When I first began hearing about St. Peter’s Fireside a few years ago, I had heard that they had on staff with them an intellectual — some said a ‘genius’ — and that his name was Roger Revell. I was told that we would have fun talking. With these posts and ongoing conversation among Douglas Todd, the St. Peter’s Fireside staff, and yours truly (as Stanley Hauerwas is said to have said to Catherine Pickstock at their first meeting chronicled in legend, ‘Hi, I’m the turd in the punchbowl!’), I feel like this is an odd, yet providential, place to have met, though I am no genius. It has been certainly been a pleasure, and I hope that my sentiments are reciprocated.
And Pickstock just looked at Hauerwas…
Roger Revell has outdone himself this time. In what appears to be the most complex and intricate post in the St. Peter’s Fireside ten-part blog series response to Douglas Todd’s ten-point primer on ‘liberal Christianity,’ Revell gives an ingeniously complicated answer as to whether ‘classical Christians’ oppose evolutionary biology. This is in response to Todd, who has written emphatically on how liberal Christians disavow an embarrassing fundamentalist insistence on creationism:
Liberal Christians are definitely not Creationists (neither is every conservative Christian). They don’t believe schools should teach God formed the world in six days, etc. Instead, liberal Christians are environmentalists who have expanded Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories into a metaphysics, often called process theology or panentheism. Some of liberal Christianity’s biggest names are evolutionary theists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Cobb, Michael Dowd, Sallie McFague, Ian Barbour and John Haught. Liberal Christians want to learn from scientists and want scientists to learn from philosophy and spirituality.
Revell has a complicated answer. Giving a nod to geographer David Livingstone’s Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders and Adam’s Ancestors, Revell correctly notes that when Darwin first published his findings, he was embraced by some of the evangelical luminaries of the time. Siding with Todd, Revell then shows that there is in fact a spectrum of views on evolutionary biology among evangelical Christians, from practicing biologists to diehard creationists. It’s for this that I have to give a standing ovation to Revell, for he has rightly moved the conversation away from an evolution v. creation food fight into a complex conversation with very blurry battle lines. I’m sure that Evolving in Monkey Town‘s Rachel Held Evans would also be pleased with his nuanced picture.
Revell’s protest is thus not about evolution — it’s about what Todd calls an evolutionary ‘metaphysics.’ For Revell, that smacks of ‘atheistic naturalism,’ a theology that would see little use for an actual ‘personal, powerful, and present God of the Bible’ (emphasis Revell’s). Reading Todd’s ‘process theology’ and wholehearted ’embrace of evolution and science’ as proposing a radically natural theology, i.e. where empirical observation of nature is all that can actually be known, Revell rejects an ‘evolutionary metaphysics’ on the basis that it would be radically secularizing, disposing any need for the personal God with whom classical Christians insist on relating.
The only problem with Revell’s protest against this kind of natural theology — the kind that both Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas also pushed back against in their Gifford Lectures (an endowed lectureship in Scotland on natural theology) — is that it’s not actually what Todd is talking about. To call, say, the process theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, an ‘atheistic naturalism’ is really to miss the point. As Todd himself clarifies, his reference to an evolutionary metaphysics is about panentheism, emphatically not a radically empirical naturalism, and the integration of theology with science is much more about what Pamela Klassen has called ‘scientific supernaturalism,’ an attempt on the part of liberal Protestants (in Klassen’s own analysis) to use science to understand supernatural, psychic, and paranormal processes. What Todd is saying is that if liberal Protestantism were the X-Files, they wouldn’t be the skeptics — they’d be Agent Mulder.
Put this way, the old stereotypes about ‘liberal Christians’ as agents of radical secularization fall apart. As Klassen reminds us, this means that ‘liberal Christians’ take seriously the supernatural, so much so that they want to understand it deeply using scientific vocabularies and methodologies.
The question is if this modus operandi can be described as classical.
I put the ‘SJ’ after Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to underscore a point: he was a Jesuit. In The Phenomenon of Man, de Chardin lays out precisely why he’s using an evolutionary approach to develop a ‘process theology,’ that is, a scientific account of the gradual evolution of human consciousness of the supernatural. For de Chardin, that’s a perfectly valid theological move because early medieval theologians once used Plato and Neoplatonism to do their theology, only to have that discarded by late medieval scholastics for Aristotle. If philosophical paradigms can shift like that in theological methods, then why not experiment with an evolutionary approach?
Experimental though de Chardin was, another Jesuit scholar, Henri de Lubac, SJ, would affirm that de Chardin’s approach is definitely classical. In his classic Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, de Lubac demonstrates that what it means to be Catholic from the church fathers is to be able to incorporate all kinds of philosophical traditions into Christian thinking by focusing them all onto the central person of Jesus Christ. As with de Chardin, de Lubac argues by the end of the book that this surely means that modernity, though condemned outright by Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, can in fact be incorporated into Catholic thought because incorporating different modes of thinking is what it means to be Catholic. (You see why Pius XII also condemned this stuff in Humani Generis — the irony was that the next two popes had many of these guys as the theological experts at the Second Vatican Council!) As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, this should be called a Catholic modernity, that is, a scientific, evolutionary rationality whose thinking is focused on the God who becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder that the exorcist in The Exorcist was based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Given this, I’d encourage Revell to revisit his disavowal of an ‘evolutionary metaphysics.’ Is he sure that all evolutionary metaphysics will do is to lead down to the path of atheistic naturalism? After all, if de Chardin, de Lubac, and Taylor are correct, ‘liberal Christians’ have nothing to worry about as far as ‘naturalism’ is concerned. Instead of tossing the supernatural, they’d be way more invested in what de Lubac called the surnaturel, the suspended middle between nature and grace, than most other Christians. In other words, an ‘evolutionary metaphysics’ may be more classically Christian than anyone expects.
