On Lighthearted Tragedy
Peter Leithart wrote a piece for First Things recently titled “The Tragedy of Conversion.” Now as you probably know, Peter and I have a quite a history, so while I doubt I was the sole inspiration for his lament, I’m sure I was at least a significant part of it.
Leithart makes it clear that what he considers “tragic” are “cross-Christian conversions, from Protestant to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or the opposite.” He elaborates:
What I have in mind is the logic behind some conversions, namely, the quest of the true church. Protestants who get some taste for catholicity and unity, who begin actually to believe the Nicene Creed, naturally find the contemporary state of Protestantism agonizing (as I do). They begin looking for a church that has preserved its unity, that has preserved the original form of church, and they often arrive at Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
Why is such a desire to discover the true church tragic?
Apart from all the detailed historical arguments, this quest makes an assumption about the nature of time, an assumption that I have labeled “tragic.” It’s the assumption that the old is always purer and better, and that if we want to regain life and health we need to go back to the beginning.
Now I would be curious to hear Leithart actually cite a convert who made a statement that betrayed an assumption like “old is always purer and better.” My guess is that the reason he makes no such appeal is that few, if any, of us have actually said something like that. I certainly didn’t. In fact, if I had been operating under that tragic assumption I would have become a Levitical Jew, or perhaps a worshiper of Baal and Ashtoreth. Catholicism is not the oldest religion in the world, is what I’m saying.
But if Catholicism is the oldest Christian religion in the world (which I ask you to grant simply for the sake of argument), then I think a good question to ask is, “Hmmm. If Christianity is true, and the oldest expression of it is found in Catholicism, then why would it be a tragic thing for someone to consider it?”
Of course, Leithart’s entire reason for dismissing as tragic a conversion to Rome or Constantinople is hopelessly problematic:
Eden is not the golden time to which we return; it is the infancy from which we begin and grow up. The golden age is ahead, in the Edenic Jerusalem.
And the church’s history is patterned in the same way too. It’s disorienting to think that we have to press ahead rather than try to discover or recover the safety of an achieved ecclesia, disorienting because we can’t know or predict the future. But it’s the only assumption Trinitarians can consistently make: The ecclesial peace we seek is not behind us, but in front. We get there by following the pillar of fire that leads us to a land we do not know.
First, no Catholic or EO would deny, or even have the slightest problem with, the idea that our ultimate goal is the new Jerusalem which lies ahead of us, in the future. So the argument so far is a complete straw man.
But also embedded in the argument is the denial that there is such a thing as a visible church that Jesus himself founded, which will never be prevailed upon by the gates of hell, and which itself develops over time and grows into the maturity and stature of the fullness of Christ. So one of the premises needed to make Leithart’s argument work is that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are false (which is why it’s tragic when people convert to them). But this is just silly, since everyone agrees that converting to a false religion is tragic.
I’ll leave you with a bit of irony. The Catholic doctrine of the development of dogma and actually qualifies the Church to be the kind of conversion-destination that Leithart should approve of. I mean, if there’s an ancient expression of Christianity that refuses to grow up or adapt to the times, it’s certainly not the Catholic Church (I’ll leave you to figure out who it might be [*cough-EO-cough*]).
And to add to the irony a touch of Chestertonian flavor, we have Leithart lamenting that the Catholic Church is stuck stubbornly in the past, while all we’ve heard from The Hart Attackers™ for the last year is how much the Church has capitulated to modernity. So which is it, Protestants?
My suggested solution to this conundrum is that maybe, just maybe, the Church is exactly where it’s supposed to be, while Peter’s just too much of a trailblazer and Darryl’s simply a stick-in-the-mud?