Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

6 thoughts on “Is Conversion the Answer?”

  1. I like that he is not romantic about Orthodoxy (refreshing), but I don’t at all agree with his suggestion that evangelical conviction is a substitute for liturgical tradition.

    1. I’m not agreeing with everything he says either, just putting it out there for consideration. Many converts ancticipate perfection and harmony when in fact the new church is just as messed up as the last one.

  2. Well stated. Maybe it actually comes down to what a person can stand to overlook. Jesus said, “Blessed is he who is not offended in Me,” undoubtedly referring to churches and to relationships in the body of Christ.

    While raising teens, we have noticed that having just one or two friends, or one highly respected older mentor, who held onto Christian beliefs and mores could help keep them serving the Lord and making reasonably good decisions, if they maintained that close relationship.

    Often churches are more tightly held together by relationships than by doctrine, although doctrine is important. People with no relationships in their local church body are more easily offended when the boat rocks, and more likely to leave if they are treated poorly.

    I am disappointed that the Catholics are not doing better than the evangelicals. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

    1. Unfortunately, it seems like the number of churches with actual relationships in them is minimal. I think we really need a revival in that area for anything to change. The early Methodists seem to me like a reaction against the same kind of formality with no relationships that we see today in our circles.

  3. Charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church may offer the fellowship some converts miss.
    Check out Smith Wigglesworth prophecy of 1947 re revival and unity of religions too. He was a Pentecostal minister who through his powerful faith saw many folks rise from the dead after he prayed over them. He is popular with Catholics and Protestants. Well worth a look into, due to his prophetic message.

  4. I basically agree with what I think I understand in this post. It is quite realistic. And to respond to “Is conversion the answer?” I would say “No, unless you mean conversion to Jesus Christ.” And when you do mean conversion to Jesus is the answer, you are no longer at the mercy of your likes and dislikes about church, or your supposed needs. Why? Because once you convert to Jesus, you realise you had no need but Him, and at that point your likes and dislikes begin to look rather petty, even to yourself.

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