Monday, March 28, 2011

I Am: Identity in Submission

Deacon Ordination by Eric Stoltz
Used under CC BY-SA 2.5 (Wikipedia)
Over at Political Jesus, Rod wrote a fantastic post entitled In Christ, neither Mainline or Sectarian: On Ecumenism & Identity: Towards a Postcolonial Orthopraxis of Reconciliation. In the post, Rod grounds the catholic nature of the church in Christ's physical resurrected body, saying, "Our unity in Christ is not the denial of bodily existence, but about the participation in the life of God Incarnate." I would add to this, as I have discussed before, that we come into this unity through the confession of the creed.1

However, a potential problem was raised by Rod himself in the comments, how do we avoid catholic Christianity becoming "another form of consumerism." That is, how do we avoid our choice of denomination becoming merely a form of branding? I wear Nike, you wear Adidas. I'm an Anglican, you're a Lutheran. If this is our approach, then our ecumenism, in attempting to affirm the unity and community of the Christian faith, becomes instead an affirmation of individualism and appetite.

The question itself came up when another writer at Political Jesus, Amanda, questioned hybrid terms of Christian faith "Bapti-costal; Congre-costal; Anglo-Lutheran; Pente-Catho; Cal-minian, etc. It’s like dogs. Once you have to hyphenate what they are, just call them a 'mutt.'"

In other words, how is a mixed denominational identity any identity at all? To a very great degree, I sympathize with this view, and the reason for that sympathy is tied into why I think we can have ecumenism without Christianity becoming pure commercialism.

I think that the answer to this lies in submission. As Christians, we submit ourselves to streams within the catholic tradition. So, example, I am an Anglican. In our submission, we take both the good and the bad of our stream. We take on its practices, it accomplishments and even its guilt. Thus, I can be proud of the fact that C.S. Lewis is an Anglican, but I also take on the responsibility for the martyring of Roman Catholic brethren at the hands of Anglicans.

Even if I do not understand a position of my stream, in entering into the denominational body I submit to it. For example, I do not understand the Anglican position that only a priest in the apostolic succession can bless the Eucharist, I nevertheless submit to it in praxis. I am an Anglican and I am not a priest, so I will not consecrate the elements.

It is because of this submission that consumeristic individualism is avoided. Because I have to take the good with the bad, it is not all about me. My identity becomes part of another identity.

This isn't to say the individual is completely subsumed by his denominational identity. Any individual is going to have things on which they differ from their denomination, and that's fine to a point.

For one, I think an individual is always free to critique her denomination, and seek change in it, so long as she remains in reasonable submission to its traditions while she remains a part of it. Tradition is a thing always in flux, and one should not think of submission to it in a static manner.

To bring Wittgenstein in again, any term is going to have "fuzzy" areas around the edge. At the same time, there is a point at which a thing can no longer be sensibly referred to by that term. A Roman Catholic who uses birth control is still Roman Catholic, but one who takes communion at a protestant church, rejects transubstantiation, apostolic succession, and the authority of the Pope, cannot rightly be called Roman Catholic.

Thus, there is a point at which one breaks with submission to one's denomination, though remaining part of the creedal body of which it itself is a part. I especially think this should be done if one comes to see some of its practices as grossly immoral (see for example Sinéad O'Connor's call for a new Roman Catholic Church).

What, then, of hybrids? Again, my first inclination, along with Amanda, would be to call them mutts. However, I think there is an answer to this, and the answer lies in why we submit to a denomination. The goal is always Christ. The Christian life is to seek fidelity to Christ, and to try and bring others as close to Him as we are able. We all do this, ultimately, by joining into His body by way of the creed. As part of this process we inevitably submit to a tradition, but that tradition can be that of the independent Christian. That is, we can come to think the best way to be in fidelity with Christ is actualizing ourselves through our own understanding of scripture, and acting what we think to be the best example of Christian life. We can decide that being a Pentecostal Presbyterian, as Eugene Peterson calls himself, is the best way for us to seek fidelity with Christ.2 I don't necessarily think this is the best tradition to submit to, but it is a tradition within our faith nonetheless.

In summary, we are Christians by our participation in His body, through our affirmation of the creed and in submission to a tradition, the end of which is always fidelity to Christ. It is in our submission to a tradition that consumeristic individualism is avoided, though paradoxically that tradition can be one of individual judgment.

1.More specifically, it is the capacity to recite the creed. Not all orthodox Christians actively recite the creed as part of their tradition, but all can affirm the creed.
2. Another interesting thing, though not what I'm dealing with in this post, is the overlap of different descriptors in Christianity. There's high church or low church, apostolic or non-apostolic, various denominations, etc. and these don't necessarily seem to me to fulfill the same grammatical "space."