"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, March 30, 2012

Does the Rhine Flow into the Tiber, Bosphorus, or Both? An Interview with 2 Former Lutherans

Last month I mentioned a new book written by two former Lutheran theologians, one of whom became Orthodox, the other Catholic: Mickey Mattox and A.G. Roeber, Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Theological Conversation (Eerdmans, 2012), 336pp. This whole phenomenon of large numbers of former Protestants becoming Catholic and, more recently, Orthodox, has come in for increasing study in, e.g., Amy Slagle's The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity, which I reviewed here. Earlier works to treat the Eastward movement of Protestants include Peter Gilquist's Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith and his Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox. Mattox and Roeber's book is not only new but quite unique, in my estimation, in at least two respects: it is written by two senior academics and scholars, and it does not focus exclusively on either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but on both, offering a very helpfully comparative approach. I asked both authors for an interview about the book, and here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us both a bit about your backgrounds and current interests.

A.Gregg ROEBER: I was born and raised Catholic, and studied for the priesthood before becoming Lutheran. By profession I am an early-modern historian who has published on a variety of topics involving both legal and religious history in North America, Europe, and, most recently, India.

Mickey MATTOX: 
I was baptized at age nine in the Southern Baptist faith, and count a number of Baptist ministers in my extended family. As a young adult, I was brought into the Lutheran tradition (Missouri Synod) through my wife’s family. Lutheranism eventually grew on me to the point where a pursued a career in Lutheran studies. After four years in the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourgmy work on Luther came to be informed not only by historical theology but also by ecumenical theology. In addition, I lead the program in Luther studies in a Catholic context at Marquette University.  

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

ROEBER: As we explain in detail in the preface, this came about while Mattox was the research professor in Strasbourg at the Ecumenical Institute and I was a guest presenting a paper on Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. Mattox was serving on the Orthodox-Lutheran International Commission and I suggested that the book would be a good project and he agreed—though in the interim he became Catholic and that caused us to re-think and re-write the book almost from scratch.

MATTOX: We initially had in mind to evaluate the nearness of Orthodoxy and Lutheranism after the revolution in Luther studies effected by Finnish scholars. To what extent have Lutherans and Orthodox come to agreement in the matter of justification/theosis? But we abandoned that question after we figured out that the world did not need another book in “convergence ecumenism.” After I became Catholic, however, it seemed to us that writing out of a shared Lutheran past and a separated Orthodox/Catholic present could offer a perspective that might be helpful to folks on all three sides of that divide.

AD: What do you see as some of the underlying causes for the doctrinal alterations of some Protestant traditions on questions such as sexual morality? Are these discrete issues or part of a larger pattern or problem?

ROEBER:  Some would probably claim that the changes all point to the lack of authority, but I at least don’t quite see it that way. It’s true, of course, that without some kind of settled doctrine of who is in charge of articulating the sensus fidelium, Protestantism can get dragged this way and that on issues of sexuality and more besides. But it is also true that Protestantism historically tried to place marriage at the centre of the Christian life and yet the history of women’s roles in the Church within Protestantism led in more than a few cases to an overemphasis on obedience, subordination, and the like in cultures and places where women have become educated. In those places, there’s been a pretty severe backlash against a sometimes lopsided insistence on male authority with very little convincing theology on the role of mutual servanthood in marriage. If partnership and friendship are not to be found in this way of life, I suspect that some Protestants might conclude that people are likely to look elsewhere and that can mean multiple divorces and remarriages, or sexual activity outside marriage. None of those conclusions is very easy to reconcile with the historic positions of Protestantism on human sexuality and marriage but the “causes” are probably many, and can’t be boiled down to just one.

MATTOX: Well I’ve just read the manuscript of Gregg’s new book on marriage in Lutheran history and theology in the early modern period, and I think he really gets this one right in his remarks above. At the same time, I would want to draw attention, as we did in the book, to the distorting effects of consumerist culture of sovereign choice that prevails in the West now. I would hasten to add that we, too, are caught up in this culture, so I don’t want to point any figures that don’t ultimately point back at me as well. At the same time, I do believe that the Protestant capacity for an authentic ecclesial parsing of today’s questions about gender and sexuality is significantly impaired. The same is true, I would say, for both Catholics and Orthodox but to a lesser extent based on our relatively more solid grounding in Tradition and history.

AD: The former Lutheran Richard John Neuhaus, who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1991, wrote an article in First Things in January 1997 that greatly influenced me: "The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy." 

There he argued that those trying to preserve "orthodox" doctrine and "catholic" sensibility in liturgy within Protestant traditions were fighting a losing battle. Only Orthodoxy and Catholicism, he argued, could guarantee orthodoxy and catholicity. What are your thoughts on this? Should various "continuing" movements within Anglicanism or Lutheranism abandon the fight and just become Orthodox or Catholic?

