A Discourse on Life, Death, and Protestantism
This is a complicated topic. And when you ask a man to take up a complicated topic and give him forty-five minutes to do it, you invite--whether you know it or not--two things:
1. Gross oversimplification (which you are assuredly going to get). 2. Wandering into regions you never imagined anyone could reach given where he started.
I was in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Burlington about three weeks ago, and I saw, peering at me from the shelf, a little book by Irwin W. Lutzer titled One Minute After You Die. I pulled it out and read on the back cover: “One minute after you slip behind the parted curtain you will either be enjoying a personal welcome from Christ or catching your first glimpse of gloom as you have never known it.”
It seems to me that when a person agrees to talk on a religious subject he has a moral duty to be as honest as he can about his own stance. Consequently, I’m obliged to say--even though I suspect it may offend some of my audience--that I regard the pronouncement I just read to you to be horribly wrongheaded. Yet, I’m aware, that for millions of my fellow citizens, and particularly those who would be quickest to describe themselves as Protestant Christians, Mr. Lutzer’s announcement would be taken not as stupidity but rather as profound truth.
I think I grasp, in a vague and general way, why this is the case. Yet trying to explain it is going to lead me into my first terrible oversimplification.
It turns out that Protestantism and the modern scientific spirit came into the world at about the same time, and each, you might say, infected the other with a disease from which neither has fully recovered.
Protestantism infected science with the belief that it could know the mind of God and explain all things.
Science infected Protestantism with the belief that by approaching language in a scientific spirit, it could free the word from the mistakes of imagination and use it to proceed on the straight and narrow path to pure truth.
The misery that these two diseased ideas have visited upon humanity can never be tallied. You might conclude by my saying so that I’m down on science and Protestantism. But I’m not. I think they are two of the finest things ever brought into the world. But they are fine only when they are healthy. No thing can be fully itself when it is diseased. And in the case of ideas, when they are diseased, they often become very nearly the opposite of what they ought to be.
If I had time, and an audience who would listen to me, I could say what I think healthy science is. But there wouldn’t be much use in it because everything I said would be perfectly commonplace. Besides, that’s not what I’ve been invited to talk about tonight. So, I want to spend the rest of my time pointing out some of the distinctions between a healthy and a diseased Protestantism, and offering a few thoughts about how a healthy variety might work itself out the future.
I might as well come clean, at the beginning, about the intellectual process some of you may already be accusing me of, which is, that by speaking of a healthy Protestantism, I’m straying into a form of Platonism, a theory in which the religious phenomena we encounter in history are taken as imperfect versions of the real things which exist some place we can’t go--at least not at the moment. That’s exactly what I am doing, and the reason I’m doing it is that I think the very concept of religion requires it. Without an idea of ultimate reality and ultimate truth, we can have ethics, and moral philosophy, and humanistic endeavor, but we can’t have religion.
I can be as secular as the next guy, and say that all religious talk is just mumbo-jumbo, a pathetic accumulation of wishful thinking induced by primitive anxieties. I can, at times, celebrate the poet Philip Larkin when he castigates religion as “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die.” But then, there are other times, especially when I’m in bed at night, in the dark, that the thought comes to me that the vision of the world as it’s presented on the Dan Rather Show every evening is utterly insane, and therefore, that it can’t be real--that it’s a hideous illusion, probably got up by Satan, and that if I would just get my mind and soul in gear I could find truth, and reach out to touch God. And it’s that guy-- the in-the-bed-at-night guy-- who is, more or less, standing here tonight.
I want to tell you what I think Protestantism really is, and then you can decide whether I’m deranged.
When I was a child and visited my grandfather’s house in Armuchee, Georgia, I saw hanging above the archway into his library a sampler, with the embroidered words, “Work Out Your Own Salvation.” I’d give a lot to have that sampler now. I don’t know what happened to it. It’s probably been destroyed. I don’t where it came from. Perhaps my grandmother stitched it when she was little. Girls used to do things like that. But though the artifact is lost, the instruction it conveyed remains with me. When I was eight, and nine, and ten, I would sit and stare up at it, and ask myself, “What in hell does that mean?”