And so it was when UBC’s Graduate Faculty Christian Forum invited evolutionary paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris to speak in 2009. Aside from being Austin Powers’s doppelganger, Morris unexpectedly presented a metaphysics from his work in evolutionary paleobiology — i.e. the fossil record — that had its grounding in the work of the Inklings — J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, etc. For an evangelical crowd, this was certainly unexpected — who could have predicted, for example, that the supernatural worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth would be commensurate with evolutionary paleontology? But if we had read de Chardin and de Lubac, this would have been no surprise, for it’s in the deep unknown of primal history where science converges with poetry, song, and art. A Catholic modernity is no naturalist fundamentalism, no disenchanted iron cage. It is a return to a world of enchantment where scientists confess that nature may well be a channel of divine grace, an urge to reveal that the classical Christian faith does not only confess a personal Creator God but where that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the waters of the deep and renew the face of the earth.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
God, who taught the hearts of your people by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, send that same Spirit into our hearts, that we may always be truly wise, and ever rejoice in his consolation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This we pray especially for Alastair Sterne as he posts the next piece on ‘abortion, homosexuality, and not-so-hot-button issues.’ He’ll need it.
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.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.
Today is the Memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Accordingly, I decided to give his De Incarnatione VerbiDei a re-read.
I read it first seven years ago. That time, I was sitting in a parking lot for a public park in my Vancouver suburb. An auntie I knew from the Chinese evangelical church I was going to–all women my mom’s age are called “auntie”–drove over and asked what I was reading. I said that I was reading Athanasius. Just the name weirded her out. “You are always reading such complicated stuff,” she said.
I would have explained to her that because she was a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity–a book she recommended to everybody (though I doubt she’s actually read it all the way through herself)–she should read Athanasius. In fact, I was reading Athanasius because I had read C.S. Lewis’s foreword to On theIncarnation in one of the versions of Mere Christianity that I had flipped through. He talks about why it’s important to read old books: because each “age” has its particular ways of thinking and doing things, reading an old book helps you see all the blind spots of your own particular “age.” In this preface, Lewis talks particularly about the impact that Athanasius had on his own theological thinking:
When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.
Of course, this sounds all so much like what Molly Worthen has recently written about the Anglophilia of American evangelicals trying to find intellectual moorings for an otherwise anti-intellectual American evangelicalism, and I won’t deny that at the time, I was soaking up the neo-Reformed goodies put out by Mark Driscoll and John Piper. In fact, to come completely clean, I was reading Lewis’s Mere Christianity for a course on Christian Living at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and yes, this was the Calvary Chapel where Pastor Chuck Smith baptized over 10,000 hippies in the 1960s and became the flagship church of what has come to be known as the Jesus Movement. (I learned about Lonnie Frisbee much, much later.)
I’m just trying to say that C.S. Lewis sounded really smart because he was British.
So, OK, fine, I’ll admit that I was reading Athanasius to show off that I could read “complicated stuff” by authors with complicated names with a hint of Anglophilia thrown in. In fact, I have to say that I was being outright Anglophilic because I was reading a horrible nineteenth-century translation that made Athanasius sound like some highfalutin Oxford don. Like Lewis, Athanasius sounded so smart because he was–well, at least in my translation–so British.
Fast-forward six or seven years. I’m completely done with Calvary Chapel’s dispensationalism–I threw in the towel when we were dissecting Romans for verses related to the Rapture–and I’ve jumped ship to Regent College. A paper topic for the Christian Thought and Culture course on pre-Reformation Christianity asked us to take a position on one of the old heresies in the early church. I chose Arianism, partly because a few faculty members had duked it out during their joint lectures over whether Athanasius’s polemics toward Arianism actually made any theological or biblical exegetical sense.
That’s when I read Rowan Williams’s Arius. One of the funny things about Anglophilia is that it’s so selective: American evangelicals love their Lewis, Tolkien, Stott, and all the rest that they re-baptize into their evangelical fold, but they most certainly are not going to take in Rowan Williams. Most of what I’d read and heard about Williams at that point, especially from Anglicans who had broken away from their dioceses over the blessing of same-sex unions, was that he was a “spineless moron” who didn’t have the guts to enforce the moratoria on gay bishops and same-sex partnerships called for in the Windsor Report. I expected him to be equally spineless on fourth-century orthodoxy.
