A Prodigal Protestant, Part I

A Protestant reflects on the banks of the Tiber…

Fun fact: I have never been trick-or-treating on Halloween. In elementary school, I never went to class on that day either, because all that happened was a Halloween party. My family would usually go out for Chinese food and a movie instead. Halloween was an objectionable “holiday” to us as Christians with its celebration of the grotesque and macabre and pagan. It was never just about free candy or a party, and to this day I find Halloween eerie and chilling.

October 31 is particularly significant this year, though. It will mark exactly 500 years since Martin Luther allegedly hammered 95 theses onto the wall of the Wittenburg Church in Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation, a religious firestorm whose heat we can still feel today. Some Christians find this event a cause for celebration, while others lament it.

One lamentable consequence of the Reformation was the splintering of Christianity into many denominations and sects. Division and conflict among believers, especially between Catholics and Protestants, have exacted heavy costs and brought about the very opposite of Christian ministry. Sectionalism need not always manifest itself in outright violence or abstract theological dispute, though. I was once accused, albeit somewhat light-heartedly, by a Catholic acquaintance of not even belonging to Christ because I’m not Catholic. We’re still friends, of course, but that stung in the moment.

Every Christian professes the same core truth: that Jesus Christ is Lord. So how can it be that we share such a profound first principle, yet depart so far from one another? Did Martin Luther only fracture and condemn the church he wanted to rescue from itself?

I don’t think I can draw a complete picture of my thinking on this matter yet. I’m certainly not well-versed enough in the finer aspects of Christian theology to outline my thoughts very systematically. The Reformation remains as much a personal matter of faith as an institutional challenge, though my thoughts are less thesis-like than reflective in nature.


I was baptized as an infant and grew up Christian, and was confirmed after studying Luther’s Small Catechism and the Apostle’s Creed. It wasn’t until coming to Harvard that I felt I had truly claimed my faith as my own, and that the Christian Gospel was transforming me in a way that Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and his memes could not.

I have discovered fellowship and community in Harvard’s faith groups that I could never find in my middle school and high school youth groups, and I am blessed to live with four amazing and wonderful Christian women (both Catholic and Protestant) who have deepened my faith and brought immeasurable joy into my life.

As my faith has grown stronger, my questions have grown larger. As I’ve probed the nature of this issue and other questions surrounding the Christian Church, I’ve found myself returning over and over again to the idea of orthodoxy. I’ve begun to probe more deeply into the theological underpinnings of my family’s Lutheran roots, as well as those of Roman Catholicism.

The words orthodoxy, doctrine, and dogma tend to have unbelievably negative connotations in our modern conscience, but they are meant to be valuable tools to help us understand the Bible, Christian teachings and ways of life, and each other.

American mainstream Protestantism, in my view, might do well at this moment to return to a conception of orthodoxy. Growing up, I often felt failed by loose non-denominationalism that tried to sell and market Christianity to me, as if the Gospel could be tweaked and adjusted for a particular target audience. I wandered through a sea of various small groups and youth programs, finding no real spiritual sustenance in any of them. I did not and will never want the kind of therapeutic moral deism that tells me that, “Yeah, there probably is a God, and if there is, he would want you to be happy and love others! Just be a good person, you know?”

No! If anyone seeks true faith, comfort, or solace, they will never be satisfied with such shallowness. They will seek deeper truths even if those truths are hard to bear. They will yearn for something firm, something grounded. That is, at present, where I stand, a Protestant standing on the banks of the Tiber looking at the Roman Catholic communion, reflecting on what the Reformation means to us now. I’ll tell you more about the view next time.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.


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