If an alien from another planet wanted to understand Protestantism, I would simply point him to this post by Rachel Held Evans:
Missing from the whole dialog was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low.
I’ll come back to Rachel’s words at the end of this post. But first, realize that Protestantism is inherently fissiparous. While it is true that human beings in any group have some tendency to break apart into factions, with Protestantism it is endemic to its DNA. Anglican scholar Alister McGrath delights in this and sees its ability to morph and change into any shape as a strength that will allow it to adapt to any people and time.
And I admit I have some jealousy of Protestants here. They get to pour out their hearts to the blogosphere complaining that they are so unique in their particular beliefs that they don’t fit in any specific church (not even *gasp* in Emergent ones!). Because they vote Democrat but like Bible studies. Or they vote Republican but like creative liturgies (squee!).
In other words, given its starting conditions and fundamental principles, Protestantism has become exactly what you would expect it to become: hundreds of millions of individuals all mixing up their own particular doctrinal recipe. The unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 need not apply.
Can Protestantism be divvied up into two camps: liberal and conservative? Sure, (very) roughly. But in fact there’s a huge squishy middle between the two where most Protestants probably fall today. And unsurprisingly you hear about the minorities on the extremes: the Episcopalians who can’t seem to reject traditional doctrines fast enough and the dogmatic Calvinists who have managed to infiltrate Baptist conventions and scream “heretic!” at even the most conservative Evangelical Christians.
So I do see why many Protestants feel like they don’t fit in either of these camps. Yet what they must realize is that, if they remain Protestant, they will find no solution to this problem. For the Protestant hermeneutical paradigm offers no principled way to make a distinction between conclusions that truly express the assent of faith and those which are merely human opinions.
This philosophical fact has an upside: it means that Rachel and people like her and the Calvinists and Pentecostals and Restorationists and Quakers and Lutherans and every other Protestant will have never-ending grist for their blogging mill for the rest of their lives, trying to build infinite numbers of bridges between the countless Protestant factions in a vain attempt to unite something that was never a unity and never will be.
I don’t say this to be mean, but to shout “Wake Up!” to my Protestant brothers and sisters. There is a better way, the way that our Lord built His Church: on the Apostles, with authority given to them from Christ and then to their successors. With the Holy Ghost protecting the Church from erring on doctrine. With God never leaving His Church or letting it dissolve into thousands of splinters.
We can know the truth in its fullness because God has revealed it and preserved it in His Church, which subsists in the Catholic Church. We do not need to “re-imagine what it means to be the Church” because the Church is Christ’s and it is not ours to re-imagine. Rather, we discover the Church as something that precedes and transcends us.
If Protestantism were true, then the Church is ours to Emerge and Reinvent. But because Catholicism is true, the Church is something that we find and which reinvents us.