christian faith good?“.

It’s a wholly different question. And answering it with the apologetics of yesterday entirely misses the point.

Now, that’s a can of worms I’m not qualified to talk about. But it did send the ole brain a-wandering.

Because the winds haven’t just changed for apologetics. They’ve changed for doctrine too.

Right now, especially in the west, there’s a doctrinal realignment afoot. If we break down Christian belief into tranches of belief, there’s bunch of stuff we consider core to Orthodoxy (and the reason why Mormons, for instance, are broadly considered a different religion, not just a Christian sect among others), and then there’s some secondary stuff, and some tertiary stuff, and then stuff beyond even that, where we can all agree that no one should really be making a fuss about it.

Yet this isn’t what laypeople are concerned about at all.

We can set primary, core doctrines aside and assume all Christian churches agree on that stuff for the sake of brevity. It’s the secondary and tertiary stuff where things get interesting.

I see people moving between churches with pretty different secondary beliefs (adult vs infant baptist, and so forth) without much problem. A lot of this has happened in my extended family as the exit the Dutch Reformed tradition for Baptist Reformedish traditions. My feeling is that if you will move easily between two different church traditions without much issue, you probably consider at least those individual church as having some sort of broadly ecumenical overlap.

The question becomes… okay. If you would consider moving between churches that agree on primary doctrine but disagree pretty radically on these secondary doctrines, what are you concerned about? It can’t just be the primary stuff, because there’s certainly a bunch of other churches that you wouldn’t consider moving to, even though they agree on the primaries, right?

Again, the times have changed. People used to kill eachother over these secondary doctrines. Catholics, Reformers, Baptists… entire wars have been waged with these doctrines as at least their raison d’ĂȘtre. And yet here we are, 500 year later, with folks just deciding to up and become Baptists. What gives?

I think the answer is that the church is no longer arranged, at least in the layperson’s mind, along these traditional doctrinal lines. The stuff that really matters is Culture War stuff. Tertiary and beyond. Anything that you can put the word “rights” behind.

I think this reorganization is producing a broad ecumenicism across radically differing Christian traditions, based on the perception of the conservative church as a shrinking, oppressed minority (whether or not that is the case). So you see weird things that just wouldn’t have happened 50 or 100 years ago. Conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants feel more kinship with eachother than, say, mainline Baptists vs Southern Baptists. And, I might add, this isn’t just a conservative thing. Liberals and progressives do it too.

There’s a big push for this outside the church as well. Conservative news outlets have been trying to advance the idea that Russia is a western ally, at least since Trump. And how do we know they’re an ally? Because they agree on culture war issues. Don’t mind Russia’s slide into dictatorship and oligarchy. They hate The Gays, and that’s all we need to know.

It makes me wonder how long it’s going to be before conservative Christians find less to agree on with their liberal fellow Christian than with outsider groups like the Taliban. After all, on culture war issues, the Taliban gets pretty solid marks.

That might always be a bridge too far. But still…

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