"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Getting Religion

In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a "searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores," as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.

The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a "longing for holiness" and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals' beliefs.

It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat's analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—

"In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single 'born-again' moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community's faithfulness -- and this, in turn leads to what you might call the 'cycle of Protestantism,' in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).

"Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival -- and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined -- a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider's article -- that a more perfect community, a true and permanent 'City on the Hill,' is just another revival away.

"The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church's long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule -- the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don't) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it's joined to an awareness that most people aren't going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)

"The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it's the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, 'it's-not-so-bad' acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us."

Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians' beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism's Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider's case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider's reasoning.

The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual's death and entrance into Heaven.)

However, what I call the "magic moment" thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by "choosing" to "accept God into his life through faith in Christ" puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God's will and an individual's assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual's act is still an essential part of the process.

The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one's salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual's works are the evidence of one's relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual's assent to God's will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual's struggles with sin are not entirely in God's hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God's efforts to sanctify him.

That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.

Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God's Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working "in the mystical materials of the Church itself -- in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments," but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual's response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.

Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian's response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person's faith.

For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.

In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.

Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.

However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.

In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.

I recall that Flannery O'Connor once said of evangelicals' idea about communion, "Well, if it's just symbolic, then I don't want no part of it!"

I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O'Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that "magic moment" in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.

All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God's power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.

Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing "cycle of Protestantism." That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians' achievement of "the peace that passes all understanding."

I'd consider that a trade well worth making.

6 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

I think you've hit upon something very important here. I'm definitely an evangelical, though with strong Catholic sympathies, and I am continually annoyed by some character minimizing the importance of communion. I don't want to hear an elder or a deacon pass the plate my way and say "This is a symbol of Christ's body . . ." Say to me what Christ says in the New Testament, which is "This is my body." The meaning of his statement is a mystery and we'd be better off to leave it that way. This is a place of great agreement between little old me and the great Luther.

Mike D'Virgilio said...

I agree with Mr. Baker, but I'm wouldn’t lay the blame as Mr. Karnick does at the feet of Calvinism. The Reformed tradition within Christianity that was inspired by Calvin is a small part of the Christian Church. What he and Mr. Douthat write about seem to me to be more of an inclination of Pietism and its offshoots rather than Calvinism, and especially in the more fundamentalist strands of the faith. When I was exploring my faith some 20 years ago I read a wonderful book by B.B. Warfield, the great Princeton theologian, called "Studies in Perfectionism," where he takes on Charles Finney among others. Warfield’s understanding of sin, as it is in the Reformed tradition, is much more profound than a surface understanding I find in so much of Christianity. That book freed me from the modern evangelical/fundamentalists obsession with works and living a certain lifestyle. I would say that Calvin and the Reformed tradition is a good part of the answer to what Mr. Karnick is talking about, and it is much closer to the Catholic understanding as I see it in this regard.

Another issue I would challenge is the assertion that the “magical moment” of salvation is something prominent in Calvinism. After all Billy Graham is no Calvinist, and the largest Protestant denomination in our country, the Southern Baptists, are the ones who carry on the tradition of the “magical moment” of salvation. I would say that Reformed theology’s focus on the covenant provides a much richer view of the Church and the individual than in other strains of Protestantism. In fact, infant baptism and the theology of covenant and family within it seem to mitigate against a magical moment. I myself had a “magical moment” sort of when I was 18, but that came about in the context of a fundamentalist/pietistic understanding of Christianity. It wasn’t until I met some Reformed folks at age 24 that I found a faith tradition I could relate to, that was much richer and broader and more real to me. It wasn’t a theology of negation, which leads to legalism, where your faith seems more defined by what you don’t do (smoke, drink, dance, listen to rock ‘n roll, etc.) but rather a theology of affirmation. I loved it.

And finally, I would argue that Calvin’s understanding of communion is much deeper and more mystical than Mr. Karnick implies. I’ve studied the section in Calvin’s Institutes on communion and he definitely does not believe it to be simply a symbol. In fact far from it, and he was a proponent of taking the Lord’s Supper often. So much of Protestant Christianity has gotten this wrong, and I agree on this point whole heartedly. But this isn’t Calvin’s fault.