Williams pulled a fast one on me. His analysis of Arius was that Arius was an ultra-conservative pastor in Alexandria whose view of God the Father was too high. He wanted to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son, and that’s why he insisted that the Son had to be sub-divine. Moreover, he was a worship song writer, so he wrote songs like the Thalia so that, as Williams astutely points out, when Arius’s teaching was condemned at Nicaea, Arius still had plenty of fans to keep him company and bury him when he died.
For Williams, orthodoxy did not mean the same thing as conservatism. If anything, it was just the opposite. It was the polemicists like Athanasius who had to keep on their toes, the ones who had to stay creative:
Athanasius and the consistent Nicenes actually accept Arius’ challenge, and agree with the need for conceptual innovation: for them the issue is whether new formulations can be found which do justice not only to the requirements of intellectual clarity but to the wholeness of the worshipping and reflecting experience of the Church. (235)
Little surprise that the conservatives in the Anglican Communion don’t exactly like Williams: after all, who would want to admit that “historic Anglican orthodoxy” with all of its “traditional” teaching on marriage and family is a modern creative formulation that needs more serious theological probing? I’m not even sure that Athanasius would have liked Williams’s assessment of his historical situation, as Williams does go out of his way to say that Athanasius’s polemics might have distorted and exaggerated Arius’s teaching quite a bit.
It’s with this new ambivalence toward Athanasius that I found myself reading De Incarnatione Verbi Dei this morning.
Lewis says that Athanasius’s writing throws the modern world in sharp contrast. On the one hand, Athanasius’s take on miracles is a robust reply to those who say that these things violate “the law of nature”: if the creative Word became flesh, after all, he can create whatever he wants, and that’s OK in a pre-modern enchanted context. On the other, Athanasius’s assumption that all Christians live virtuous lives cannot be said of Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century British experience. For Lewis, Athanasius’s world is fundamentally different from the modern world, and that’s why we have a lot to learn from him. (One could point out the superficial similarities between Lewis’s view and the heterotopias in Foucault’s Of Other Spaces.)
Forgive me, then, for sounding like a heretic to American evangelical Anglophilia and say that I found Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprisingly similar to what an old-school Chinese Christian pastor in the late twentieth century would be hammering from the pulpit. In fact, as a second-generation Chinese Christian who has less-than-proudly joined the “silent exodus” by attending a non-Chinese church regularly (see also Doreen Carjaval’s original article in the Los Angeles Times and Esther Yuen’s Vancouver adaptation), I might say that it even revived so old-time resentments toward some of my first-generation patriarchs.
On the face of it, De Incarnatione is a very sophisticated theological argument. Athanasius’s main thrust through the work is that the Word became flesh because while the Word had created the world out of nothing, the Fall was corrupting all of creation back into nothing. You can see this corruption, Athanasius begins, in violence from personal adulteries and murders to outright warfare between city-states. The Word thus takes on a body so that he can resurrect to conquer death. A new existence follows in which adulterers are made chaste, murderers are made peaceful, and wars stop.
So far, so good. In fact, I like the pacifist implications of all of this.
That’s when it gets violent. As Athanasius gets polemical about Jewish and Greek interlocutors about Christianity in the second half of the work, I was like, “Wow, an old-school Chinese church pastor could have said this.” And that ticked me off a little bit.
First off, Athanasius would be as helpful to interreligious dialogue as a Chinese Christian fundamentalist. Maybe it’s my stupid nineteenth-century translation that makes the Orientalism come out so pointedly, but here’s a quick snapshot:
And whereas formerly every place was full of the deceit of the oracles, and the oracles at Delphi and Dodona, and in Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and those of the Cabiri, and the Pythoness, were held in repute by men’s imagination, now, since Christ has begun to be preached everywhere, their madness also has ceased and there is none among them to divine any more. And whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the sign of the cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceit. And while formerly men held to be gods Zeus and Cronos and Apollo and the heroes mentioned in the poets, and went astray in honoring them, now that the Saviour has appeared among men, those others have been exposed as mortal men, and Christ alone has been recognized among men as the true God, the Word of God. And what is one to say of the magic esteemed among them? that before the Word sojourned among us this was strong and active among Egyptians, and Chaldeans, and Indians, and inspired awe in those who saw it; but that by the presence of the truth, and the appearing of the Word, it also has been thoroughly confuted, and brought wholly to nought. (De Incarnatione 47).
This brings back memories of old-school Chinese church pastors fuming at the pulpit about smashing Buddhas and burning them in tin trash cans in new converts’ backyards or imagining demons flying out of Buddhist temples to corrupt the suburb his people are living in. (Chinese women pastors are a recent phenomenon.) I certainly couldn’t imagine this turning into A Common Word or Nostra Aetate. In this view, there’s something inherently bad about religions other than Christianity. Other religions, it would be said, deal with demons and the devil. Christianity is the light that drives out the darkness, the good that drives out the bad.
