There is an article trending on the need to abandon Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, this article goes, has lost its way – has lost touch with the heart of the gospel – and become all sorts of other things only tangentially related to Christianity, if at all. We need to get back to the real message of Jesus, the article suggests, and return Christianity to its proper focus on love of people. Evangelicalism is an old wineskin – too cracked and petrified to bear the spirit of a new Christian generation – and we now need a new wineskin. Sound familiar? It should. Because Evangelicalism is no more Evangelical than when it calls for the abandonment of its roots. Ironically, this radical new call to abandon Evangelicalism is so very Evangelical it is almost a cliché.
What do I mean by this? What I mean is that Evangelicalism, far from being about people and relationships, is in fact about a certain kind of rebellion and rejection of the gift of history. The modus operandi of Evangelicalism is to parasitically poach theology from an old tradition for its own undefined ends (masked beneath a language of persons and relationships, and often actually defined by the free market) even while pretending to reject the tradition it depends on for its theology. Evangelical theology – because it is based on socially mobilizing a particular predetermined kind of theology – lets other Christians do the heavy, messy, and historically contingent work that its own representatives are too “pure” to do, and then poaches this theology, pretending it was formed in a vacuum and condemning those so stupid as to involve themselves with development of theology in history.
This of course means that it is at the end of the day an oxymoron to speak of Evangelical history, precisely because Evangelicals, if they are being consistent, must disavow their history. This trending article is a perfect example of this – we have reached a point in time where there is too much history behind Evangelicalism, and so, in the same way it needed to break off from all the corrupt institutional mainline and Catholic denominations – all that history – Evangelicals need to make their own history the corrupt past against which to measure their own allegedly radical and loving present existence. This indeed is why history – as demonstrated in the work of Mark Noll – is exactly the where the scandal of the Evangelical mind is going to be revealed. If you scratch history as an Evangelical, you will begin to have problems.
So what am I suggesting? Among other things, I am suggesting that it is about time to call out the rhetorics of revival, radical rediscovery of faith, and a salvific iconoclasm that has no use for old forms. I have taken this fairly far – to the point of insisting on nothing less than a 2000 year old church – but I think a good start would be inviting Evangelicals to abandon Evangelicalism not by finding “new wineskins,” but paradoxically by embracing their history. I do not say that they must always agree with those representatives of this history. But the people and histories we are so ready and willing to drop are flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, and spirit of our spirit, and to simply drop these people and histories in the interest of an equation of love and “progress” is an act of calling our brothers “Raca,” and therefore puts us in danger of the fires of hell.
How do we do this? My own humble suggestion is to read more Flannery O’Connor. What is beautiful about O’Connor is that she models very well what love for our Christian brothers and sisters looks like even when these brothers and sisters can appear much crazier than we are comfortable with. The beauty of O’Connor is that there is as much place in her heaven for the freaks – the circus sideshow hermaphrodites – as there is for proud Catholics, charismatic fanatics, and patronizing old women who are embarrassing in their lack of political correctness. What is beautiful about O’Connor is that she finds a way to love these people even while keeping in reserve the fullness of Christianity, such that, while these people may not be exemplars of faith (from Flannery’s perspective very few are), they are certainly caught up in God’s grace and love, and therefore are the neighbors we are called to love. I can’t help feeling that a desire to abandon Evangelicalism – to throw out the old wineskins – channels the worst hatred implicit in a culture of disposable goods, and will only end up once more reenacting exactly the worst elements of the Evangelicalism it pretends to escape.
I am fortunate in having friends to remind me what it means to be a Christian, and in saying this I am not talking about friends from a particular denomination or even only my Christian friends; to the degree that they have held me up to the standard of the faith I claim to believe, atheists and agnostics have here served God’s purposes as well. And there can be no other response to this than thankfulness, a thankfulness I am very bad at expressing. But I do want here to take a moment to express it, particularly regarding my last post.
As Chinglican pointed out in an off-the-blog conversation, the tone I adopted in the last post was – well – not very catholic. Sometimes the words run away with me and I can speak in an off-the-cuff manner that wounds other Christians. I do continue to stand behind what I said, but I also apologize for the manner of delivery and whatever ungracious hurt might have been caused. I also request prayer.
To explain why I need prayer, I would like to post a response I gave to Chinglican privately in explanation of the tone of the post:
“I really hope [the post] did not come across as potshots; when I argue like this, my purpose is not so much to “shoot” at others as much as at the best form of a counter-argument that I can conjure up (drawn from comments of others, my own thoughts etc.). I want to see if what I am thinking can survive my own most devastating counter-argument. So I think that when I find myself arguing against myself like this I sometimes get carried away and permit some mockery. The points I will stand by, but you are right to remind me that when I talk about these things, I am saying things that are overheard by others and taken as directed at them. I will try to be more gracious, though it is sometimes hard with matters like this that reach to the very root of my heart and pluck all the strings of my being, still ungracious as it is this side of heaven.”
It is particularly this latter bit that I want to take up here and articulate further, that is, that though I speak in a fairly philosophical tone, these matters are quite close to my heart. Because I am good at hiding it, I don’t think anyone really quite understands how often and how close I come to utter despair. It is a little like this. Imagine you are on a desert island. And here and there you have found bottles, some more full, and some less full. And for a time you live off these, going from bottle to bottle. But soon you realize you are not getting enough water and eventually you will die of thirst. You keep drinking from the bottles – because what else can you do – but there is no longer the immediate joy and certainty of survival you had when you first found them. And then two things happen. You meet a friend, and a little later on, you discover a fountain. The friend is still fairly new to the desert island, and is happy living off the bits of water in the bottles. He still has hope in this water. But you are taking the long view of the bottles – what for him is hope has become prolonged despair. But the friend has also heard things about the fountain – that though it looks like water, it is really a deadly poison that will kill you certainly, though slowly. This does not entirely bother you because you know you are dying slowly anyway. But your new friend Is adamant and you are put in crisis; you look over at the fountain and are nearly driven mad by the sight of fresh water – you can almost taste it – but you do not want to move without further evidence. So you wait and watch. You see various animals drink from the spring, quite happily, but there is really no way to tell how it affects them – the poison, if it is poison, acts slowly. Finally, much to your amazement, another person comes along and takes a deep draught from the spring, and you ask him whether the water is poisonous. He laughs a little, and says, no, he hasn’t found it to be so. But you press further. What if he is a liar? What if he wants you dead? What if the poison just hasn’t had time to work on him and he doesn’t know? But he points to the stockpile of different bottles you and your friend have collected and tells you that the bottles you have been living off the whole time – variously empty and full – have in fact all been filled at this spring. You have no way of knowing with a hundred percent certainty, but if it is poison, it is a poison you have been drinking the whole time. In finding the fountain, you have not found something different, only the source.
The stranger leaves, and you turn to your friend very deeply hopeful about this, thinking that, with a fountain like this, you may be able to survive after all. But your friend’s reaction is completely different. He does not trust the stranger. But perhaps more irksomely, he is still elated at the fact of having water to begin with – the long-term plan is not in his mind. He is still very excited about the bottles of water, and thinks it is still a pretty good deal to be able to live off them, and he does not want to risk being poisoned when he can have more certainty in sticking to what he knows is safe (he does not in fact believe that the water from the fountain and the bottles are the same). He has not, like you, weathered years in the desert and seen that though the variously filled bottles will kind of get you by from day to day, eventually you start dying of thirst. You become parched.
And there you are, standing beside the fountain with your friend. You are nearly mad with thirst – the deep thirst only fresh water can quench – and at just the moment when you are about to take a drink, he decides you should sit down, share one of the bottles, and talk about the matter for three days, so as not to rush into anything. And you agree, because he is your friend. But you are still parched, and because you are parched, it is sometimes hard to tell where your words are coming from. Sometimes they are reasonable. Sometimes thirst takes over. And sometimes the annoyance at your friend’s reasonable pedantry is too much. You don’t understand how he can sit there and make a show of reasonableness when you are dying of thirst. And so, yes, you sometimes snap, and say things you don’t mean. You forget that, though the water in the bottles did not work for the long term, they did keep you alive up to this point. And they did, in fact, if the stranger was telling true, bring water from the spring. But because your friend is so bent on telling you over and over again how wonderful the bottles are – and wondering why in hell you would risk the poisonous fountain over the bottles – you snap and start badmouthing them. You start telling about the dirty dregs you found at the bottom of one bottle, or the tepid temperature of another, or the mosquito larvae you found in a third. And the more insistent your friend is, the louder is your protest. Not so much because you are arguing with your friend per se. No, it is because your friend has woken in you something that your heart very deeply fears – that he is right. But this for you is a fear where for him it is a hope, because, unlike him, you know that sticking with the scattered bottles means death. In this situation it is hard, to say the least, to speak objectively and without offense. There you are, and there is your friend. And there is the fountain, and there are the bottles. And your thirst is great.
