Outgrowing Protestant Adolescence

The Protestant-Catholic relationship has hardly been an untroubled one. And yet, the possibilities for various layers of reconciliation are better then at any time since the original schism 500 years ago.

One of the symbols for the church that is used in Scripture is the church as a household (Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10). If we pursue this analogy, there are fascinating parallels that can be drawn from the micro-level of our own households to the macro-level of universal and church history.

In large families, when the children are young, there is a “tribal” feel to the household. If children are born in rapid succession, until the time of adolescence, there is almost a shared collective consciousness, and there is no individualism, and not even much individual awareness. Everyone think and feel as one, albeit, sometimes as a conflicted one. Relationship to parental authority is relatively unclouded and clear.

With the onset of adolescence, the older brothers and sisters begin to break away, and distinctly become individuals. This is very painful and conflicted. As they rebel, they begin to think for themselves and it is no longer sufficient to be told what to think or do. Individuation eventually leads to relating to the opposite sex in new and interesting ways, and will lead to marriages in which the new couples themselves comprise new units. The partners have lost their old collective identity with brothers and sisters and especially with mother and father. Individuation necessarily involves alienation and contradiction from that which previously comprised the wholeness of early family life. Everyone’s hope is to find that which has been lost in the family of origin in the new marital bond.

Now all of this micro-level reality is seen in a larger sense in world and church history. The Bible is very clear that the human race itself has a childhood, an adolescence, and an adulthood. It says that humanity was a child until the time of the Incarnation, and was in a kind of grammar school under various tutors. When Jesus came, he was the world’s first grownup (Galatians 4:1-5). Now, the ongoing goal for everyone is to grow up into the full measure of the stature of Christ and become grownups themselves (Ephesians 4:13). This is a long arduous process and may involve the whole of history.

The maturation of humanity is a slow process. With the establishment of the church, most of Christendom was like a large tribe of children even up to the times immediately preceding the Reformation. With Luther, the individuation of the race began in earnest. The typology of the church had almost universally been that of the Holy Mother up to that time. As the church was the Holy Mother, the Pope was the Holy Father. Luther left his Father and Mother, married his wife Katie, and re-established the church. He re-established her not as Holy Mother Church, but as the Bride of Christ. Both of these images are in the Bible, and both are correct, but this change in emphasis demonstrates an evolution in consciousness, and a maturation.

Luther also inaugurated popular Bible reading, and we had a new encouragement of every person to think for themselves. Reading, especially of that which was previously forbidden, is always a sign of the onset of adolescence and young adulthood. A new and more conflicted relationship with authority began.

Every person imagines that they have married for only the best and most conscious of reasons. But this is never so. Everyone marries and picks his or her mate for reasons that he or she are not wholly aware. Part of every marriage is the subconscious hope of resolving unsettled conflicts with mother and father in the “perfections” of the person chosen.

This is always in part an illusion. After a certain number of years, the attempted resolutions do not come to pass, and past conflicts that were subconsciously brought into the marriage with the glowing hope that the blissful state of “being in love” would resolve them return, sometimes with a vengeance. A period of years of conflict may arise. In extreme cases, divorce and multiple marriages may follow. The hoped-for reunion gets further and further away.  As children grow and individuate from these marriages, they inherit the old conflicts, and will themselves perpetuate them in another generation.

Protestantism began with the glowing hope that the new marriage and reconstituted family of individuated people would bring a renewal of the lost unity and reconciliation of the old conflicts. But the new authority of interpretive agreement in a text, which certainly required more maturity than the older and less reflective submission to the Holy Mother and Father, proved illusory. Instead, conflict abounded.

This is not all negative. Maturation requires conflict, and disagreement. There is very little growth at certain points in the life of adolescents and young adults apart from a great deal of conflict. The Apostle John says as much when he tells us that the time of the “young man” is the warrior stage of life, when he is called to “overcome the wicked one” (I John 2:13-14). Battle with the devil involves battle with oneself as well, and leads to growth.