It was, of course, taking a stance in one of the oldest quarrels within Protestantism: the issue of whether salvation comes by God’s agency alone, or whether it is the result of a human’s acceptance of an invitation extended by God.
The first of these ideas, which goes by the name of Calvinism, and which in the 17th century seemed to be in the ascendant, though it is not now completely vanquished, is nevertheless the less popular of the two. The reason it has faded was probably best explained in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold, who said that the Puritan branch of Protestantism promoted “a Calvinism exaggerated until it is simply repelling; and to complete the whole, a machinery of covenants, conditions, bargains, and parties-contractors, such as could have proceeded from no one but the born Anglo-Saxon man of business, British or American.”
In other words, Arnold is saying that if a doctrine is really ugly, people will try to find some way to get round it. And clearly, the idea of a God exalted because he’s perfectly arbitrary, raised up only because he has the power to follow his own whim, is a concept too nasty for most people to stomach over long periods of time, though the persistence of masochism as one of the enduring human desires insures that it will never go away completely. And, that may well be a good thing.
The mechanisms of grace constitute a vast and, I guess, fascinating, subject, but the point I want to make tonight is that regardless of one’s stance on the Calvinist proposition, all Protestants would hold that grace involves an individualized and unmediated process between God and each separate person. That is to say, your ultimate fate depends not on your associations, or what organizations you happen to be a member of, or on who says what about you. It depends, instead, on the interaction between God’s will and your own genuine identity. That, I think, is the essential feature of Protestant Christianity, and from it, all of its glories and all of its horrors follow.
With this in mind, I think we can see that what my grandfather’s sampler was telling me (and you too, if you had read it) was that my duty here on earth is to achieve an individuality such that God would wish to shower his grace on me. And by saying that I should work out my own salvation, it was clearly implying that my salvation wasn’t going to be the same as anybody else’s.
The great social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, though he was, nominally, a Catholic, once said a very Protestant thing, which was that “God has no need of abstractions.” If he was right--and I, for one, hope that he was--it means that when God looks out on creatures like us, he doesn’t say, “there’s a man; there’s a woman.” He doesn’t even say, “there are my children.” He says, instead, there’s Ted, and there’s Dick, and there’s Dan, and there’s Shirley.”
If it is God’s determination to know us as we are, then it should be our inclination to be who we are. And given the world God has chosen to set us in, that’s not easy. One thing we can say about Protestantism of whatever stripe, diseased or healthy, is that it’s not about easy stuff. The road to heaven is steep, and the gate is narrow.
Even so, Protestants along with other Christians would agree with Einstein’s famous assertion that “God does not play dice with the universe.” One of the propositions that religion rules out is agreement with the great physicist Steven Weinberg’s recent statement that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” By definition, God cannot be either unfair or meaningless (although strict Calvinists have had to tie themselves into some pretty tangled knots in explaining why he isn’t). Consequently, God has to provide us with aids and guides to salvation. The big fuss in religion is not so much about who or what God is as about what the aids and guides are, and where they are to be found. With perfect logic, the Holy Catholic Church tells us that since God wants us to be saved it only makes sense that he would have provided us with a wise and divinely ordained organization to teach and guide us in our quest to find him. This is the idea that Protestants originally revolted against, and continue to revolt against.
In the place of the Church, Protestants have put the Word. Everybody knows that. But what everybody does not know, including most Protestants, is what an extremely complex idea that is.
In attempting to penetrate it to some extent, we can turn first to the passage I regard as the foundation of Protestant Christianity:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In the churches I knew as a child, that text was read as simple allegory, or, perhaps we should say, reverse allegory. The Word was said to stand for Jesus, and the purpose of the passage is to explain the mystery of the trinity
At various times I have asked such believers why, if that’s all the passage means, it doesn’t simply say so. Generally, on asking, I been met with looks of such disgust that I began to feel I had been squirted into the universe by Satan himself. But, all the same, though it may be a little simplistic, it’s not a bad question. Why have we been transfixed by the concept that the Word has existed forever and is the same thing as god? Or, perhaps to put the question more universally, why does the Greek term “Logos” stand both for the elements of everyday language and the principle governing the cosmos?