Ditto Athanasius on Jewishness:
What is left unfulfilled, that the Jews should now disbelieve with impunity? For if, I say–which is just what we actually see–there is no longer king, nor prophet, nor Jerusalem, nor sacrifice, nor vision, among them, but even the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of God, and Gentiles, leaving their godlessness, are now taking refuge with the God of Abraham, through the Word, even our Lord Jesus Christ, then it must be plain, even to those who are exceedingly obstinate, that the Christ is come, and that he has illumined absolutely all with his light, and given them the true and divine teaching concerning his Father. (De Incarnatione 40).
It’s not Dabru Emet, that’s for sure. I’ve certainly heard my share within Chinese churches about the ignorance of Jews refusing to believe in the Messiah and how we’re so much smarter because it’s so obvious that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for. As one Hong Kong Chinese pastor in Vancouver who did his Doctor of Ministry thesis on Jewish-Christian relations pointed out to me, that’s why there’s zero dialogue between Chinese Christians and their Jewish neighbours.
Athanasius then assumes that where Christianity is, it just triumphalistically pastes over an existing religious landscape with its own enlightened geography:
This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already started, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end; and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away; and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the cross. And, to sum the matter up, behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling. (De Incarnatione 55).
Rowan Williams casts a fair bit of doubt on this assessment with the view that there were lots of different kinds of Arians and lots of different factions within Nicene orthodox groups and that these guys duked it out for well over a century and a half. And yet, Athanasius’s polemic against all things non-Christian reminds me of the Chinese senior pastor in my childhood church who used to declare from the pulpit, “Where Christianity is, there is prosperity!” (How Weberian.) As geographer Judy Han writes about Korean Christians, there is often a lack of clarity about what’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of prosperity in all of this.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that–contrary to Lewis’s view of ages as so different from each other–I now find Athanasius’s On the Incarnation to be familiar childhood territory, not the “complicated stuff” with a hard-to-pronounce name laced with Anglophilic otherness. Perhaps, as Charles Taylor points out, the “disenchantment” of the enchanted pre-modern world was never fully completed. Instead, Taylor suggests that we live in a “cross-pressured,” if not “schizophrenic,” world where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t believe in anything supernatural and are subsequently fascinated by anything remotely magical. (Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann has a fascinating take on how this all gets reconciled psychologically.) Athanasius isn’t so different from the rest of us, especially me as a Chinese Christian.
And yet, if Athanasius isn’t so different, I’d like to follow Williams and hold him accountable for some of his statements. Woe be to me to take a canonized church father in both Catholic and Orthodox communions to task, but I’m totally on with Williams in thinking that Athanasius may really have exaggerated some of his polemics. This is admittedly a frightful task, as nerve-wracking as trying to have a theological dispute with a first-generation Chinese Christian senior pastor revered by an adoring immigrant congregation. After all, I run the risk of being called disrepectful to my elders, the zhangzhe (長者) revered in popular Confucian ideology.
A helpful–but still admittedly problematic–way to push St. Athanasius a bit might be to follow the comparisons between him and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth. Athanasius’s take on religion itself sounds very Barthian (or Barth sounds very Athanasian, which is probably more the case):
But men once more in their perversity having set at nought, in spite of all this, the grace given them, so wholly rejected God, and so darkened their soul, as not merely to forget their idea of God, but also to fashion for themselves one invention after another. (De Incarnatione 11).
This sounds an awful lot like Barth railing about religion as the “frontier” of human possibilities, that the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus is to show how far off the gods that we project from our own desires are from the beaten track.
The two of them came to similar ethical conclusions. For Athanasius, this sort of projected religion led to increased human conflict:
For formerly, while in idolatry, Greeks and Barbarians used to war against each other, and were actually cruel to their own kin. For it was impossible for anyone to cross sea or land at all without arming the hand with swords, because of their implacable fighting among themselves. For the whole course of their life was carried on by arms, and the sword with them took the place of a staff, and was their support in every emergency; and still, as I said before, they were serving idols, and offering sacrifices to demons, while for all their idolatrous superstition they could not be reclaimed from this spirit. (De Incarnatione 51).
For Barth, when the German nation-state made up versions of God for the church to subscribe to, it was well on the way to Nazi totalitarianism and the geopolitical madness of World War II.
If this is the case, this is a profound challenge to the old-school Chinese Christian pastors I think sound so similar to Athanasius. It would challenge them to say concretely what the links between idolatry and ethics are. Don’t just say that “other religions” or “folk religions” are inherently, essentially bad and evil systems associated with the devil. Are they actually violent in practice? How so? Be concrete. We believers in the incarnation are, after all, a concrete people.
And what about Henri de Lubac’s argument in Catholicism that the catholic impulse is all about re-focusing spiritualities on Jesus Christ? or Tolkien’s point that all true narratives find their fulfillment in the eucatastrophic redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus? (I realize that the latter example brings us back to Anglophilia, which just goes to show that, as James Cone says about his training in white neo-orthodoxy, it’s pretty hard to shake.)
Or what if, as Stanley Hauerwas has it in his own reflection on interreligious interaction and the work of Fr. David Burrell, CSC, the whole point is that faith is all about embodied, performative practice, not propositional systems? Maybe St. Athanasius is making a René Girard argument, that all of this violence is caused by the projection of mimetic desire into religious ritual.
