"Coming to the Lord" and Real Christians

The other day as I was doing my Morning Penance--listening to NPR's Morning Edition--I heard a conversation with Harriet Mier's pastor, who was talking about the day she "came to the Lord", by which he meant the day she abandoned the Catholic faith in favor of Evangelical Christianity. The implication was that while she was a Catholic she was not really with the Lord. Now, responding to a remark by Andrew Sullivan, Mark Shea has argued that this is "evangelicalese" for "true discipleship" and has nothing to do with denominational affiliation:
Catholics who show evidence of a conscious attempt to be a disciple (such as, for instance, John Paul or Mother Teresa) are generally reckoned as "real Christians" by Evangelicals like Dobson. Conversely, fellow Protestants who are obviously *not* interested in discipleship are just as likely to be dismissed by Evangelicals as mere ritualists, practitioners of "Churchianity" and so forth. It's not a denominational thing for most Evangelicals, it's a perception of serious discipleship.
I've never been an evangelical myself, so I'll defer to Mark's expertise there, but I'm not so sure that a little circumspection is not in order here, because I've lost count of the number of times I've heard folks talking about conversions away from Catholicism as "coming to the Lord" or "becoming a Christian" etc., whereas I have never heard of a conversion in the other direction being described in a similar way. In short, it's actually rather difficult to believe that this is not, in fact, a "denominational thing", even if it is so only unconsciously.

It is striking, for example, to think that it takes discipleship on the order of John Paul the Great's or Blessed Mother Teresa's to tip Dobson's Christianity Scale in the right direction for a Catholic, but for evangelicals all you have to do is avoid "mere ritual" and other evidence of "Churchianity". What about the rest of us? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, when it comes to the average man in the pew, Dobson is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if your pew is lacking kneelers.

Perhaps the main reason why this is so also serves to illustrate why it is difficult to be put at ease by Mark Shea's reassurances to the contrary. Praxis means a great deal both to Catholics and to Evangelicals: we are what we do. But Evangelicals and Catholics, as "together" as they may be on some points of political praxis, are miles apart on theological praxis. Everyone should avoid "mere" ritual, of course, no problem there. The problem is that what Catholics take to be essential ritualistic practices are dismissed by many, if not most, Evangelicals as being nothing more than "mere" ritual. For most Evangelicals "true discipleship" is, apparently, something that can be measured (otherwise there would be no point in talking about someone "coming to the Lord", since it would be impossible to have any adequate idea as to when it would be reasonable to talk about such an event), and yet it is not measured by any yardstick that Catholics can recognize. Similarly, as a Catholic I, too, place the highest value not on "mere" ritual but on "true" discipleship, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone who rejects the Magisterium of the Church of Rome or who misunderstands so seriously the character of the Sacraments is really a "true" disciple. I can claim all I like that it's all about "true" discipleship and not a "denominational thing", but if one defines "true" discipleship in terms of the praxis of a certain denomination or set of denominations, then it remains a "denominational thing" nonetheless.

When I first heard the pastor's remarks, my immediate reaction was the same as Andrew Sullivan's, not Mark Shea's. Is this because I'm a Catholic? Possibly, but I doubt it. As I said above, I've never been an Evangelical myself, but I've known plenty, and my reaction was due not to my being some sort of knee-jerk anti-Evangelical bigot but to my first-hand knowledge of how many Evangelicals think. It is unfair to generalize, of course, so one must admit the possibility that Mier's pastor intended the remark in the sense in which Mark Shea took it, and of course that sense is the most charitable interpretation as well. But just because something is logically possible we are not required to believe that it is as possible as any other alternative. To determine relative probabilities one must rely on what observational evidence one can muster, and so far the evidence seems to me to favor Sullivan's interpretation.


Mike L said…

I share your sentiments and invite you to read and comment on Al Kimel's series of articles at Pontifications on Paul Zahl and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.

Mark said…
FWIW, I cite John Paul and Mother T, not as examples of standards Catholics must live up to to make the grade, but as obvious, public figures. Evangelicals tend to have a split brain approach to CAtholics. The default assumption is that generic Catholics are mostly the thralls of empty ritualism. They also, by the by, tend to assume this about most mainline Protestants. However, your typical Evangelical also will tend to make exceptions for *Catholics they actually know*. I have many Evangelical friends and none of them think I'm "not a real Christian". Indeed, my faith has been vociferously defended against the rare (usually Calvinist or fundamentalist) who really does believe that being Catholic and being Christian are mutually exclusive. Why? Because they see me attempting serious discipleship and that, for them, is what a "real Christian" looks like.

Hence, the (to Catholic ears) weird formulation "He's a Catholic, but he's a Christian too." Considering where things stood even 20 years ago, this is real progress.

The point is that Evangelicals don't buy the notion that membership in the Church makes one a Christian. They don't buy it for Protestants either. Hillary Clinton, card-carrying Protestant, is not a Christian as far as Evangelicals are concerned.

It is true that Evangelicals, while recognizing Catholics with a serious life of discipleship as Christian, do not feel in their bones that Catholics are "pure" Christians. Like Israel during the monarchy, the Catholic Church is perceived as preserving the Faith, yet still clinging to various "high places" (Marian devotion, purgatory, communion of saints, indulgences, Real Presence, whatever else makes Evangelical nervous) that taint or pollute faith in Jesus. Evangelicals will tend, therefore, to welcome Catholics as fellow believers in need of better instruction than what their priestly masters have given them.

At the same time, there is a curious furtive glance across the fence at us Catholics from Evangelicalism, that betrays an awareness that there is something "deeper" to our Faith that Evangelicalism just hasn't fathomed.

It gets very complex.

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