Mockingbird on a Wire: Grace Across the Church Divide

I imagine there are some enthusiastic Mockingbird recruits out there, but I feel drafted. Visiting […]

I imagine there are some enthusiastic Mockingbird recruits out there, but I feel drafted. Visiting the Limelight Marketplace – a onetime church turned legendary nightclub turned bourgeois boutique (which advertises a “slice of heaven” from its gourmet pizza shop) – was my Protestant rock bottom. Limelight is not far from where I had attended Father Richard John Neuhaus’ funeral, who had been keen (as he was everyone) to see me come home to Rome.

Wandering the Manhattan streets after seeing the shell of Protestantism flagrantly capitulate to consumerism, my eyes spotted St. George’s, a church which I had never visited. Church architecture is a hobby (it was why I was at Limelight), so I stepped inside, and noticed a conference was afoot. I imagined the space had been rented for an Ashtanga yoga instructor’s weekend, or a strategy session on how to land an article in McSweeney’s or n+1. But it was the 2012 Mockingbird conference. I let myself in to the packed hall and listened a bit to Michael Horton. The Reformed tradition is not my bag (I excused myself from the PC(USA) ordination process years ago), but I had to admit something serious was going on, and that Protestantism had not expired completely.

A few years later, however, mostly thanks to The Mockingcast run by an old friend Scott Jones, I found myself ordering Mockingbird books by the stacks. Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice floored me not only with the fine points of theology (the doctrinal exposition cut against the grain of my training), but because it made sense of my marriage. And A Mess of Help and Mockingbird at the Movies made sense of my culture like little else has. David Zahl on Axl Rose was one of the few things I could post on Facebook that would appeal to non-Christians and Christians alike. And slowly the doctrine followed.

If you had told me years ago I’d be reading Luther again, enthusing about imputation over infusion, I’d have laughed. I had left it all long ago in the ecumenical dust, seeking to cultivate a post-Protestant high church perspective without converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy (I had nearly done both). But here I was indulging the Reformers again, and absorbing the law/gospel message that had brought me to faith as a teenager. It wasn’t fashionable, but it was freeing. My self-justification projects were happily falling apart (again), and Mockingbird helped me account for why. The relief readers feel from the cocktail of a Richard Rohr book could be enjoyed cask strength from Mockingbird at 100 proof.

The Limelight in all its, er, glory.

But then I saw them in the library. Those two massive N.T. Wright volumes on Paul I felt guilty for not having read. The suspicion lingered that if I really cranked into the latest developments in the new perspective on Paul (part of the reason that I had become suspicious of the Protestantism in the first place), all this Mockingbird stuff would crumble. Failing that, I feared some white cassocked Dominican would hurl me like a Stormtrooper back into the gravitational suction of the Summa Theologica, or a black robed Athonite monk, citing a few lines from Gregory Palamas in a thick Greek accent, would convince me of the superiority of theosis to puny Protestant accounts of imputation.

But this has not happened. Needless to say, Wright is not going to articulate things the way Mockingbird would (differences of approach have been elucidated elsewhere). That said, I was surprised by how much convergence I found between his wide-ranging tour of Paul and Paul Zahl’s brief musings in his Panopticon (which came out the same year). Indeed, PZ’s take is as good a summary of Wright’s two volumes as one can find:

The more you study St. Paul, the more you see that he says a lot of things, and that his teachings are full of tension. By “tension” I do not mean torture. By tension, I mean that St. Paul was coming from a complex personal past into a complex and unfamiliar new world of new peoples and new beliefs. There is a kind of torque to Paul’s thought that spins off shaving in more than one direction. There are “Catholic” turns in Paul and “Protestant” ones. There are “mystic” ways in Paul; and wordly, possibly even duplicitous ways in Paul… he had to adapt what he said to very different audiences. This is why his message, although it positively overflows with insights, is not one thing (73).

None of this to suggest that the Lutheran thrust of Grace in Practice is outmoded – only that one wonders if it can be expanded to include key insights of the new perspective on Paul, and the Catholic and Orthodox readings as well to which Wright is so sympathetic (theosis, for Wright, is an inescapably Pauline notion). Wright’s central aim, after all, is to integrate the ‘juridical’ and ‘participationist’ language in Paul which has been parceled up among the traditions. Perhaps Wright’s laudable ambition can be reconciled–at least in part–with the ethos and framework of Mockingbird with the help of Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World (which I learned of, naturally, through The Mockingcast). Leithart’s names his own ecumenical fusion of Pauline themes God’s “deliverdict” toward us, that is, our deliverance and God’s verdict at once. Seeing Wright as still “burdened by some of the same tensions that afflict Protestant soteriology,” Leithart doubles down on imputation, all the while avoiding the anthropological dualism that afflicted late medieval thought, especially Luther.

If our “real, factual, existence is determined by the free and gracious word of God,” claims Leithart, then this has real, factual results. That is to say, imputation – God’s gracious declaration of who we are in Christ – actually works, is a real status, and is even rewarded, which accounts for the “Catholic” and “Orthodox” strains of Pauline thought. “For there is nothing more fundamental to human beings,” explains Leithart, “than how God regards [us].”