If I tried to answer that question adequately, we would have to stay here at least till the Rapture. But, surely we can infer from the very asking of it that language is, somehow, the key to unlocking the gateway to ultimate meaning, to salvation, to God. Jesus himself told us so in the 12th chapter of Matthew, when he said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
If we believe this, then we also have to believe that we have the deepest obligation to peer into the nature of words, and to use them as honorably as we possibly can. That’s why countless Protestant scholars over the past five centuries have racked their brains over Scripture, hoping and praying to tease from it the meaning of life, the purpose of death, and the pathway to God.
Singlemindedness is a great intellectual tool, but it’s also a great danger. Through the injunction to read the Scriptures, which is a primary directive of Protestantism, one can get so concentrated on the Scriptures that one can lose sight of what it means to read. It’s the danger Matthew Arnold had in mind when he said, famously and scandalously, that “no man who knows nothing else knows even his Bible.” A similar point was made in 1860, by Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol College, who advised in a controversial collection of essays on Biblical criticism that one should read the Bible in the way he reads any other book.
What Arnold and Jowett were both arguing was that some development of mind, some level of education, is required to read anything knowingly, whether it’s the Bible or the daily newspaper. And in raising that issue they were probing to the core of the main Protestant problem, one the Protestant churches have not begun to address. If attention to the Word is the essential Protestant directive, what habits and abilities are required in order to give it the attention it demands?
There is among liberal sophisticates a tone of derision, which is habitually applied to people who describe themselves as “born again” Christians. I don’t want to be associated with that attitude. And, yet, I have to face the truth that the Protestant impulse as I am describing it demands a depth of mind that many nominally religious people are either unable or unwilling to inhabit. That creates a personal problem for me that I don’t fully know how to resolve. There’s a part of me drawn to the sentiment that Jowett himself expressed in saying:
...truth is not truth to those who are unable to use it; no reasonable man would attempt to lay before the illiterate such a question as that concerning the origin of the Gospels. And yet...the healthy tone of religion among the poor depends upon freedom of thought and inquiry among the educated.
I must admit I have another part which is repelled by the intellectual arrogance of setting the so-called educated over the common people of the world. A partial response to the dilemma lies in recognizing something my liberal secular friends would do well to consider: many of the attitudes they associate with fundamentalist Christians have nothing to do with Christianity. They are simply nasty nativist political impulses which seek to mask themselves by drawing on a mantle of religious respectability. Jerry Falwell, for example, may be a moderately skillful politician, but to call him a Christian is a serious abuse of language. If one wishes to find a depiction of genuine born-again Christianity he can well go to a film which came out five years ago, directed and acted in by Robert Duvall, titled The Apostle. There, the Word of God functions more as a talisman than as an object of literary inquiry, but the intensity with which it is scrutinized holds a promise for the future far more healthy than the pseudo-reading practiced by current media evangelicals.
When you can’t reduce the enemy head-on, you are forced to resort to a flanking attack. In this case, the enemy being a seeming contradiction between the need for attentive analysis and an unwillingness to argue that healthy Protestantism is reserved for intellectuals, I have to come at the problem obliquely and remind us that my first principle of Protestantism involved the injunction to work out your own salvation. Perhaps, by following it deeper into the thicket we can find a path around the contradiction.
In the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard in 1899, the notable American philosopher Josiah Royce argued that questions of ultimate meaning would all become much easier to contemplate if we could ever get straight in our heads what we mean by an individual person. In fact, he went so far as to say that in defining the individual man we, in truth, define his immortality. In making this claim, Royce leads us through tangles of ontology, which would strangle a talk like this if I attempted to lay them before you. But for our purposes we can take from his argument the simple, commonsense proposition that in order for individuality to exist it has to achieve a distinctiveness that sets it apart from the type. In other words, individuality requires what Tocqueville proclaims to be the practice of God, a dispensing with abstractions. This, of course, we cannot do in the world as we find it, and that’s why Royce says the individualizing process must be completed in a realm unconstrained by time. He admits he can’t imagine the nature of such a realm, but he argues, nonetheless, that reason tells us it has to be.
