It has been awhile since I did a posting on Evangelical Catholicism. As you may remember I had been reading George Weigel’s book by that name and was taken by his proposition
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord.
Unfortunately as Weigel fleshes out what this means, I think he betrays his ideal for something that is anything but evangelical, but that is somewhat beside the point I want to make today.
I was at a wake last week and speaking with a Protestant pastor who was there when someone with little ecumenical sensitivity said to him: “you guys need to have a Vatican II.” The minister good naturedly replied: “We did, it was Vatican II.” His point was that the Second Vatican Council has impacted most of the Protestant Churches as much as it has Catholicism. This is obvious enough in the mainline Churches—the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Churches, the Methodists and Presbyterians, all of whom have revised various liturgical practices and even some church polity to harmonize better with one another and with us Catholics. But when one gets to the so-called Evangelicals, it is not always so obvious.
I say “so-called Evangelicals” as I think a lot of people who refer to themselves as “evangelicals” or call their denomination “evangelical” are anything but. Evangelical comes from the Greek word, εὐαγγέλιον, which means “good news” and specifically the news of a victory. The Greek word for Gospel is εὐαγγέλιον because it is the Good News of God’s Victory in Christ over sin and death. But so many people who call themselves evangelicals are about bad news of judgment, condemnation, and the defeat of Grace and in reality they are anything but bearers of Good News.
There is a movement among some evangelicals, however, that shows a remarkable move away from the gloomy Calvinism in which many of the so-called Evangelical denominations were rooted towards a faith that is more in line with the New Testament optimism that God’s Saving Work in Jesus Christ may actually be a victory over sin. This movement, which is not a Church or a denomination but a loose-knit connection of Churches and individuals who have realigned their theological thought in some dramatic ways, parallels much of the shift that has gone on in Catholicism over the last sixty years and has received a fresh new impetus under the direction of Pope Francis. It is called the “Emerging Church” and it has drawn a wide range of Christians from Lutherans to Methodists to Baptists to members of the Free Churches and to Christian fellowships who decline to identify with any particular denomination. The main characteristics of the emerging Church seem—from what I have read—to be:
1. an emphasis on a personal spirituality that calls the individual to be conformed to Jesus Christ—to live a life in which he or she learns to model himself or herself on Jesus.
2. A belief that God is vitally concerned about this world and has given us, both as communities and individuals, a mission in this world to infuse the world with Gospel values and thus transform it.
3. To be an inclusive and welcoming Christian fellowship in which each is called to personal conversion but in which no one is judged. (Sounds familiar, Pope Francis?)
4. A model of leadership in the Church that does not involve power or control.
5. An openness to dialogue that sees the faith of the Church as a progressive appreciation of the truth rather than inflexible and dogmatic axioms that are imposed in the name of an ahistorical and immutable “Tradition.”
6. An openness to the contributions of the various cultures in which Christians find themselves rather than an Euro-American cultural hegemony.
7. An ability to live with ambiguity that helps us realize that God us ultimately a Mystery in whose life we are invited to participate and that defies our ability to define and delineate.
This type of Christian faith requires a spiritual maturity that permits us to walk in faith through a darkness of the intellect that was described by Saint John of the Cross: to come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you do not know. In other words, to come to know God we must give up whatever knowledge we think we have. When we are confident in our “knowledge” of “God,” the god we think we know is invariably a god of our own imagination. To come to know God, we must let the slate of our knowledge be wiped clean and be willing to start over with an “unknowing,” the term that many of our Catholic mystics have used to talk about the direct encounter with God in which the human faculties, including the intellect, fall silent.
What is particularly interesting about the Emerging Church movement is that it does not show the fear of spirituality and mystical experience that has characterized much of historical Protestantism. This is one of the tensions in Christianity—in Catholicism as well as Protestantism—the need for an orthodoxy that is rooted in doctrinal objectivity and the need for a personal encounter with God that transcends (though does not contradict) that doctrine. Paul Tillich spoke of this tension, or at least one aspect of it, with the Protestant Principle and the Catholic Substance. For too long perhaps we Christians, in our desire for doctrinal objectivity have substituted an embalmed deity for the Living God. The Emerging Church movement is a call for us all to go again on the search for the Living God. This is not a new call. Read the Documents of the Second Vatican Council and you will hear the same summons. Pope Francis has made this call a theme of his papacy which has rekindled the light of Vatican II among some and the anger over Vatican II among others.