Lesson 2: Christian Conversation

ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton meets Pope FrancisPerhaps I got ahead of myself last week. I spoke of the need for a new Christian narrative in our technological society and suggested that Vatican II offers us groundwork for developing one. Incidental to that, I observed that I feel the narratives by which Lutherans and Roman Catholics have identified and understood themselves for the past 500 years are obsolete. I spoke of Lutherans only because I had been studying them recently. None of the half a century’s narratives work well in this new world.

I think I probably should have started by making clear that narrative is extremely critical, because in all of the Western religions, God reveals himself by speaking to people. The historical biblical accounts generally feature God speaking to individuals. The prophetic works that are more than half of the Bible are written by people representing themselves as channels for God’s words as they declare, “Thus says the Lord…” Christians claim God speaks to us face-to-face in the person of Jesus.

We have to be careful not to discredit the ancients as simpletons who think they hear words in the wind or charlatans who manipulate us by inventing events. You begin to appreciate their creativity when they refer to a visitor as another human, an angel, and God himself in the same passage. They understood the complexity of expressing a conversation with God.

Reflecting on this, you could make a good case that the divine-human relationship is based on language. After all, the scriptures most often refer to the divine as the Word of God. Of course, language in this case can refer to a whole plethora of communication means, but words remain primary.

All of this lead me to think of our relationship with God as an ongoing conversation that is constantly being clarified. Although we value the Bible as a report of past divine-human conversations, we recognize that it is not one voice. The church fathers were honest enough to include various traditions indicating a conversation within the scriptures themselves. And the writers of the scriptures make clear the conversation does not end with them. They promise that the gift of the Holy Spirit enables us to speak boldly as we continue the discourse.

In many ways, the break up of the body of Christ in the 16th century was the breakdown of the conversation. Luther and the other reformers wanted to discuss what they regarded as abusive practices and flawed theology, and the institutional church refused. It was not the reformers’ views that broke up the church but the church’s refusal to discuss them. It made an honest effort at reform into a power struggle. Party loyalty took precedence over truth. Sadly, this same refusal to engage in meaningful conversation also alienated the reformed churches from one another.

This breakdown has created a tremendous problem. For 450, years the Christian communities hardly talked to one another. Because of this, Susan Wood, a leading Roman Catholic ecumenical scholar, observes the first step toward unity must be learning to understand each other’s language. This impasse has been terribly exacerbated as the accepted process became responding to differences in opinion by leaving and starting your own church.

Vatican II in many ways was an attempt to reopen the conversation. The council adopted Cardinal Suenens’ suggestion for implementing Pope John XXIII’s goals. The pope established three goals for the council: return to the sources of our faith, evaluate past pronouncements of the Church, and bring the Church up to date. The cardinal defined this as conversation or dialogue within the catholic church, with other Christian communities, and with the world. The council implemented this when it used a pastoral language that searched for the common good by listening rather than judging and when it used persuasion and invitation rather than coercion or command. This new narrative adopted a patristic approach that addressed the heart rather than a scholastic one that addressed the mind.

The Pope then expressed his sincerity by surprisingly making the small Secretariat for Christian Unity one of the four major commissions. He supported its secretary, Cardinal Bea, when he addressed the 182 Protestant observers as Separated Brethren and often spoke for them in the discussions. Gone was any mention of Protestants returning to the one true church. Instead all was aimed at opening conversation that would recognize the common ground Christ revealed in our midst.

It goes without saying that the world desperately needs the witness of compassionate and meaningful conversation in our time and place. Our culture is bring ripped apart when special interest groups discard any notion of a common good as they reject conversation and pursue their own profit.

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