I’m not philosopher enough to argue that, but I will insist that the Protestant directive to bring yourself before God, and throw yourself upon his Grace, carries with it, logically, the requirement that you achieve a separate self. If you don’t, we are left free to ask why God should be any more concerned with you than he is with a microbe? Conventional sentiment in America holds that each of us is in free possession of a soul that has value in the sight of providence. It’s a sweet thought. But, I very much doubt that it’s consistent with the path that Protestantism lays out for us.
The requirement to work out your own salvation is a stringent doctrine, and a dangerous one, but I don’t see that it demands of us any particular form of intellectual training. We can’t say that a holder of the Ph. D. is any more likely to achieve it than the man who picks up our garbage (though we do, at times, suspect that the opposite is the case). It is indifferent to what the world calls--I think erroneously--education. It is reflected in what is perhaps the principal theme of modern literature, that persons in all walks of life are continually presented with the prospect that morality itself may have to be repudiated in order to achieve personal meaning. Probably the best known example of this for Americans occurs in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. There the hero Huck struggles with the question of whether to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, He knows it would be the right thing to do, but he finally decides against it, saying to himself that he doesn’t care. He’ll just go to hell.
Legions of soft-brained liberal critics have read this as a case of a higher morality winning out over the dictates of a provincial law. But that’s not what’s going on at all. It really would be right, in Huck’s mind, to turn Jim in. He doesn’t fail to do it because he thinks there’s some other form of right that has a greater demand on him. He refuses because that’s not who he is. Huck Finn doesn’t rat on his friends, the law, morality, and all the preachers in the universe be damned. He’ll go to hell first. I can think of no more accurate depiction of the Protestant impulse. It is what T. S. Eliot might have called an objective correlative of Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” or of Nietzsche’s position “beyond good and evil,” both of which I think of as very Protestant ideas.
If the attainment of a genuine individuality does not require, from the Protestant perspective, a subtle intellect, then why is an ever more searching attention to the nature of the Word a component of the Protestant program? You’ll recall that one time when Jesus was in Jerusalem he passed by a blind man and his disciples asked him, who sinned to cause the blindness. Was it the man himself, or was it his parents? And Jesus answered:
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes when no man can work.
I very much suspect that it was with the spirit of this passage in mind that Jowett made his, seemingly suspect remark, “the healthy tone of religion among the poor depends upon freedom of thought and inquiry among the educated.”
Protestantism is driven by the notion that there is work to be done, and that we don’t have forever to do it. We must work urgently to make manifest the works of God because the night is coming when we can’t work. We can take this directive as some kind of scientific prophecy, concocted out of an overheated reading of Revelations. Or we can take it as I think a healthy Protestantism would to discipline our attitudes about how we spend our days. To the degree that we are educated workers, or workers at our own education, the directive to work while we have the light tells us to free our minds from prejudices and immature attitudes in order to inquire as carefully as we are able into the meaning that words can deliver to us.
The sense that we live in a time of spiritual malaise comes from a failure to do this work more than it does from anything else. I read recently an article by Thomas de Zengotita titled “The Numbing of the American Mind,” in which he said that the “over-scheduled busyness (in which we live now) might seem like the opposite of numbness, but it is just the active aspect of living in a flood of fabricated surfaces.”
A flood of fabricated surfaces is exactly the thing Protestantism came into the world to oppose. The indulgences which Martin Luther thundered against in his ninety-five theses posted on the door of the church at Wittenberg were of the same character as current capitalism’s promise that if you buy enough stuff you will find the meaning of life. As Luther said in Thesis No. 52: “It is vain to rely on salvation by letters of indulgence, even if the commissary, or indeed the pope himself, were to pledge his own soul for their validity.” In other words, you can’t buy your way into heaven by doing what the worldly authorities tell you to do, whether it’s to purchase an indulgence sold by the Church or a Cadillac sold by General Motors.