So I would argue that it isn’t Calvinism at all that has led to the issues which Mr. Karnick addresses, but other strands of the faith I mention above which are much more prevalent today.

S. T. Karnick said...

I am grateful for Mike D'Virgilio's comments, which I think clarify the situation admirably. Although I used the term "post-Calvinist" as a sort of shorthand, I think Mike is quite right to point out that such a formulation places an unfair emphasis on Calvin as the source of the problems of evangelical Christianity.

I tend to see it as a very short step from Calvinism to the Anabaptists, whose theology is definitely a source of the problems mentioned in my article, but I should have place more emphasis on the latter and less on the former. I will be interested in seeing more evidence of Calvin's beliefs regarding baptism and Holy Communion, but in the meantime I'm glad that Mike has given me an opportunity to correct the false impression that Calvin is directly responsible for the problems dogging modern evangelicalism.—STK

Anonymous said...

I'm going to chime in with Mike. The ethos of modern evangelicalism is profoundly at odds with Calvinism as understood by the "Old Princetonians" (Alexander, the Hodges, Warfield) or the Puritan forebears or the Dutch Reformed. One of the hallmarks of the Calvinist view of conversion is that regeneration ("being born again") precedes faith, i.e. no-one will sincerely receive Jesus and his atoning work if the Holy Spirit has not first changed that person's heart. In general, the Calvinist recognizes that conversion experiences may be sudden and acute or long and drawn out, such that one can't necessarily always say when one truly came to faith. The emphasis on sudden, dramatic conversions really came to full flower under CG Finney, who was theologically the very opposite of the Calvinist, and who tended to view conversion and sanctification as pretty much devoid of anything supernatural (e.g. the working of the Holy Spirit).

Regarding the Lord's Supper (or Communion or the Eucharist) the normal reformed or Calvinistic view is that Jesus Christ is really present in the celebration, but spiritually rather than physically. We don't hold to trans- or consubstantiation. I think that Zwingli was the only prominent reformer who held to the view that Communion was merely symbolic.

As for it being only a small step from Calvinism to the Anabaptists, I wish you would elaborate. When I first read that sentence, I had a sensation like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard :) That notion sounds really wrong to this Calvinist, but perhaps you have spotted something I missed.

Chuck

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, Chuck, for your comments. Mike has sent me some useful references, which I intend to pursue in the months ahead.—STK

Evanston said...

Here are some late comments, a bit unfair since I am commenting several months after the original post. Nonetheless, these are not minor matters and ought to be addressed:
- the Bible teaches that we resist the Spirit, it does not teach that we sanctify ourselves and I have never heard such from evangelicals nor fundamentalists
- our sanctification results in a lack of repeated, habitual sin as God changes us; sin just loses its allure, but this does not mean we do not sin or even that we do not sin frequently (I do so but thank God in amazement at how He has raised my awareness of sin), and while evangelicals and fundamentalists certainly value the "fruit" of one's lifestyle I have not seen the frantic legalism that is implied by posters like Mike
- self-identified evangelicals are often NOT Bible-believing, take the entire denomination of “Evangelical Lutheran Church of America” for starters. I know this is a harsh comment, but they now raise their own preferences over the Word, see homosexuality and "women's" issues
- works and lifestyle DO matter and those like Mike who say they are “freed” from an “obsession” may wish to elaborate on what practices constitute an obsession. I expect he means one is freed from all obsessions EXCEPT a growing devotion to God that gives us true freedom in Christ. This freedom IS reflected in real “fruit” – a renewing of the mind and sanctification in this life
- Mike is right that Calvinism does not render the sacraments into empty symbols
- Catholicism emphasizes the sacraments without Biblical content. This may seem to be an unfair characterization but I grew up in the church enough to know that there is reliance on the MANY "Magic Moments" in the sacraments and not reliance on the Word. This is not how Catholicism is described in the journals, it is how it is practiced, at least in America.