Sure, OK, maybe we shouldn’t tell St. Athanasius to read our twentieth-century theologians, but what I’m saying is that it’s not that St. Athanasius is wrong about religion. It’s that he’s got thoughts to develop. And our job, far from uncritically revering him, is to push that development along.
The point is, if we really do believe in the communion of saints, let’s not put the artificial distances of modernity, Anglophilia, or canonized sainthood between us and the church doctor. After all, Athanasius’s central point in De Incarnatione is that the Word became flesh to free us from the state of corruption so that we can share in the divine resurrection life. If this is so, St. Athanasius is still alive, and he is our brother.
Catholic popular theology would have us say then, “St. Athanasius, pray for us.” What Rowan Williams has shown us that we can also say is, “St. Athanasius, I’m going to push you on this one.” Growing up Chinese Christian, I’d say the latter is absolutely necessary for a more solid understanding of how the church ought to relate to the world.
But it’s a hard thing to say. After all, we don’t want to be disrespectful to our elders.
I think that debating whether or not Mars Hill is a cult is unhelpful, though, and it isn’t entirely fair to Pastor Mark either. Sure, it might give some disaffected people some comfort that they’re justified in leaving Mars Hill without “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But we should remember that Driscoll does talk about how he deals with critics; following Billy Graham’s axiom to “turn your critics into coaches” (and not Jim Jones’s path of alienation), he reads his critics, even the most critical, as helping him improve his ministry by providing “trials and tribulations” through which he can grow (James 1:2). To talk about him and his church as a cult will only read like persecution, framing Driscoll as the oppressed crying out to God for vindication.
But if we are critics coaching Driscoll, I’d like to try another tack.
I do think that Churl has inadvertently hit on a key but unexplored part of the Driscoll complex with his call to revisit Trent. You see, “the world called Catholicism,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it (Hannah’s Child, p. 95-121), is not something foreign to Driscoll. Driscoll grew up Irish American Catholic, “the oldest of five kids in a hardworking, blue-collar Catholic family near the airport in Seattle, Washington” (Radical Reformission, 11). He describes himself as a “moral religious boy from a Catholic home who, for the most part, stayed out of trouble despite a short wick, foul mouth, and bad temper that resulted in dolling out more than a few beatings to various guys–usually for what they were doing to women and children” (Real Marriage, 6). Besides all the quips about growing up in a church with “a gay alcoholic priest” whose “life of poverty, celibacy, living at the church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell” (Real Marriage, 8-9), he has more than once aptly demonstrated his Catholic creds for his congregation, not least during a sermon on Mary in his Luke series where he says:
I’ll say a lot today about the Catholics, because I was one. And I don’t hate the Catholics, I love the Catholics, but when it comes to Mary, that’s sort of their specialty. I was raised as a Catholic boy and I went to Catholic school. We were O’Driscoll, full-blown Irish-Catholic mix. My grandma was in a lay order of nuns pre-Vatican II. Latin Mass Catholic, I went to Catholic school. Catholic with a side of Catholic and Catholic for dessert, that’s how I was raised.
He has also been known to recite the Hail Mary for a wildly applauding congregation.
The trouble, I think, is that everybody, likely including Driscoll himself, thinks that Driscoll had a full-blown conversion to Protestant evangelicalism when the words from Romans 1:6 jumped out at him that he was “among those called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Radical Reformission, 13; Real Marriage, 8), as if Romans were a Protestant-only epistle (see below for Driscoll’s reading of Luther and Wesley).
I’m more inclined to think of him as an Irish Catholic kid in a Reformed Protestant candy store.
Here’s a thought from Harry Cronin, a Holy Cross priest who did his doctoral thesis on how American playwright Eugene O’Neill was a lapsed Irish American Catholic and who currently writes plays about redemption in alcoholic and queer experiences. Cronin argues in his doctoral thesis, Eugene O’Neill, Irish and American: a study in cultural context, that though O’Neill publicly left the faith, he couldn’t divorce himself from a Catholic imagination of Eucharist, confession, and purgatory. The same goes for his plays like Dooley, Dark Matter, and Memoirs of Jesus where Cronin always seems to highlight the redemptive truth of the human experience most manifest in Eucharistic transubstantiations in the queerest of places.
Ditto early twentieth century Irish writer James Joyce’s sacramental modernism. Joyce publicly renounced Catholicism, a shift autobiographically fictionalized in the Stephen Dedalus character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, yet in a letter to his brother, Joyce writes:
Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?…To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.
Ditto Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain, the freakishly devout Catholic matriarch, is arguably worse than Driscoll’s “gay alcoholic priest who wears a dress.” And yet, one by one, each of the main characters, even the ones who have fallen the furthest from the Church because of Lady Marchmain’s overbearing conservative Catholicism, find their way back into communion because there’s just something about Catholicism they can’t shake. “I can’t shut myself out from His mercy,” one of the characters says at the end.