To live on the surfaces is to dedicate your life to shallowness, and, consequently to miss the chance to seize a genuine identity, to work out your own salvation. Shakespeare explains this to us (as he explains everything else) in one of his more famous passages from Julius Caesar:
There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves Or lose our ventures.
I think that’s not a bad description of the situation in which Protestantism, or, indeed, all of Christianity, finds itself in right now. Will it stay in the shallows and spin out its life in increasing misery, or will it take the tide that leads out into the full deep sea?
With respect to the language we devote to ultimate things, it’s clear what each of those courses are. We can stay in the shallows of a callow literalism, and try to make up for lack of thought by whistling in the dark. That’s the course the so-called Protestantism, which gets attention on television has decided to take. But, if it had good sense it would ask itself why the journalists are interested in it. It’s certainly not for its religious message. The reason Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed get their faces on so many TV talk shows is not because the media has any serious interest in their preaching. No, whatever influence they may have comes not from their words but from their positions as leaders of socio/political movements. They are leading the charge from Christianity to goofy politics, and I can think of nothing that is more accurately described as being “bound in shallows and in miseries.”
If the Word is all that the first verse of the Gospel According to St. John says it is then it is both a mystery and a guide for resolving the puzzles of life. We should not expect it to be either easy, or crystal clear. It should always be challenging us to go beyond ourselves out into the depths. And yet what I am here calling diseased Protestantism consistently presents it as a thing of up or down, right or wrong, black or white. In this view, life is like a baseball game, with God the umpire calling balls and strikes, and ultimately saying who comes home and who’s out. This is to make a mockery of the way we are required to talk about religion, and when I say required, I mean forced by the nature of language itself.
If I should meet someone who says to me, “Didn’t I see you in Shaw’s on Wednesday?” and, if I should reply, “Yeah, I went there to buy a cabbage,” then we are playing what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a particular language game. By calling it a game he doesn’t mean that it’s not important but rather that it operates according to certain background rules which determine the nature of what is being communicated and the purpose of the communication.
In the simple example I just cited, the game involves factual matters which an objective observer who had the right vantage point could either verify or deny. Either I did or I did not go into Shaw’s. Either I did or did not buy a cabbage. And perhaps the most telling point about the game is that the words we use in it are meaningful in non-controversial ways. We all know what and where Shaw’s is. We all know what a cabbage is. The rules of this game are what we use to negotiate the so-called practical, everyday issues of life.
If this were the only game that language involves us in then our existence as human beings would be much simpler, and much less interesting, than it is. But the truth is, there are so many games we can’t begin to count them all. And much of our misery in life comes from playing one game when we think we’re playing another.
In the Bible we have a set of instructions called the Ten Commandments, and the first of them says, in part, “you shall have no other gods before me.” I’ve thought for a long time that it’s obvious why the First Commandment is first. If you set things that are not god in the place of God, then everything else gets screwed up. With respect to the Word, if you claim that a particular language game is the whole thing that’s putting a false god in the place of the real one. And that, I think, is what most nominal religions do.
If a man comes up to me and asks me if I believe in God then I would have to be pretty dense not to recognize that he’s invoking a different form of language than if he asked me whether I bought a cabbage at Shaw’s on Wednesday. In the latter case, I would know the meaning of the words he’s using. But, in the former I don’t know what “God” means; I don’t know what “believe” means, and, in this context, I don’t even know what “I” means. And, neither does he.
I am not saying that the question is senseless. But, I am saying that in asking it, if it is asked honestly, a different kind of purpose is being introduced than the one behind an inquiry about my cabbage-buying habits. Such a question has to be, at the very least, an invitation to discussion. If it is asked in the expectation of a yes-or-no answer, then the inquirer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And, yet, that is often exactly the expectation in the precincts of diseased Protestantism. People are incessantly asked to answer questions they don’t know the meaning of. And, not only that, they are told that the fate of their immortal souls depends on how they answer. If a set of writers were working up a TV show in which Satan was a leading character, they couldn’t do better than to have him be a questioner of that sort.
If we had more time than we do, I would enjoy trying to engage you in thinking through the nature and structure of language games generally. But that would take us well past the Rapture. The best I can do in the minutes we have left is to throw out a few hints about the kind of language we are engaged in when we attempt to talk about the issues we generally call religious.