My primary point in telling this story is to try to explain – though never excuse – the kind of uncharitable things that sometimes come through when I write about these matters. Evangelicalism and Anglicanism have indeed kept me alive thus far. And for that I can only be grateful. To return to the metaphor of the story, it cannot be denied that the water I drank from these bottles is real water. As Chinglican rightly points out, there are many things to be grateful for in the Anglican communion, and his examples hit home. I was blessed with the Alpha course when, just at the end of my time in the Evangelical church, its doctrinal stability had a calming effect on my more neurotic radicalist tendencies. The first Anglican church I went to – where my wife and I got married, and where my son was baptized – was and remains an amazing place spiritually – when I visit home, and go to St. Mary’s, the church too feels like home. And, as Chinglican also notes, there is Cursillo. My parents, who incidentally followed me into the Anglican church, have been deeply blessed by, and found ministry in, this movement. These are all things to be thankful for.
What one realizes though is that such things come and go. For instance (as in my case), one might find oneself in an Anglican diocese where the low church people cannot tell the difference between a lawsuit and Christian witness on the one hand, and the bishop can’t tell the difference between Christianity and his own political agenda on the other. And then again (having moved out of this diocese) one might find oneself in a fairly good Anglican church again. But as far as the primary experience of church goes, things can move and things can change yet again. And it is the same with other of the aforementioned spiritual things as well. They come and go, or, as my favorite author would say, “To everything there is a season…” And at some point you realize that these things sustain you for a time, but you cannot live off them. They are bottles of water, but they are not the source. And then you encounter Catholicism, where the deepest source of everything is Christ’s real presence in the sacraments. The positive and the negative experiences will still be there, the wheat along with the tares. But at the end of the day what one is called to drink from is not an experience here or a revival there, but the cup of Christ that is his blood. One of course never stops trying to bottle this water of truth and goodness and distribute it as far as possible among parched people. But the bottled water is not what you live on. The fountain is.
That is, if it is not poison. And there are so many people who want to tell one so. They are still excited about the spiritual experiences here, the liturgical order there, the intellectual rigor here, the ministry to the poor there, etc. And they should be, because it is right to be excited about these things – they are of God. But when they tell me there is no source – or rather that the source is in some kind of vague symbolism or ethereal spiritual experience or freedom to develop intellectually – I despair. And when I despair, I get just a little cranky, because I am thirsty, and have been for a long time. And I know this crankiness left to its own devices will turn into an ugly lack of charity. And so I request, whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever side you are on, pray for me and use me gently – I am deeply in need of love.
Today I want to talk about the elephant in the room. That would be OCD. It plays a factor in all of what I’ve said, and it is only fair to address this. The factor it plays works in multiple ways.
First, the doubt and fear I have felt recently is something I haven’t felt quite so strongly since high-school, when I went through a very severe period of OCD, severely doubting simultaneously (it will sound odd) whether Christianity was true and whether I had in fact done the right things (e. g. prayed the proper prayer, been devoted enough etc.) to be a Christian. As with most OCD fears, my experience was based on fears that are in some situations valid, but that were amplified and made ubiquitous by OCD. It is, for instance, not an unusual thing for those who grow up in a Christian context to have doubts about their faith at some point, and about whether they are in fact Christian because they believe it or are just going along with their family. Usual, yes, but as I pointed out to a psychiatrist once when he asked how I knew it was OCD, it is not usual to be so caught up in one’s mind that one can’t even participate in regular conversation. It is not usual to hole oneself up in one’s room to replay a loop – an unanswerable loop that will in fact find chinks in any and every potential answer to all questions, no matter how absurd. It is to be afflicted with doubting for its own sake (it is not for no reason they call it the doubting disease), rather than in fact looking for something. They say that at the root of OCD is an inability to live with uncertainty, that is, to proceed (as most people do without realizing it) taking a certain amount of things for granted and being okay going what seems most plausible rather than waiting for 100% certainty to act (compulsions are attempts to neutralize and gain control over the uncertainty). People don’t realize how much trust and faith they exercise daily in living their everyday lives, how much they take for granted. And it is right that they should. But when you have OCD, you can’t. Every moment and every site is an instance whereupon the world hangs. And theologically speaking it may be so. But those without OCD are able to blessedly let God or fate or whatever they believe in worry about that for them. With OCD, the fate of everything rests on one’s shoulders. And that is presumably why, in the prior posts, the question has emerged so urgently, and why it has been the thing I obsess about day and night, often to the detriment of things I ought to pay attention to. This, I want to be clear, is not a function of the validity of the question or the matters I am dealing with (I have written an entire doctoral dissertation haunted by the OC mentality, and it does not I think invalidate what I have argued – just makes it much harder to know the difference between real, valid criticisms and that of my fiercest and most false critic, my mind). For those staunch supporters of the Reformation who want to simply explain away what I have said on grounds of madness, I will here note that Luther, an instrumental figure in the Reformation, very probably had OCD. So it cuts both ways. I will not explain the Reformation away as merely a function of OCD if you will do me the favor of not explaining me away.
The OCD amplifying factor is perhaps most relevant in understanding my first post on these matters. OCD makes it hard for me to tell the difference between the Evangelical church as it exists and the Evangelical theology my OCD latched onto and warped into tyrannical torture. Was I so very attacked, or was my brain attacking me? And if my brain was attacking me, was it doing so on its own, or simply amplifying a real fear or danger in Evangelical culture? To make the converse of the Luther parallel again, the number of hits on that post do suggest that writing it was a little like climbing a blind staircase and reaching out to a rope for support, and finding that the rope rang a bell that everyone recognized. OCD or not, I seem to have hit on something.
But there are also other factors of OCD involved, and this is where I do think one can identify more of a problem in Evangelical theology. It has taken a long while for me to be able to articulate this, but part of my brand of OCD involves a fear of emotional/spiritual contamination. One knows the horrors in one’s own head – particularly when one suffers from intrusive thoughts – and one knows the potential for perverted intentions and manipulation – and one knows that even the best of us may fall prey to these. And so, from childhood onward, one of the deepest things I have wrestled with is how to relate to others. More typical contamination fear in OCD involves fear of spreading germs and diseases to others – the compulsion that follows the obsession usually involves a ridiculous standard of cleanliness and an avoidance of others (if you avoid others you cannot make them sick – at least until OCD dissolves even this certainty). This is me, but on an emotional and spiritual level. As a human being I have, like all others, an innate desire to connect with people, in friendship and in love. And in my worst OCD moments I refrain as far as possible because I do not want to ruin it. I do not want to ruin the people I love around me. I do not want to manipulate or use them. I do not want to think of them in improper ways. And so I avoid. There is a sense in which I can in fact be physically present with people and emotionally/spiritually absent, or as absent as is possible, my mind clenched in a tight little ball of control.
And this, I suppose, is where I will take Evangelicalism to task, and this for its individualism. From what I can tell in my experience of it, community is allowed and encouraged for those who have a taste for it, those who are extroverted or make friends easily. But it is not enough of a tenet of faith to be enforced. That is, there is not a spiritual duty to seek out those on the sidelines, who are isolated, and ensure they are participating in the community of the church. Faith, for Evangelicals, at the end of the day depends on one’s personal – where personal is understood as individual – relationship with God, and, at the end of the day, community is not part of salvation economy – we are left alone with God on our knees, and expected to do anything – whether the community agrees or not – that we feel God wants us to do (and if you protest that we are not left quite alone – we have the Bible – well, OCD unguided by tradition can do very funny things with that as well). And very often these things we feel God wants us to do – crazy from all normal perspectives – belong in fact to the voice of OCD in our heads. The person with OCD is left alone before a God he or she can’t see clearly, and out of respect for personal piety, no one will pry into them and help them to be real Christians, to experience real grace.
