More Christianity


When I was an Anglican theological student at Oxford I came across a quote by the nineteenth century Anglican F.D.Maurice that changed my life. He wrote, “A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” It’s a quip worth pondering because if we take it seriously it corrects one of the worst tendencies of human nature, and one of the tendencies that is at it’s very worst with religious people. That is the tendency not only to think we are right, but to be convinced that everyone else is wrong. It is the tendency to define our beliefs by what we deny rather than by what we affirm.
At the time of my discovery I was on a journey from American fundamentalist Christianity to ordination as an Anglican priest. Protestantism is, by definition, a reaction against something, and that something is the Catholic Church. My Protestant background therefore, had conditioned me to be skeptical. We were skeptical of non Christians because they were worldly and unsaved. We were skeptical of Protestants in the mainline denominations because they had “gone liberal.” We were skeptical of fellow Evangelicals who were called “Neo Evangelicals” because they had compromised with the liberals. We were skeptical of most everyone else but ourselves, and most of all we were skeptical of the Catholics. F.D.Maurice’s little dictum made me sit up and think. It was one of those moments of enlightenment: it was true, in my journey to Anglicanism whenever I tried to affirm something new I invariably entered into more truth, and whenever I remained a skeptical and protesting Protestant I was invariably denying something which had good and positive elements to it.
I resolved at that moment that whenever I came across something new I would try hard to affirm and not deny. I decided to give new ideas, new spiritual practices, new customs and new ways of worship a chance before I rejected them. F.D.Maurce was an old fashioned liberal, and although I was, by instinct and formation, a conservative, I decided to be liberal in the original sense of the word: that is to say genuinely open-minded, curious and ready to give the benefit of the doubt.
More Christianity
In time this approach brought me into the Catholic Church. I had moved from American Evangelical fundamentalism to English Evangelical Anglicanism, and the step from there to Catholicism was the result of my attempt to be open minded and accepting of ideas and customs that were new and strange to me. So, for example, when I was invited from the staid and stark worship of Anglican Evangelicalism to experience the Anglo-Catholic worship of Pusey House in Oxford, I went with an open mind. I soon came to understand the statues and candles and incense and vestments and discovered that I not only understood, but appreciated that form of worship. When I encountered a Catholic understanding of the sacraments and the priesthood, I tried to understand and accept rather than respond with my instinctive Protestant criticism and rejection. Some years later a friend came back from a pilgrimage to the great English Marian shrine of Walsingham and brought me a rosary. I can remember holding the beads and feeling repulsed, but then Maurice’s quip popped into my mind and I asked myself why a billion Catholics should be wrong and I should be right. I got a book instructing me how to pray the rosary and got started.
After my reception into the Catholic Church the idea that Catholicism was ‘more Christianity’ (as opposed to C.S.Lewis’ Mere Christianity) became more and more of a model for my understanding of the faith. It is also an effective model for Catholic apologetics. Like most converts from another Christian tradition, I never regarded becoming a Catholic as a repudiation of either my home grown Evangelicalism or my adopted Anglicanism. As a young student I had explained to my bewildered parents that in becoming an Anglican I was simply adding more things to the wonderful faith they had given me. Becoming a Catholic was to add even more to what I had been given within Anglicanism.
I believe this approach to the faith provides an excellent model for Catholic apologetics. Too often Catholic apologists meet the bulldog approach of Protestants with similarly pugnacious tactics. If the Protestants can throw an anti-Catholic punch, the Catholic apologist feels he has to get one back. Too often Catholic debaters are more pugilist than apologist. I get the sense too often that the apologist has packed his big ego along with his big theological books. This might make for a good show, but I don’t think it makes much more than that. Too often we can win a debate, but lose souls. With the ‘more Christianity’ approach however, we can win hearts as well as minds.
But I Agree With You!
The typical Protestant is instinctively opposed to Catholicism. It is in his bloodstream. He may not know his own faith very well, but he knows what he’s not: a Catholic. The typical well read, Bible based Evangelical thinks he knows more than that. He knows specifically where Catholicism is wrong. As far as he is concerned, Catholics are just plain wrong through and through and he expects that he will disagree with a Catholic on just about everything. His Achilles heel is that he expects every Catholic to be as anti-Protestant as he is instinctively anti-Catholic.
If, as a Catholic, you disagree with him on every point you will only confirm his prejudice and his conviction that he could never be a Catholic because Catholics are wrong about everything. Your secret weapon as a Catholic apologist therefore, is to affirm as much as you can with your Protestant friend. In fact you should be able to affirm everything he affirms. You simply cannot deny what he denies. This approach is not only subversive, but because it is subversive it is fun.
Here are some examples: Does your Evangelical friend believe in the inspiration of the Bible? So do you. Does he deny the authority of the Catholic Church? Sorry, you can’t deny what he denies. Instead, you affirm the inspiration of the Bible with him, but you ask why he denies the inspiration of the Church. Doesn’t he believe what happened at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit came down and inspired the apostolic Church? By affirming what he affirms, but not denying what he denies you are suddenly seen as positive, upbeat and able to believe more than he is. He, on the other hand, begins to appear skeptical, unbelieving and narrow in his approach.
Does he think Peter was a great missionary, a great warrior for Christ, and a great preacher? So do you. You also believe Peter was the leader of the early church, that Jesus gave him a special commission, and that with that commission went special authority. You show your friend why this is true from the gospels and ask him why he denies what is so clear in the Scriptures. Why is he a man of so little faith?
Does he love Jesus and serve him? Has he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior? So have you. You love and serve Jesus Christ. You follow him as your Lord and Savior, but you also honor his Mother Mary. Does he believe in miracles? So do you. In fact you believe that a miracle happens every time the priest celebrates Mass. It’s a miracles Jesus commanded and said would happen. What a shame he believes in miracles, but limits his belief so much!