If we’re going to try to describe religious talk, then we need to have in mind what we mean by religion, and though I would rather not wander into that thicket, a definition of religion requires an explanation of the distinction between it and morality. Here the oversimplification in this piece moves into overdrive. But what else can I do? I only have a little time left.
By religion, I conceive the hope of finding a stay against our worst fears. And the very worst, the most benumbing fear humans have is the possibility that all this working, and striving, and fearing, and hoping, is meaningless. The worst fear is the fear that what you do and what you are counts for nothing.
Morality, by contrast, is the hope of finding a loving and supportive community.
Each of these hopes--the hope of meaning and the hope of love--has a function that goes with it. The function of the hope of meaning is the search for truth. The function of the hope of love is the struggle for justice. And each of these functions has a principal instrument, which for truth is language, or logos, and for justice is mercy. (Keep in mind that I’m talking about these things within what I conceive to be the Protestant project; I’m aware that there are other ways to talk about them).
So, religious talk, if it is the genuine thing, and not some parody or imposter, is done in the hope of finding meaning through the search for truth, by turning to the word.
And what do we find, when we turn to the word? Anyone who has ever thought seriously about it knows the answer. And, I don’t think it was ever better expressed than by the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. In The Critique of Pure Reason he said:
Human reason has this peculiar fate that... it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
Anybody who has ever tried to write a simple paragraph knows that this is the case. Because there are questions you can’t answer, you just can’t get the damned thing right. You pull your hair, and walk around the room, and bang your face a few times against the wall, and go upstairs and get a Coke, and then walk back down praying for a revelation that will resolve the problem. And then you get there, and you still can’t get it right!
I suspect that it was something like this realization that hit Paul on the road to Damascus. And it was so overwhelming it struck him blind. And well it might, because it’s a very frightening thing. Within the very nature of the Word we discover our own inadequacy. And this is where the connection between religion and morality is forged. Personal inadequacy cries out for mercy. When you are inadequate, when you discover that you can’t get to the bottom of it, you can’t save yourself, then you have no other course but to seek help and to beg for mercy. And then your heart breaks, and you know, beyond doubt, that every other man and every other woman on earth is in need of help and mercy just as you are.
This is the word that the Word, by its nature, brings to us.
The great mystery of Christianity--generally designated by the term “The Incarnation” is how the Word comes into the world. The coming of the Word in its fullness is generally thought to be associated--in some way or other--with the life of a particular person born into the world a little over two thousand years ago. But exactly who this person was and how he relates to the rest of us has been the source of greater controversy and soul-searching than any other we can imagine. The relationship between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Christianity is a vexing and fascinating subject. But I can’t hope even to introduce it here. All I can say is that for Christians of every state of belief the figure who appears in the four short biographical sketches generally called The Gospels speaks words which promise to get at the very meaning of existence, if we could ever understand them.
The most interesting thing for me about the words of this figure--this Jesus of the Gospels--is how strikingly they differ in spirit, and tone, and purpose from the words I have usually heard in the organizations set up, supposedly, to glorify him. When one tries to imagine what Jesus might say about the Christian churches of the 21st century, one is inevitably reminded of Karl Marx’s famous comment, “I am no Marxist.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s denying that the history of Christianity has scarcely been Christlike. The very Protestantism which called on believers to trust in the unmediated word was initiated by men who consistently violated their own teachings and repeatedly engaged in bloody repression of thought. J. W. Allen, a historian of the Reformation, says of the claim that protagonists in the 16th century were contending over freedom of conscience:
To put it so seems misleading, if not altogether untrue. They were contending for the liberty of their own consciences, not those of other people.... What (both sides) claimed was freedom to dominate. So far as they were concerned it was merely an accident in the vast process of things that their efforts to free themselves helped to enlarge human freedom.
