Monday, January 17, 2005

Fine New Blog

By HOLLY, a fellow veteran of the Old Steve Ray Catholic Converts Message Board. It's called Fired Up Catholic! and it is. Among the first things Holly's blogged is her conversion story. You gotta read this, it's priceless. Here's some bits:
That Monday morning I woke up determined to do two things. Show my husband why the Catholic church was not Christian and also to begin investigating the different Protestant denominations to determine which one I could agree to attending if we were to "compromise" on another denomination that we both felt comfortable attending.


It's important to note here that my understanding of the different Protestant denomniations was incomplete. I actually believed that the reason we had different denominations was for the same reason we have different "genres" of music. It was all about style and not substance. Some people like rock, some people like country, some people like classical. If you like a lot of upbeat music and hand clapping you go to an Assembly of God church. If you like something more reserved you go to an Epsicopal Church. As far as I was concerned that was the only real difference.
Permit me to digress a bit. This is absolutely correct; it's how Protestantism, largely speaking, describes itself to itself. Vishal Mangalwadi, a leading member of the Evangelical movement in India, describes Protestantism the same way. After making some ridiculous assertions about Catholicism,[**] he writes:
Protestants are of various different denominations (Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and so on) but these differences are marginal and arose out of the fact that the protests against Roman Catholicism were started by different individuals, in different languages, within different cultures, and at different times.
Now this is quite true, to a limited extent, as anyone familiar with the differences between Polish and Mexican Catholics will attest. But to reduce the entire gamut of distinctions between the Amish and the Assemby of God, Presbyterians and Pentacostals, Methodists and the Missouri Synod, to the accident of "culture" is inane and, it must be said, incredibly condescending.

Rev. Mangalwadi, however, isn't some hick who just fell off a turnip truck. He does amazing work for Christ in India. He's a student of Francis Schaeffer's famed L'Abri community. Christianity Today calls him "India's foremost Christian intellectual." And here he is, telling us that the difference between the Anglican priest's consubstantiation and the Baptist minister's symbolic meal has no more pith than the difference between Heineken and Budweiser. So we may take him at his implied word, that Protestantism is anxious to down-play its embarassing historical variety, to ignore the "Lumen Gentium question,"[***] and, for want of a better word, pretend there is such a thing as "Protestantism."

As a result, we have this from Holly. It is an incredibly-good piece of writing, elegant in its expression, portraying the perfect innocence with which she confronted the issue on her own:
I began reading "Faith of the Early Fathers". It was outside of the Bible and I begged God's forgiveness for it but I decided if it was ok for me to read what Billy Graham or Charles Stanley thought about scripture then it must be ok for me to find out what Augustine thought. That is when it all went south for me....
Just so. The rest, as they say, is history. Go read Holly's conversion story. You'll enjoy it and profit from it as much as I have.

[**] Vishal Mangalwadi, The Quest for Dignity and Freedom, Chapter 6. You can read it online here. The old "Catholics believe they earn their salvation" chestnut is routinely trotted out, as is the claim that Catholicism places her traditions (the term is not defined as Catholics define it) above Scripture. These are routine blunders, but Rev. Mangalwadi distinguishes himself by arguing, for example, that Lord Acton "protested against ‘Papal Infallibility' in defense of liberty for Protestants and others." One may search in vain for evidence of the persecution of Reformed Christians in, say, Norway or South Carolina which was threatened by the proclamation of the dogma. Indeed, when Lord Acton confronted the dogma of papal infalliblity in 1870, it was only 92 years after the British allowed Catholics to own property, inherit land, and serve in the army and only 31 years after Catholics were granted the right to vote in British elections. To infer, as Rev. Mangalwadi does, that Protestants the world over were threatened with a renewed Inquisition by Vatican I is really too amusing for words.