Ditto Jennifer Haigh’s recent 2011 bestselling Faith: A Novel, where a lapsed Irish American Catholic woman investigates in the wake of the 2002 Boston Globe Catholic sexual abuse scandal the claims that her brother, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, sexually molested a young boy. There is a Lady Marchmain matriarch–a conservative, rosary-praying, priest-adoring Mary McGann–whose daughter Sheila is the protagonist lapsed Catholic, whose adopted son Mike marries a Protestant and struggles alone to raise their kids Catholic despite his own lapse, and whose her birth child–Fr. Art Breen–is the investigated priest. For Haigh, the draw for Catholicism is not so much the sacramental power of the Church (as in Waugh), but rather the pull of the Mary McGann figure for the children as they discover womanhood, the guys in the women they are attracted to, Sheila in the woman she becomes. And yet it makes me wonder, the sacraments aside, if Driscoll’s Catholic family, including the lay nun, has shaped the way that Driscoll sees the place of the church in the world, not to mention also his (in)famous understanding of gender roles. Move over, John Piper.
Ditto philosopher Charles Taylor’s reading of Charles Péguy, a French political philosopher who left the faith only to return again because he just couldn’t see how he could subscribe to a notion of freedom that was continuous with the tradition of the past without returning to Catholicism. Peguy coined the term réssourcement, to go back to the sources of the past for political mobilization in the present, a term that Swiss Dominican theologian Yves Congar says became the motto of Vatican II’s re-receiving of the biblical and patristic traditions (The Meaning of Tradition, 6). Says Taylor of Péguy:
And yet it wasn’t really surprising that Péguy, “mauvais sujet” though he was, returned to Catholicism. In a sense he never left it. Péguy hankered after a time of creative action, linking different periods together, but he had an acute sense of how impossible this was to attain humanly, in fact of the seemingly irresistible slide into the mechanical and the habitual, the punctual present which is determined by the past, but no longer in living relation to it. All this pointed towards a Christian idea of eternity. (A Secular Age, 750).
To put it bluntly, could it be possible that what’s happening is that Driscoll can’t shake his Catholicism? Churl thinks that Driscoll would really benefit from re-visiting the Council of Trent, submitting his authority to the Church and her living tradition. I think that Driscoll could do some soul-searching to discover how Tridentine he already is.
Let me give some tell-tale signs:
Mark Driscoll “sees things.” He sees his wife cheating on him in high school. He sees in lurid detail people getting abused in early childhood or having affairs. He casts out demons while doing biblical counselling, telling people with multiple personality disorders to “bring up the demon.” He tells stories of how his kids were scared in early childhood because they would hear horrible things from demons about the impending doom of the Driscoll family and church. This weirds people out. But would it weird the Catholic tradition out? With mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich–or better yet, Bernadette Soubirous and Padre Pio–I wouldn’t think so. And so a Catholic probably wouldn’t try to discount Driscoll’s visions as fake. They’d say that he needs a spiritual director.
Mark Driscoll is said to be “obsessed with authority” and “church discipline.” Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired for questioning authority. Maddening stories have emerged onto the blogosphere about how ex-members were “shunned” when they questioned the hierarchy. This shouldn’t be the way, these people cry, in a Christian church. But haven’t they heard of “fortress Catholicism,” what with Leo IX fulminating in the Vatican about papal infallibility and the errors of modernism in The Syllabus of Errorsand Vatican I, with Pius XII condemning the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean Danielou, Marie Dominique-Chenu, Hans Kung, et al. for not subscribing to neo-Thomistic rationalism? Haven’t they heard of excommunications where you are “shunned” in the sense that you can’t take communion with the rest of the people of God? I’m not defending “fortress Catholicism” (or the Inquisition, for that matter), of course. In fact, in the current climate of the conservative turn of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the issue of the new Mass rites by the Vatican, I’d say that a lot of progressive Catholics are as disappointed as the Mars Hill Refuge with a shift back to the consolidation of the hierarchy. But isn’t it interesting, friends, that this Reformed Protestant non-denominational church with ostensibly zero connection to the Roman magisterium is doing the same kind of consolidation? Sure, Driscoll probably got this hierarchical idea from the “plural elder” model advocated in Wayne Grudem’s Vineyard charismatic non-denominational neo-Reformed Systematic Theology. But I still wonder if some of it is also from his Latin Rite Catholic background. Perhaps we should think of Mark Driscoll as a “bishop” or even “pope” of sorts with the “magisterium” existing not so much in the Church catholic but the church congregated. I mean this in the sincerest and least pejorative way I can.
(BY THE WAY: Neo-Thomism was a late 19th-century/early 20th-century reading of St. Thomas Aquinas that tried to extract from his work proofs for theological categories. What the nouvelle théologie, or new theology, people were trying to say was that this way of doing theology was just boring because you do a lot of abstract conceptualization to prove Christian theology right, but you don’t do much in terms of what Aquinas thought about being the Church and being captivated by God’s beauty. An example is the Eucharist. In neo-Thomistic thought, the idea was to prove that the bread and wine really transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. What Henri de Lubac critiqued was that if you look back at the Church Fathers like Augustine, they don’t really care about the bread and wine changing–it’s more of a matter of whether you change into the Body of Christ when you take them! In other words, for the nouvelle theologie, theology wasn’t so much about validating categories and proving concepts; it’s about the COMMUNION OF PERSONS!)
