Bible, Catholic, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Christ, Christianity, Evangelical, Evangelicalism, Trinity
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?
Preach it, Karl. Thanks for this.
Donald Derrick said:
I have always believed in the primacy of knowing God personally through Jesus Christ, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and I still do. Evangelicals have tended to emphasize this truth, and for that I will always be grateful.
But let me be sure and say that this is the start and end of anything I like about Evangelicalism. Your criticisms of Evangelicalism are, if anything, too gentle a framework for me to express the pure, red-hot rage I feel at the state of Evangelicalism today.
But whatever: Let me try to say something ineloquently:
On the one hand, here in Australia and New Zealand, the evangelical churches are warm and kind and loving, and I like many of the members.
But they are deeply boring and vapid places where you worship God on Sundays. Sort-of.
Well, ok, you sing songs and sit down to listen to a sermon that ranges between solid and reasonably well conceived to wrong, bigoted, or simply ill-conceived. The best of them address Grace, but pretty much none of them come close to expressing what a life in God’s Holy Spirit or in the communion of saints is like.
And as for a communion service? Well, they don’t really do those here but once a month, and then you get bread and grape-juice.
But I came to get the body and blood of Christ. To have any attempt to, you know, repent, acknowledge our need for God, focus on Him.
But really, let me stop. What am I even saying? How is the life in Christ reduced to a bit of singing and a sermon? Why bother?
I signed up for knowing the Living God, for sharing the communion of the saints in a church that has been around for 2000 years, for living within Christ and the body of this church.
How did I end up so incredibly bored at church when God is so unbelievably exciting and *AWESOME*?
And in the end, I must say I miss St. James Anglican. I miss all of you!
Churl, thank you for this very moving post. I resonate with the draw toward Catholicism, stalwart Anglican though I remain, because our theological movement isn’t constituted merely by a series of rational proofs, but by being drawn by the Lord back home. Thank you.
In return, this post has me musing a good deal about ‘evangelicalism’ today. We talk a good deal about ‘the Catholic thing’ on this blog, and when we wax Protestant, we’re either Anglicans or Lutherans, and only occasionally do we actually pick apart what we understand ‘evangelicalism’ to mean. Your experience of ‘evangelicals’ as a people who attempt to be relevant to the modern world without any substantive theological content might be a good starting point for a Thing on ‘evangelicalism.’ It certainly highlights some of the impulses in the beginnings of neo-evangelicalism in the 1940s and the 1950s. I will need to think about this. Thanks for a very moving and stimulating post.
This is not true. The issue is that this is someone’s personal experience. I have talked to many people who would say “the Catholic Church” Where the Hell Were You?” The issue is not that people follow someone’s made up human tradition of what a “Church” should be like, but that people stop pandering to the culture (ie. human tradition) and start looking to God’s Word for the answers.
Excellent. You have just managed to frame yourself as the voice that Churl is responding to. Good job.
How so chinglicanattable? Because you just framed yourself as the kind of voice that I am responding to.
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Fr. J. said:
In fairness, pastoral neglect is an equal opportunity offender. I say this as a Catholic priest. I’m not sure someone should become a Catholic because of the pastoral neglect they experienced as an Evangelical. However, there is a certain neglect that is inherent in Evangelicalism. As the son of an Evangelical father and a Catholic mother, I grew up with a foot in both worlds. There is a real shallowness in Evangelicalism. Without the sacraments it is a sea of words empty of the Real Presence and action of Christ through the ministry of his Church. The Real Presence of Christ is irreplaceable.
I think there is such limited experience with some of the people here in terms of “evangelicalism”. I hate to even use such a term because I don’t want to particularily label myself with any camp, but I definitely have problems with a Catholic perspective that says that there is more “shallowness” in evangelicalism. This to me, is part of having limited experience. I happen to attend churches that are labelled “evangelical”
because at least when I do so I know that a false gospel will not be preached that tries to say that salvation comes through “the Church” and its issuing of the sacraments. True salvation and transformation comes through people who are truly connected to Jesus Christ through what He has done in the past for us in his life, death and resurrection. The only “sacraments” in the Bible (ie. baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are mere symbols of those events to remind us what Jesus did in the past and I have experienced those in community in an evangelical setting. I experience the presence of God every single day of my life because I have the Holy Spirit within me – this Catholic teaching about the sacraments is nonsense. If people learned about the daily living of knowing Jesus Christ we would see more of the kind of things that I think the people who have written before me are looking for. I feel bad for people who have not experienced the kind of things that I have, however, I can not see how deciding to follow something false makes anything better.
