The other day, after a couple of powerful vodka and sodas, my friend Khun Lo suddenly became more confident in his ability to speak English. Many questions that generally remain stored up behind his intelligent, smiling face were given voice as his natural shyness disappeared, shy about speaking English anyway. One of the questions was: “what is the difference between a Protestant and a Christian?
This is a good question, and I tried my best to clear up the confusion. “Well,” I began, “they’re all Christians. Protestants, Catholics and lots of other groups are all Christians. It’s all the same God, the same Jesus and the same Bible.” Firm ground so far, but it only generates more confusion.
The question remains: what’s the difference? “Small differences,” I struggled to go on, “most Christian churches baptize their members (brief description of that ritual), but some churches baptize babies (like I was baptized, by Catholics), and some churches wait until the member is an adult.” Another example, “all Christian churches hang a cross on the wall, but some put a body on the cross while others think that it is wrong to show the image of God.” These points of difference seem to outsiders to lack any real distinction at all. Any mention of the Trinity, salvation, the virgin birth, or Original Sin risk losing the pilgrim’s attention altogether.
My friend returned to his original point of inquiry, “so, what is a Protestant?” I resorted to a history lesson. “Five hundred years ago, almost all European Christians were Catholic.” He raised his eyes to heaven, not, I think, to pray, but rather to calculate the relative age of the Christian churches at that time. “Many national groups wanted the church to be closer to their homes, so they protested the domination of the Catholics.” I explained “protest” by comparing it to current anti-government protests in Thailand. This explanation was satisfactory, as far as it went. The question of the differences remained. His sister, a member of a Korean Presbyterian church in Bangkok, was also interested and jumped in from time to time with clarification in Thai.
It was very difficult to understand how there could be such disagreement among people who worshiped the same God, and the same Jesus, as revealed in the same Bible. It only got worse after that.
“You know,” I almost hesitated to add, “all of the Christians, and all of the Jews, and all of the Muslims in the world worship the same God, as revealed to the same man (Abraham) and honor the same Bible.” (The Old Testament anyway; explaining the various attitudes towards Jesus was beyond the scope of our conversation.) Beginning to suspect that the Non-Buddhist world was even more screwed up that he had thought, he returned to a simpler question.
“So, are you a Christian?” I’ve gotten this one before, so I had a ready answer. “I don’t believe in any of them, I believe in you and me, I just believe that people should love each other, and help each other.” Thai people seem to love this answer, it always goes over big. I’m not really a Buddhist either, but I think the statement is popular because it could be made by any good Buddhist responding to questions about God and religion. The Buddha is a goal, not a God.
The conversation left me with the familiar feeling that it could all be so simple. Are there any differences between religions that are really worth fighting about? Does it really matter if a congregation worships on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? At what age someone is baptized? Can’t we agree that the nature of God is an impenetrable mystery? My own opinion is that it is a terrible sin to squander any energy at all on the question of God until the many immediate, pressing problems of the world have been satisfactorily addressed. Problems like: poverty; nutrition; medical care; fresh water; sanitation, and the rest. If we do all that, the God question will take care of itself.