And this is where I see, at least in its ideal form (practical may be a different matter), the Catholic church being an improvement. Christ’s grace is mediated through the Church, and this, far from being a dilution of faith, is a way of supplanting that other mediator – our personal spirituality, our minds, our OCD – and making sure we are actually Christian. You will understand how desperate I am for such salvation if you consider my position; take whatever passion, reason, and imagination you may find in my writing, amp it up about ten times, and then imagine it fueled by a boundless ferocity and viciousness toward a particularly unfortunate target. Now imagine that you are that target, and how that might feel. And now realize that I, in fact, become such a target daily, a target of my own most deadly weaponry. Let me introduce my traveling companion, OCD. Please to meet him; can you guess his name?
There are two relevant Chesterton quotes that I have been particularly thinking about lately. One is from the biography of Thomas, where he suggests that the beauty of Thomas’s incarnational theology is that it saves people from their own spirituality. I understand this, and it is in fact a very important aspect of the Church even before Aquinas – part of the Church’s uneasiness about eremitic monasticism emerged from this very problem – crazy people like me going off into the desert for reasons only masquerading as God-inspired, and unguided by the tempering factor of community.
The other Chesterton quote I am reminded of is his observation that the Church is like a detective that hunts down people and finds out their sins, not to condemn them, but to forgive them. This is what I need. I need a church that is a hunter, relentless as a hound, that will pursue me to the utter reaches of hell and batter my heart till the fortress falls. And I’m not sure how many ecclesiologies are strong enough to do this. Certainly, a church is weakened in this regard just to degree that it is not bound to the heavy and ponderous battering ram of tradition with Scripture glowing at its core. And though I am still having trouble explaining to others this next matter on anything other than grounds of desperate hunger, I want a church with the full package. Seven sacraments. A Mary blessed among women and called blessed by all generations (an assertion strangely not accepted by most alleged Biblical “literalists”). A full set of the communion of saints. And a real presence in the Eucharist (this IS my body) that I can not only appreciate in the experience of communion, but that I can also adore. Because the gates of hell are strong gates indeed, and they are very deeply embedded in me, and salvation can be nothing less than a full assault on these gates with all the forces available – material, spiritual, and otherwise – in heaven and on earth. Indeed, I even imagine that many Evangelicals and Protestants reading this are right now agreeing with me and wondering why I would have to be Catholic to think this. I may not, but I am not sure that it can come out of any other imaginative matrix than Catholic tradition infused to saturation with Scripture.
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.
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?
We just celebrated Pentecost Sunday by pulling out all the Pentecostal musical stops at our Anglican church: I was on piano and I hit a few charismatic chord progressions, i.e. the ones designed to manipulate congregants to raise their hands (old habits die hard, and I don’t feel bad about good music, unfortunately). Because I learned those chords from Pentecostals, I want to give thanks to the Pentecostals who shaped me into the Chinglican I am today. Several years ago in Chicago, the radical Catholic priest Fr. Michael Pfleger told his congregation, St. Sabina, ‘It’s time to become Pentecostal.’ My reply is that I already am one.
Pfleger wants to be Pentecostal
Snicker as you might (does this Chinglican guy really have one foot in like every Christian tradition?), real bona fide Pentecostals have a special place in my Chinglican heart. I went to an Assemblies of God (AOG) school from preschool to the eighth grade, finishing what we in the States called ‘junior high’ before I went to a Catholic high school. My kindergarten teacher was, for example, an Episcopal Church parishioner until the charismatic movement washed through her parish, at which point she moved next door to the AOG church. This meant that at school, we were very used to hearing about God speaking to people randomly (usually our teachers), people (usually our teachers’ kids) randomly crying because they had suddenly been touched by the Spirit, and the need to surrender one’s life totally to the control of the Holy Spirit (as our Bible textbook said). There was a lot of stuff about prophecy too, both in the imminent season (‘God told me that you should…’) and the end times (‘in Revelation, it says…’). To be sure, not all of my teachers at the AOG school were Pentecostal, which made the experience more ecumenical than at first blush. I had one teacher in the fifth grade from a conservative Baptist background who took issue with our Bible textbook’s declaration that we should be ‘controlled by the Holy Spirit’ (she preferred ‘indwelling’), and come to think of it, our junior high principal was a Presbyterian pastor and choir director, a junior high Bible teacher was a Southern Baptist who later did a PhD in philosophical theology from a Southern Baptist seminary, and one of my favourite English teachers was a Mennonite from the Canadian prairies.
John Wimber making a point.
My Pentecostal exposure was not only limited to school. Come to think of it, the Holy Spirit was also causing trouble in my Chinese church as well. The senior pastor at the time, a Taiwanese guy who has recently become the senior pastor of one of Taipei’s largest megachurches, took two courses from John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary. Coming back in the power of the Spirit, this guy brought back to our church Vineyard songs, spiritual gifts checklists, and the uncanny ability to ‘slay people in the Spirit,’ i.e. put his hand on people, and they fall down. I might be making this up, but I think there was a little Toronto Blessing thing that happened too where people had this ‘holy laughter’ thing where they just laughed uncontrollably in the Spirit (it’s called the ‘Toronto Blessing’ because, apparently, the bizarre practices came out of this Vineyard offshoot called the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship). Nobody told me if anyone barked like dogs (which is apparently what they did in Toronto); maybe they didn’t want to traumatize me. I should note that this pastor baptized me when I was nine; thankfully, he didn’t slay me in the Spirit, or else there was no way I’d come out of that baptismal pool. Shortly after he did that, two things happened. The first was they changed the baptismal age to twelve to prevent kids like me from wanting to get baptized because our friends were getting baptized (true story). The second was that when that pastor left shortly thereafter, pastoral search committees from then on always asked whether incoming candidates were into the ‘third wave charismatic movement’ because they didn’t feel like getting slain again.
That would be *the* Aimee, our Pentecostal mother…
Pentecostals have also influenced my family’s theological education. My father attended a Pentecostal Bible college in Oakland founded by Violet Kiteley, a British Columbian disciple of the (in)famous Aimee Semple McPherson, the icon of second-wave Pentecostalism (if you want to get technical, the ‘first wave’ would be the Azusa Street revivals; the ‘third wave’ are the Vineyard charismatics, extending into the Toronto Blessing). Kiteley moved down from British Columbia to Oakland as a single parent, starting a home church in an African American woman’s house in the midst of the Black Panther skirmishes, seeking racial and gender reconciliation in Oakland. Mirroring Kiteley’s move, my father moved from British Columbia to the East Bay after receiving a call to ministry. He learned about Shiloh Bible College while listening to Christian radio; memorizing the phone number, he called them when he got home, got admitted into a master’s program, and read through his Bible the first time with these Oakland Pentecostals. He credits them with teaching him basic dispensationalist theology, i.e. the fairly modern framework in which the ages of the world are divided into dispensations (supposedly by St. Augustine) that categorically divide up the stuff God does in each specific age while foreshadowing the future dispensations with his current actions. Of course, when he went to Berkeley to do his Master of Divinity, they told him that he had to leave all that stuff behind to do ‘real’ hermeneutics. But that’s a story for a different day…
The Jesus People have a special place in my heart.
I’d venture to say that my dad never actually let go of the Pentecostal thing, especially the dispensationalism they taught him. My dad was in fact so excited when I was exploring a call to pastoral ministry that he encouraged me as a high school senior to enroll at Calvary Chapel Bible College, the non-accredited educational shoot-off of the Jesus Movement centre, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and its founding pastor, Chuck Smith. What I remember doing most in the distance education courses was reading my Bible in the King James Version because they were KJV-only as it was translated from the Textus Receptus, not what they considered the Trinity-denying Greek text of the Westcott-Hort. What I learned on the side, however, that Calvary Chapel was actually the origin point of the Vineyard Movement–for the record, Wimber was originally a Calvary Chapel pastor, and when he left, he also took Lonnie Frisbee, a key lay preacher in the Jesus Movement, as his go-to Holy Spirit guy. As I was steeped in these circles, I realized that the Calvary Chapel concerts were one of the birth places of contemporary Christian music, launching the careers of LoveSong (i.e. Chuck Girard), Ernie and Debby Retino (i.e. Psalty the Singing Songbook and Charity Churchmouse), Paul and Rita Baloche, and Kelly Willard through this entity that became known as Maranatha Music. I also discovered, like my dad, that these Pentecostals really liked their dispensationalist theology, almost as much as Dallas Theological Seminary–I mean, I hate to break it to you, but we used a disproportionate amount of Howard Hendricks, John Walvoord, Roy Zuck, and Charles Ryrie in our stuff. Oh, and Henry Thiessen’s Lecutres in SystematicTheology, which should be renamed as dispensationalism Wheaton-style, was the systematics textbook.