Fr. J, thank you for that necessary clarification; it is very wise. I think you are quite right – becoming Catholic simply for reasons of pastoral neglect would be a bad idea; actually, some of the people I have talked to about their acceptance into the church have found it very hard afterward, certainly not a bed of roses. I suppose what I am trying to get at more is that though it is unfortunate and I weep for it, I have come to see that those in any church are not perfect – there is negelct, abuse etc. evan as there is on the outside, as we might expect from a community of recovering sinners. But I have come to a position where I think God’s grace is Something – apart from mere symbolism, spiritual experience, human behaviour etc. – and one must be faithful to the bearers of that regardless of how corrupt, insensitive etc. they might be. The difference with Evangelicalism is that it seems God’s presence hangs on such things – because it involves faithfulness to ideals (of experience, understanding etc.) rather than bodies – and so any time these things flag one theoretically needs to walk away and find another site of holiness. Let me put it another way. I remain a Christian – and faithful to Christ’s community – very often in spite of rather than because of my experiences with Christians, but this kind of faithfulness doesn’t make sense from an Evangelical perspective. Since Evangelical theology hangs so much on experience, there is very little place for trusting in the midst of utter darkness (e. g. St. John of the Cross) – there is no recourse when the cheerful “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” rhetoric or “join this warm fuzzy small group” rhetoric fails (as it often does when you suffer from mental illness). In Catholicism, such faithfulness has a place. What I am trying to say is that the reasons I have stayed Christian are in fact reasons largely alien to Evangelical thought – that is, we are Christians not because it is self evident that the church is the most efficient tool for changing the world, but rather because in spite of its apparent ineffectiveness we stick with it in faith because we trust the Christ founded it and remains it regardless (rather like God remaining in the Ark regardless of what the Israelites did). Gauged then by its own internal standards (of experience), I should have walked away from Evangelicalism a long time ago, as have many of my friends – what keeps me loyal is something that goes deeper than the cheap “life changing moment” that some Evangelicals seem to be looking for. I hope this clarifies this a bit; I certainly did not mean to imply that the pastoral care is necessarily better on the Catholic side.
Further, what I was trying to call out in this post is the Evangelicals who suddenly care – and intensely so – when one thinks of becoming Catholic, but have not prior to this bothered to care about one’s spiritual journey. Those who were quite content to leave one alienated and misunderstood when one was safely Evangelical – who did not bother to care – suddenly seem to think they have a stake in one’s spiritual life and that it is their job to police it. Real discussion of these matters with people who have been faithful is of course necessary. But one wonders why others are more startled into action by potential reception into Catholicism when they were never before bothered by the spiritual desolation of these potential receptees. When you care more about keeping people from leaving your church than caring for the people in that church, it seems to me there is a problem.
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casual observer said:
not entirely related, but providing perhaps a broader overview of what might have happened to the evangelicals. http://secondnaturejournal.com/the-secular-c-s-lewis-neil-postmans-unlikely-influence-on-evangelicals/?src=longreads
Interesting, but I’ve never read Postman, and i haven’t heard many people quoting him before. I hear a variety of views all of the time, but a lot of my own views stem from the reading of Scripture and an observance of the world.
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We are here. We just trying to stop quarrelling, and walk into unity. Then we will try solve conflicts. And then when we find our way between legalism and science, we will rise with compassionate moderate-conservative / conservative-moderate church once again. But we just do not know what it looks like yet.
Reblogged this on djhalleu – music – real love – peacegiving and commented:
As a part of my christian world – I would like to share this with everyone.
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Yeesh. That’s a tough post you’ve made there. I did once toy with the idea of becoming Catholic because I too found Evangelical community shallow, and Evangelical worship devoid of the mystical and beautiful. I know what you mean about communion. I’ve been to Catholic and Lutheran services where I was overwhelmed by the beauty and symbolism. The most powerful communion I ever had was in a small Lutheran service at the University of Alberta where we all passed the bread and wine to each other. And something happened in that. It became one of those love feasts that first century Christians talk about in the Epistles. I’ve had many shallow Evangelical communion services and I know where you’re coming from, where you want something to actually reside in the communion host. Chalk it up to that tricksy way that Jesus had of talking: Did he mean ‘X’… or did he really mean ‘like X?’
I can’t answer your questions about Catholicism other than to say that in my personal toying with it I found some dogma that I would have preferred to tuck away: I wasn’t too keen on all that “Mary” stuff, I didn’t really like the whole doctrine of Papal infallibility (be it ex Cathedra) or otherwise (just like I often feel a bit iffy on inerrancy), and I just couldn’t picture myself praying through a saint rather than to God directly. At my heart I am really an Evangelical individualist. But I’m not sure these teachings, as much as I dislike them, disqualify one for salvation. I’ve known too many “evangelical” Catholics to believe otherwise. Is there one ‘big tent’ church through which all can receive salvation? I think there is, but I don’t think it necessarily resides in Rome, nor in Byzantium, nor in Colorado Springs. I’m pretty sure it resides in church basements. I mean, to me, and in my experience, that is where I saw the church being church: Where kids went to Sunday school, where parents and old-folks did their pre-service Bible studies, where Christians actually do sort of have real communion of the old-time potluck sort.
I do want back that amazing Eucharist experience I had in Edmonton all those years back, but perhaps as an Evangelical, I may have few of those in my life. I still need the ‘symbols,’ however diminished and mistreated they are at my Baptist church, every month, because it’s usually about that time where my sin nature is clawing at the door and I need a reminder of grace.
I don’t know what to say to you other than: Go with God, and find Him.
It’s too bad we can’t do Facebook likes on blog comments. I just wanted to say that I really liked how you included Colorado Springs with Rome and Byzantium. There’s something poignant about that.
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