Happily, this is precisely the thick account of grace worked out by Kevin Vanhoozer as well, for whom “sola gratia has ontological, not merely soteriological significance.” Catholics presumed imputation to be a merely “legal” declaration, and many Protestants – almost out of spite – stubbornly accommodated this thinned out caricature. The law, after all, increases the trespass. But accounts like Leithart’s and Vanhoozer’s, absorbing some of Wright’s Pauline insights, thicken the soup again. Not by giving up on imputation but by putting it on steroids, even building a holistic ontology around it, thereby transcending the late medieval dualisms that damaged Protestants and Catholics alike.

This also means that Protestant emphases, such as Luther’s Law/Gospel distinction, is less our “property” than a recovered treasure that might show up in unexpected places. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Reformation history to realize that Henri Nouwen’s discussion of human volition in Return of the Prodigal Son lands on the Reformation side of Luther’s famous debate with Erasmus. No doubt this accounts for the book’s peculiar power. Indeed, when I was ready to abandon the Protestant ship, some of the devotional resources my Catholic friends directed me to were scarcely indistinguishable from Mockingbird’s wonderful publication, Law and Gospel. I am referring to Catholic monk Jacques Philippe’s wonderful book, Interior Freedom:

The law in itself is good, but the trap is this: if we take obeying the law as a condition for salvation, we are saying salvation comes, not from God’s freely given love, but from our own deeds. The two modes of thought are directly opposed to each other. According to grace, we receive salvation and the love of God freely through Christ, quite apart from our own merits, and freely response to that love by the good works the Holy Spirit enables us to accomplish. According to the law, we merit salvation and the love of God by our own good works. One approach is based on God’s free, unconditional love, the other on our capacities and ourselves.

We can rejoice when such a message appears across onetime enemy lines (even if there is no footnote to Luther), and even if Nouwen, Philippe or Thérèse of Lisieux would not have survived the papacy of Pope Paul IV (they’d have been branded among the illegal Spirituali). To be involved with Mockingbird, therefore, is not to be hidebound in the sixteenth century and tone deaf to ecumenical convergences. David Zahl is not the Elsa of the ecumenical winter, singing “the cold doesn’t bother me anyway” in his self-made ice castle, suppressing the springtime of inter-Christian concord. Instead, Mockingbird, for me at least, means that the best thing Protestants can do toward such convergences is to lift high the treasure of sola gratia, in hope that it might cause other Christians to dig for it in their own traditions where it is present, if buried.

And buried it so often is. The on-the-ground differences between Catholics and Protestants was made unexpectedly clear in in Ken Woodward’s recent book chronicling his experience as a Catholic journalist, entitled Getting Religion. Woodward is deeply informed, and knew personally most of the major religious figures to which most of us just refer. Mark Hatfield, an evangelical senator once said to Woodward, “Ken, If I didn’t know I was saved, I couldn’t get up in the morning.” Woodward’s instinctual reply was, “Mark, if I knew I was saved, I wouldn’t get up in the morning.” To borrow Luther’s phrasing in article 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Woodward perfectly illustrated the dichotomy between grace (“which says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done”) and law (“which says, ‘do this’ and it is never done”). I hope Catholic friends don’t hear this not as a partisan boasting. After all, Woodward concludes the book with a by boldly declaring that “God’s grace is everywhere.” But I also hope that more Catholics pick up some Jacques Philippe.

At a recent ecumenical gathering at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary hosted by the amazing Matthew Levering, a group of Catholic, Protestant and some Orthodox thinkers read through Aquinas richly Pauline, at times proleptically Lutheran account of grace in Summa I-II, 109-114. Our guide was the famous medievalist, Bernard McGinn. The overlap with Protestant understandings was dramatic. At one point McGinn slammed his hand on the table with the original Latin in front of him and shouted (citing Thomas) “solus Christus!” But when we Protestants asked McGinn, “Where was this in the sixteenth century?” his answer was straightforward: It had been lost. Semi-Pelagianism, McGinn told us, was then the norm, and Peter Lombard’s Sentences was the standard Dominican textbook, not Aquinas. We then pressed McGinn if Luther could be credited with the recovery of this message of grace. “Luther could be credited with a lot of things,” he wryly replied. It was a brilliant thing to say to a room filled with Catholics and Protestants. Catholics could interpret it sarcastically (sure, credited with splitting the church). While we Protestants could interpret it benignly (credited with unearthing grace). I lean toward the second interpretation, and will be looking forward to McGinn’s Mysticism in the Reformation to hear more.

Whether or not Luther’s recovery of grace is what enabled its surfacing – almost verbatim – in some Catholic literature today is difficult to say. But Mockingbird’s recovery of grace is what brought it to surface in my life, where it had long been submerged. I wonder if I could have heard the message otherwise. Our tendency to justify ourselves is just too inevitable. Aquinas might quibble with Paul Zahl’s formulation, but we should broadcast God’s “one way love” with the volume turned up to eleven nonetheless. Not just for the sake of drafted enthusiasts like me, but for St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic across from St. George’s on Stuyvesant Square, for the nearby Immaculate Conception church where I attended Neuhaus’ funeral, for All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Church just a short walk away, and yes, especially for those who, whether in horror or delight, shop at the Limelight boutique.

Matthew J. Milliner teaches art history at Wheaton College.

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5 responses to “Mockingbird on a Wire: Grace Across the Church Divide”

  1. Elsa says:

    (Thanks for this Matt! Really, really encouraging)

  2. Josh Retterer says:

    This is beautiful.

  3. Duo Dickinson says:

    So great to meet you all in April

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