Of course, unlike Dallas, Calvary Chapel was charismatic–in fact, Chuck Smith was from the true-blue second-wave Pentecostal Full Gospel Church–which meant that we also talked a lot about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Calvary Chapel Distinctives, Smith lays out his whole Pentecostal framework using three Greek words associated with the work of the Spirit. I can’t remember what the first two were–probably because they weren’t really important to Smith–but they were associated with the preparation and indwelling of the Spirit. But after you become regenerated and saved as a Christian, you have to undergo the Pentecostal ‘second blessing,’ associated with the Greek word epi, as in the Spirit comes upon you and fills you with spiritual gifts, which includes tongues, but can include all the other stuff too. (You see where C. Peter Wagner got some of his stuff.)
All of this is to say, I’m no book Pentecostal, although that relatively new edited volume called Studying Global Pentecostalism makes for fun methodological reading. But this is all very much part of my lived Christian experience, so much that I found myself nodding very much in approval much later on when I read Donald Miller’s Reinventing American Protestantism and Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back because both credited Calvary Chapel and its later derivative, the Vineyard Movement, for being the progenitors of what they termed ‘new paradigm evangelicalism.’ I was like: Damn straight. (Oh sorry, I shouldn’t say ‘damn’; it might grieve the Holy Spirit.)
You might say, then, that I have a pretty well-rounded Pentecostal education, thank you very much. In fact, I credit them for much of my journey, including my neo-Reformed stint (someone needs to give the neo-Reformed tribe some credit for being moderately charismatic and very influenced by Jesus Movement tradition) and my accidental entry into the Anglican Church (which is a long story in and of itself). More on those things in another post.
What I will say now, however, is that the Pentecostals prepared me to read Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism. When I read de Lubac, I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. In Catholicism, de Lubac argues that dogma always has social implications because human personhood is social, originating in what he calls ‘original unity.’ This unity was in turn sundered by sin; in other words, de Lubac suggests that the greatest of all sins is the sin of schism because that’s basically to what sin boils down. Our redemption in turn happens as we participate again in the work of the Spirit, the Spirit who is ‘catholic’ because he restores our original communion.
It was then that everything the Pentecostals had taught me began to come together. See, the Pentecostals who taught me didn’t have it all wrong. They were right to emphasize the work of the Spirit. They understood that the redemptive power of the Spirit shook present scientific realities. They comprehended at some level that what it means to be a Christian is to participate in the work of the Spirit (which is why a participation soteriology has always made more sense to me than a strictly substitutionary one). But what de Lubac made me understand was that the work of the Spirit is not individualistic; it is to join us back into original communion. This is where right when Pentecostal theology has it right, it can get terribly wrong, emphasizing individual power, an instrumentalization of the Spirit, the parsing of Greek terms out of context to justify that power, the importation of pagan categories to fight power with power. But done rightly, I am starting to see that some of the most interesting stuff in evangelical theology these days is done by Pentecostals like Amos Yong, Veli-Matti Karkainnen, Rikk Watts, and Cherith Fee Nordling (Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee’s daughter) who understand that our participation in the Spirit makes us catholic, not individually powerful.
Violet Kiteley once told my dad, ‘Don’t forget that we taught you about the Holy Spirit.’ I won’t forget either. I may have my serious reservations about dispensationalist eschatology, apocalyptic Zionist geopolitics, spiritual gifts checklists, weird charismatic hierarchies, crazy ecstasies where you can get slain in the Spirit, holy laughter, and literalistic fundamentalist hermeneutics. But these guys opened the door to the Spirit for me. I am grateful, and as always, my hope and prayer is that as the Spirit guides us into all the truth, we will all shed the chaff and come into the full catholicity of the mystical tradition that has always been a part of a Christian encounter with the Triune God.
Fr. Pfleger tells us that it’s time to be Pentecostal. He might as well be saying that it’s time to be catholic.
Addressing an Anglican conference at Holy Trinity Brompton yesterday, Friedrich Cardinal Schörborn declared that the election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy as Pope Francis was due to certain strong, supernatural ‘signs’ before and during the conclave events. He then compared the appointment of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to the election of the pope, calling it a ‘little miracle’ and ‘a sign from the Lord’ for the churches to move to closer unity.
By now, readers of this blog will know that such a declaration is the sort of thing that makes me ecstatic, both in the emotional and charismatic sense. After all, I am an Anglican, but I self-identify as catholic, and I am often conflicted over calling myself ‘Anglo-Catholic’ because I am not an Englishman and harbour no desire to return to that odd, dominating construct we once called the British Empire. That is why, after all, I’ve styled myself a ‘Chinglican.’ For some, these ambivalences may read as falling precisely into what Pope Francis–then Cardinal Bergoglio–condemned prior to the conclave: the ‘self-referential’ Church as a sick, old, and dying Church because it fails to participate in the missio Dei.
Indeed, even when I was an evangelical–that is, when I thought like an evangelical, I spoke like an evangelical, I reasoned like an evangelical–I was accused of being un-missional because it was alleged that I was more interested in church politics, contemplative spirituality, and complex theological terminology than in making the faith accessible through attractive programming and simple language. One time, for example, I was in the home of an evangelical mentor when I pitched the idea of having a class on eschatology, as many people to whom I had spoken (both those in the church and not) expressed a curiosity about the Last Things. He raised his finger and pointed at me: ‘You,’ he said. ‘How dare you. People are lost, and all you want to do is to make things more complicated. Our job is to make things easier for people to understand so that more people can teach this stuff. Who do you think you are?’
He was, in short, calling me ‘self-referential,’ a traitor to the cause of the mission to expand the kingdom of Christ through evangelism and discipleship.
It has been years since this experience, but I finally have a reply. To make my response, I’d like to appropriate critical theorist Judith Butler’s reply to those who call her anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli state policy: ‘No, it is not anti-Semitic,’ she says, because of the internal contestations within Judaic tradition about the state and because she is hanging on to a narrative of dispossession and precarity within Judaica. In the same way, my appeals to the Christian tradition, particularly a revisionist Anglican one with a deep desire for fuller catholicity, can be framed similarly.
No, I say. It is not self-referential. This is because of the inconvenient fact of Catholic social teaching.
After all, May 15 is the day that we celebrate the promulgation of decisive encyclicals in Catholic social teaching: Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, Pius XI’s Quadrogesimo Anno, and John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra. Now, Catholic social teaching can often be confused with Catholic sexual teaching. After all, most of what people know about Catholic social teaching is drawn from Monty Python’s ‘Every Sperm Is Sacred’ in The Meaning of Life, a hysterically hilarious lampooning of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial birth control as contrary to the natural gift of children through the unitive and procreative sex act. It’s so funny, in fact, that you should see it yourself:
To be sure, this misconception is not altogether unjustified. It has in fact been highlighted in recent forays into public politics by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their opposition to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to require religious organizations that do not only serve members of their own faith to insure their employees for artificial contraception, including medications deemed by the bishops to be abortifacient (like Plan B). In addition, it’s fairly well-known that the current Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, was the ‘godfather of Proposition 8‘ when he was bishop of Oakland, raising money to promote a grassroots initiative to write into the state constitution that California only recognizes marriage between one man and one woman. Most recently, Archbishop Allen Vigneron has also told Detroit Catholics who disagree with these socially and sexually conservative stances to refrain from taking communion, implying that opposition to contraception and alternative kinship structures is the definitive Catholic view on sexual and social relations.
