W. H. Auden once said “truth is Catholic but the search for it is Protestant.” Auden’s distinction between Catholic and Protestant is not about liturgical style or doctrine. Rather it is about differing approaches to truth. Are you a Catholic Mormon, or a Protestant Mormon? Do you submit to the authority of the Mormon church as the divine arbtrar of truth, or do you see yourself, along with the church itself, as being on a path towards truth?
I was having a family discussion about Eugene England’s view that the LDS church was the “true” church because it was the “best” church. I somewhat disagreed with this view and this prompted a discussion of Catholic versus Protestant approaches to truth. Bro. England had written:
“We can accurately call the LDS church “the true Church” only if we mean it is the best organised method for doing that (understanding life and the gospel) and is made and kept so by revelations that have come and continue to come from God.”
My “Catholic” Response:
I disagree with Bro. England’s statement because it imposes a test upon the church. “We can call the church the true church ONLY if we mean it is the best organised method AND is kept so by revelations that come from God.” It implies that we as members of the church can sit in judgement of the church if we see that it doesn’t explain enough or seems to fall short compared to other philosophies or religions we might like better.
The church is a singularity (one Lord, one faith, one baptism), and the members are a plurality. No single church could reflect all the criteria, judgements, morals, and ideals of its diverse membership. So churches can’t be accountable to individuals. Rather, individuals must be accountable to churches. Churches can try to be popular, try to figure out what will appeal to the most people at any given time, and craft their doctrine accordingly. But this just makes them like democracies which are notoriously changeable, and ultimately churches who have become more liberal have wound up losing more membership than conservative ones who aren’t blown about by every wind of doctrine. The great thing about a church is that it is an authority.
“You’ve got to serve somebody” as Bob Dylan says. That is where religion comes in. It presents itself as a divine authority. Will you trust that there is something greater than yourself? Or will you always submit only to your own mind, your own reason, which for all we know, will simply dissolve at death? A religion might have things in it that sound crazy to your reason, but by submitting to it, you show humility in the face of your mortality and the fallibility of your reason, and trust that there is something that transcends you.
What is important is the symbol. You participate in humanity’s collective expression of faith in something that transcends its mortality. These collective religious expressions may vary according to time, place and culture. We were fortunate to be born in the LDS faith, which gave us a strong iron rod to grasp, a compelling, beautiful theology, and a powerful sense of its divine authority, which it expresses as “only true church.” We embrace it, not because we examined it thoroughly and found it was all perfectly consistent with the reason of our mind. We embraced it because we were called into it, by virtue of our birth, our heritage, or our personal spiritual call. Our ancestors sacrificed and died so we could worship, and we, being part of them, being, even in our own bodies which come from them, an expression of their faith, their love, and their aspirations, we continue the collective worship through the generations.
My brother-in-law Ryan Lane’s “Protestant” Response:
There are several definitions of the word “church.” One definition is that the church is an institution ruled by hierarchy. But I prefer the definition that I think is more scriptural, which is that the church is simply the people that make it up. These people are the body of christ and the living temple, and the family of God. The church was never intended to be like the “buggers” in Ender’s Game, which is an army of drones ruled by the single will of the queen. The church has multiple people with multiple talents and multiple perspectives. The president of the church is one of these people with a particular set of talents and perspectives. He works out his salvation with God like we all do. It is possible, and too common, for church members to obsess too much about the hierarchy and what they are thinking. It is better to focus on God, or truth, or beauty, or goodness.
Yes the institution falls short and sometimes fails its people. But in the institution’s failure we sometimes see it’s greatest successes. The protestant reformation occurred because of the success of the catholic church in creating a people who cared enough about the gospel to recognise when the church didn’t live up to it. As Mormons we often use the terms “church” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably. But Protestants (like Bonhoeffer) don’t do that. To them, the kingdom of god is not the church, it is something that we sometimes catch glimpses of, something we can hardly discern, something that is coming in the future. God is Spirit (John 4:24). God is love (1 John 4:8). God is a person. God is not a building or an institution or a hierarchy, or a set of principles, or doctrines or ordinances or covenants, or keys, or temples. All these things are fine but they are just things. But God is a person. If God is the bridegroom, he doesn’t marry a thing, he marries people. And the church is people, not a thing.
Even though my nature is Catholic, I like my brother-in-law’s Protestant view. I think it is interesting that he says: “The Protestant Reformation occurred because of the success of the Catholic church in creating a people who cared enough about the gospel to recognise when the church didn’t live up to it.” That’s a fascinating interpretation: to credit the Catholic church with the reformation! But Martin Luther WAS a Catholic trained priest, reading a Catholic Bible. So the seeds for reformation were present within the church itself. Others, like St. Francis also recognised the need for reform, but they did it, not by challenging church authority, but by creating orders of devout Catholics who were extra-faithful to the gospel, as they saw it, which were later embraced by the official church.
We Are Both Catholic and Protestant
In the end, I think Auden’s phrase (truth is Catholic, the search for it, Protestant) points to a basic duality of human nature: the need for authority, and the need for autonomy. We need to find something to worship which transcends ourselves (Catholic authority), but we also need to follow our heart, because God speaks in our heart too (Protestant search for truth). And I think we all basically end up with some kind of mixture of both in our lives. Even Protestants at the end of the day have to settle down and worship at some kind of church which claims some kind of authority. If not, you end up like my Evangelical uncle, who bounces from church to church, unsatisfied because none of them follow the Bible. Eventually he ends up starting his own church in his living room, which only lasts as long as his children stay in it. Someone who is too Protestant risks cutting himself off entirely from a community of worshippers, thus denying himself a fundamental aspect of the Christian life.
I too have a Protestant side to me, in that I read, explore, and write about extra-Mormon things, and challenge some orthodox Mormon ideas. In doing so, I think I am giving my Protestant soul wings upon which to fly. However, I try to keep myself tethered to the church so I don’t become completely blown about by every wind of doctrine. Some might say that is harmful because it limits my freedom and keeps me stuck in some false religious ideas. But I think everyone needs some kind of point of reference upon which to build his life. Otherwise, we are all just swimming about aimlessly in a limitless expanse.
- Are you a Catholic Mormon or a Protestant Mormon and why?
- Do you submit to the authority of the Mormon church as the divine arbtrar of truth, or do you see yourself, along with the church itself, as being on a path towards truth?