Thursday, June 4, 2009

Worlds in Collision
A book excerpt by MARK P. SHEA

From Volume One of Mark P. Shea's new three-volume series Mary, Mother of the Son, reprinted with permission of the author:

Imagine yourself channel surfing one evening. You flip over to EWTN, the all-Catholic-all-the-time TV network founded by Mother Angelica. Suppose you see the following ad, narrated by a man with a booming voice and a southern twang:

"Support Petros Ministries! Marching out in the power of the Spirit to claim victory over the powers of Hell! Anointed! Dynamic! Making an impact on this generation in the all-powerful, all-conquering Name of King Jesus!"

Doesn’t sound very Catholic, does it?

Yet is there anything in the Catechism of the Catholic Church's description of the mission of Catholics that’s fundamentally at variance with the language above? No. Not a thing. Catholics are called to be soldiers for Christ. Just ask St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Catholics have it on the highest authority that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church (cf. Matt. 16:18). Every Catholic is anointed with the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ Jesus (normally through Baptism and Confirmation). Catholics are indeed called to make a dynamic impact on our generation for Jesus. And yet Catholics just don’t talk this way.

So, dazed from this strange experience with Catholic television, you keep channel surfing and find yourself wandering over to some sort of Bible Gospel Hour. The show cuts to a commercial and you hear an elegant English woman’s voice say:

"Read The Inner Way of Silence and allow God to invite you to enter more deeply into the path of contemplation. Experience sanctity as a fruit of dialogue with the Holy Spirit. Practice the presence of God and open yourself to the gentle promptings of the Spirit by saying, with the Bible, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word.' Allow the Spirit to breathe into your quiet reflection on the work of God in Scripture and creation. Let God bring forth in you, as in Mary's womb, the Christ who comes to us in prayer and mystery."

Again, you feel like you're in an alternate dimension, because no Evangelical talks this way. But is there anything in the theology of this ad that’s unbiblical or opposed to Evangelical belief?

Again, not a thing. Sanctity is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. We are indeed called by Scripture to respond to God by saying, "Let it be to me according to your word." The Spirit does indeed breathe upon us and we are indeed to reflect on the work of God in Scripture and creation. The Bible even likens our formation in Christ to the formation of a child in its mother’s womb (cf. Gal. 4:19). And of course, God does come to us in prayer and mystery.

So your strange trip to televisionland has left you with a pretty puzzle. You’ve watched Catholics say true things about their faith in ways almost no Catholic would say them. Likewise, you've seen Evangelicals say biblically true things in ways no Evangelical would say them. Even more puzzling is that both the Catholics and the Evangelicals are saying things that both would affirm to be true. What’s wrong with this picture?

Masculine and Feminine, Evangelical and Catholic

Note the vocabulary in the first ad: anointed, dynamic, impact, marching, victory, all-conquering, king. Other favorite words in the Evangelical lexicon are mighty, battle, conquer, lordship, and so forth. Book blurbs, radio ads, and TV shows in the Evangelical world emphasize these words—words we usually gender-code as masculine.

In the second ad, the stress is on words like contemplation, inner life, receptivity, and openness. Catholic readers will recognize these and other buzzwords like invite, nurture, faith journey, dialogue, faith community, and share as common features of Catholic jargon. These are words we usually gender-code as feminine.

The gender-coding is what caused the disconnect between what we heard in the ads and what we know from experience. The first blurb dressed Catholic content in masculine language, while the second clothed Evangelical content in feminine language. That’s why, once we peeled off the cultural trappings, we could find nothing in the Catholic ad that could not be affirmed by both Catholics and Evangelicals, just as there was nothing in the Evangelical ad that both could not affirm as well. Both ads are biblical, and both have roots in sacred Tradition. But since we are used to hearing Catholic culture—culture, mind you, not theology—expressed in feminine terms, and Evangelical culture—culture, mind you, not theology—expressed in masculine terms, it throws us for a loop.

So what's the point of this little thought experiment? Simply this: Before we ever get around to discussing substantial theological disagreements, Catholics and Evangelicals often mistake cultural differences for theological quarrels. Moreover, secular culture (which is hostile to both Catholic and Evangelical Christianity) often compounds the problem by feeding us its own stereotypes about both cultures. To be sure, this is not an All-Explaining Theory of Everything about Catholic/Evangelical disagreements. There are, in addition to this phenomenon, plenty of real theological differences. But still, because this cultural difference is typically not noticed by either party, it sits there quietly operating and producing numerous misunderstandings and feelings of alienation on both sides before the theological discussion ever begins.

Such collisions can easily be spotted whenever one group unfairly caricatures the other. Take, for instance, different approaches to prayer. The feminine culture of the Catholic can predispose him to view the Evangelical approach to prayer as shallow and utilitarian. Buying into what “everybody knows” about Evangelicals based on media portrayals of Evangelicals as greedy, power-hungry hypocrites, some Catholics will assume Evangelical prayer uses God as a tool to achieve worldly ends ("Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz!").

Meanwhile, Evangelicals—buying into what "everybody knows" about Catholics based on media portrayals of sweet-faced, pious sitcom nuns and dim, nervous priests incapable of dealing with the real world—tend to see Catholic piety as an inarticulate inwardness cut off from real life. Thus, Evangelicals frequently criticize the Catholic faith for its "retreat from reality behind the walls of the cloister," where out-of-touch monks and nuns pray piously while ignoring their duties to claim the world for Jesus Christ.

