On an early spring day, before the season when tourists would start to come in droves, inside the basilica perched on top of the sacred hill that towers over this southern French city, something unexpected caught my eyes: a poster from the parish’s chaplain for the Chinese, with a giant character愛 (love) placed in the middle, each of its strokes filled with its famous definition from 1 Corinthians 13. Beneath it, among various brochures, was displayed a row of little red books with the title Bible in Chinese on their cover. I marveled at their small size until I saw the subtitle: New Testament. When I picked up one to read, I realized that, named Chinese Contemporary Bible (Dangdai yiben), it was different from the official Catholic translation and the Union Version commonly used by Chinese Protestants.
Father Sander met me in his office next to the basilica. He explained to me that the copies of the Bible were from an American Protestant pastor, who had been a missionary in France for many years. The Chinese Father Sander serve prefer this version because they find it easier to understand compared to other translations.
- I am glad he is helping me. I need the books. He gives them for free.
It is hard to decide who is helping whom, the Pastor who provides the books, or Father Sander who shares the space without questioning the “orthodoxy” of the non-Catholic translation. Let’s say they are both generous. I can imagine it can be a little tough to be a Protestant missionary in France. In a way, Father Sander “hosted” him. But then, it is probably not so easy to be a Catholic priest in France either. Father Sander felt comfortable around Chinese people, and found them highly receptive and spiritually open-minded, in much larger measure than his own countrymen.
- Did the Pastor try to convert you?
I was half joking, but Father Sander responded earnestly:
- He wouldn’t have done that. He is a friend.
I was not sure it was the French or the Catholic in him that thought friends should not try to convert each other.
- What I like about the Protestants is they really love God’s words.
Moderate and conciliatory, Father Sander gave the impression that he saw the best in you. He wanted to let Chinese know about Christ while respecting their cultural traditions.
It so happened that the Pastor also stopped by that afternoon to drop off something. It turned out that there were some connections between our geographical paths: he was sent out by a church in Chicago, and he had also lived in Boston. Within a few minutes he showed me pictures of his smiling grandchildren. I could not help wondering who would make more converts, Father Sander with his attentive and thoughtful presence, or the American pastor with his exuberant energy.
It was almost surreal that somehow they started to chat about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Father Sander thought the most important distinction resides in the ways they are organized, while for the Pastor, it is the Tradition, which matters to Catholicism but Protestantism does not recognize.
Those are all well-known points, and it was just fascinating to me that the Priest and the Pastor chose to focus on different aspects. On the other hand, for what matters to me, there are so many kinds of Protestantism that the difference is huge, between mainline Protestant Churches such as the UCC, which have an official agreement with the US Roman Catholic Church to recognize each other’s baptismal rites, and some ultra-conservative Protestant Churches that consider most if not all of the other denominations heretic.
- Are Catholics saved?
My question might seem a bit blunt, but was fair for someone who was preaching in France, and it was meant to allow me to tell what kind of Protestant he was.
- Look, whoever is not against us is for us, Mark 9:40.
I liked it better than “whoever is not with me is against me”, but did not remember that it was also somewhere in the Bible. I fancied that living in France as a missionary probably made the Pastor more appreciative of people who were not against him.
- People are not saved by belonging to a religion, he said.
Just when I was nodding approvingly, he added:
- To be saved you have to be born again.
I started to see better where he came from, but he seemed so intelligent and engaging that I wanted to chat a little further with him.
- Is it possible for people to have a profoundly transformative faith experience, but do not conceptualize it with the vocabulary of “born again”? I pleaded.
He was not giving an inch:
- No, you have to be born again. Read John 3:3: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.
I was so distressed that I countered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it is a lot harder to act like the Good Samaritan than to believe that one is born again.
- The Good Samaritan story is about the neighbor, he said to my dismay.
- But the definition of neighbor is included as part of the discussion on how one can be saved! I protested while regretting that I did not have the Bible verses with their numbers memorized as he did.
Realizing that it was quixotic to debate salvation with such a well-trained pastor, I decided to instead ask him to help me solve a real life puzzle.
A while ago, a visitor told a story that divided a small group of Chinese Christians: A businessman was engaged in an unethical and deceitful trade. Knowing that it was a sin to deceive other people, he prayed every morning, asking God’s forgiveness, and then went out to do his “job”, day after day, and year after year. Some believed that the businessman could not have been sincere in his prayer if it did nothing to improve his action, while others, based on the dogma of “Justification by faith alone”, thought that none of us are better than the businessman, because we are all depraved sinners that can only be saved by grace. Was he using prayer to exonerate himself? Or was he comparable to the tax collector who truly knew how to pray (Luke 18: 9-14)?
I thought it was a theologically tricky case for a Protestant, but the Pastor responded without missing a beat:
- He was wrong not to trust God. He did not trust that God would let him make a living with an honest line of work.
That was a brilliant angle that had not occurred to me. By questioning the businessman’s faith, the Pastor successfully adhered to the doctrine of sola fide while avoiding a demoralizing moral equivalence. Even though he downplayed the importance of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he seemed to have incorporated some of its meanings in his understanding of faith/trust in God that would imply at least an ethical dimension. I liked his answer because it confirmed the intuition of my inner conscience. Without a “Tradition”, what else can we rely on to interpret the Bible?
On the other hand, can we honestly say that we follow no tradition? Isn’t our inner conscience shaped in part by the path we have taken? Don’t Protestants have their own Traditions, more or less recent, more or less articulated or acknowledged? For the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, the Pastor, typical of American conservative Christians, did not adopt an allegorical interpretation by Augustine, proclaimed to be the only correct/orthodox one by some Chinese pastors who may or may not acknowledge him, as it allows them to pivot right back to “Justification by faith alone” while condemning “Justification by love”: the Good Samaritan is Jesus who save us while we are all sinners beaten half dead by Satan. The twist: Since Jesus is the Good Samaritan/the Neighbor, therefore “love your neighbor” becomes “accept the mercy of Jesus Christ our neighbor/savior” (See as examples Christian Life Quarterly, December 2015, No. 76 or ChurchChina May 2008, No.11 )…
In her landmark study of religion in everyday life in the USA (2014), Nancy Tatom Ammerman finds that American Christians and Jews “enthusiastically embrace” as “the core of their faith” the commandment to “love God” and “love your neighbor” which actually does mean helping others (what she terms the “Golden Rule ethical sensibility”). Studies on how ordinary Chinese believers live their faith, even on much smaller scales, are urgently needed, especially since their number has been dramatically increasing: what does it mean for them to be a believer of their faith? How does it affect their behavior in society? How do they relate to other people, including those who do not share the same beliefs?
On the day I met a priest and a born again pastor, the best thing I learned was they were friends.