Whatever your stance on sexuality issues and traditional family values, these bishops’ interpretation of Catholic social teaching isn’t necessarily wrong or even misguided (it is, however, a particular strand of Catholic sexual teaching emphasizing natural law that is debated among Catholics). Instead, what you can say about it is that it elevates a part of Catholic social teaching that’s actually fairly latent in the encyclicals I just named. It’s actually a bit of a derivative dogma, something that can be drawn out of the concerns of Catholic social teaching as articulated in Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum.
See, Catholic social teaching is best articulated as a Catholic response to current political economic conditions, namely, the threat of unfettered market fundamentalism, what sociologist Max Weber would call the ‘iron cage’ of industrial capitalism with its disenchanting bureaucratic logic permeating everything it touches in the world, what Leo XIII called the ‘new things,’ rerum novarum.While commending socialists for attempting to better labour conditions, Rerum novarum rejects a socialist ideology that places property ownership in the hands of the state and out of the hands of workers themselves. Proposing a Catholic alternative to socialism, Leo XIII emphasized human dignity, arguing that it is the state’s duty to protect the dignity of workers, even as workers themselves had the right to own property, pursue human development in the arts, and make personal time for family. That‘s where the family doctrine comes in: Leo XIII affirmed the family as a basic unit of social relations to which all workers had a right as a matter of basic human dignity. In other words, workers have a right not to be subjectified by the state or the market into cogs in their industrial machine; their human dignity with the basic need for creativity and sociality must be fully recognized.
That‘s Catholic social teaching in a nutshell, a key theme that carries through the encyclicals that the Church is in solidarity with workers as they contest state and market modes of subjectification for their right to basic human dignity.
Anglican though he is, Justin Welby has taken Catholic social teaching as a sort of guiding light in introducing a new social priority to the Church of England: going after the corrupt banks that got us into the global economic mess that we’re in. What is needed, Welby argues, is a whole different way of imagining and managing the financial system, where the banks are not self-serving, but instead see their institutions as serving people. This is very close to what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, where the Pope Emeritus notes that both justice and the common good both emanate from a will to love and that what is probably needed is a global financial regulator to keep markets from becoming unfettered.
This is why the healing of schism is so important. The Church’s role is not simply to speak words of love; it is to demonstrate it in action. Longing for the recovery of Christian tradition for the sake of healing schism is not self-referential because there is a distinct social priority at the heart of catholicity: bearing witness to the reality that there is another way of being in the world. Who knows what this will mean for Canterbury and Rome? If Bergoglio’s words to Anglican Southern Cone primate Greg Venables is any indication–he told Venables that there was no need for an Anglican Ordinariate because Anglican charisms were already a gift to the church catholic–might it be possible that the next few years might hold within it a full return to communion between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church? Might this in turn signal a new springtime for Catholic social teaching in which the Church will be seen as decisively on the side of the poor and fully oppositional to any sort of self-serving institution that neglects the common good?
Home reunion in turn might clarify some of the things that came to light in the tenure of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. I’ve often noted that both did a fantastic job at one key thing: managing to polarize their entire communions on the left and the right, even as an impulse to catholic reunion has sort of been latent among the faithful, slowly rising to the surface. The appointment of Justin Welby and the election of Pope Francis doesn’t signify a break with Williams and Ratzinger. It’s a sign, as Schönborn put it so eloquently, that the Church is coming into all the truth, that the Spirit is moving among the people of God to rebuild the witness we shattered through our schismatic actions. Indeed, as we saw in Welby’s ‘Journey in Prayer’ pilgrimage through rural and urban dioceses in the Church of England, as well as Pope Francis’s coming out onto the loggia and then into the midst of the people to the chagrin of his security detail, we saw two prophetic priests emerging in the power of the Spirit declaring to the people of God that the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel, the Gospel not as an ideology, but as a whole new way of being that places love and forgiveness at the basis of human dignity, justice, and the common good. In short, in the faces of Justin Cantuar and Pope Francis, we are seeing Jesus and following him.
And yet, here is where those obsessed with developing distinctive theological identities will cry foul. Home reunion, it might be alleged, will soften distinctive points in Catholic and Anglican theology, riding roughshod over disagreements over papal primacy, the role of women, the place of LGBTIQ populations, the veneration of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the scientific inerrancy of Scripture, and the alone in justification by faith. In fact, as Rachel Held Evans pointed out in a post yesterday, it seems that it is evangelicals who are becoming more and more obsessed with constructing a distinctive identity, one that is becoming narrower with each blog post. In the spirit of attempting to remain distinctively evangelical, for example, the latest denial of Christian catholicity comes from Tim Challies, who rejects ‘mysticism’ as a subjective experience that challenges the inerrant authority of Scripture. Evans takes Challies to task by showing him how much she has grown from reading widely in the Christian mystical tradition. She even goes as far to say that Scripture cannot be a mediator between humans and the divine because we have no need for a mediator.
Here is where I can offer Rachel a bit of a corrective, as well as a parable for those who might oppose any sort of catholic reunion for ideological purposes. Our faith is mediated, but not by the Scriptural text, yes. It is through the sanctorum communio, what Bonhoeffer noted in his doctoral dissertation was the social manifestation of Christ in the present. To that end, we might note that Justin Welby offers evangelicals a different way forward, one that calls evangelicals out of being ‘self-referential.’ Welby has quite the evangelical life story. After all, he came to faith through the Alpha Course through the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton, a church that has also given evangelicals some of their cherished anthems like ‘Here I Am to Worship,’ ‘Everything,’ ‘Beautiful One,’ and ‘Consuming Fire.’ But unlike much of the anxiety among evangelicals over a distinctive evangelical identity, Justin Welby has no trouble taking on Catholic social teaching as a moral compass. Neither is he averse to conversation with Rome–one that will prove to be interesting in the Franciscan pontificate–nor is he unaware of the vast diversity of theologies, liturgies, and politics in the Anglican Communion. Justin Welby might thus serve as an example to evangelicals on how to be an evangelical. His story is also a parable to those who entrench themselves in ideologies that are inimical to catholicity. You see, evangelical identity is not achieved by being self-referential. It is by participating in the mission of God through the church that is becoming more catholic as the Spirit leads us into all truth. In the words of the Lord Jesus, it is to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow our crucified and risen Lord.
Co-crucifixion and the new sociality effected by the Resurrection are hardly self-referential.
Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel reading: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ (John 14.27). These words are also the preface in most Christian liturgies to the ‘peace,’ the section in the Eucharistic celebration where we greet each other in the name of Christ, reconciling with those whom we have wronged and joining together in love before partaking of the body and the blood together.
This is more than liturgically appropriate–arguably one of the earliest parts in liturgical development–because the peace’s context is what has come to be known as the ‘Farewell Discourses’ in St. John’s Gospel, the conversation (well, OK, it’s more like a monologue with a few leading questions) where, in light of ‘going to the Father,’ the Lord enjoins his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, to wait for the Paraclete who will lead them deeper into the ontological truth of the death and resurrection, and to live so deeply in the truth that the Father and the Son make their home with them even as the world hates them and persecutes them. The emphasis on reconciling love and passing the peace pervades the other lectionary readings as well. In Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem is convened to deal with the theological assertions of a party of Jewish Christians who want the Gentiles to get circumcised and follow the Mosaic dietary laws. The Council concludes that non-Jewish Christians only have to do the bare minimum as they find themselves at peace with their Jewish brothers and sisters as part of the new covenant: don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, don’t eat blood, don’t engage in porneia. By the time of the second reading in Revelation 21, it’s revealed that everyone here belongs to the New Jerusalem, the new Israel, the new Temple, shining with the glory of the Lord, who is the Lamb (thanks, Balthasar). The mystical communion of the New Jerusalem founded on an ontology of mystical love was aptly demonstrated to me on Sunday morning: at the free church that I occasionally attend with my wife (a likely surprise to everyone who thought I considered non-Anglican churches beyond the pale), the pastor preached on communion as a practice of reconciling love that cuts across the ecclesial boundaries we erect against each other. Without knowing what the lectionary readings actually were, this pastor (in my humble opinion) represents a sign that God still mystically unites his church catholic despite our intentional divisiveness, for he was practicing ecumenism as an evangelical without even being conscious of it.