The Catholic who is tempted to pass judgment needs to be reminded that petitionary prayer is commanded by our Lord ("Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:11)). The Evangelical who is tempted to pass judgment needs to be reminded that Jesus went into the desert to pray and seek union with the Father precisely for the purpose of saving the world, and that this is, in fact, what contemplative orders in the Catholic Church (like the Trappists) are all about. In short, both are legitimate forms of approach to God.

Similarly, Catholics should not dismiss Evangelicalism as simplistic chatter merely because Evangelicals tend to be more verbal about their faith. There is nothing noble or spiritual about the common lay Catholic's inability to be always ready to give an account of the hope within us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). Nor should Evangelicals think Catholics are “cold and dead” simply because they often don’t manifest their deep relationship with Christ in a spontaneous, verbal, and outgoing way. The Evangelical needs to realize that not all “spontaneous” prayer is authentic contact with the living God, and that formal or liturgical prayer is not the same thing as a soulless ritual.[1]

Masculine, Feminine, and the Incarnation

Evangelicals, like all orthodox Christians, vigorously affirm the doctrine of the Incarnation—the faith of all Christians that God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became man. Evangelicals, like Catholics, believe this doctrine with every fiber of their being. But there’s more to it than this. In Evangelical culture, "incarnation" tends to get prefaced with the singular word "the"—as in "The Incarnation." It's primarily seen as a single (albeit glorious) historical event, and its application to everyday Evangelical life usually has the character of a doctrine that is firmly believed. Catholics, while affirming the uniqueness of the Incarnation in the person of Jesus, also see Incarnation as an eternal reality to be lived and breathed by the followers of Jesus. They believe that God, in becoming human, was not simply performing an isolated miracle; he was establishing an eternal principle. In the Incarnation, Catholics believe, God was committing himself to continually revealing his power and grace in and through human things. And the unfamiliar ways that Catholics express this belief tend to make Evangelicals very nervous.

This nervousness only gets compounded when popular Evangelicalism meets popular Catholicism. For the emphasis on seeing the Incarnation as a single event two thousand years ago on the other side of the earth often makes Evangelicals to view it as an episode that ended with the Ascension of Christ into Heaven. Many Evangelicals speak as though the grace of God now reaches us only in “spiritual” (read: “disembodied”) ways. Enfleshing that grace in people today is too much, too close.

This pattern of "that was then, this is now" can often be observed when Evangelicalism and Catholic faith meet. For example, it’s not hard for Evangelicals to grant that God could unite himself with matter in the physical body of Jesus Christ, but the notion that he continues to do so through the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is rejected as unbiblical and even magical or idolatrous—despite the fact that Jesus declared "This is my body, this is my blood" as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul all record. Evangelicals find private confession of sins to God acceptable and even approve (generally) of accountability and discipleship. But the idea that a flesh-and-blood human being could have authority and power from Jesus to forgive sins in his name is typically declared unbiblical—even though Jesus conferred exactly this power on the apostles with the words, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). Similarly, Evangelicals delight in the biblical picture of Jesus healing at the pool of Siloam by means of water (cf. John 9), but fret at the Catholic idea of holy water or blessed salts, since these seem somehow magical or fleshly. So do various other Catholic physical acts such as lighting candles to pray, or the gestures and prayers of the liturgy, which can strike some Evangelicals as mere rote.

Because Evangelicalism tends to see the Incarnation solely as an isolated historic event, not as the establishment of an eternal principle, the Evangelical tends to reply to the Catholic's confidence that God will use matter and people to communicate his grace by saying "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). The assumption is that spirit is spirit and matter is matter and never the twain shall meet (after the Ascension). There is a strong tendency to insist that all outward forms of what is generally termed “religion” are just distractions from spiritual worship. As Thomas Howard notes:

Using Saint Paul’s language about flesh and spirit, this piety has often spoken as though to be holy ("spiritual") is to be more or less disembodied. Since that is obviously not possible, we will do our best to keep spiritual things distinct from physical things. There will be "the spiritual life" and "the ordinary life." There will be sacred activities and secular activities. When we are praying, we are closer to the center of things than when we are washing dishes, changing diapers, driving in a traffic jam, or sitting in a committee meeting: thus would run this piety.

This is to misread Saint Paul. He never meant his word spiritual to mean disembodied. To be spiritual for Saint Paul was to have brought everything back to God where it belongs and where it was in Eden. It is to have had one’s life knit back together so that it is no longer secular and divided, but whole. It is to become one with Christ in whom dwells all the fullness of God bodily. Christ is the great icon and paradigm of this wholeness. In Him we see the fullness of God in bodily form, and we are called to that wholeness, not to disembodied angelic life. The Christian religion, far from driving a wedge between them, knits the spiritual and the physical back together.[2]

And where does all this Incarnation—all this messiness of God taking on our creatureliness and revealing himself as a human person through human things in a very human way—begin? It begins with none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary who, after all, is the source of Jesus’s human nature. And curiously, it is Mary, the most Feminine of the Feminine—the mater out of whose substance God clothed himself in matter—who makes most Evangelicals steeped in the masculine way more nervous than almost anything else in the Catholic faith.

[1] Back in my Evangelical days, I saw a cartoon in The Wittenburg Door featuring an earnest Evangelical hunched over in prayer with eyes clamped shut, pleading, "Oh Lord, I just really worship you and I just really want to come before you and just really pray that you would just really take the words just and really out of my prayer vocabulary." Not all spontaneous prayer is up to the glory of the task, and there is much wisdom in Catholics using the great and poetic prayers of the saints as their own.
[2] Thomas Howard, Evangelical Is Not Enough (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 31–32.