Six weeks ago I entered my first term as a graduate student at Notre Dame, studying for a Master’s degree in Theology. Since that time, I’ve received a lot of inquiries as to why I chose Notre Dame, and often the question implies that it would have made more sense to attend a good, solid, Protestant, Evangelical school. While it’s tempting to spend this entire post pointing out how ambiguous and unhelpful categories like “solid” or “Evangelical” are these days, I’d rather get right to the point.
First, we Protestants have much more in common with Catholics than we realize. Regardless of how passionate you are in your Reform stance, it is still true that much of what you stand on in your theology and practice comes from Catholic roots. There have been many times in the past six weeks when I felt very much at home studying alongside Catholic students. We believe many of the same things. It’s sad to me that the one bigotry we still tolerate in Protestant churches is bigotry against Catholics.
Second, we Protestants would do well to learn from Catholics; there are many ways in which they believe more truly and practice more faithfully than us. The Catholic Church has made service to the poor a benchmark of its ministry for quite a long time. Sadly, it’s only a recent phenomenon that the Evangelical movement has broadly taken this type of ministry seriously. The Catholics I know have a place for mystery in their faith that most of us know nothing about. And for all the slander I hear about Catholics showing up for confession on Sunday and going back to sinning on Monday, the professors and students I’ve been with this summer are every bit as serious in applying the teachings of Scripture to their lives as us.
But the last point I want to make may be the most important one. I went to Notre Dame precisely BECAUSE I would disagree with some of the things I would be taught.
One of the problems with the idea of ‘good, solid, evangelical Christianity’ is the bubble we live in. We think that being ‘solid’ means choosing a ‘safe’ environment, something like an incubator, all warm and cozy and affirming, in which to develop our own beliefs and practices. But this is absolute nonsense.
The Way of Jesus was never meant to be lived in a fake, insulated world. The power of the Gospel is God’s ability to energize us for mission in the midst of testing and confrontation. This is usually applied to issues of lifestyle: the good Christian works with bad, sinful people at his job, and through all that testing, he grows stronger. That’s one way of seeing it. But I’m talking about testing and confrontation on the ideological level. We need to have our ideas challenged, too. We need to have the categories we use to think about God broken open from time to time. We need to study Scripture with people who have underlined different passages in their Bibles than we have. We need to have our blind spots exposed. This will only happen if we’re willing to enter environments that are less like incubators and more like testing grounds. It’s in the breaking and remaking that happens in such a setting that we find our eyes opened to see again. In the last six weeks, I have seen God in Scripture and been both disturbed and amazed at that vision.
Sure, incubators serve a purpose. By definition, they’re a place where babies are nurtured. I’m all for that. But I’m not a baby (and neither are many of you). I already have a bachelor’s degree in Bible and Ministry from a ‘safe’ school. And I have a community that I return to where I can sort all of this out. I go to school at ND and come back to my church, my friends, my brothers and sisters, and we put it all on the table and sort through it together. We sift it and re-contextualize it and try to figure out how we can move forward, always trying to see Jesus more clearly and live a life that’s congruous with that vision. I'm not worried about the 'danger' of going 'off the map' because I spend some time in a different environment, but I am worried about the danger of only seeing what I want to see when I stay too close to 'home'.
The professors and students at Notre Dame are absolutely brilliant, world-class in their insight, steadfast in their devotion to God, unbelievably hard working, and generous in their community, and Notre Dame is right in my backyard. I can’t imagine NOT availing myself of the chance to be part of something like that.