Just under 1000 years ago – 959 years, for the sake of precision – the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches concluded centuries of fighting by getting a divorce. Denouncing one another for a variety of reasons, the final straw was over a few words in the Nicene Creed, but was emblematic of a grander dispute over whether the Pope was the head of the Church, or whether he was merely more honored but no more authoritative than the other Patriarchs and Archbishops of the church. Neither side would like me saying this, but it was ultimately a fight over power, and as I’ve written, the end was centuries in coming.
I mention this today because last Tuesday, something very historic for the Church happened, only the vast majority of evangelicals couldn’t care less. The head of the Eastern church – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – attended the inauguration of Pope Francis. This hasn’t happened since the Great Schism, and while it doesn’t signify imminent reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it’s hard to overstate the symbolic importance of this gesture. For the first time in history, two of the Church’s major strands (for what it’s worth, I would say there are four, with Coptics and Protestants composing the other two) appear to be reconciling. Not merely talking about it – that’s been going on for decades – but actually moving towards the real thing.
As I said, evangelicals couldn’t care less.
This is usually the part of a blog post where I clarify that I’m not trying to offend anyone; I just have a very specific point to make. Not this time. Evangelicals can be shamefully arrogant when it comes to other Christians, and I would argue in this instance we are indifferent to an event that heaven is celebrating. That’s not OK.
People under 35 never seem to identify with any denomination, even if they attend one. Viewing the historical disputes that formed denominations as trifles overblown in less enlightened times, people my age see those who care about denominations as relics of a curiously divided era. I could write an entire post simply explaining why denominations are actually desirable (and sooner or later I will), but what matters for the purposes of this post is the incongruity of non-denominationalism with the besetting pattern of American culture.
The internet has hardened opinions everywhere about everything. Whereas once the inability to access information rendered it impractical and uncivil to have a strong opinion about everything, today one needs little more than Wikipedia to sound like an expert on any topic. And while you – like professors everywhere – may rightfully cringe at the idea that Wikipedia offers genuine expertise, you must also admit that we don’t really have experts anymore; in the age of internet trolls, nobody is above challenge, immune to ridicule, or excluded from ad hominem attacks. It’s not merely that we can all be ‘experts’ on every topic; it’s that our culture reinforces that we are. The information you need to have an informed opinion is right at your fingertips, so the primary barrier that once prevented the masses from holding strident opinions on every topic has crumbled.
One could describe denominations as the organizational manifestation of strong opinions within religion. So why, at a time when American culture encourages us to be dogmatically opinionated about every subject we’ve ever encountered, is the American church moving away from them? Why are younger evangelicals less opinionated about church and more opinionated about everything else?
It’s cool to care about the environment. It’s cool to care about human rights. It’s cool to care about political causes of all kinds, whether that makes you an Occupier or a Tea Partier. It’s not cool – not even a little bit – to care about church in any scope larger than your own local experience of it. I get it; trends come and go, and this is the trend now.
In part, I imagine this is one way in which our churches function as refuges from American culture’s incessant bickering. Non-denominationalism (even among those attending denominational churches) offers a counter-cultural escape from such argument in one vital corner of life. This is not all bad, and it does allow church members to direct their focus above.
Unfortunately, both the history and the present of the global church lack the placidity of this non-denominational refuge, and it’s hard for me to see it as anything more than escapism. Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, and all the various Protestants – Anglicans, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. – emerged out of conflicts. Their views and traditions are built on the blood of martyrs, and this gives each of them a story of God’s action in history to both preserve them and give them identities. To grasp their histories is to know what God’s been doing for the past 2,000 years, and why would a Christian want to escape from that?
During the Olympics, NBC so inundates us with informational backstories about the athletes that the actual Olympic Games sometimes seem incidental to Olympic coverage. The reason for this, of course, is that we care more about those people whose histories we know. It’s manipulative, but it works.
Church is the same. I’ll wager any reader who knew Patriarch Bartholomew’s name also knows a thing or two about the seven ecumenical councils treasured by the Orthodox, as well as the role Byzantium played in the Middle Ages, and the struggle of the Orthodox church to survive after Crusaders ruined Byzantium and the Ottomans overran Constantinople. Conversely, I’ll bet any reader who didn’t know about that history has never cared about the name of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
We care about those people and things that have a history familiar to us. And if the rise of non-denominationalism in the United States is an escape from our culture of conflict, it’s also frequently an escape from church history, which makes it an escape from church present too.
Somehow, in this age of opinions, this rejection of church history and present has become one of the only things about which young evangelicals are firmly decided. Inasmuch as it becomes a matter of pride to lack a perspective on church history, it’s perverse; inasmuch as that same pride alienates American evangelicals from knowing or caring about the rest of the Church, it’s evil.
Non-denominationalism isn’t the problem in and of itself, but it does lend itself towards indifference about Jesus’ global church, and that’s a major problem. My assumption is that if more evangelicals knew the history of the Great Schism, and knew where their own theology stands in relationship to Catholic or Orthodox theology, they would be more likely to care about Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew. Instead, proud of our choice to care only about today and only in our local churches, we’re oblivious to signs that God may be doing something of massive importance: moving His church towards unity.
It’s a shame evangelicals don’t care enough to be included.