ROEBER: Well I think Mattox and I both clearly were part of the “evangelical catholic” part of Lutheranism and over and over again we saw pastors lose these battles since there is no broad consensus within any of the Protestant churches about letting the law of worship establish the law of faith—not as a set of propositions or dogmatic statements, but with the Eucharist at the very centre of the Church’s life. And in that sense, Father Richard was of course correct.


MATTOX:  Ditto to Gregg’s remarks, but at the same time, though, I would express my reticence to endorse a general principle like that one. History has a way of surprising us all after all.  Still I do agree that the trajectory of capitulation to cultural expectations within Protestantism is unmistakable. Is it also unstoppable? Only time will tell. I still pray for, and with, my many friends in the Lutheran tradition who struggle to retain their historic hold on the catholic faith. My decision for “individual conversion,” however, should be seen as an appeal for others to do the same, providing, of course, they can do so in good conscience.  

AD: What has been the biggest surprise for you in entering the Catholic/Orthodox Church?

ROEBER: I suppose getting used to all the implications behind understanding God’s relationship to His creation and to the Orthodox teaching on sin, which holds that it is a sickness we’re being cured of and that the trampling down of death involves the renewal of the cosmos and can’t be reduced to “my” salvation alone. It’s in the liturgical life of the Church that one learns this more than from study in the usual sense. It takes time to see in the teaching of the iconographic tradition that the glory of God really is made manifest in humans who are fully alive and aware of that presence in themselves and in each person. Moreover, despite the appearance of rigid customs and practices, there’s a remarkable freedom that comes from the Orthodox reluctance to define or dogmatize unless forced to do so; and all of these surprises occur not, perhaps, in any particular order and depending on what one brings to the Orthodox faith.

MATTOX: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the open arms with which the Catholic faithful have received me as one of them. I am deeply grateful for that.

AD: I have numerous friends who have traveled out of Protestantism and then gotten stuck at the fork in the road: to Rome or to Constantinople? Is it possible to tell how you each answered that question—or is it the sort of thing, as Cardinal Newman famously said, that cannot be answered “between the soup and the fish”?

ROEBER: That is too long and difficult a question to answer briefly—indeed it’s what the book is about. For myself, I had already suffered a crisis of faith in Catholicism so Orthodoxy was quite simply the only option.

MATTOX: I agree with Gregg. The book is our answer to that question of how the two of us, when we were at those very crossroads, decided for different paths. I am struck, however, by how very much we will have in common, and how united we are in pursuing the unity of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition. My own decision for Catholicism reflects perhaps most fundamentally my deeply Augustinian of the shape of the Christian pilgrimage.

AD: When I was thinking about becoming Catholic, I talked to Stanley Hauerwas about it, and he raised a question I could not answer satisfactorily: would not such a move still be predicated on the notion of the autonomy and authority of the individual ("choice") to decide matters of truth, the very problem, on a larger scale, that some see bedeviling Protestantism in general? How would you tackle that question?

ROEBER: Yes, of course, there’s an individual accountability for choosing, but both of us have emphasized that we did so with an acute sense of our responsibility for our spouses and children, and I’d have to add that the example of others who had chosen likewise suggested—to both of us, I think—that this was not a move that we were making alone: we were part of a much larger pattern of choices being made by other Christians struggling to be faithful.

MATTOX: Okay, now I’m really glad I let Gregg answer first. I agree with him completely that this was anything but the last gasp of autonomous ecclesial individualism. I reject that criticism utterly as a dodge that seems to have as its point simply to render such a move impossible, out of bounds. For my own part, I well know the long history of conversions out of Protestantism and into Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and I was inspired by their examples and courage. Notably, the conversions of two noted Lutherans, Reinhard Hütter and Bruce Marshall, just prior to my own conversion, were communally validating decisions that stiffened my own resolve to just go ahead and do the right thing, and figure the rest out afterwards. I would also say, paraphrasing Augustine a bit, that I would not have come into full communion if the Catholic Church had not moved me by its authority.

AD: Some Catholic observers (e.g., Aidan Nichols
have said for some time that the ecumenical dialogue that must have pride of place for Catholics is that with Orthodoxy because both churches are already very close to one another and this dialogue is the one with the greatest prospect of actual unity. In other words, the prospect of unity between Catholicism or Orthodoxy on the one hand, and mainline Protestants on the other, recedes further into the future every year. What are your thoughts on that?


