What does it mean to say, “I am a Lutheran” or “I am a Roman Catholic”? The flatness of such assertions denies the multilayered, shifting, nuanced richness of associations with a religious tradition. Does saying one thing cancel out the other: if you “are” Lutheran, you can’t “be” Catholic? Stephen Colbert’s witty title “I am an American—and so can you!” catches it exactly. The assertion of identification (I am X) is in a way meaningless, because it is both too encompassing (Is that X the whole of you?) and too exclusive (Is there nothing else of you but X?). Switch to the phrase implying action (I do X and so can you), and the attention is where it belongs—on actions rather than mere existence. Too abstract? Not really. How do you tell, in real life, who’s Lutheran or who’s Catholic? I’d say it’s by whether they show up on Sunday morning at Lake Woebegon Lutheran or at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Whether they bring a hot dish to the Advent Supper or buy raffle tickets for the garden statue of St. Odelia. We are not what we say we are so much as we are what we do.
So what I am, speaking in religious terms, is complicated at the outset by the very challenge of description and then by the fact of time itself. At what moment are we taking that vital sample to identify? Many people have experienced being one thing and then, subsequently, being the other. They’ve changed or altered in some way, they’ve “converted,” a term that implies an essential change. But what about them has changed? (Remember the joke, I think it’s #406: the old Lutheran, dying, converts to Catholicism, and when his family expresses concern, he admonishes, “If somebody’s dying, better it’s one of them than one of us!”) Over a lifetime, how many “beings” do we accumulate? Have I ceased being a mother because none of my children are at home any more? I’m not employed as a teacher, but I’ve been a teacher all my life and probably will be as long as I have a mind and a mouth.
Retiring to southern Arizona, to the definitely exurban grasslands just thirty miles from the Mexican border, I found myself in a region where religious life is concentrated in the crossroads Bible church. (It has since split into three or possibly four different groups, but then that’s Protestant behavior at its most definitive, isn’t it?) Twelve miles away, in the slightly more populous town of Patagonia, there was the choice of the Community Methodist Church and St. Therese Roman Catholic Church. Thirty-five miles to the southeast there is the city of Sierra Vista, with several Lutheran churches and plenty of after-church breakfast spots.
But after forty years of Sunday worship at Valparaiso University’s chapel, I hungered for the Eucharist with all the eagerness that the Easter responses describe: like new born babes desire their milk. Was it just a habit? an addiction? a mindless routine? I have asked myself many times why it was that “what to do on Sunday” was never a question for my husband or for me. We took ourselves to St. Therese Church, and we trooped to the altar with all the good Catholics. From the first Sunday we were here, we acted like Catholics. (Though our checks were bigger than most, I have since learned.)
And everybody assumed that because we were at Mass, we “were” Catholic. Nobody asked, and we didn’t discuss it, except with the priest. Sweet Father Michael, in a conversation in which we said that we were Lutherans who needed the Eucharist and liturgy, made a great statement of ecclesial policy: “I have always thought that the church exists to bring people into the presence of God. Who am I to stand in the way of that?” Formally, we were in the category of “guest members” of the parish. Which Bill remains, nine years later. What made me go around to the office one day and ask Father Michael about “joining” the church?
I “became” a Roman Catholic, though only after we had addressed the language of conversion. I said I would not consider myself a convert. Fr. Michael, with his innocent grin, said, “You haven’t turned around. This is just where you are at this point in your journey.” Exactly. We didn’t hold a press conference to announce that I’d come home, because I don’t know that I belong here. Being here may be more like an extended-stay motel than a home.
The question, “where do I belong?” is a question that I experience over and over again with unquieted anxiety. That I was brought up Lutheran, first by pious parents and then in college by theologians, has been only one part of an answer. In some sense, I’ll always belong to Lutherans, or to Lutheran-ism, because of a tendency to answer a religious question with a doctrinal answer. What I believe is, and always will be, what I think, what I know, what I understand. In college, I studied Lutheran theology with Robert Bertram and Ed Schroeder; I studied the Confessions with Robert Schultz. Throughout a long history at Valpo, I studied liturgy with Hans Böhringer and David Truemper. In homiletics, I had years of experience with Norman Nagel, David Kehret, Fred Niedner, and Walt Wangerin. I suppose someone might have predicted trouble all the way back when I suggested in a student newspaper column that a truly meaningful celebration of Reformation Sunday on a Lutheran campus would be a penitential service with petitions for the restoration of one, holy, catholic church on earth. That column earned me a visit to the President’s office and a Kretzmann lecture on undergraduate presumption. In some ways—Kretzmann lectures included—I had almost a seminary education, and I think I can say that I know my faith.
Yet no matter what you know, where you belong has to have a place. That messy incarnation business always implies that faith has to get lived out in real stuff: the church is so relentlessly non-virtual. The bread, the wine, true enough, but also the budgets, committees, potlucks, and fund drives. And in this segment of my journey, raffles and rosaries. Theoretical Christianity is so simple, a set of propositions to which I subscribe. Actual Christianity is so complex. The Book of Concord is a piece of cake compared to it. Today I “am” a Roman Catholic because that is where I do a liturgy through which I receive the means of grace in the Real Presence of the bread and wine, and in the company of the gathered Body of Christ.
Don’t I know that there are differences between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism? I think I do, and I find parts of both inside myself. The linguistic witticism at the outset of this piece is no joke. My being is Lutheran and Roman Catholic. The term “post-denominational” is beginning to be applied to some Christians, mostly those of an evangelistic, free-church variety. But perhaps it will be possible to use it for some Christians who sense that an allegiance to a body or an institution can be profound and meaningful even while it is temporary. Temporary meaning “of the time,” not ultimate, not forever. After all, what or who is our allegiance given to? As Will Campbell once famously admonished, “All institutions are after your soul, but your soul belongs to God.”
Am I content? No, I am not. In the theoretical church to which I belong, for instance, an ancient tradition introduces common worship with such majestic hymns as “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” In the actual church to which I belong, a few folks croon “This Little Light of Mine” with a synthesized rhythm section. The theoretical church has St. Peter on his reversed cross; the actual one has Benedict and his Prada footwear. From inside, the Roman church has almost as many fissures as its Protestant counterpart and an equal number of follies and frailties. Though it boasts of its unchanging heritage, it is as subject to the ebbs and flows of enthusiasms as any other body of people. And this particular moment in Roman Catholicism seems to be characterized by the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the retreating tide of Vatican II spirit, as its great advocates die off and are replaced by the timid and blustering warriors of orthodoxy.
“Christ is here, Christ is here, Christ is here,” I murmur to myself, Sunday after Sunday.
And in word and sacrament, in Scripture and preaching, and in the bread and wine offered to me again and again by Joe and Ana and Juan and Sandra, that is so. Because, thank God, it is not my version or vision of the church that matters. The divisions (or call them distinctions) that we have made as we have all attempted to discern God’s truth have their place. But when we come to see face to face, finally free of that dark glass that shadows our view, we will not need the identifying names for the categories we have invented. We will only need—and we will have—the being that God has captured forever when he calls us the only name that matters: my child!
Gail McGrew Eifrig is Professor Emerita of English at Valparaiso University and a former editor of The Cresset.