You see how it goes? Instead of debating and arguing with your Evangelical friends you simply get them to affirm the good things about their faith and then agree with them. When they start to get negative and start denying Catholic teachings or customs you explain them and ask why they feel they have to be so negative and so full of denial and protest and rejection. I like to ask what sin they think is worse, believing too much or believing too little. Which is worse, to be guilty of unbelief or to be guilty of being gullible?
When I get to the judgment day I would rather say, “Well, Lord, I’m sorry, I guess I took it all in, hook, line and sinker. Yep, I believed it all: transubstantiation, infallibility of the Pope, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, incorrupt saints, stigmata, bleeding statues, I was taken in by the whole lot, and I hope you’ll forgive me for being gullible.” I’d rather say that than, “I’m sorry, I didn’t believe. I was skeptical. I was cynical. I doubted. I spent more time trying to find out what wasn’t true, than discovering what was true.”
Positive Apologetics
The ‘More Christianity’ approach to apologetics is positive because it genuinely affirms what is good and positive about the faith of non-Catholic Christians. It is possible to do this without being either condescending or false. It may be true that their denial of Catholicism hinders their appreciation of the fullness of the faith. It may be true that vehement denial and rejection of the Catholic faith (when they know better) may imperil their souls. Being aggressive towards them, however, doesn’t accomplish much, and being positive towards our separated brethren doesn’t mean that we endorse or turn a blind eye to their rejection of the faith.
What ‘More Christianity’ apologetics actually does is puts the Catholic apologist in the driving seat. By agreeing as much as possible with the ‘opposition’ they are disarmed and unsure of the way forward. They expected to disagree with you on every turn. You turn out to be positive and agree with them on many things. They believed you were not even a Christian and were going to hell, and you turn out to embrace them as a Christian brother and say you hope and trust that they too are on their way to heaven. The result of this is that you are now in a position to challenge the non-Catholic about his denials.
Why, you may ask, does your Evangelical friend deny and reject Jesus’ mother? Jesus honored her, the angel Gabriel honored her, Elizabeth honored her, the unborn John the Baptist honored her, Joseph honored her, the shepherds honored her. She said, “All generations shall call me blessed,” Catholics have always done so. Why, you may ask, are you Evangelicals, who are normally so fervent and loving in your faith, so cold hearted when it comes to the beautiful Mother of Christ?
Why is it that your Evangelical friends cling to the Bible alone, while rejecting all other aspects of the historic faith? Prayers to the saints, veneration of icons, liturgy in worship, processions, prayers for the dead, the Mass as a sacrifice, infant baptism—all these things were also part of the ancient church. Why does he keep the Bible, but throw out all the other parts of the early church practice? This is ‘mere’ Christianity indeed! Why so little when he could have so large? Why so small when he could have so much? Why such a barren, small and limited understanding of the faith when he could have so much more?
Further Up and Further In
More Christianity gives a firm foundation for apologetics that is not only positive, but expansive in its scope. It keeps the big picture in front of us rather than allowing us to get caught up in the minutiae of argument. Some apologists enjoy the cut and thrust of swapping Biblical texts, quotes from the Fathers of the Church and authoritative statements from theologians and scholars. I prefer to keep to the big picture of affirmation or denial.
This is because, at the end of the day, we are concerned about a person’s soul. Most Evangelicals are good Christian souls. They love the Lord with a fervor and keenness that is admirable. They do not wish to be negative or feel that they are narrow in their views or denying the truth that the Lord might have for them. Therefore, to display to them a Catholicism that is big hearted and hearty, affirmative and joyful, tolerant and confident, loving and accepting is to reveal to them a perspective on the whole faith which they never knew existed. The good Catholic apologist should be as jolly and wholesome as Chesterton, as bellicose as Belloc and as acute as C.S.Lewis. He should welcome debate as a pathway to truth and a way to go ‘further up and further in’ to God’s wonderful truth and life. When this approach works it makes Catholicism seem full of goodness, truth, beauty, fresh air, humor and an atmosphere that is as big and open as a universal church.
In Mere Christianity C.S.Lewis spoke of the Christian Church as the hall with side rooms. Once you come into the Church, he says, you must choose which side room, or denomination you are going to dwell in. Lewis, who is normally so sharp, has missed the point. He assumes that all the side rooms are therefore of equal value, yet he says in the same passage that you must not choose the room according to your own preference, but according to which one you think is most true. He doesn’t draw the final conclusion that if one is more true than another then there must be one room which is more true than all the rest, otherwise the choice of rooms is not mere Christianity, but mere relativism. He also disappoints in that he allows people to stay in a cramped side room. I think he should have invited them not only into the hall, but into the great mansion beyond.
Instead of the analogy of the hall and the side rooms, I prefer the analogy of an art gallery. More Christianity is the understanding that a person may find themselves as a Christian to have entered an ancient and vast art gallery, and that they find themselves, by happenstance of entering through a particular door, in one particular denominational gallery. This gallery (Let us suppose it is a gallery of impressionist art) is full of beautiful and priceless paintings. The person in question lives in this one room of the gallery and loves the paintings hanging in this room. More Christianity says, “Yes, those paintings are beautiful and fine, but there is more, much much more. The rest of the paintings do not negate the beauty of the impressionists, instead they validate the impressionists, and put the impressionists in their proper context.” The ‘More Christian’ says, “Come, leave this one room of paintings and enter the gallery proper. There you will find a universe of art and beauty you never dreamed existed, and you will know at last that this is your true home.”
More Christianity affirms all that is good and true in Protestant Christianity. It simply does not deny what the Protestants deny. It calls the separated brethren to come further up and further in to the joy that an only be found in the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church.