But a time does come when continued conflict is no longer fruitful, but destructive. At some point, continued battles lead to Pyrrhic victories that are self defeating. One is no longer fighting with the Evil One, but the Evil One is using us to perpetuate destruction. I believe the reason David was punished for taking a census in Israel was because the purpose of the census is to number soldiers and be war prepared. But he had won the battles at that point and had cleared the land, and was now suppose to make preparations for the building of the Temple and for a new peace with worship instead of war being the center of Israel. Making war with old enemies was a familiar feeling and action, so he wanted to carry on (2 Samuel 24). At a certain point, if one is going to make new breakthroughs to new maturity, one must stop battling the old battles, which have now become futile, and find new ways of moving forward.

A lot of wars and conflicts with contemporaries and peers really have their origin elsewhere. At some point, one must make peace and reconcile with ones parents and with previous generations. Who one has really been fighting with all along were parents. One can attempt for a long time to battle what one thinks is current when it actually is from the past. Unless we can go home and reconcile, we will be stuck in adolescent cycles of conflict for the rest of our lives. Continuation in marriage also becomes impossible. When fighting with wife or husband, what is really being fought are the shadows of mother and father.

Protestantism has reached an impasse. We have reached the point of self-caricature with split after split in order for truth to prevail. We have now reached the point of serial divorce and remarriage in both our family life and our church life, and not much truth is prevailing. Our fights are rarely fruitful. Every new beginning with every new bride, whether personal or in the church, has been accompanied by a temporary euphoria that at last we have “got it right.” But “being in love” fades faster with each failed romance. We must face the fact that we are really still fighting with our parents.  It is time to reconcile.

It is time for Protestants and Catholics to reconcile. This doesn’t mean that Protestants move back home and move back in. After all, we have been on our own for 500 years. And, it is also quite true that when we left, Mother and Father had become tyrannical, and we were right about quite a number of things. It doesn’t mean that if we make up with our parents, that we now agree on everything, let alone resubmit ourselves like children to the old regime.

It does mean that we reconcile, make friends, and find that which we can agree upon and cooperate with a great many things that in fact we do have in common. And while we still have many disagreements, it also means that we discover that our parents knew a great many things and had a great deal of wisdom that in our rebellion, we had shut ourselves off from. And we find that in the intervening years, they have changed and grown a lot themselves.

The current collapse of the American family is a mirror image of Protestant squabbles, church divorces, and church scatterings. To stop both personal and ecclesiastical divorces, we as Protestant pastors need to go and shake hands with Catholic priests. We need to reconcile. On the larger ecclesiastical level, the Lutherans have led the way with deep and fruitful ecumenical discussions. A great deal of progress has been made.  We are not very far from each other now in our understanding of justification by faith. The agreement is not total, but we are close.

Most of us will not enter into high level talks in Rome with cardinals and bishops.  Let the Lutherans continue to do that and represent the rest of us. On a local level, it will be a tragedy if we cannot reconcile as local clergy and work, pray, and worship together on the many levels on which this is possible.

The truth is, if we do not reconcile with Roman Catholics and also with the Eastern Orthodox, we will stall in attempts to reconcile with each other. Brothers and sisters who are all in conflict with mother and father, will never be able to look each other in the eye. All of this is hidden by middle age. This is just what makes it all so destructive: It is all hidden. As pastors, we know that a lot gets revealed at funerals when wills and property have to be dealt with. Many may not believe that Protestant disagreements, and even more, marital and family breakdowns have roots in the split of the church 500 years ago, but I would suggest that what is so obviously true on lower levels may also be true on higher ones.

John Paul’s death in 2005 signaled that reconciliation is indeed happening. The world-wide outpouring of grief is real. In some informal sense, it was deeply felt that this Pontiff represented all of us as a global Christian voice.

I am amongst those who left home 500 years ago. I personally feel no compunction to move back to Rome. But I do deeply feel family relationship, deep affection, and real bonding with that communion, who is indeed in a deep sense, our Mother. To reconcile with Mother and Father seems crucial. The alternative is more divorce, more scattering, and more self-inflicted violence. If we are interested in our growth as a metropolitan and city wide church, we are living in a dolt’s daydream if we imagine this can happen apart from reconciliation and love for the ancient and original churches of Rome and Orthodoxy.

Rev. Rich Bledsoe is a hospital chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.