On ecumenical matters

Those of you reading this blog know that I’m working in an ecumenical Chapel and Chaplaincy. I love what I’m doing here, and have got to know so many people from different traditions; the experience is proving to be enriching and informative as well as enjoyable.

One of the natural consequences of working in this environment is it’s made me a lot more aware of the similarities and differences between different branches of Christianity. There is so much that unites us, and I do prefer to focus on that – when you’re working with people or making friends, this is the starting point after all. The similarities shouldn’t be used to sweep differences under the carpet – different denominations very consciously have different ways of going about things, and to pretend otherwise can only lead to superficial understanding between them. The key is to acknowledge the agreements and disagreements, and to see the importance of trying to work together with them, rather than pretending the situation is other than it is.

Part of this is being ready to ask questions. I’m afraid that I myself am far more ignorant of the particularities of different branches of Protestantism than I should be, but I’m trying to get better at voicing my confusion and listening to explanations. Even if I know that, as a Catholic, I’m not going to agree, it is far better to know and understand why, and to see clearly where people are coming from rather than just making assumptions about where they are coming from.

On the other side of this coin, I’ve definitely become a lot more aware of the necessity of answering questions, and in fact welcoming the voiced scepticism of some people towards Catholic beliefs and practices. Of course life would be much easier if we all agreed, but if we don’t agree, I’d far rather we talk about it! Voiced scepticism is so much healthier than veiled mistrust.

There does seem to be a deep-seated reluctance to ask questions. I can sense Protestant unease when Catholicism comes up far more frequently than I ever actually hear it. Because of this, I count it as something of a victory every time someone asks me an honest question about my Catholic faith – not because it’s a chance of stunning them with my brilliant reasoning and skills of explanation (both of which are, in fact, far more absent than I’d prefer when I find myself in such situations…) but because it means that they are seeking to understand the situation and are looking outside of their own preconceptions in order to do that.

People often dislike asking questions because they fear that they’ll look ignorant. However, when you ask an honest question, you’re acting with the knowledge that there is an answer out there, even if you don’t know what that answer is yet. It’s far more intelligent to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and to go forward seeking the truth than it is to assume that you do, in fact, know everything and do not need to look any further than your own reasoning. The latter case leads to the greatest cases of stupidity and, all too frequently, prejudice.

The other good thing about being asked questions is that it encourages me to sharpen my own understanding of my beliefs. If I am going to explain my beliefs to other people, I need to know why I believe them in the first place! But even before explanation, if I am going to believe something, surely I should make sure I know why, even before I think about explaining it to someone else. When talking about religious belief, of course explanations are not everything – there always needs to be a leap of faith in order to believe. But we have reason for a reason (haha), and faith should not contradict reason. And when you have asked the questions yourself about what you believe, you’re far more likely to be able to spot the mistakes in other people’s preconceptions about your beliefs.

The Catholic chaplain that I work with recently told me about a Catholic student who, after a conversation with some Protestant peers, came to him very perplexed and doubtful of her Catholic faith. “They just had so many questions that I didn’t know how to answer… why do Catholics worship Mary?” The chaplain was far less alarmed about the questioning than about the fact that this Catholic student didn’t know that Catholics, in fact don’t worship Mary. Dear me.

Not too long ago, I was having a conversation with a someone who happened to be Protestant. We were having a pretty good chat about a variety of things: literature, C. S. Lewis, being a Christian in modern society. We had a lot of common ground, and after a while she decided to tentatively broach the subject of my denomination, by saying, “Catholicism really confuses me.”

“You’re not the only one,” I replied.

“So, like, what exactly do Catholics believe?”

“Um… on what exactly?”

“How do you believe that you’re saved?”

I embarked upon an explanation, which I hope was somewhat coherent, on Catholic teaching on the matter of salvation. After I’d said I believed that Jesus died for my sins, she paused me, saying, “and that He rose again?”

“Of course!”

“OH! Good!” she said. “See, I was talking with someone once, and they said that Catholics don’t believe in the Resurrection.”

“WHAT?!”

I think that my incredulity may have been more convincing than my explanation in convincing her that Catholics do very much believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. As we profess to believe that every time we go to Mass, that someone could be under the impression that I didn’t believe it rendered me rather unintelligible, and the allegation that a Catholic had told her that Catholics believed this almost winded me. But what the whole encounter did impress upon me was the vital need for everyone to talk openly about what we believe! If we’re all labouring under such wrong impressions, whether about our own faith or someone else’s or both, how are any of us going to get anywhere?

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