The Second Vatican Council opened on this date in 1962, and quite a lot of commemorative material about it has crossed my desk in the past few weeks. The only item I’ve read in any depth is the special issue of National Catholic Reporter, which was very thorough. Articles detailed the background, the deliberations at each session, and how the Vatican has evolved in the ensuing decades. Also discussed were the effects on women religious, the liturgy, and the approach to biblical and theological studies over the past 50 years. Looking ahead, a couple writers tried to be optimistic about future prospects for Vatican II ideas, but I think they had to stretch a bit!
Ironically, a recent workshop by Protestant scholar Marcus Borg brought new clarity about Catholic Church dynamics in a most helpful way. Borg distinguishes between two different types of Christianity. The first he calls “Common Christianity” because it was predominant for two hundred years, up until a generation or two ago. Still present today, it emphasizes the afterlife and the centrality of sin and forgiveness, as well tending toward literal interpretation of the Bible. In this view, the death of Jesus serves as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. While Borg describes the other type as “Emerging Christianity,” he notes that actually it involves a recovery of more ancient traditions. The focus is on the transformation of this life, the here and now, and it is marked by intentionality of commitment. Progressive theologically, Emerging Christianity emphasizes a historical and metaphorical approach to tradition and scripture, affirms religious pluralism, and moves toward political and social inclusiveness.
I see the Catholic Church version of these divisions in the tension around liturgical language, the role of women, as well as politics and public policy on health care, marriage, and budgetary priorities. The particular fault lines in Catholicism concern tradition versus change and central authority versus collegiality and discernment by the people. My reading in NCR’s special Vatican II issue makes clear that the Council’s work was very much affected by these dichotomies, the Vatican departments pushing a traditionalist agenda while other bishops advocated new directions. Their compromises of 50 years ago paved the way for today’s backlash. Borg’s perspective helps me take a more objective stance and provides a more hopeful way to identify myself. I’d rather be an emerging Catholic Christian than a marginalized Roman Catholic!
Within Borg’s two streams of Christianity, key words have different meanings. For example, he observes that in Common Christianity, “belief” refers to intellectual assent to statements, while Emerging Christianity seems to reclaim an older meaning more akin to believing in a person, such as Jesus or God, emphasizing relationship. As a case study, Borg delved into the biblical meaning of the word “salvation.” While we might commonly associate it with going to heaven because Jesus’ death saved us from sin, in the Bible this word is not used for atonement or the afterlife. Rather, in the Hebrew scripture salvation refers to God’s rescue of the people from slavery in Egypt and deliverance from exile in Babylon. It’s about liberation and can also be applied metaphorically to being healed and being able to see. Importantly, it’s not just about our personal or spiritual lives but also applies to the world we live in. We’re called to work with God to transform the world to create justice and peace. To me, this view of salvation as liberation that leads to transformative action in the world meshes well with the paschal mystery of death to life in the New Testament. I especially appreciate the way it reconciles Jewish and Christian themes.
In the past few days, I’ve also seen a lot of comment on the new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life indicating that an all-time high 1 in 5 Americans is unaffiliated with a church, including one-third of those age 18-29. The Religion News Service has comments from a wide array of religious leaders, all of whom are naturally concerned. The response of Evangelical minister Jim Wallis, Sojourners president and CEO, made the strongest impression: When young people see the Gospel being lived out, when Christians are actually doing the things that Jesus taught us to do, there are two responses: first, they’re surprised, second, they’re attracted. People, and especially the young, are still very drawn to Jesus and those who follow what he taught—loving their neighbors, caring for the poor, and being peacemakers in the world. But when they don’t see that in the churches, they walk away.
Photo Credits: Top, by JL Outdoor Photography; bottom, by Hello, I am Bruce
Via Flickr, under Creative Commons license