This ‘mystic, sweet communion’ might well be applied to those who seem inadvertently and unintentionally to be set up as the arch-nemeses of this blog: the young and restless Protestant tribe dubbed the ‘neo-Calvinists.’ Mark Driscoll is in trouble again (what’s new?): at the recent Catalyst conference, he said something to the effect that because he knows his Maker, who is the maker of the environment, and he is certain that God the Creator will burn the whole thing up, yes, he drives an SUV. He followed this with a (typically) sexist joke that those who drive minivans are ‘mini-men.’ Upon making these remarks, my Facebook news feed erupted in anger, some with passive sighs, others with a call to arms, still others disavowing any connection with Driscoll. One friend even resurrected an old allegation that Mars Hill Church is in fact a ‘cult.’
As I’ve said before on this blog, I do not think the ‘cult’ accusation is very helpful and that Driscoll’s sectarian tendencies are better read as a psychological resistance to his longing to return to his roots as an Irish Catholic. In light of these Catholic musings, I wonder if diatribes against the neo-Reformed tribe don’t in fact stoke their sense of justification by sixteenth-century polemics alone. I wonder if instead passing the peace to them might in fact provoke them to reflect on theirschismatic tendencies and in turn infuse them with such a love that will cover a multitude of sins.
What would it look like to pass the peace to folks like Mark Driscoll and John Piper? I think it’s by arguing that they secretly wish they were Catholic, that they really don’t intend to be schismatic but long instead for deeper communion with the rest of the church catholic. The trouble is that they’ve built their pastoral careers on constructing congregations around hard Reformed Protestant theologies, so they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is thus up to us to extend a hand of friendship as they struggle between ideological (they would call it ‘doctrinal’) purity and their ontological reality.
I have argued sufficiently in the other post that Driscoll is a closet Catholic in denial, so I will not reprise my arguments here. Instead, in this post, I will subject one of his teachers, John Piper, to a similar (but briefer) treatment. (Incidentally, this treatment has already been undertaken by a hyper-Reformed blog seeking to undermine Piper’s credibility as a Calvinist. Where they wax uncharitable, I will attempt to be charitable to a fault.)
Piper put forward a (likely unintentionally) schismatic argument that if he were to have a conversation with the pope, he would ask him whether he believes that we are justified by faith alone and whether the righteousness of God is directly imputed to believers through their act of faith. If the pope were to disagree with this formulation, Piper would declare him a heretic. See for yourself:
When Pope Francis was elected, Piper put forward a clarifying statement, one that incidentally showed up on my news feed at the same time that Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler denounced the papal office as Antichrist altogether. (I will subject Mohler to Catholic treatment in a future post; stay tuned.) Walking back his comments on Catholicism as a ‘heresy,’ Piper admits:
I am thankful that God is willing to save us even when our grasp of the gospel may be partial or defective. None of us has a comprehensive or perfect grasp of it.
Nevertheless, God’s mercy is not a warrant to neglect or deny precious truths, especially those that are at the heart of how we get right with God. And the teachers of the church (notably the Pope) will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical.
While refusing to walk back his absolutist statements on imputation (you can’t cede all your ground without completely losing face, you know), this, in the words of gay Catholic theologian James Alison, is nonetheless an attempt to ‘lower the temperature’ and ‘loosen the screws.’
Piper can do this because the figure in the theological background for his entire theological system is Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan preacher whom I will also argue had loose Catholic tendencies (pax, Edwards). Piper draws from all parts of Edwards to build his theological system, from Edwards’s Lockean tabula rasa in his understanding of the process of Scriptural and scientific exegesis, to Edwards’s meditations on beauty to build a theology of Christian hedonism (i.e. that we exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever), to Edwards’s marriage to Sarah Edwards to build a case for gender complementarity (these themes emerge even more prominently in their daughter Esther Edwards Burr’s diary), to Edwards’s late evangelistic efforts to indigenous peoples to build a case for risking your life for missions (Piper likes David Brainerd too, btw, both of whom, in Piper’s reading, did not waste their lives by becoming too comfortable in academia), to Edwards’s treatment of religious affections to build a case for a Reformed charismatic theology (putting him in line with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, Louie Giglio’s Passion conferences, etc.), to Edwards’s understanding of the freedom of the will to build his seven-point ‘double predestinarian’ Calvinism, to Edwards’s decisive handling of the medically pornographic ‘Bad Book Case’ to fight lustful thoughts in his own life, to Edwards’s long tenure as a pastor to argue that all of these metaphysical musings are precisely the work of pastoral ministry. Edwards, in turn, had an ironically high sacramental theology for a Puritan, which led to him getting fired from his Congregational Church for changing the mode of communion from his father-in-law Solomon Stoddard’s ‘converting ordinance’ to a members-only sacrament (or whatever is closest to sacrament that a Puritan can be comfortable saying: means ofgrace?)that could only be taken if you first inspected yourself for sin and if you weren’t under church discipline for ongoing sin in your life. (As an aside, I would put my finger here to understand Mars Hill’s bizarre church discipline cases: they’re attempts to do right by Piper qua Edwards. For a Catholic parallel, see Bishop Allen Vigneron’s suggestion that Catholics who differ on church teaching on abortion and same-sex marriage should not take communion.)
Of course, not all readings of Edwards are oriented to Catholicism; Sang Hyun Lee’s interpretations are notable examples. But you get the point: Piper is a closet Catholic because he reads Edwards as a closet Catholic. (In fact, Edwards’s work can be read as a fully catholic articulation of the Christian faith, as Miroslav Volf tacitly suggests in his reading list in A Common Word Between Us and You.)They both seem to have a fairly high sacramental theology. They take pleasure in contemplative spiritualities. They even both reinforce the gender complementarities in Catholic holy orders. And if you’ve given Piper’s oeuvre a fair reading, you’ll know that he knows the Tradition quite well (never mind if you agree with his assessments) through his discussions of Athanasius, Anselm, and even Aquinas in Desiring God and The Pleasures of God.
The real trouble, then, is that they are both given to excess in their insistence that because they are Puritan, they cannot be Catholic. These excesses in turn can be corrected.
Mirroring an Edwardsian ‘personal narrative’ of divine conversions, I personally know that these excesses can be corrected because I myself am a neo-Reformed convert. I had a conversation with someone this afternoon who said that they got into the neo-Reformed thing because they were looking for something more solidly Protestant after being in a ‘loosy-goosy’ evangelical church, and I daresay that my experience was the same. In university, after passing through a progressive Catholic school that taught me the basics of liberal Protestant biblical criticism and liberation theology as well as Chinese evangelical congregations that could be framed as ‘more grace than works,’ I got into the work of Driscoll, Piper, Mahaney, Harris, Chandler, Bradley, Keller, etc. in university because their Protestant-speak was so appealing. My wife, whom I had attempted to date (rather, court) at the time, tells me that I was kind of an absolutist jerk at the time, and I daresay most of the women who also rejected my dating advances at the time would make similar comments. (So much for the neo-Calvinist expertise on biblical courtship.)
However, as they say in these neo-Reformed circles, God’s grace is truly irresistible. When I was in high school, a Catholic priest planted just the right sort of seed in my proto-Reformed heart (mind you, for readers who wax critical of Catholicism due to its recent scandals, just as a cigar is sometimes only a cigar, sometimes a seed just a seed). He asked me what we were learning in school, and I replied that we were reading Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in AP US History. I explained that Edwards’s vision of God as a fearful judge dangling sinners like a spider over the pit of hell was sure to shake any complacent non-Christian out of their wits and send them running to Christ for salvation, just as people did precisely when Edwards was reading that sermon in his New England church. I thought this would resonate well with the Catholic priest; the Fatima prayer is, after all, ‘Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.’ Or as the Death Cab for Cutie song goes, ‘In Catholic school / as vicious as Roman rule / I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. / And I held my tongue / as she told me, “Son, / fear is the heart of love.” / So I never went back.’
But this Catholic priest looked confused. Genuinely bewildered, he asked me, ‘Is God angry?’ I sat there speechless, flabbergasted, in fact, probably somewhat infuriated at these Catholics who don’t take doctrine seriously. But he continued, ‘If God is love, can he really be that angry?’
You could say that this priest didn’t know the first thing about Edwards’s oeuvre. You could say that focusing on ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ fails to take into account Edwards’s metaphysical reflections on the Trinity, his explorations of beauty, his probing into religious affections, his insights into voluntary agency.