Even more ridiculous is Rev. Mangalwadi's explanation of the moral superiority of Protestant America to the corruption and decadence of Russian society:
Professor Sair Singh, a Trinidadian of Indian descent and a graduate of Harvard University, now teaches Hinduism in Moscow. During a visit to Moscow in the summer of 1999 I was discussing with him the contrast between America, which impeached President Clinton because he lied about his private life, and Russia, which allowed Stalin, who killed 35 million innocent people, to die in his bed in peace. Prof. Sair Singh explained to me why the moral standards in America are much higher than those of the Russians (and Indians).

"Although the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church"he explained, "is very similar to the biblical theology which shaped the American ethos, in practice most ‘Orthodox' Russians do not have the same confidence about their salvation by grace alone which the biblical Christians do. The Bible teaches that we do not have to earn our salvation, because Jesus took the punishment for our sins. We need to repent for our sin and accept Jesus' death and resurrection as sufficient sacrifice for our sin. The Orthodox Russians, by contrast, perform religious rituals in order to earn their salvation. They soon discover that they are not good enough, and that they will never be good enough, because in order to survive, let alone succeed in real life, they have to compromise with evil – if not to actually use evil means. So, they give up trying to be good.

"In America, by contrast, the evangelical revivals assured the believers that they didn't have to earn their own salvation. Jesus' sacrifice had already atoned for their sin and had secured their pardon and reconciliation with God. God accepted them as his beloved children – not on the basis of their righteousness, but because of Christ's righteousness through their repentance and faith. We may fail and fall, but we can be forgiven and make a fresh start in our growth towards God's standards. This assurance of personal salvation freed the believers to continue to pursue holiness in spite of personal failures and external persecution. Moreover, faith in the resurrection and experience of the love and care of God enabled them to continue to love God, and fight against the corruption of their own society even when they suffered loss. They knew that they had an assured reward in heaven."
In his quest to excoriate the Gospel on behalf of "Bible Christianity," Rev. Mangalwadi has seen fit to ignore a few facts that might assist us in realizing a more accurate explanation. Facts like the KGB, the gulags, and seventy years of ruthless repression of anything Christian. No evangelical culture has ever been afflicted by a totalitarian regime and done anything more than (or equal to) what the Russian faithful managed to achieve under Stalin. If Rev. Mangalwadi wishes to take an honest look at the salutary political effects of evangelicalism, let him explain how millions of German "Bible Christians" put Hitler in power and fought for him until the bitter end. Or, for that matter, let him explain how millions of American "evangelicals" tolerated and practiced human slavery in the United States. Or, for that matter, let him explain how "Bible Christians" have "allowed" over 40 million babies to be butchered here in the United States since Roe v. Wade. I would submit to him that the legal murder of 40 million people is, or should be, somewhat more disturbing to an "evangelical" conscience than whether an elected official lied under oath about whether he cheated on his wife.

One may, perhaps, forgive Rev. Mangalwadi for writing this drivel. After all, it is clear that he's getting his information from Harvard graduates. Catholicism has its own quiver of such generalizations. It is, for example, argued that an ethos of self-divinizing arrogance, habituated by the constant practice of private judgment about the meaning of Scripture, renders the Protestant mind pliable to lunatic theories about anything, thereby making Protestant societies more likely to entertain massive hallucinations about whether Jews (or babies) should be protected by law. It is argued that the negative, history-denying, individualized, and deconstructing ethos of Protestantism makes it impossible to create or maintain a human community. Tempted though I am by such broad "theology-is-cultural-destiny" generalizations, I have never found any of them which bear up under principled scrutiny. I think they take their impetus from a modern tendency to immanentize the eschaton through secular politics, to "out-Marx" Marx himself and locate everything which is ugly and unfortunate in the human character in a predestinate "other." It is an old story which can be found in the histories of Catholic, Protestant and pagan societies. Its variegated presence suggests strongly that it is itself a false and human thing, and that alone ought to caution us about adopting it as the paradigm for our theological disputes.

[***] About which I shall blog presently, in response to an ancient email and some questions raised by the estimable Dawn Eden.

No comments: