Yesterday’s post was a cry of pain. I state this, not as an evaluation, but as a description. It is as much a cry of pain as those of Job, or the groans of the Israelites that provoked God to bring about the exodus from Egypt. That it was a cry of pain is certain. What we do with that – and how we interpret it is another thing. So I would like to take a moment to perform a little exegesis on that post and add some clarification.
The two points I was trying to make – and ones I still support – are these:
1) Evangelicals who have been complicit in pastoral neglect in the past have no right to suddenly become the theological police when someone speaks of leaving. There are people who do have a right to speak, and those are the people who have been with one from the beginning and intentionally walked with one a long way. Indeed, I would worry if someone became Catholic without speaking to such people. What annoys me are the people who suddenly become interested when they need to tow a party line they have not explored themselves, and do not bother to familiarize themselves with the person involved or the facts. Indeed, I do even admit it is fair for a latecomer to the conversation to offer input, provided they do so respectfully and with the proper awareness that there is a large part of the story they have not lived through. Indeed, part of why I wrote the post was to help myself understand who I should and should not trust as I discuss these things with people.
2) Staying with the Church in the midst of corruption and believing God is still there often in spite of his ministers is in its strongest form a Catholic doctrine. It may I suppose also be found in some versions of Anglican and Lutheran theology, but of the three the Catholic church has the strongest doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist, and it is this belief that Christ is really (rather than just symbolically) present that suggests faithfulness to the church – we go, so to speak, because it contains the conditions needed to really partake of Christ’s body and blood, not because of good or bad customer service. For instance, imagine I want a real Mars bar. If I am to actually get it, I will have to get something made in the original Mars bar factory. Even if all the staff are rude and the service is terrible there, there is no way around it – I’m sure I could find companies that produce knock-off brands with much better customer service and much better manners – but all my griping about this will not turn a knock off into real Mars bar. This is a somewhat poor comparison because I do not want to denigrate Protestant communion by referring to it as a “knock off” – even in its most symbolic form, it certainly does not deserve to be called that. But I do think the analogy gets at my point. A Catholic theology says there is Something there regardless of the ministers. An Evangelical says the Church is a meaningful body just to the degree that there is a certain level of vibrance, dynamism, etc. If these are wanting, the only conclusion I can come to from an Evangelical perspective is that I should leave and find somewhere where they are not – and I will never find that place because the world and churches are broken. It is not a question of finding a healthy church. It is a question of finding a church that tethers us to Christ in the midst of its unhealthiness. Not that unhealthiness is ever an ideal. But the Catholic I think would say that the beginning of the cure for that unhealthiness lies in Christ’s presence in the church – it comes from outside and into us – whereas for an Evangelical the cure is posturing oneself – emotionally, intellectually, etc. – in a certain way toward Christ and his word. The latter really do want to make their faith their own.
I also want to clarify what I did not mean to say. As Father J wisely clarified in the comment section, it would be imprudent to suggest that one simply become Catholic because the pastoral care in Protestant circles is flagging. Indeed, if this were the reason, it would just make sense to find a Protestant church with better pastoral care – and who in any case can tell if the pastoral situation on the Catholic side is better or worse? No, what I am looking for is a church with a doctrine that suggests radical faithfulness to the Church regardless of one’s experience with it. It is the Church where I may find myself sitting beside Judas and Peter at the Last Supper Table, knowing that I could follow the paths of either of these figures, both of whom denied Christ, but had different ends.
In addition, another thing I did not intend to say (and don’t think I did if one reads the post carefully) is that there were no blessings, or graces, or support in the Evangelical church; God, I am confident, was there. Perhaps not in all the places I was looking for him – particularly not in my inner emotional self so ravaged by sadness and fear – but He was there. I was blessed to be born to a mother with a deep sense of piety and a father with a good deal of heroic endurance, surviving as he was with depression in Evangelical circles. From my mother I have the capacity to feel, and from my father I have the capacity to think. I was blessed to be born into a house jam-packed with books, the books I could turn to when there was no one else, and the seeds of what has become my academic career, tied also very closely to my faith. I was blessed with friends – yes, we were outliers, but we were friends. I was blessed by Bible Quizzing (long story, ask me sometime); the huge chunks of Scripture I memorized through this program are still with me, and the Biblical orientation of the program meant that real Christian friendships could be formed more gently, unlike the more intense Youth Conference deals from which one was expected to go away changed. I was blessed by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the friends who took pains to draw me out of myself; I was blessed to meet my wife there, with whom I have been now for seven good years. The intent of the last post, then, was not to say that nothing was there, but rather that it puts me out of sorts when a good number of people who have not bothered to be supportive suddenly show up and start asking questions when one mentions Catholicism. And maybe in some ways these people are less likely to show up than I expect. I got a surprising amount of encouragement and feedback on the post – sometimes from unexpected sources – and I also have to consider the “amplification factor” of OCD, which I will explain in another post – the part that will take a criticism one heard no matter how long ago and cling to it burr-like so that it is always in my head as fresh as the day it was said, and as menacing.