Or you could read it another way. You see, this priest was a devotee of the near-equivalent Catholic figure of Edwards to Puritan Christianity: Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both, after all, put beauty close to the heart of their theological reflections, and both talked an awful lot about ‘the glory of the Lord.’ I am aware that Karen Kilby has taken Balthasar to task for his worst speculative excesses and uncritical sexism. However, one excessive theologian can correct another theologian’s excesses, so another possible interpretation is that my Catholic priest friend was using Balthasar to correct Edwards’s worst excesses. Even if Balthasar were excessively speculative, he was able to check Edwards’s excessive morbidity and obsession with hell. Mind you, whatever you think of Balthasar’s ‘dare we hope all men to saved’ argument, Edwards can be a bit off the deep end with his ‘no, they burn’ answer at times.
It was this Balthasarian seed that drew me deeper into the bowels of Anglicanism, and in particular, a view of Anglicanism in which the state’s co-optation of the church is not necessarily the definitive view of the Church of England. After all, the question this priest asked me was a sincere one: how does this excessive view of hell display the glory of the Lord? While Piper might argue that it displays the absolute sovereignty of God, Balthasar would be quick to note that this sovereign Lord descended into hell on Holy Saturday, emptying himself of power to go to the dead. It is this hiatus, the silence in the death of God, that the logic of our theology is re-constituted, where the beautiful glory of the Lord is most definitively seen in the figure of Jesus, the one who died, the one who is risen, the one who will come again.
Our Sunday Gospel tells us that the Paraclete will draw us into all truth, that is, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it in his dialogue with critical theorist Jürgen Habermas (whom he was attempting to draw into all truth as well), the ontological reality that it is this mystic, sweet communion that holds the world together. Assuming that the Holy Spirit guides and directs the neo-Calvinists as our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they will (of course) be drawn with us into all truth, which means that, if they haven’t already, they will necessarily recognize the ontological reality that we recognize, and the Father and the Son will come to them and make their home with them, along with the rest of us. Our worst excesses will be corrected; our mystic sweet communion will come to fruition. We thus pass the peace to our neo-Calvinist brothers and sisters (yes, believe it or not, there are women in this tribe), acknowledging the peace we have with them even if they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the peace they have with us.
The passage that was read at my wedding was 1 Corinthians 13. Many will (of course) complain that the passage is not about marital love, that it is in fact about ecclesial love, and that to use it in a wedding is to join Hallmark in taking it out of context. Our Anglican priest’s homily, however, emphasized love within the church over the pride that ‘puffs up,’ placing marriage as a sacrament within the context of the church, and I suspect that it is because of those homiletical reflections that I can’t get the passage out of my head as I conclude this post. I realize that when St. Paul says that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, he thought like a child, he reasoned like a child, he is positing a contrast between the present in which we see through a mirror dimly and the eschatological future when of faith, hope, and love, only love remains. But because the church mysteriously lives an eschatological reality in the present, I can’t help but think that a bit of eisegesis is in order. You see, when I was a child, I spoke like a schismatic, I thought like a theologically insecure neophyte about fundamental doctrines, I reasoned like a ‘solid’ Protestant with an overly romanticized view of the sixteenth century. But now that I have become an adult, I have put childish ways behind me, trading schism for communion, hopefully growing deeper into the truth that holds the world together, the realization that, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it in A Better Hope, ‘the worship of such a God [who works through the church] means that we must pray and pray fervently for the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants, as our very division wounds not only ourselves but the world itself’ (p. 45-46). I can’t wait for my neo-Reformed brothers and sisters to do likewise.
In this way, Driscoll’s most recent debacle need not be interpreted as him going off the deep end as a neo-Calvinist participating in the worst excesses of American Christianity. Instead, the poor guy is kicking and screaming against the Holy Spirit leading him into all truth. We should thus not issue a green Christian diatribe against him, castigating him for his idiotic sexist and anthropocentric jokes that we take to be a pox on the face of the contemporary church catholic. We should rather extend the peace in the hope that he will be at peace as the Father and the Son make their home with him. Pax Christi.
In this post I want to talk about the Evangelical conversion moment. By this I mean the experience that has generally been a staple of Evangelical narrative since the beginning of the movement’s history. This is usually a moment of crisis, of turning 180 degrees from one’s own way to God’s – often it is accompanied by an emotional experience, something like what Wesley described as a strange warming of the heart.
To begin, I would like to give this moment and its importance in this narrative more due than it gets in some circles. In these circles, this experience gets dismissed as more or less an individualistic after effect of the Enlightenment; in this spirit, Archbishop Schori of the Episcopal church described personal salvation as part of the “great Western heresy” of individualism (for a balanced description of the exchange between Schori and Evangelical Anglicans, see this article, particularly the portion that quotes Radner). But Western though it may be (and even that is questionable), her assertion ludicrously puts all of Christendom under censure from St. Paul onward. Though she is not out of line in critiquing the individualistic bent of Evangelicalism, I would suggest the problem is the other way round; our faith in fact is not personal enough, insofar as we in modern Western society have lost a sense of the breadth and depth of meaning once attributed to personhood.
However, this is in fact not what I want to talk about, but rather it is a prefatory caveat to differentiate the following critique from those of Schori et al. And there is need for a critique recognizing that while experiential conversion crises are not a mere recent innovation, they have in Evangelical circles come to eclipse other models of conversion that have been equally important in the history of Christianity, models that in fact may be necessary to speak powerfully into the current postmodern moment.
Indeed, the particular model I have in mind can be seen if we think about the genre of testimony in Evangelical circles, that is, the relation of one’s initial conversion experience. I think in prior generations, these might have seemed particularly compelling, precisely because these generations were shaped by an Enlightenment view of historical progress complete with watershed moments of change, and a romantic imagination shaped by the idea that something actually happens when one encounters the sublime. Conceiving of faith in these terms thus made sense to a generation that believed in change and progress; the problem now though is that in a postmodern generation that has largely abandoned the Enlightenment and Romanticism, these stories do not feel very compelling. By this I do not mean that there is nothing worth keeping in them, even as I do not mean there is nothing worth keeping in Enlightenment and Romantic thought – surely there is. But in a society continually bombarded by language of change, innovation, and revolution, such things become tiresome and even those instances that do have substance beyond the shallow rhetoric get lost in the mix – our lives will be changed during worship in the evening service, and then changed again by the heart-smart cereal we eat for breakfast, and then changed again by the speed of our wireless internet. Innovation becomes mundane routine, and with it the faith grounded in innovative experiences. So how is one to think about such testimonies in light of this general cultural inoculation against them? I suggest that part of the response must involve realizing the importance of some of the other ways of narrating faith that were eclipsed at the advent of the Enlightenment/Romanticism.
For myself, I know what resonates most powerfully are not those stories of dramatic life changes, but the often more quiet (if equally engaging for those with ears) stories of those who have stayed, particularly those who have stayed Christians even in the midst of feeling the effects of ecclesial frustration and politics. This, I think, is the really radical testimony, for the mark of postmodern society is an inability to stay loyal or faithful for long. To be sure, there is a deep hunger for such loyalty, as evidenced in the enduring popularity of Joss Whedon’s shows, which almost always have such loyalty as their core. But if this loyalty is the thing we fantasize about, it appears equally fantastic to us in our inability to enact it – increasingly, our response to personal suffering, discomfort, pain, and evil is to run away regardless of the other goods we might abandon in the process; many of my friends have walked away from their faith entirely, and I imagine they must think me a fool for staying, a partner in a relationship that justifies abuse under the guise of loyalty. But this I think is why my conversion story can say something to these friends that I think the more traditional testimony form might not be able to. I’ll bet I could match them point for point in frustrations with God and His church – in fact, I think in some cases I could frame these complaints in even more compelling ways. But I have stayed, with eyes wide open, and this because I have known a love stronger than death. Not a love that depends on warming of hearts or sentimental experiences or instantaneous changes, but the kind of love that Job experiences with God, that looks harsh and reprimanding and thankless on the outside to those who have not known the paradoxical tenderness of the whirlwind. Put another way, I feel that I know a little about why Job would have died for God both before and after a divine response that makes so little sense in modern terms.
But the way I know this is not via a dramatic conversion moment, but because I stayed – where others grew up in the church and walked away thinking God and faith were dead, I stuck around to see if there would be resurrection – and I found that there was. Indeed, I like to think of my story in terms of the prodigal son – but not the one you might think.
