In the new book Changing Churches: An Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran Conversation, two men who once communed at the same Lutheran Eucharistic table explain their similar but different decisions to leave the Lutheran faith tradition — one for Orthodoxy, the other for Roman Catholicism. Along the way they tackle some of the most difficult questions Protestants face when considering such a conversion, including views on justification, grace, divinization, the church and its authority, women and ministry, papal infallibility, the role of Mary, and homosexuality.
In this excerpt from their introduction, authors Mickey L. Mattox and A. G. Roeber describe “the astonishing level of religious mobility that has come to characterize the American people” and discuss the differences between religious “drifters” and religious “choosers.” (Their book, they say, is written for “choosers.”)
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Even seasoned observers of religion in America were taken somewhat aback when in 2008 the results of the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, were announced, documenting in great sociological detail the astonishing level of religious mobility that has come to characterize the American people. So far as American Christianity is concerned, the survey showed that a great many of us — nearly half — have left the faith in which we were raised and moved on to find a new religious identity: for example, Roman Catholics often married into Protestantism (and vice versa), backslidden Baptists sometimes became Mormons, nominal Christians of all sorts seemed to slide over into agnosticism, some liberal Protestants embraced evangelicalism of one kind or another, disaffected Catholics found a home in this or that mainline Protestant denomination, while a good number of folks simply eased over into the amorphous category “unaffiliated,” eschewing organized religion in favor of their own personal “spirituality.” Religious identity, it seems safe to say, is no longer so much a matter of inheritance as it is one of personal choice. Church membership has become yet another arena within which we Americans give personal preference — and not the claims of family or tradition — the final say. Religious or denominational affiliation is now a moving target characterized by extreme fluidity, so much so that America has become, as an Associated Press headline put it, “a nation of religious drifters.” Change is the only constant in American religion, and the pace of change itself seems to be accelerating within a booming religious “marketplace.”
With these facts in mind, we might well ask whether the very “freedom” we celebrate to move from one Christian church to another, or even from Christianity to another religion altogether, is itself simply another manifestation of the advance of the logic of consumer capitalism into the arena of religion. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, for example, has insightfully examined and criticized some of the reasons why “boutique religion” has become the order of the day. On Hart’s account, as the Pew survey would suggest, we moderns are not so much thoughtful religious choosers — dutiful and capable moral agents carefully examining the truth claims of one faith over against those of another — as we are religious drifters, that is, individuals afloat on a sea of religious kitsch, much of it accessible on the Internet, an electronic bazaar, if you will, where, as consumers, we exercise our sovereign freedom to choose willy-nilly from amongst the free-floating elements of “religion” available to us 24/7 through our now omnipresent media connections. According to Hart, an unthinking nihilism — that is, the insistence that choosing itself should be understood as the supreme good, wholly apart from the prior existence of good ends toward which our free choice must be oriented — is the driving force behind the hot American marketplace of religion. Perhaps not coincidentally, the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking now claims that the universe(s) originates by “spontaneous creation” out of nothing (gravity [sic] excepted). This assertion makes the nihil itself the productive reality out of which all things come, a claim that neatly legitimates the spirit of our age with all the authority of modern science. . . .
This book is written not for drifters, as per the Pew survey, but for choosers, especially those who occupy a particularly confusing region of the American religious landscape, that is, the intersection where the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, historic Lutheran, and other traditional Protestant churches meet. We offer in what follows a theological, spiritual, and sometimes personal reflection on the gains and losses, the reasons and regrets that inform and follow from the decision to leave Lutheranism in order to embrace Orthodoxy or Catholicism. We address the question of interdenominational religious freedom from the insider perspective of two similarly committed Christian believers living out their faith in the confusing context of both ecumenical division between the churches and the solemn duty of religious choice. Religious choice, religious change, cannot be reduced to yet one more arena within which we “consumers” define ourselves individualistically by “brand identification.” To the contrary, thoughtful consideration of the question whether one should remain or become Catholic, Orthodox, or Lutheran is, as we both well know, a sometimes bewildering process marked by the fundamental conviction that all choices are not created equal, and that the freedom to choose includes an obligation to do our very best to discern the truth. When the process of discernment leads ultimately to the decision to change churches, as it did in both our cases, then the path to change must be paved by asking and then answering as best we can a series of difficult theological questions. The sorrows of separation, too, must be endured. Yet the ecumenical journeys the two of us have made have been marked even more profoundly by the joys of discovery, by moments of grace, by inner peace, and in the end by a renewed commitment to work for the unity of the church.