Last night Fran and Rhiannon and I enjoyed the hospitality of three house church communities gathered for an intra-church conference this weekend in Lithia Springs. After a potluck dinner one of the church groups performed skits based on the wisdom of the letter to the Colossians. Much wonderful singing and heartfelt prayer and praise rounded out what was a delightful evening.
As an active practicing Catholic, my spiritual life is oriented toward monasticism and sacramentalism rather than evangelicalism, so it’s always an interesting experience when I participate in a non-liturgical style of worship, last night being no exception. Catholics don’t do a lot of personal testimony and sharing (that’s an understatement), so I find that evangelical worship can be quite intimate and revealing, even to a one-time guest like I was last night. At one point, one person shared an insight he had received about salvation. And in doing so, I received an unexpected insight of my own, into some significant theological differences that separate Catholics and Protestants.
This particular person talked about how one of his friends had been saved in 1975, which was the year he was born. His salvation experience, obviously, came later. But his insight was how salvation is not really about a particular location in space and time, but rather is always linked to Christ, who is the one doing the salvation: which means that all salvation experiences transcend their particular moment in history and place to find union in the eternality of Christ, who of course is the one “doing” the saving.
As a Catholic, I don’t think about salvation as an experience I underwent. Sure, I had a profound experience of God’s work in my life when I was sixteen, and a concrete experience of repentance when I was 43. In evangelical terms, either of those experiences could be seen as “getting saved.” But my understanding of soteriology just isn’t wired that way. Ask me when I was saved, and I won’t say 1977 or 2004 — I’ll say “oh, around the year 33 AD, depending on how accurate our dating of the events in Christ’s life is.” In other words, like all Catholics, I understand my salvation as anchored in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, which happened at one discrete moment in history. To emphasize the time (or times) when I consciously accepted the free gift seems, to me, to focus on the recipient rather than the giver.
Now, set that line of thinking aside for a moment and consider the conflict over eucharistic theology between Catholics and Protestants. For Catholics, the mass is a sacrifice: a continuation of the eternal gift of Christ, a participation in Christ’s gift of his body and blood in the bread and wine of the last supper. When Christ said “do this in memory of me,” Catholics interpret “memory” as a sacrificial act, similar to usages of the words memory and memorial in a sacrificial context in the Old Testament (Leviticus 24:7; Numbers 10:10). Protestants, however, reject this theology, believing it subverts the teaching in the letter to the Hebrews that Christ’s death was a full and complete sacrifice that never needs to be repeated.
So both Protestants and Catholics see the once-and-for-all event of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection as extending beyond itself into time. But they do so in different ways. Where Catholics place emphasis on sacrifice-as-memorial, thereby justifying the idea that each mass is a continuation of the perfect sacrifice, Protestants place emphasis on salvation-as-experience, which leads to the idea that a person needs to have an experience of conversion or repentance in order to be truly saved.
I’m not interested in a dogfight over whose theology is right and whose is wrong. Rather, I think both Catholics and Protestants might find blessing in taking a step back from holding on to “our” theological positions so tightly, and considering how those with whom we disagree may actually be exploring the same mystery, in different ways. The mystery of which I speak concerns how a single mythic/historic event (Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection) can have both eternal and temporal meaning; how a single historical event can transcend its own particularity to infuse the entire cosmos with a renewed relationship with God (or, to put it in integral terms, a new level of sacred consciousness). Catholics approach this mystery through the sacrifice of the Eucharist; reformed Protestants approach it through the experience of salvation.
Salvation and sacrifice: eternally remembering. Maybe we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant?