Anyone who cares about promoting the Christian faith will want to encourage individuals towards an authentic encounter with Christ. Time and again the present Holy Father has stressed the fact that Christianity is an encounter with a real person, and not simply intellectual assent to a list of doctrines or strict observance of a list of regulations. However, what does the ‘encounter with Christ’ consist of?
Where I live in the Bible Belt of the American South the ‘encounter with Christ’ means ‘getting saved’ or ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’. This religious experience most often follows a particular pattern: Evangelical preaching about sin or some human problem or the need to ‘know that you’re going to heaven when you die’ brings about an examination of conscience. An invitation to say the sinner’s prayer follows. This is basically a prayer of repentance and an acceptance of Christ’s saving work for that individual. The person is then encouraged to acknowledge that they have ‘been saved’ by coming forward to pray with someone, or by sharing their decision with a fellow believer.
This transaction can happen at an Evangelical church service, but it might just as well take place individually and privately after a conversation between two people. Thus an ordinary Christian could ‘lead someone to salvation’ or ‘save a soul’. Most often this activity is linked with the Calvinistic belief in ‘eternal security’ which means that the now saved person belongs to Jesus forever and he can be certain that he is going to heaven when he dies.
Now this is all well and good, and I’m glad that so many people have entered into Christian belief in this simple way, but it has it’s problems. What about the good Christian folk who have never had that particular formulaic experience? What about the ones who did, but then walked away from it and started to live like the devil? Do they need to ‘get saved again’? Can they lose their salvation? There are more difficult questions: this form of religious experience is most often very highly manipulated emotionally. A long sermon focussing on sin or unhappiness builds up desire for a solution. Emotional music softens the heart and promotes feelings of guilt and longing for release. Peer pressure and emotional pressure brings the person to the point of ‘getting saved’. Does the manipulation mean that it is all bogus? Not necessarily, but many people are impervious to the emotional manipulation and actually respond in an opposite manner. Consequently, the ‘altar call’ of Evangelicalism may actually deter as many people as it convinces.
This is just one example of how the ‘Christ encounter’ has been equated with subjective emotionalism. There are others. I happen to be very moved by classical music, fine architecture, a beautiful liturgy and emotional restraint. I come out of a ‘high church’ liturgy with great feelings of religious emotion. Does that mean I have had an encounter with Christ? Maybe, but maybe I was simply moved by the beauty in a similar way that the Evangelical is moved by the preaching, the simple emotional music and the other factors in that service. Some are moved by stirring preaching. Others are inspired and moved by their intellectual studies of theology. Others get all worked up in a charismatic service with hands waving, bodies swaying and all sorts of hootin’ and hollerin’. Others believe that you ‘encounter Christ’ through the pursuit of your heart’s desire–that Christ is locked into the thing you love, and as you pursue that you will find him. Maybe. Maybe not.
What concerns me about all these versions of the ‘encounter with Christ’ is not that they are worthless, but that, on their own, they can actually be barriers to a true encounter with Christ. Each one of them may be part of a valid encounter with Christ, or a first step to an encounter with Christ, but they are not, themselves the encounter with Christ. If a person believes that they are the encounter with Christ they may well be mistaken and be following a lie. The fact that we have these ‘stepping stone encounters’ in a way that suits our personality and approach to life is what is at once both reassuring and worrying.
The catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us where we encounter Christ objectively. This objectivity balances and completes the ‘stepping stone encounters’. The CCC says we encounter Christ in 1. the Sacred Scriptures 2. the Eucharistic Assembly 3. the person of the priest 4. the consecrated elements 5. the person of the poor.
These five places to encounter Christ seem pretty adequate to me, and all the others seem not only rather hard work, but also subjective, unreliable and well, rather phony.