I was minded to take the day off, but I started thinking about St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
Brothers and sisters: I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
The “big difference” that separated Christianity from Judaism was, of course, the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah, for whom the Jews had waited for a thousand years. The Jews had expected a semi-secular leader who would restore to Israel the independence and stature it had lost under Roman occupation. Christ never even glanced in that direction. Indeed, one of his more frequently cited sayings on the matter was that the Jews should “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” which is hardly a call to rebellion. And so the majority of the Jews of First-Century Judea dismissed the claim that He was the one whom they had awaited.
According to historian Paul Johnson, the opposed camps were more numerous than that. Not all who called themselves Christians were united on what that means. Saint Paul, the central doctrinal figure of the early Church, was in some ways a schismatic. He and the Apostle Peter, whom Christ had chosen to head the Church, differed on several things, including the proper targets of Christian evangelism. And there were more and deeper dissensions than that alone. Johnson treats with some of them in his book A History of Christianity.
As the earliest Christians were all Jews by birth and education, there was always some question among them as to how much of the Mosaic Law was relevant to Christ’s New Covenant. It’s a matter that’s been debated among theologians for two millennia. Many of the early Jewish Christians believed that the whole of it was still imperative. Others, such as Saint Paul, picked pieces of it to incorporate into his teachings. When the Church’s center of gravity shifted from Jerusalem to Rome, such things became the province of “professionals.” The pieces they deemed relevant were codified into Christian doctrine along with the Nicene Creed, to await the great wave of schism triggered by Martin Luther at Wittenburg.
Schism has continued to affect Christianity. The “less successful” proponents of divergent teachings were classified as heretics. Some, like Arius, were assassinated for promulgating their beliefs. The Church coped with the arguments presented by others as best it could, sometimes adopting parts of their reasoning while distancing itself from their conclusions. It’s an ongoing process.
But doctrine is like that. He who proclaims that some proposition is true must be able to withstand objections to it. Religious doctrines are never proof against all dissent. Indeed, the most important Christian doctrines are premises, neither provable nor disprovable. The Church asserts and maintains them on the grounds of the ancient evidence for them, but that evidence falls short of proof.
The schism history calls the Reformation has fragmented Christianity into a number of denominations. These agree on some things and differ on others. Yet nearly all accept nearly all the others as defensible-in-conscience: “believable, for those who wish to believe.” And the Catholic Church, to which I adhere, has proclaimed that the members of any of the denominations are as validly Christian, with as much hope of eternal life in the nearness of God, as any others.
The contemporary approach to the situation is a kind of truce. It maintains the possibility of an ecumenical ingathering: the uniting of all Christians under one roof. Yet the denominations remain free to differ, and to argue their positions with one another. It sometimes seems like a massive, ongoing negotiation, with no end in sight.
But the eagle-eye view is the one that matters most. From a height that conceals the details of the inter-denominational discussions, the truce is profoundly humble and tolerant. Each of the denominations can go on proclaiming that its doctrines are the right ones…but humility and tolerance provide the undertone that matters most: Any of us might be wrong about anything.
In the citation from Romans above, Saint Paul laments that the majority of his brethren by tribal heritage, the Jews of Judea, had proved unreachable by Christian evangelism. He acknowledges their role as God’s Chosen People, though he and Jewish scholars differed on what that meant practically. But he found it tragically unfortunate that God’s Chosen People should have denied Him who fulfilled the greatest prophecies of the Old Testament. That first schism was painful enough to provoke the lament above – a lament ironically addressed to the Christians of Rome.
So I pray that the differences among our several beliefs will fail to matter; that God may make His face to smile upon us all, no matter how wrong any of us might be about anything. And that He whose Crucifixion and Resurrection redeemed us all might one day say to each of us, “Yes, you were wrong about a few things. As long as you loved your neighbor as you loved yourself, that doesn’t matter.”
May God bless and keep you all.