Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Protestantism as Church in Exile (part 1)

Karl Braaten in his book Mother Church, suggests that Protestants are in exile, and that the Reformers did not envision or intend to set up an alternative church, but were forced into exile. the musician, singer, monk John Michael Talbot in the late 80's produced an album in which biblical images of exile and return from exile were used to explore the division of Christendom and church unity and ecumenism.
As I recall Braaten did not quite explore the theme of exile in this Biblical note, yet I think this typology may in fact be theologically useful for ecumenists Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.
This reflection is in part personal. It is something of a puzzle to me and some others why as someone who writes icons, studies the Philokalia, reads Orthodoxtheologians as much perhaps more than Protestant or Catholic theologians, who loves the Orthodox liturgy, remains Protestant and doesn't become Orthodox. I am almostthere, why not take that step and leave Protestantism behind? It is a question that I ask myself from time to time.
I think the theme of exile may explain why I feel compelled to live for now as a Protestant ecumenist. My suggestion is that the theme of exile allows for the Orthodox claim to be the Church, that is to be those who have remained in the land of Israel, and for Protestants to claim to be of the Church, even if we say that no one group of us can claim to be the Church. The theme of exile also avoids the problem of claiming that the Church is the sum total of all Christian denominations. I am theologically astute enough and theologicallycritical enough to recognize that not all Christian denominations are created equal. Most protestant groups have considerable lapses in their theology or as with the Covenant tolerate such a greatdeal of theological diversity that all positions held are not in the final analysis theologically commensurate or compatible. I also recognize that unity is not uniformity, there is a certain degree of diversity in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The point is that I do not believe that the choice I have is between a Christian relativism in which all manner of Christian groups are considered equally right, and simply accepting that what ever faith I have can only be truly of the church if I become Orthodox.
The exile theme fits with my experience of my faith and my encounterwith Rome and Orthodoxy. I am without doubt that I know Jesus Christ that from my Baptism I have had the Holy Spirit and that this was sealed in my confirmation as a young man. Yet, it is also clear to me that the Evangelical Covenant Church, for all that I love it, is not the Church. Yet itseems to be of the church in that it seeks to live out a commitment to Jesus Christ and to live according to the life of the Church and yet it lacks something: We are in exile.
I first heard the ecumenical call as a call to return, this call came before my call to be a pastor. It came in my transition from high school to college. To me true ecumenical efforts were efforts of return. I struggled to understand what this was a return to. At one point I understood it as an individual call that I was to be come Roman Catholic. I obviously did not do so. As I learned more about Eastern Orthodoxy I considered return to be becoming Orthodox. Inow see my call to return as a more of a corporate call, to begin to speak to Protestants (like Braaten is doing) of our being in exile, and begin to talk in Protestantcircles about our returning from exile. I could not (nor could Braaten) speak in this way if it weren't for the WCC and the various and numerous ecumenicaldialogues and concords between denominations of the past 50 to 100 years. Yet we have not begun to really grasp that we are in exile. That our Brothers and Sisters who call us to return to the Church have a point, we are not in Israel.
The other thing about using the biblicaltypology of exile is that it allows for us to identify the cause of Christian divisions as both due to sin and caused by God. Just as God was involved in the exile of the Israelites due to their sin and the sins of their leaders, so we can begin to admit that our divisionsmay be brought about by God but that it was brought about by God as a result of our sins. Return then does not mean to admit that we have sinned more or are more at fault than those who remained, nor does it deny that God has been at work among those of us in exile, but it also means that we should not be content to remain as we are. It also allowsus to admit that God did leave some in the land "To till and care for the vineyard (2 Kings 25:25-27).
IF there is any truth to this use of typology then returning does not mean becoming orthodox, that is pretending like I am not of the church, that I am an unbeliever outside the church, but it also means not claiming to be the Church. The exiles didnot cease to be the people of God, but they also were not what God intended the people of God to be. Those who remained may be in the right place and keep a certainimportant continuity, a means in fact for a return, a connection to the Land. However their remaining does not mean they were more Godly, more in tune with the truth, than those who are in exile. Now by the same token being in exile does not mean being more Godly more in tune with the truth.
Given this suggested typology for comprehending Christians division, my reluctance to become orthodox is not a denial that the Orthodox can claim to be the Church in a way no Protestant as an exile has a right to claim. Rather it is an objection that returning to the Church means becoming Orthodox like any pagan or non-Christian. Also, my return cannot be alone. My call to return to from exile (as I understand it at this point in time) is a corporate call like that of Nehemiah. I am called to bring others with me. The message that Protestants are in exile needs to be articulated prior to my return and my return should not be individual but corporate.