The other day, I heard a friend comment that she loves the liturgy of a high church service (i.e., Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian), but she wants a church where her faith can remain a private, individual matter. It's her faith, no one else's.
At the time, something about the statement struck me as wrong, but not being able to put together exactly why I felt that way, I tucked it away in the back of my mind, and decided I would think about it more when I didn't have a stack of student journals waiting to be deciphered and graded.
Now, 48 hours later, I'm still ruminating over the ideas of a private faith, and I think I have a somewhat coherent, though incomplete response to the idea.
The most obvious response is that Jesus didn't call us to a private faith.
Okay, maybe that's not so obvious. At the risk of oversimplifying and skimming over 400 some years of history, I will say this: since the Enlightenment, "religion" (in a broad sense) has been relegated more and more to the private sphere, separating itself from the actions of the State, and becoming more and more a matter of private thought. My coworker, then, like most Americans, is merely a product of her time: my relationship with Jesus is just that, mine, private and alone.
However, despite this overwhelming individualism and privatization of faith, Jesus didn't call us to such a thing. He didn't call us to say, "This faith is mine and mine alone, and I don't have to share it with anyone." No! Indeed, he gave us brothers and sisters to travel along with us, to be our companions, and he gave us the Church as the bride to himself, the bridegroom, His Body reflected in our individual natures.
Today in class, my professor read a section from a book I didn't catch the title of, but the sum of it was this: Protestantism is highly individual - it is the relationship of the individual with the individual; it is about a man's relationship with Christ. Catholicism, on the other hand, is about the relationship of the individual as a cell to the ever-growing and working Body of Christ. This, then, is the heart of why the statement of "I like the liturgical tradition but I want to keep my faith private" becomes so ridiculous. Essentially, it translates to divorcing oneself from the Body of Christ.
We Protestants speak a lot about the Body of Christ, but we use it as an individualizing force. I am a hand, you are an eye, that guy's a foot, etc. We each have our own separate distinct roles, which is all fine and good. It's one interpretation of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 12. It is, however, an incomplete image, and allows too much room to say, "Oh, I don't have the gift of compassion" or "I just don't have to love my neighbor - someone else will cover that part." We forget that no matter what the role we may play, the one things that matters overall is that love which binds all parts of the Body together. We allow the Body of Christ to become this amorphous creature that has a million different faces (read: denominations) and a million different hands (read: doctrines), and we don't truly know what Christ looks like.
Catholicism, on the other hand, presents one unified face, but sometimes at the lack of the individual playing a role - there's a large problem (attempted to be solved by Vatican II) of the individual Catholic not understanding the Mass, which is why they go through confirmation. Clearly, however, as exhibited by my coworker, the theology of community doesn't always stick, and therefore the whole concept of the unified Body of Christ can be lost.
Now, this post isn't to bash Catholics or Protestants. It is more or less my own "writing out loud" so to speak, about the issue of the community of the Body of Christ. I have been to two Catholic services in my life, and clearly have no authority to speak on the inner workings of the Catholic faith. Having grown up Baptist, I can only speak to the evangelical tradition in American churches.
What I do know is this: the Body of Christ is one that stretches beyond the boundaries of denomination, it is both transcendent and immanent, and requires that your faith not be private.
It is, therefore, impossible to participate in a church that reflects the Body of Christ, impossible to live in relationship with Him - regardless of whether you view that relationship as an individual with an individual, or as a cell in a much larger Body - without community. I have become more and more convicted of this as I have grown up. The love of Christ is such that we cannot do it alone. Reflected in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a social reality, and we humans, made in the image of our father God, are impelled to be social, communal creatures.
Regardless of doctrine, creed, or denomination, if you claim the love of Jesus as your own, it will not remain your own.
My challenge: to step outside the bounds, to begin seeing those around you not merely as those you attend church with, or discuss theology with, but as members of this gigantic universal Church that stretches across the bounds of time and space to include all of us who claim Jesus as Lord.
And the mark of those who who belong to this Body of Christ?
Matthew 22: 36-40: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Photo credit: Jonathan Kirkpatrick, a dear friend who lovingly puts up with 24 Americans invading his house every fall and spring in lovely Oxford. It is of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.