Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O King, O Keystone

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man: Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.
For some reason this antiphon reminds me of the point Chesterton makes in the Everlasting Man, that a true religion needs to be able to account for everything that exists, and that only Christianity has truly done that. As far as the specific highest acts of humans go, it needs to provide for worship-- man's reverent approach to mystery and the numinous, and for philosophy -- the highest science proper to man.

Yet that is not enough, it falls infinitely short of enough, for man can never approach God unless God provides the bridge. This was the despair of the noblest pagans. As Augustine said,
He...was willing to lay Himself down as the way by which we should return,
Our Lord had to provide us the Way, He had to reach down to pull us up where we could not go on our own.

In this antiphon, man is called both "dust" and "mighty arch", acknowledging both our humble perishable material nature and the greatness bequeathed us as beings made in the image of God. Nations and hearts are both mentioned; the most exterior outworks of our political and social structure, as well as the deepest inner workings of our individual hearts. Our Lord is Lord over all these reaches.

A few days ago I read this WSJ article about "Faith and the Life of the Mind" of Evangelicals and this Touchstone commentary on it. It's been sticking in my mind but I have been at a loss how to approach it. I'm a convert to Catholicism, but Evangelicalism was the cradle of my Christian faith. I owe it much, especially in the deep and undoubtedly real faith of some of its practitioners. If the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind speaks as a "wounded lover" I speak as a grateful child, and I hope it comes across that way.

The blogger in the Touchstone commentary makes a distinction between intellectualism, which he defines as

a developed (or sometimes overdeveloped) mental capacity for detailed abstract thinking and an acquired taste for ingesting (and/or producing) academic prose.
and something deeper, which he describes as follows:

... it's more often the case that someone with interest in studying his faith discovers the depth of Christian tradition, for love of Christ and for the things of Christ. This is what captivates the mind, not worldly intellectual fashion.
The first isn't enough in itself.... it may well be a good thing, but it isn't essential, and combined with an attraction to intellectual trends in thinking it can lead the person into some sort of liberal Protestantism or worldly compromise with error.

The second, he writes, often leads to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Anglicanism (though I really can't help wondering, in light of recent Anglican events, if that last door is closing for those who are truly captivated by "the things of Christ").

I grew up in an Evangelical church. At their worst, because of the conscious avoidance of intellectual rigor in favor of resting on the simplicity of Biblical faith, an Evangelical might be in danger of following into the problem described in the last article in this symposium.

American evangelicalism is the quintessential adaptation to a society dominated by the marketplace and consumerism. ... To be sure, evangelicals are generally devout, church-going Christians who take the Bible seriously and try to live in obedience to their Lord. But study after study shows that they seldom understand the Bible very well, know little about theology, buy heavily into the therapeutic culture of feel-good-ism, and are caught up in a cycle of overspending and consumption like everyone else.
But that devotion, church-going and seriousness about the Bible in the context of a deep relationship with our Savior should not be underestimated. It is the groundwork of something deep, a commitment to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. ST Francis de Sales defines devotion as doing willingly and lovingly whatever Christ tells one to do and by this definition, there are many devoted Evangelicals, and also by extension many Evangelical converts to Catholicism. I suppose this could even somewhat explain some Catholic converts to Evangelicalism, because sometimes Catholics neglect to emphasize this personal core of our Faith, the "one needful thing" of sitting at His Feet and loving Him. (The solution ISN'T some touchy-feely warm-fuzzy catechetical program, either, any more than it is for the Evangelicals, but that's a side point)

I know another convert to Catholicism from fervent evangelicalism. He walked into a Catholic Church one day and simply recognized the Real Presence. He knew Him and thus recognized Him even in such a different appearance. My own process was different. Catholicism had the answers for parts of the Bible that had deeply puzzled me formerly, like John 6. I moved from verbal to actual, while this other convert moved in the opposite direction. We ended up in the same place, as Catholics with the Eucharist enthroned in our interior temples.

That's also aside from the point, however. The point I think I am trying to make is that Evangelicals have something that should not be underestimated. There is a humility about staying within the bounds of their own selves that is deeply Christian. If I had to choose one or the other, and had no other alternative, I would choose my Yupik former fellow church-members who fell in love with Jesus and did their best to praise Him in words and deeds and song every day of their lives, over the kind of quisling "intellectualized" Catholic who bestows on a deeply pro-abortion president an honorary Notre Dame degree, meanwhile allowing the manhandling and imprisonment of an elderly priest protesting the slaughter of our weakest and most innocent.

But that is not really the choice. Our Lord is King of all the nations, King of the matter of which we are fashioned, Keystone of all our works and days, as well as King of our hearts. He has dominion over all the possible forms of truth and thus, any Church of His is going to need to be able to engage on this wide scale, to ally itself with Truth. Not every individual member of the church needs to do this in every sphere, but the Church as a whole needs to, and for a Church, ignoring an aspect of the wider calling is going to mean going to the default -- too often, localized influences that aren't recognized as being out of harmony with true Christianity because there is no wider view.

At present Evangelicalism seems to draw most of its substance from Catholicism or some version thereof -- for instance, look at the recent proliferation of Evangelical books written about the Benedictine tradition, or the traditional respect of many Evangelicals for the monastic Imitation of Christ or the books of conservative Anglican CS Lewis or Catholic JRR Tolkien--- and I am not sure how this can be avoided without falling into error or trivial shallowness. But I don't think it's a bad thing, a thing that should be avoided -- I love being able to talk about Benedict or Tolkien or Kempis or for that matter Isaiah or St John with my Evangelical friends and relatives, and find it ironic that often they understand these things in a more Catholic sense than some Catholics I know.

