Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age
Gerald W. Schlabach. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010. 272 pages.
Gerald Schlabach broaches a topic that is rarely addressed, at least among Mennonites: why should Protestants take Catholics seriously? He is uniquely positioned to reflect on this theme. He has served with MCC in Central America, earned a doctorate in ethics from Notre Dame University, taught at Bluffton College, and now teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Unlearning Protestantism discusses the practice of stability and the virtue of fidelity needed to sustain Christian community in today’s Christian churches. It focuses in particular on what Protestants should realize about their own vulnerable situation. The book should be of general interest to all who yearn for the endurance of the Christian church.
The author contends that Protestant churches are presently plagued by a deep-seated problem. Their origin in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation has set them on a course where their very identity appears to depend on protest and dissent. This historic approach militates against the very features that are required to build up the people of God: a stable and trustworthy foundation of faith, the creative continuity of tradition, and loving relationships grounded in the virtue of fidelity.
Schlabach, who recently joined the Catholic Church, finds something of an exception to this Protestant dilemma in his Mennonite background. He observes that Mennonites still maintain a considerable level of communal cohesion, although with focus on fidelity to the local congregation rather than to the global church. Furthermore, Mennonites have come to understand protest and dissent as marks of faithfulness to the prophetic tradition. He fears, however, that in time the pressures of modernism will threaten the communal stability that still persists in Mennonite communities.
Schlabach looks to the Benedictine movement for ways to address the potential instability of the church in our time. He is attracted to the Benedictine Order partially because of its countercultural vow of stability supported by obedience to authority. As a lay oblate in the Benedictine movement, Schlabach seeks to apply Benedictine values of communal fidelity to common Christian commitments: one’s baptism, marriage and family, the church, a life of discipleship.
Turning his attention to the Catholic Church, Schlabach asks whether communal stability is possible on a global level. He argues that Vatican II “has provided the Catholic Church and many other Christians with a model of change through continuity” (147). In Vatican II dissent was not avoided, but was modified by participatory authority and enriched by key theological developments during the Council. Schlabach recounts the story of five post-Vatican II “loyal dissenters”: Yves Congar, Dorothy Day, Dom Helder Camara, Oscar Romero, and Joan Chittister. He hails these critics for modeling the virtue of fidelity.
Finally (ch. 6) Schlabach turns to the challenge of maintaining the gift of stability and practicing the virtue of fidelity vis-à-vis the world. There is no one way, one model. The churches must pursue their witness in and to the world from within their own tradition and in a context of dialogue and debate between traditions.
There is much that is positive and instructive in Unlearning Protestantism. Schlabach is right in challenging the church to sustain Christian community in our day. The mandate to do so is clearly biblical, although Schlabach seldom refers to the scriptural basis for his concern. Schlabach’s Mennonite case study is insightful and fair as far as it goes. There would be other stories to tell, with other conclusions. His treatment of the proceedings of Vatican II is outstanding, among the best I have read.
That said, I do find that Unlearning Protestantism is all too sweeping. Schlabach appears to equate sixteenth-century Reformers with Protestantism. Luther was a “defender of the faith” first; he was eventually driven to protest. The Anabaptists advocated for a purification of “mother church,” but their efforts were rejected. Rather than protest, they offered up their lives in peaceful witness to the truth they believed God had revealed to them. Mennonites have sometimes claimed that they are “neither Protestant nor Catholic.” They speak of Anabaptism as “a third way,” distinct from Catholicism and Protestantism. In Europe the churches of the Reformation gather under the umbrella of Evangelische (Evangelical), not Protestantische. Countless Christian communities around the world do not think of themselves as “protestant” or “dissenting” churches. Their witness is positive and their “table of fellowship,” exemplifying absolute love, is open to all.
I am less certain than Schlabach appears to be that the Catholic Church in distinction from the Protestant churches qualifies as our mentor in this regard. Generally speaking, Protestant churches do not build their sense of stability on the continuity of tradition. Rather, most measure stability in terms of a persistent faithfulness to biblical teachings, which is also a tradition. Nor do Protestant churches rely on hierarchy and authority for a sense of stability. Rather, many rely on the faithful congregation in the context of an ever-widening family of congregations to secure the church’s one foundation (1 Cor. 3:11).