ROEBER: Our book does I think pretty clearly indicate that Orthodox-Catholic dialogue is the pressing issue and that’s where the attention of both is focused internationally and in particular countries. But it would not be accurate to suggest that these two parties are in fact “close” or that resolution of schism is imminent. The problems are acute, and there are different strains within both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches who would emphasize pessimism or indifference on the one hand, and optimism on the other.

MATTOX: That’s correct. At the same time, I think both Gregg and I are much heartened by the work of the dialogue commissions, and of scholars like you and Olivier Clément in trying to press the discussion forward. In the course of writing this book, Gregg reminded me that the authority of the Church at Rome was originally built upon its prestige as the Church in which the two great martyrs, Peter and Paul, had shed their blood for the cause of Christ. With that reality in mind, we are both hopeful at the prospects for an ecclesial reunion in the future that the Spirit may give, one that will bring change of a certain sort to all sides.

AD: In an article published in 2000, John Erickson, then-dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, spoke of some of his students from Eastern Europe who said "when the Soviet Union existed we had to be ecumenical. Now we can be Orthodox." What is behind the hostility towards ecumenism (the "pan-heresy") on the part of some Orthodox today, including those here in North America who never lived in Soviet lands, and also those on Mt. Athos?

ROEBER: The Orthodox in Eastern Europe or the Middle East have historically been on the receiving end of economic and ecclesial pressure and proselytizing for a long time, and their suspicions with regard to Rome tend to run deep. Numerically, of course, the Orthodox in North America are a tiny minority compared to the huge numbers (at least on paper) of Catholics, so a sometimes irrational fear of being overrun tends to make some voices in Orthodoxy sound a bit hysterical. By “pan-heresy,” of course, what the Orthodox mean is the kind of soft ecumenism that tends toward dismissing the hard questions that have divided the Churches and encouraged the notion that the Churches are after all pretty much the same. That there are different ecclesiologies in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches has to be taken seriously, and that has happened to such an extent that both sides do recognize that papal primacy is “the” issue that has to be resolved before the schism has a chance of being healed.


AD: The late Pope John Paul II pushed so hard for Christian unity, above all in Ut Unum Sint, and some have have said that at the end of his life his greatest regret was not seeing full unity with Orthodoxy. Do you think that such full unity between Catholics and Orthodox is a realistic prospect this century?

ROEBER: Probably not since the Orthodox have stated repeatedly that while they need to re-examine their own understanding of primacy and get clear on just what that means (and it means a lot more than a tip of the ha toward a particular patriarch), the biggest change is the one facing Rome—so much will depend on both sides continuing to be clear and consistent about what they mean by the word “primacy.”

MATTOX: Well, I would point to universal papal jurisdiction as the crucial issue. About that I think there is reason to hope for a significant rapprochement between East and West. What the next century brings in Catholic-Orthodox unity, however, may depend more on what grave challenges the future holds in store for the Christian faith. Nothing is more unifying for the Church than external hostility and persecution. I’m not pretending to have a crystal ball here, but the way the Lord leads us into unity may involve the cross and suffering in imitation of His own path.

AD: Most responsible theologians today say that major obstacles to Orthodox-Catholic unity (e.g., the filioque) have either been resolved or are no longer regarded as church-dividing. The only major obstacle left is the papacy, which I address in my own book, Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity (Notre Dame, 2011). Some have said to me that I'm too optimistic and that there are all kinds of problems still to be worked out. What are your thoughts on this?

ROEBER: That your book was ingenious, a work of love, and that you should be congratulated—but, yes, that your proposed solution is too optimistic!

MATTOX: I believe that your work was just the kind of courageous exploration and proposal required to press the conversation forward between Catholics and Orthodox. Speaking more or less off the cuff, it seems to me that papal infallibility in terms of ultimate authority in doctrinal decisions will prove less a barrier to unity than papal jurisdiction. As Brian Daley and Susan Wood have argued, papal primacy has to mean something more than a primacy of honor. How far it may prove possible for Orthodox to embrace papal involvement in the affairs of the patriarchates, and how far the Catholic Church will be willing to develop its own tradition and understanding of the papacy in a consensual direction remains to be seen. I do think good will on all sides and hard theological work coupled with a spirit of genuine repentance holds out hope for real progress.

AD: Thank you very much. Sum up briefly, if you would, your hopes for your book and what you were trying to convey:


ROEBER: That Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, and other Christians will learn a good deal more about each of the traditions that they thought they knew and move beyond trite and easy mischaracterizations of each other admitting both what is good and what needs to be the subject of continued repentance and growth toward the unity that is demanded by Christ, the head of the Church.

MATTOX: All of the above. Plus, I’d like Martin Luther to become a meaningful conversation-partner, not just a convenient foil, for both Catholic and Orthodox theology today. 

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