What I am about to say here is something that probably makes me a bad Christian, but I think it is not in fact counter to scripture because what we are talking about is a parable, a divine riddle: I have never felt a lot of kinship with the prodigal son. I mean, who spends their inheritance on whores and wild living when there are books one might buy (or probably in his case manuscripts)? And parties are noisy affairs at best, even with a fatted calf – I share Flannery O’Conner’s sentiment that her primary function at parties was covering the stain on her mother’s sofa. In some ways, I am not in fact sure that when the elder son takes issue with the profligate’s party it is because he would actually enjoy one himself – rather, it is the unfairness of seeing a brother with a devil-may-care attitude have everything come to him while one constantly wracked by anxiety and responsibility can never let his guard down and feels as if he is barely surviving with little recognition or fruit.
But there is a caveat in the story, and that is that we don’t in fact know what became of this son (in fact, we don’t know what became of either son); what we do know is that he is given something far more precious than a party: his Father tells him, “You are always with me and everything I have is yours,” and if this is not the very thing we long for God to tell us as Christians, I’m not sure what is. What if in fact it is not the prodigal who is given the greatest gift at the end of the story, but the elder son? This would not be to say that the elder son is less sinful or less in need of grace than the younger – it is a very dull imagination indeed that could imagine that his stability on his Father’s property somehow exempts him from this. But the reminder that he is with his father and is his father’s heir is in fact the grace applied to his sin in this situation.
The story never says what happens to this son, but if in fact he embraces what his father says, his “testimony” will be very different from that of the prodigal. His will not be a story of running away and then radically turning to discover the grace of God; rather, it will be a story of still discovering this grace miraculously in spite of his close proximity to it, a proximity that would be easy enough to take for granted. It is a story of someone who stayed, perhaps (like us all) from imperfect motivation and not always with a clear understanding of why, but nonetheless stayed. It is a story of discovering, whether slowly or quickly, that God’s grace is deep enough to love not only the archetypal prodigal, but also those who did not leave. The miracle is not only that He goes off to rescue the one sheep that wanders from the herd; it is also that He stays and rescues the ninety-nine left on the hillside.
I wrote this post a while ago, but was waiting for the right time to post it on account of my already numerous posts on the subject. Now seemed to be the right time, since I keep encountering people I care about suffering from mental illness, particularly now at this darkest and coldest time of winter. This is for you – you know who you are.
So, having opened up the discussion on two counts of different kinds of mental illness/mood disorder, I want to follow this up with a discussion of the difficulties posed by these things when the person suffering from them brings them into Christian communities. What makes this most difficult is that the things that most deeply affect our spiritual journeys and struggles – those very things that one talks about with Christian friends and considers part of one’s Christian witness – are not the things we have made space for discussing in many Christian circles. Let me begin, for instance, with the typical question of “Where are you at, spiritually.” It is a little similar to the most annoying question you can ask a depressed person, “What is going on? Why are you sad?” Because the problem with the deepest forms of depression is that there is no reason. There is not a narrative one can give wherein it makes sense. It is in the truest sense of the word irrational. There is a story about a depressed person who went on a nice holiday to a beautiful location. She opened the door, heard the birds singing and saw all the beauty, and began to weep. This is depression. In its deepest form, it is by its nature an enigma.
So you see how asking the depressed person about their spirituality can bring about a deep state of anxiety and fear. Not only can they often not answer the question, “Where are you at spiritually,” but simply have no answer to the question, “Where are you?” Where did the person go that seemed to have been here but that seems to have dissolved into nothing? Where did that person’s interests go? Where did the pleasure and even the pain go, that seems to have dissolved into blankness? You can see how bringing up something like this is not exactly what people are looking for in prayer groups, or when they ask after prayer requests. Because it is potentially devastating to some people’s lives and even their faith. Wouldn’t the very existence of such an inexplicable thing be an embarrassment to God, and a faith that cannot handle it? To the former I answer emphatically no; to the latter, I answer that a faith that cannot handle such things is rightly embarrassed because it is not fully Christian – Christ is sovereign, even over things we can’t explain or control.
We get something similar with OCD. There are legitimate fears that one can discuss. But the never ceasing fear that someone will go to hell because you accidentally slighted them in a way they could never have noticed is not one of these; it is an embarrassment even to try to explain because the person with OCD knows how irrational it sounds and is, though they also know how reasonable and compelling it feels. And even when one brings things like this up, the usual Christian response to it is to reason with it. Engage the alleged problem directly. And this becomes a problem. Because OCD by its nature demands such engagement again and again and again. Better to quote scripture at it as Jesus does at the devil and then move on. The primary problem with OCD is that it sets up battles that don’t need to happen and then wastes one’s own and others energy in these battles; as long as you are fighting, it wins, but it will do everything it can to convince you that fighting is the way to win. You will see the problem here. On one hand, OCD is generally off limits as a matter of discussion in Christian groups. But when symptoms are discussed, they are usually discussed as the problems that they masquerade as rather than the meaningless and nagging voice that they are. The irony is that simply neglecting them leaves the sufferer isolated and lonely. Simply engaging them can encourage them. The tricky thing is that really dealing with them is a matter of acknowledging their presence but then answering them with something other than the answer they want. For people such as Luther, Therese of Lisieux, and Bunyan, this something was the infinite and deep grace of God rather than a compulsive parry for the thrust of every obsession. But of course OCD is tricky, and I imagine that even achieving a deep understanding of this grace could fall pray to OCD. Coming out of Christian backgrounds that emphasized this, I recall fearing deeply that I had not really “gotten” grace as I was supposed, and fearing that I was still trying to save myself through works so that I was incessantly trying to have a spiritual experience all the more elusive because intangible and subject to my state of mind, and therefore the perfect prey of OCD – just “letting go and letting God,” is as vulnerable to OCD as anything else.
Of course, the even more difficult thing to deal with is the spiritual complications that things like OCD and depression cause. Some people may sin by coveting their neighbor’s wife, or cow, or Mercedes Benz, but personally I covet my neighbor’s sins. I covet the state of dealing with normal struggles that normal people deal with, that make sense when you tell them to others. Although I rarely knew any of them, I recall being somewhat jealous in high-school of the fluffy kind of people whose deepest concern was a shallow relationship with their eighth or tenth boyfriend or girlfriend. I imagine I would not want to be such a person – in fact I imagine I do not have the capacity to be such a person – but I could always wish; the grass of fluffy banality always seemed greener from the side that felt like hell. And even now I wish I had something more glamorous and dramatic to discuss than what can only be called the elusive acedia so hard to pin down and address and yet the most frequent result of paralysis from OCD and depression.
All this to say I am not sure I know how to tell people they can meet the spiritual needs of people with OCD and depression, but listening to them might be a first good step. Personally, I have no idea about the degrees of pscyhology, physiology, biology, and spirituality involved in things like this – in OCD and depression the whole person suffers and so it is a problem on multiple levels. Clearly there is a biochemical element. Clearly there is a cognitive and psychological element. And though I hesitate to say it on account of the ways that various Christians misconstrue it, there is clearly a spiritual element. To clarify for those who think this way, I am not here saying that such things are demonic in the traditional sense that requires exorcism or Neil Anderson-esque type things etc. – I have seen severe problems when people treat mental illness and mood disorder as such. Particularly, there becomes a problem when these things are construed as purely spiritual problems that can be fixed by deeper piety, holiness etc. What I do mean though is that, for instance, the texts that most resonate with me in terms of thinking about my faith are not those lovey-dovey-happy texts we put up on powerpoint – no, they are those benighted and backward texts that speak of fierce conflict with devils. For whatever OCD and depression are, they certainly feel like those fierce assaults that not everyone else can see or understand. Who knows what they are, but for my money the best way I can describe my experience of faith in the midst of these things is to have people read a text like Guthlac A – preferably in the Old English – and then follow it up for dessert with something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is often very Christian without meaning to be. It is in the absurdities and inanities that the characters in these texts face that I see most often reflected my own condition: not one that fits happily into the model of struggles we ought and ought not to have according to the norms of a nice Evangelicalism, but one that finds a horrifyingly deep darkness and anxiety matched and superseded only by the grace that does not obliterate but has the power to transform and create ex nihilo.