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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

4 Things Evangelicals Can Learn From Catholicism

I want to make something clear: this is not intended to be a condemnation of Evangelicalism or Protestantism. I grew up in that tradition and have a great respect for it. That being said, I do think there are fair criticisms to make, and ecumenicism does not forbid us from doing so. I also know I could easily write a post about what Catholics can learn from Evangelicalism. Perhaps soon I will. 

1. The Church is big enough for all of us.

It's a funny thing that all Christians accept we are not called to judge and yet we turn around and always find a convenient excuse to do so. I'm happy to be a member of a faith community (Catholicism) that is spacious enough for all types of people! It spans countries, ethnicities, and cultures. And it especially spans dichotomies of right v. left, liberal v. conservative, etc.

This week it was announced that the Vatican will be canonizing Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. This is no coincidence. JPII was a champion of conservative, traditional values and John XXIII is the pope who sought to modernize the Catholic Church with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Catholicism is an umbrella with space for both Opus Dei and Catholic scholars doing "queer theology." We have it all! I don't know what the Church would look like in a perfect world but in this world, the Church welcomes all types and a wide-range of gospel views, without the need for splitting the church into smaller, "more pure" communities. Evangelicals seem to often get caught up on not compromising their principles. While anti-gospels should be refuted, we may find our smaller, purer communities look nothing like the "all are welcome" Church our spiritual forbears spoke about.

2. The Church's mission is to meet material needs, not just spiritual ones.

You have to care for people's physical needs, and you very often have to care for those needs before you can meet a spiritual desire. Imagine missionaries who visited the starving of the world and told them the importance of changing their doctrines. Now imagine missionaries who show God's love through meeting physical needs. The beauty of the gospel is that meeting these needs is spiritual ministry. There is no distinction between the natural world and the spiritual world. Christ in the gospels is often meeting (seemingly) physical needs of people first. He feeds them or cures them or returns lost loved ones to them. Do we think Christ did anything outside of the Father's will?

Yes, Catholicism holds that works are part of salvation and a means of obtaining grace. But most Catholics don't think of doing good works as merely a way to assure salvation. Most Catholics think of good works as simply what a Christian should do. And the simple reason is that literally every Sunday we say prayers for the poor, the needy, the disenfranchised. Evangelicals need not adopt the theology but the philosophy of ministry is a fruitful one. (And for the record, many Evangelical communities are doing this already.)

3. Proselytism is solemn nonsense. You have to meet people and listen to them.

Before you say, "that's too far!" know that this is a direct quote from Pope Francis in a recent interview. Another name for this principle could be, "accept people on their own terms." Francis has spoken at great length about this, saying that Catholics can meet Protestants, people of other faiths, and even atheists on their own terms. They can all listen to their consciences and try to follow those as best they can and that we can meet in that space. He's actually offering validity to honestly-held beliefs, even if they aren't in accordance with our own religious creed. We should take a moment to really contemplate that.

I'm reminded of when I told my father I was becoming Catholic after growing up Evangelical. Eventually he accepted my decision and told me about the one Catholic friend he had had in college. My father related how that man had still been a good Christian: he read the Bible, attended small groups, and even spoke in tongues. I realized my father could accept a Catholic when he looked and acted just like him. That's quite fine but it's not accepting people on their own terms and I dream of a much bigger Christian unity than that. Listening to people and finding what commonality we can opens up a much bigger world. Not all views are created equal or correct but Christ showed a greater need for peace, justice, and respect than he did for arguing doctrine.

4. The purpose of religion is divine union, not social order.

To be fair, this is a problem in both Evangelicalism and Catholicism but I think it tends to be a more systematic trend for Evangelicals. Perhaps the difference is that Catholicism is diverse enough to have voices who have always and loudly advocated this principle, even if they've been labeled "liberal" or "progressive" for doing so. I'm quite appalled to hear from Catholics, the bishops, and a multitude of Evangelical voices that gay marriage destroys the family, that God takes a special interest in America, or that politics is where the gospel should be lived out. This is an affront to the message of Christ.

The gospel and all good religion seek to transform people. When was the last time who you are was transformed by a law? The counter-intuitive message of self-donating love is meant to recreate you in a different likeness. It's not meant to restructure society from the top down. The gospel is the good news of the lowly. It's a completely grass roots message; it starts at the lowest levels. Our example of the one person arguably at the "top" who had real divine authority - Christ - is an example of someone who said, "who made me judge over you?" Compare that to Moses' supposition of power - even when trying to do the right thing - and his condemnation by a mere slave, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" Evangelicals need to realize that the rules and attitudes of society are not the rubric for if God is respected. Having "Christian values" reflected in society doesn't mean that God wins. And not having them doesn't mean that God fails. Our God is so much bigger than that. If Evangelicals let go of their need to make everyone else live according to their principles they may, in fact, find more freedom in how they personally live the gospel.

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