I don’t suppose that any mature person should be surprised that earthly institutions violate the ideals they claim to defend. And, I don’t guess that churches do it any more drastically than banks or insurance companies. They’re all in the same stew together. And that forces me to remind us that I’m trying to talk tonight about Protestantism as a Platonic entity, as a real thing, rather than as an institutional expression. Truth is, I don’t have a firm grasp of the relationship between real Protestantism and nominal Protestantism. I do know this: in conversation we continually get ourselves into tangles because we refuse to keep this ancient philosophical problem in mind. We call a person a Protestant because he happens to belong to a certain organization, and not because of anything at work in his mind or in his heart. And we do the same thing about Catholics, and Jews, and every other sort of religious identity.
To possess a sincere devotion to any religious tradition requires what a modernist would call a particular psychological attitude, and what I would call a particular mode of being. There are lots of nominal Protestants running around who are really Catholics, and lots of Catholics who are really Protestants, and so on. Were it not for certain horrors of history, I would say that the majority of people I have known are better suited to be Jews than anything else. And, if they were, the world would be a lot better off than it is with the nominal Christians outnumbering the Jews.
Genuine Christianity is a rare thing and the Protestant variety of it even rarer. But, I do think we would all profit if both were more common than they are. I say this not out of any pride of place in conceiving myself a Protestant. In truth, I think I’ve made pretty clear by what I’ve said tonight that the majority of nominal Protestants wouldn’t admit me to their ranks. But I count myself as deserving the designation to some extent because of sincere belief in the two principles I’ve mentioned here as the core of the Protestant message:
First, that if you’re going to approach the ultimate meaning, you’re going to do it only as you, yourself, and not as the result of a patchwork of rules and regulations that somebody else gave you and that you’ve tried to stick on your head.
Second, that the only way to become the person you really can be is to pay attention to what you hear and to what you say, to give the Word the place in your life that it deserves and that it demands.
These two principles are essential to the religious conversation of humankind, and that’s why I say there need to be enough real Protestants around to make sure they are attended to. There are other principles essential also: the principle of ritual, the principle of community, the principle of awe, for example. And these others need to be brought to the conversation by the traditions in which they are paramount.
Religion, in the end, is a conversation, one that we engage in out of wonder and fear, and hope, and recognition of our own inadequacy. It is not a game. Nobody is calling balls and strikes, and nobody, in this world, at least, has either the right or the power to say you’re out or you’re safe at home. Trying to make it into a game is the sin of what I have called diseased Protestantism, and if I could have just one wish about the future of religion throughout the world it would be that we would all stop trying to play such games.
If we did, then we might be able to turn our attention to this scary thing called time, and ask how our essential being relates to it. Protestantism, I think, presupposes some notion of immortality, because if there were no such notion then what could it mean to bring one’s genuine being into contact with ultimate truth?
In the Ingersoll Lecture for 1901, delivered at Harvard by John Fisk, and titled Life Everlasting, he said that immortality will allow one “to assert an individuality untrammeled by the limitations which in the present life everywhere persistently surround it.” And then he went on to say that faith in immortal life is “the great poetic achievement of the human mind.” If we were to give it up “the destruction of this sublime poetic conception would be like depriving the planet of its atmosphere; it would leave but a moral desert as cold and as dead as the savage surface of the moon.”
It’s worth noting that Fisk calls the idea of immortality a poetic conception. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that, but at the least we can say he saw it as something different from a scientific conception. In that he joins all reasonable people in recognizing that the attempt to offer a scientistic depiction of a realm outside time is folly. It has been the source of any number of very silly movies and TV shows, and the origin of amazingly bland images such as harps, and wings, and clouds, and white flowing robes.
In this world, we are in time, and when we leave this world we will leave time behind us. But as world-bound, time-bound creatures we are unable to imagine existence outside of time. And since, in this world all we have is time, and most of us don’t have enough, it seems to me a waste of it to attempt to draw a picture of timeless identity.
We have to do what we can do, and leave the rest to whatever faith we can summon. Within Protestant Christianity, we proceed on the hope that if we fashion ourselves into beings distinctive enough to be worth preserving then we will be preserved in some form or fashion. That being the case, we should be able to approach the fatal divide comforted by Paul’s triumphant questions:
Oh grave, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?