Mark Driscoll preaches gender complementarity in such a way that reinforces male eldership. Catholic feminists like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether probably wouldn’t like to hear this, as they attempt to re-read the tradition and the sacraments with a feminist preferential option for the poor, but paralleling Mars Hill, the Church also proclaims a gender complementarity of sorts in terms of saying that Holy Orders belongs to a male hierarchy. Benedict XVI actually has a very interesting reply to Fiorenza: in an interview discussing the possibility of women’s ordination, then-Cardinal Ratzinger says that even Fiorenza is saying nowadays that ordination is not what women seek because to be in an ordo is to be under submission, which is precisely not what women want (The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 130). Maybe we should arrange for Driscoll to meet the pope.
Mark Driscoll thinks in theological categories. On Mars Hill Refuge, this is called the “theological swordplay” of concepts that don’t seem to have much reference to Scripture. The authors of Mars Hill Refuge may be right to be distressed, but just going back to Scripture doesn’t do justice to the Mars Hill systematic theological method. Listen to or read Driscoll some time. His mind works in categories. There is a category called “sin” where there are a bunch of actions you do that are “sinful.” There is a category called “fornication” where sexual acts performed before marriage belong; after marriage, the category shifts into “visual generosity” and “loving servanthood,” complete with a taxonomy drawn from 1 Corinthians 6 categorizing sexual acts as “lawful,” “beneficial,” and “enslaving.” There is a category called “religion,” which apparently sucks and doesn’t save from the category called “sin,” and there is a category called “Jesus,” whose categorical “penal substitutionary” atonement both categorically “propitiates” the Father’s categorical wrath and categorically “expiates” the dirtiness felt by those categorized as “abuse victims.” Driscoll’s theology works with frozen categorical concepts, and doesn’t that sound just like the neo-Thomistic rationalism that Hans Urs von Balthasar hated so much that he put wax in his ears while listening to lectures in his Jesuit seminary? In fact, if Driscoll was wanting to get out of his frozen concepts and yet keep his strong emphasis on the cross and Christ, he could give von Balthasar’s dramatic understanding of theology a try, either in Mysterium Paschale or, if Driscoll had some time on a sabbatical, in Theo-Drama.
Sola Scriptura though he might claim to be, Mark Driscoll does use the Tradition in his theological method, that is, in the sense that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 114-118). He sees the Reformation myth of Luther marrying Katie von Bora, the monk who wrote On Monastic Vows as a critique of special vocations and marrying a nun to boot, as the liberating moment from the Catholic “killjoy” Church raining on the sex parade (Real Marriage, 19-23); that said, speaking Protestant-ly, he doesn’t quite know what to do with another moment in evangelical history, that is, the tragic marriage of John Wesley, a.k.a. the itinerant preaching founder of Methodism who was converted by “a strange warmth” when he heard Luther’s Romans being read (Real Marriage, 97-99). (Following the Protestant Romans riff on sex and marriage, one wonders what he would have done with Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s non-marriage.) Driscoll also reads the Tradition’s emphasis on sex as procreative as suggesting that sexual pleasure is gross and sinful, and to wit, he quotes a Canadian Catholic bishops’ statement on chastity and procreative sex as the definitive word from the magisterium that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 116). Apparently, he doesn’t have much time for Augustine’s understanding of “concupiscence,” that sin sometimes is when you have too much of a good thing (which is a theme that John of the Cross interestingly carries into The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he says that too much spiritual reading is spiritual gluttony). But whether or not he gets concupiscence or not, Driscoll’s one major critique of the Church is just not entirely fair to the Tradition on sex, period. He doesn’t say anything about Humanae Vitaeor Evangelium Vitae; conservative (and controversial) as these encyclicals are for their denunciation of contraception, their conservatism is actually based on a fairly intricate argument that sex is about unitive love in the way that God is love, and that is pretty pleasurable. Besides, for reasons that will become apparent below, Driscoll might actually really like these documents for their discussion of abortion and potential abortifacient contraception. But on the “sex is gross” thing, John Paul II does say in the Theology of the Body catecheses that he wants the Catholic faithful to see that “our human experience is in some way a legitimate means for theological interpretation” (TOB 4.4). Doesn’t that mean that, irony of ironies, Driscoll has some support from the magisterium for his promulgation of sex for unitive pleasure?
