For a good long time now I have been very attracted to and defensive of Catholicism. Certain things recently have made this attraction more pressing, and something I need to figure out now rather than at some point in the distant future. And usually when I bring this up with some of my Evangelical friends, they are uncomfortable – usually the strategy is to point to some superficial, cherry-picked proof text that allegedly tells against Catholicism, and to tell me that I am becoming un-Biblical or something and that I need to be careful. That there are scandals in the Catholic church, which are inherent in the Church and not incidental, as apparently is the case in Evangelical scandals. In fact, as someone who grew up in Evangelicalism, I don’t even need someone around to tell me these things; my brain is so trained that these responses pop up all by themselves. Here is my response, but I want to begin with a clarification. As I write this I do not have a specific person in mind, and I will also add that not all the Evangelicals I know and knew are like this (though incidentally usually those who are not seem to be outliers in their churches). But I do want to respond to this voice, and my response can be summed up as follows: You who care – who suddenly care so much about my faith – where the hell were you? Where were you, when I was spiritually thirsty and you did not give me a drink, when instead I got a shiny powerpoint presentation? Where were you during the times of doubt and fear, depression and OCD, when I was forced to dig – deep into Christian tradition – to find those parts of the communion of Saints that actually spoke to my condition? Where were you when my world was shattered, multiple times? Where were you when I was the odd person on the edge – the person who didn’t and still doesn’t fit in – and you had the advantage of being normal? If it matters so much now to you – that I stay – where were you when it counted?
And do not, for a moment, think of answering with something emergent or hipster or some such bilge. As far as I am concerned, this is just Evangelicalism 2.0, yet another attempt to be culturally sensitive, that is, to absorb and overlook the most destructive elements of a culture of death just because you want to be relevant. When we were children, we wounded with the sword of modernity. Now that we have become adults we have put away childish things and taken up the more sophisticated passive aggressive sword of postmodernity, or whatever it is we are in right now. No, I do not want to attend your church with some cool and sensitive symbolic name. And yes, I do suggest your ecclesial structure is as unstable as the shifting movement of history. And no, I don’t care what you think “modern people” (whoever they are) need. I need love. I need Christ. And you think I want a trinket wrapped in the gaudy disguise of ostensible sincerity.
Of course, others will say all this is not at all the issue. Surely one should hold to the truth regardless of one’s experience. So, these will say, you have had a bad experience with the Evangelical church. So what. Christ and Christianity are not synonymous with the church. Maybe you should just stay the course regardless – suffer through it for the sake of truth. But what truth, and how do I know it is truth? The things that Evangelicals think are so self-evident Biblically are in fact not (show me how we get the doctrine of the Trinity without tradition and I will be happy to listen to you). Just reading through the Bible will not make me an Evangelical – it will not even necessarily make me a Christian. Because the Bible is received through the church. What you are telling me is that I should, despite bad experiences, stick with the Bible as understood by the Evangelical church out of a sense of loyalty to truth in spite of difficulty. And if you protest that yours is simply a plain reading – not informed by and dependent on the Evangelical church – I will be happy to point out all the cultural and other factors that have slanted your “plain reading.” There are many heretics who were “just plain readers” of Scripture. So you are faced with a choice: are you asking me to stay true to a Biblical faith unmediated through a certain Christian community? Or are you asking me to trust the Evangelical community? If the former, I would suggest that such a Bible does not exist (given that individual interpretation itself is shaped by the community that it is part of) – if you think you are just reading the Bible plainly, on your own, you are manifestly unaware of the structural and ideological forces that have shaped you. Not (I think) that being so shaped is necessarily a bad thing – but it does make things a matter of which communities one trusts rather than a matter of looking under a rock and finding God one day.
And this is where my problem is. I cannot trust Evangelicalism, with its suggestion that somehow, in spite of the fact that most Medieval writers had the Bible at the tip of their tongue in a way that no one does today, they went wrong whereas we in our modern laziness and stupidity have somehow got it right via “progress.” Evangelicals protest – what about the Bible, won’t it get lost in tradition? I would reply that the Bible is precisely the reason I question Evangelicalism. I question it because the Bible, a book that ought to be read as God’s word, has become a pawn of modern relevance. And those who become reactionary – the “it isn’t popular but God’s word says it” kind of people – are usually just the same people in a converse dress. Their agenda for the Bible is set by a reactionary knee jerk reaction to the relevant “liberals.” Far from being a simple confrontation of corrupt modern culture with God’s word, theirs is the dissolution of the Bible in a simplistic and modern worldly polemic. And so, no, I’m not sure that I would stick with this community in spite of bad experiences – because often there is not even a Bible at the heart of it to keep me there.
As far as I am concerned, the ecclesiology I have found that actually supports sticking with a Church – amidst and despite its sins and scandals – is a Catholic ecclesiology, because it insists that Christ’s church inheres in its material manifestation beyond some vague ethereal thing that disappears every time you try to grasp it. It insists that there is something in the very material fabric of the Church herself that justifies sticking with her over against any of the pain-sparing merits of disembodied spirituality. And I have come to see that being part of a church will mean being faithful to something because God is there rather than because I feel a certain way about it or have a certain experience with it. And unless you can convince me that at the heart of Evangelicalism there is something worth trusting, all the picky little trick questions and idle challenges you can throw at me won’t do a thing. Even a single tear or a gesture toward recognizing my pain might do miraculously more, though it may be too late for that. You – who care so much, so concerned about protecting a Bible you don’t actually read, a Bible you appropriate for you own purposes – where was your concern when I was in pain? Where the hell were you?