Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ecumenism and Conversion

Ecumenism is one of those things we all think we do. I never met a Christian who flatly says that his version of Christianity is just right and fellowship with other Christians is not really something that interests him. Even the Christians out on the edge will find other Christians close enough to the same edge that they can interact and call it ecumenism. But even though most every Christian sees ecumenism as good very few do it with enough charity and enough energy to actually get the benefit. We make a lot of basic mistakes. I know I did as I tried to be an ecumenical Christian. As I grew more and more ecumenical in my thinking I wan unknowingly opening myself up to the Catholic faith. Reflecting on it I wonder if the same would be true for everyone. If you engage in serious, charitable, ecumenical dialogue will you always end up Catholic?

What do I mean by serious dialogue? Well, most of the time we engage other Christians from other traditions we make a few basic error. Often we only include traditions very close to our own. I know when I started going to interdenominational fellowships it was with doctrinally conservative, liturgically charismatic, evangelical churches. Churches that were so much like my own that there was virtually no challenge. They found infant baptism strange but we all agreed sacraments were not that important anyway. There were likely many other issues but we didn't even know what they were. We didn't know our theological distinctions very well and we didn't know our denominational history at all. Ignorance was bliss.

When we dared venture out to denominations that were more different than ours the encounter was very controlled. Everything was designed not to offend anyone. Simple praise and worship songs. Safe speeches. General prayers. Don't ruffle any feathers. It was all very nice but it was not very productive. It was not long before people asked why we bothered doing it at all.

There is one more way ecumenism is often done. That is to dialogue about differences but to lack complete charity. That is to not really listen to what the other person has to say and respect it as honest, intelligent, informed opinion. The huge temptation is to devalue the person from the other tradition. To assume they arrived at their beliefs in a way that is somehow inferior to your own. That you are more objective. That you are smarter. That they must have missed something. Some people are uncharitable enough to flatly state these ideas. Often people don't say it but they still assume it on some level. They interact politely but they are never converted because they don't really embrace the persons ideas as coming from a brother in Christ just as likely to be right as you are. The listen to the person as a defective brother in Christ.

I know as a reformed Christian I listened to Pentecostals, Catholics, and others but not really thinking of them as equals. They were confused. Their thinking was interesting but in the sense that a deformity can be interesting. I did expect to learn something from them but in a very limited way. I didn't allow myself to consider major changes in what I believed. I think this type of listening is common and it is really uncharitable. There is no logical reason to assume my understanding of God and of scripture is right and theirs is wrong. I was prejudging their arguments.

Now you might see how avoiding these pitfalls might inevitably lead you to the catholic church. There may be some other blockages you can out in the road but I can't think of any. If you allow yourself to listen and really take seriously some of the positions other Christians hold then you will get yourself into a lot of doctrinal standoffs. Important issues where you need an definitive answer and you cannot logically arrive at one.

So what do you do? How do you move forward? You can go to history. Ask which position is the oldest and has the most impressive list of supporters. You can go by size. Which faith has the most Christians backing it up. You can go by philosophical coherence. Whatever you choose the choice is always the same. Catholicism. Unless of course you have ruled it out before you started. Most people do. I probably would have too if I hadn't started to fellowship with some Catholics and become more charitable towards their position.

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