Mark Driscoll has a fairly strong Mariology, which leads him to some fairly Catholic sexual ethical positions. Driscoll had a really blunt statement on the Virgin Birth for John Piper’s Desiring God conference on Christianity and post-modernity: “If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, 136). Driscoll’s denial of the Perpetual Virginity, the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception aside (and don’t bring up “Co-Mediatrix”–remember, he thinks he’s Reformed!), this is pretty much the fairly standard Catholic (*cough*, “ecumenical”) idea that you don’t have Jesus as God and Man without a mother. This leads to a fairly strong anti-abortion stance. Aside from claiming Catholic creds, it is also telling that his sermon for the Luke series on Mary and Elizabeth was about abortion and his conversion from being pro-abortion in high school as a lapsed Catholic to being a Reformed Protestant pro-lifer who sees abortion as murder. It’s also interesting, good Catholic that Driscoll is, that while he’s supportive of non-abortive birth control measures, he converges with the magisterium in calling “the Pill” a potentially abortive contraceptive device because one of its three functions is “that it seeks to disrupt the ongoing life of a fertilized egg” (Real Marriage, 197). One could make the case, of course, that in general, Catholics and Protestant evangelicals are on the same team against abortion; witness, for example, even Stanley Hauerwas’s support for the generally fundamentalist Operation Rescue, and to boot, there is a whole spectrum within Christianity as to why we’re opposed to abortion, from the people who think of Mary as a symbol of virgin Church power that Rosemary Ruether critiques in Sexism and God-Talk to the more moderate Consistent Life Ethic fans of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s collegial reconciliation of conservative and progressive Catholics. But to make the jump from the Mary and Elizabeth story to abortion? That’s a move worthy of the conservative end of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Believe it or not, Mark Driscoll has a “preferential option for the poor,” especially women and children who have been abused. This should be a compliment to the unintentional Catholic genius of Driscoll because unlike the Church with its sexual abuse fiasco, Driscoll is encouraging people with abuse histories in his church (including his wife) to talk openly about them because they are the poor and the marginalized. He’s doing precisely what Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston had trouble doing, not to mention also what the Vatican had trouble doing during its long delay in investigating the claims that the founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, Fr. Marcial Maciel, was a serial sex offender. What’s Driscoll doing right by the Church? Letting the victims speak out of a preferential option for them, not shifting around the hierarchy that perpetrated the abuse. (Mind you, we’re talking about sexual abuse here, not the disaffected ex-members on the Mars Hill Refuge discussing church discipline abuse.) In fact, going back to Cardinal Bernardin (who was the Chicago archbishop incidentally cleared of all sex abuse charges and is not to be confused with the Boston archbishop Bernard Law that is pictured below), this preferential option for the abused isn’t just a Consistent Life Ethic–it’s a Consistent Sex Ethic from womb (anti-abortion and anti-abortive contraception) to tomb (sex abuse victims and sexual abuse perpetrators, speak out and confess!). In so doing, Driscoll is also trying to re-imagine what it would be like to be in a patriarchal community, that the hierarchy serves the laity in helping them confess their sexual sin and be free to have free married sex. This too, I submit, is a very Catholic idea that goes back to Gregory the Great, “the servant of the servants of God.” While Rachel Held Evans would critique this as unqualified sex therapy, in Driscoll’s world, it would seem that such is the nature of servanthood to the least of these.
In short, Driscoll isn’t just any kind of Catholic, if he were to be labeled as such. He sounds more like a conservative Vatican I neo-Thomistic “fortress Catholic” whose theological method interestingly might converge with that of his pre-Vatican II grandmother. The trouble is that because Driscoll is so brash about his Reformed inclinations, we too are inclined to read him through Protestant lenses. That’s why there are calls for transparency, democratization, and the abandonment of what many people call the “cult” of the Mars Hill world. These are very Protestant, if not secular, terms.
But if there’s anything I take away from the stories of Péguy, Joyce, O’Neill, and Waugh, it’s that there is something humorous about “fortress Catholicism.” It’s this: much as you revolt, revolutionize, and reform against all of the authoritarianism, patriarchy, and sacramentalism of the whole thing, if you’ve been in it, you can’t shake it. I would submit that–far from being a cult (unless you’re with Walter Martin in The Kingdom of the Cults where everything that isn’t his brand of Protestant fundamentalism is a cult)–Mars Hill should be credited as a congregational microcosm for what the Catholic Church has looked like–good, bad, and ugly–because of the inadvertent Irish Catholicism of its key founder (one wonders if Lief Moi and Mike Gunn had similar backgrounds). Indeed, though Mars Hill was founded as independent, non-denominational, non-liturgical, and sola Scriptura, what’s funny about the whole thing is that it all sounds very fortress Catholic.
So perhaps the critics should not be calling for democratization at Mars Hill, as if it were really a Protestant church. What they can’t seem to see is that Mars Hill is more Catholic than they think. It may follow, then, that what they want is a Vatican II. But Driscoll’s got that one too: it was called “bylaw revisions and elder restructuring.” Just like it was across the Tiber, sounds like the progressives here also got the stiff end of the rope from this reform.
A better tack, then? Give Driscoll a break and a new reading list. Put some Péguy, Joyce, Waugh, O’Neill, and Chesterton on there. Throw in some Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Shusaku Endo. Make him read and re-read Haigh’s Faith. Get him the full set of von Balthasar’s triptych to wean him off neo-Thomism while preserving a vital Christo-centrism. Make him learn French so that he can be blown away by de Lubac’s Surnaturel. Let him discover ressourcement as he reads up on Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions and Lay People in the Church. If he’s into doing theology from the perspective of the abused, maybe add a womanist theologian, say, Katie Cannon, or staying consistently Catholic, there’s the legendary Toni Morrison. Give our brother some mystical breathing space and maybe hook him up with a spiritual director. And finally, suggest the RCIA in the parish down the street.