This summer, the interns at the Acton Institute have bonded over campfires, swing dancing and piles of folders and name tags. About half of the 18 interns are Catholic, and the others subscribe to a variety of Protestant denominations. Although most of us are studying economics, we each care deeply about our faith. As the evenings progress, our conversations often turn to topics of religion and theology.
Acton University attracts participants from a variety of denominations and religions around the world. This year, Peter Kreeft, a highly regarded professor of philosophy at Boston College, gave a presentation titled “What Catholics and Protestants Have in Common.” Kreeft is a convert from the Dutch Reformed Church to Catholicism, who is passionate about how Catholics and Protestants relate to one another. He ended his lecture with four practical rules for anyone in an ecumenical setting.
- “Don’t idolize anything (even reunion).” Sometimes people value the idea of unity so much that they are willing to sacrifice truth to achieve some level of agreement. As the interns discuss tricky theological questions, we are sometimes frustrated that we can’t come to a resolution to our heated discussions. We need to remember that, while unity is important, our goal should be to grow closer to God. If we truly grow closer to Him, we will grow closer to each other. This process will be the result of God’s unity and truth, not our own efforts.
- “Begin with what we have in common.” Kreeft devoted a good deal of his lecture to reminding us of all the things Christians share. His goal was not to dismiss or minimize differences, but to remind us of some of the things that matter most. For the interns, we began a few weeks ago with a shared love for God, for truth, for the free market, for adventure and for cinnamon rolls (which is no small starting point).
- “Listen. Sincerely, open-mindedly, honestly.” One of the best ways to do this is to ask a question to which you honestly don’t know the answer. Among the interns at Acton, minds often jump from one idea to the next as we draw connections and comparisons; very soon we are interrupting the answer to our original question. Patiently listening and waiting for each other to speak can make the difference between multiple people giving monologues and a productive dialogue between equals.
- “Listen to God. Pray to conform your will to His.” This last rule is what truly unifies the church. Some interns cross themselves when they pray while others do not. Some prefer beautiful memorized prayers that have stood the test of time, while others prefer impromptu, heartfelt adoration. Still, we have joined together in prayer before meals and Bible Study, going to the same God for wisdom, truth and grace.
These same ideas can be applied when Christians discuss politics. Thoughtful believers can disagree on important issues, and sometimes these debates can get more heated than religious discussions. Remembering these principles when discussing ideas such as socialism, fair trade and public unions helps us treat each other with respect.
The comradery we feel is not the result of a relativistic belief that each opinion is as right as the next. After all, Kreeft joined the Catholic Church because he believes it speaks truth in areas where the Dutch Reformed Church does not. Instead of clinging to the false unity of relativism, the interns understand that we each have some access to the objective truth found in God. Although each of us tends to believe that we are the one with the clearer and more accurate picture, we must choose to humbly seek the truth. This side of heaven, we can’t perfectly identify where we’ve erred or fully comprehend what is merely a glimmer of the true Light. By focusing on the truth and making an effort to really listen, practicing intellectual humility and seeking God, we can meaningfully engage with one another.
C. S. Lewis speaks about denominational differences in Mere Christianity. He compares the truths all Christians share to a great hall and the various denominations within Christianity to rooms in a house. “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.” At Acton University, people from over 80 countries had the opportunity for “hallway” encounters with believers of different faith traditions. As we return to our rooms after the conference, we ought to continue to lift each other up in prayer as we seek truth about God and society.
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