But back to the main point -- Cardinal Newman said that where there is a vacuum, where a sphere of knowledge is ignored, some other subject will rush in to fill the gap. If you take theology out of its position as mistress of all the liberal subjects, the other subjects rush in to fill the vacuum, but badly, because that is not their proper job. So with secularism, you get Art becoming sterile aestheticism and then finally nihilistic anti-aestheticism, and the natural sciences dabbling in amateur and logically flawed metaphysics, as with naturalistic evolution.

But it seems to me that if you forsake the subjects in your theology, you end up compartmentalizing your religion and forcing it into a privatized form -- it defaults on its authority over the other subjects. A religion focused consciously into the heart and deeds alone runs the risk of being forced by default to be contained by the heart and deeds alone, and thus becoming a religion too small to fit Our Lord.

Both seem like dangers, though in my mind the liberal secularization leads one much further away from the Way and Truth than does the mere privatization. Still, both fall short of the comprehensiveness claimed by God of All.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog and am very thankful that I did. I am thankful for your wisdom and plan on stopping by regularly.

  2. Hi Willa,

    I read this post on my reader earlier today and it's been on my mind since. I think that you've pointed out a lot of truths here. It's so disheartening to hear Evangelicals' negative talk about Catholicism. Equally disheartening is the negative speech about Evangelicals by Catholics. Truly, I wish that there was more of a fellowship among Catholics that is often so prevalent in Evangelical circles. It's too easy to be anonymous in a Catholic church sometimes. I think that we all need to work on this. On the advice of a good friend, I've been making a point of talking with people after Mass. This is much easier said than done for this introvert! But it helps to make our faith come alive to me.

    I guess that's a big reason why I enjoy blogs like yours. It seems as though people are often more willing to share their faith on blogs than in real life. Catholic blogs and the 4 Real message board have been instrumental in keeping me Catholic as they have and continue to provide the fellowship that is often lacking at church.

    In my former residence, I participated in a local Bible Study group formed mostly by women from my local parish although there was one or two protestants. It was a wonderful way to grow in the faith and I count many of these women as dear friends today, even though they are all a generation older than I. In this season of my life, getting out of the house to a Bible study group seems to be too much effort but I think the rewards are well worth it. I wish that such things were more common among Catholics as they are among Evangelicals. Truly, we have much to learn from each other.

  3. Thank you both for your comments!

    Susan, I'm glad you commented because I sometimes hesitate to talk about this kind of thing even on my blog. On one hand, I wouldn't be a Christian or a Catholic if others hadn't shared their understanding of their faith with me; on the other hand, I do sometimes worry about saying the wrong thing, or saying something right in a wrong way.

    I liked your points about fellowship -- one weakness of the Evangelical church community CAN be a kind of sameness -- people come to a church because "their kind" is there. In the Catholic community this isn't quite so much the same -- you can kneel at Mass next to almost anyone in the world. This is because the Eucharist is the center and we all share that tie. At the same time, John Paul II did encourage little "cells" of Catholics to form around that Heart -- I see one way of doing it in the Catholic cyber-homeschooling community, and another type at the college my kids go to. Just rambling -- it raises an interesting subject.

  4. I've been mulling over your comments for some time. I was raised Assembly of God, but during 12 years of marriage and several moves, God has placed us in many different denominations and yet, "The Body of Christ".

    We've attend Presbyterian, Methodist, and Free Methodist congregations and gardened at a Food Bank garden with Baptists. We've rented houses from both Baptists and Lutheran churches and pastors. I've attended a Lutheran book club and prayer times. Currently, we are in a non-denominational small evangelical church.

    This past year, I've found myself thinking several times random thoughts about what it would be like to be part of the Catholic Church. I have a friend in PA who is Catholic.

    As I am praying and thinking this morning, I can't help but feel that people are crying for depth within the church and without. Is it depth the Catholic Church offers that people are so hungry for?

    Forty percent of American children have not heard about Jesus per George Barna's latest study. We have sold our lives to violence and instant gratification. Does the Body of Christ even know how to minister to our own children and within our own walls? Does the Body of Christ resemble the world or Jesus? Interesting questions to ponder.

    I am wondering if Catholocism will see major increases in the years ahead, and I know stats show it's growing. While, I don't want to be a slave to ritual - in any denomination, there is a depth in ritual and discipline that is lacking in many non-denominatinal evangelical churches. This is a reflection of American lives and our lifestyle it seems to me. However, I will say that in our experience, the Lutheran and Methodist congregations have much more ritual and therefore, what feels to be more discipline in their gatherings. I'm not sure if that lives out in their daily lives. All that said, we've met amazing people in all these congregations and truly been in churches where the love of Christ is very present.

    We enjoy our church. It is not a perfect church. There are no perfect people. Yet, we plug in, because this is where we know God has called us to be this season of our lives. We try to live in such a way as to lift up and remember we are all the Body of Christ; no matter what denomination we attend. We hold to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Word made flesh, the Trinity, and God's supremecy and salvation for mankind.

    Just some ramblings this morning....Thank you for sharing. Your thoughts provoked a lot of ponderings in me.

    I also enjoy your home school notes. We embarked on home schooling this year with our oldest who is in first grade.



I would love to hear your thoughts on this!