Two Sides of the Same Koan

Kevin J. Rice,,

Religion Paper 8, Operative question: "Is Protestantism Still a Protest Movement?

There appears at first glance to be a dichotomous set of definitions for the word "Protest" in the dictionary: The first, most common usage is "To Object to", and the second demarcates its opposite, "To Affirm". However, the appearance of antithesis is entirely illusory.

Rectifying the divergence is simple. One must simply look to the original derivation from the two Latin words "Pro" and "Testari", meaning "On behalf of" and "bear witness to", respectively. That means that "Protestari" means to bear witness on behalf of something.

Robert Heinlein, in A Stranger in a Strange Land, created an odd blend between Platonic philosophy and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Certain "Fair Witness" characters could, by feats of extraordinary memory and special training, recite only facts and not inferences. For instance, a lavender house exists to a Fair Witness only during that time when it is visible, and even then it is only lavender on the side facing them. By this formulation, I define the perfect protest as bearing Fair Witness.

So what does this mean to Protestantism? Was the movement ever towards bearing Fair Witness and does that continue today? It is more apt to question what assumptions are behind the Fair Witness ideal. Primarily, it acknowledges that every individual sees things differently and that differing views of the same event are usually due to inferential bias. Since all human judgements are biased, the church can be wrong on occasion and therefore is unfit to be a Fair Witness. This especially applies to events in the Bible, which, like other events, everyone must see through their own filter and attempt to interpret in an unbiased fashion. The Bible, subject to individual interpretation, is thus the protestant primary religious authority.

If most events can be seen as both a good works and a bad ones, who is the correct judge? God is obviously the only true Fair Witness, though we may attempt to be our own. Since the intention behind an action (some would say motivation by faith) determines if a work is good or bad, intention (faith) is the sole determinant of salvation. "Good" works and sacraments are useful and typical by-products of faith, not vice versa.

Making God the only real Fair Witness and mankind individually responsible for what we sense means that because people's senses differ, none are entitled to pass judgement. If this is true, then the worth of an individual cannot be easily quantified by men. By logical extension, the clergy must be equal in holiness to all others as far as we can determine. Is the burden of proof on the clergy to prove themselves as the more faithful? If so, how and to whom?

Having established that Fair Witness ideals were incorporated in the initial protestant movement, it is incumbent to prove whether these ideals still exist in modern day Protestantism. For instance, mainline churches continue the idea that faith alone saves souls, but some would argue that an emphasis on good works in the form of monetary donations to televangelists constitutes straying from this path.

Religious authority has continued to be primarily biblically based, as opposed to being based on church authority (read: momentum), but it is here that fundamentalist branches are currently diverging most greatly. Individual nonconformist thought on the interpretation of biblical passages is often either implicitly or explicitly discouraged. Doubt is a sign of weakness. Mainline protestant churches contrast sharply and seem to be quite open about doubt, well in keeping with bearing Fair Witness to one's own sense of reality.

The idea that a member of the clergy is more holy than any given layperson is widely regarded as improbable by most protestants, especially in reference to certain (now defunct) televangelists. There is a continuing prominent undertone in Protestantism that only God grants holy status, not the world of men, and those who think otherwise are often surprisingly and embarrassingly shown the error of their ways.

Largely, as long as we allow the word "protest" to show all of its facets, Protestantism can be seen as remaining as a protest movement. This is not to say that things won't change, but it is hopefully valid to say that fundamentalist sects preaching a no-doubt-allowed gospel inject a large, if frightening to free-thinkers, question mark in the face of social issues that may actually prompt deeper thought on both sides. And, speaking of both sides, I wish to continue doubting that the other side of that house is lavender. Any takers?

Two Sides of the Same Koan

by Kevin J. Rice

Tuesday, November 27th, 1990

Introduction to World Religions

Professor Derfler

Tues & Thurs 9:30 am

Fall Semester, 1990

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