This of course will leave most people puzzled. If God is in some way in the Evangelical church in spite of problems, why not just stay there? And my answer must be that it can offer no solid reason for staying with a corrupt church, which the church militant will always in some way be. In the face of corruption, it will seek exclusion and perfection (with the illusion that somehow drawing another circle will keep those in that circle from problems) – it is as if one had auditions to decide who could get into a hospital, and those who were healthiest were given precedence while the sick were bumped lower in the line or bumped off entirely (dare I say this sounds like social Darwinism?).
But how can God be both in both the Catholic and Evangelical Church? For an answer to this – and I expect no one to like it – I turn to Flannery O’Conner. O’Conner was in the interesting position of being a Catholic in the southern U. S., which meant she probably saw far more extreme incarnations of Protestant Christianity than I ever have up in the less heated reaches of Canada. And I like her response to these Christians because it was complex. From a certain perspective, one might imagine she was in a perfect place to support her own Catholicism by showing up the sheer lunacy of some of these Protestant extremes. But she doesn’t. In fact, often in her stories it is very strange kinds of Christians – Christians of the sort I am certainly not comfortable with – that are vehicles of grace. For instance, in “Greenleaf,” Mrs. Greenleef collects newspaper clipping of tragedies and crimes, buries them in the dirt, and prays over them in what can only be describe as a charismatic way. She is not the Christian we want her to be. We want the exemplar of Christianity to be sane, reasonable, like (or so we imagine) us. But that is not what we get. I had the pleasure of taking a class on O’Conner in Vancouver, one of the more secular cities of Canada and somewhat correlative to the “north” often criticized by O’Conner. It was extremely interesting watching the students – many of whom had come to this particular theological seminary to escape such “crazy” Christians – squirm at the thought of such an embarrassing person being a conduit of grace. And O’Conner also holds the converse – being Catholic is not a free ticket to assumed superiority. This she shows in “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” where the main character must learn to be chastened of her pride, much of which consists in her assumption of her “superiority” over uncultured low-church Christians. She critiques where we think we are safe, and sees grace where we can only think of shame.
And this, I suppose, is how I have come to see the Evangelical church. From a Catholic perspective, God works both in and outside the Church. In the Church he largely works through revelation, the synthesis of this revelation (tradition), and participation in the sacraments. Outside he works more generally if less directly and in a less immediately perceivable way through all sorts of things in the world – the theological distinction here would place revealed theology within the Church and natural theology without. What I want to suggest – and it is bound to make some angry – is that Evangelicals exist in a twilight zone between these two theologies. Whatever else it wants to claim, much of what Evangelicals have by way of spirituality, theology etc. is a pared down minimalist version of broader Catholic tradition – Evangelicalism doesn’t have the entirety of the tradition, but there are lots of points Evangelicals and Catholics agree upon – the Catholics are different not so much in overt disagreement, but rather in that they have an extra helping of tradition and the real presence etc. This, as far as I can tell from the Catechism, is perfectly good Catholic doctrine, though I will be happy to accept clarification on that point from someone who knows better what they are talking about.
On the natural theology side lies experience. Evangelicals, I suggest, cannot be such without it – the strange warming of the heart – and it seems to me impossible to have such a thing as a negative theology in Evangelicalism, or at least the modern incarnations I am talking about. We are probably not used to talking about spiritual experience as “natural theology” per se, but strictly speaking I think it fits the definition – theology gotten from things that happen in creation, and this includes spiritual experience because such experience is never disembodied (that is, outside creation).
And this leads me to the way I, via Flannery O’Conner, interpret Evangelicalism. Let us start with natural theology. Nature in some way points to God, but the exact way this works out is often circuitous and confusing – nature is both beautiful and brutal by turns – and the character of God is hardly self evident from nature. So natural theology involves interpreting signs that point to God, but also the recognition that these do not always point to God in any kind of straightforward way.
And it is something similar I would suggest with Evangelicalism, but one step up. If nature points to God, how much more a group of Christians? But, I would argue, this group of Christians does not point to God in exactly the way it supposes. Lacking what must always be the first commentary on Scripture, tradition, the signs they produce are often broken, angular, and hard to read. But, as Flannery O’Conner suggests, these signs are nonetheless still signs, no matter how twisted. They may not be perfect, and in many cases may be something we will not want to emulate at all, but we have a strange God who will speak by strange means, through the mouth of an ass if need be. And so, much as I am uncomfortable with the undisciplined and emotive character of Evangelicalism, I cannot deny God’s grace in it. He has, after all done stranger things, not the least of which is stooping down to earth to visit someone like me.