Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part II

In part I of this post, I discussed some (there are many more) problems with Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Steps.  In this second part, I want to point out that Smith does highlight some genuinely unfortunate overarching tendencies within contemporary evangelicalism in this book. There are two charges that Smith makes that really do stick, in my estimation. The first is #16: ‘Begin noticing how allergic evangelicals are to Mary’. International evangelical subculture has been formed, as have other forms of Protestantism, more by what they are against than by what they are for, and this has led to a tragically diminished role for Mary within the economy of salvation. No one was more scathing than Desiderius Erasmus toward the crass paganism of popular Catholic adoration of Mary, yet he also realized how deeply destructive the dismissal of Mary in Protestant theology would be:

‘Although I am unarmed, you shall not cast me out unless you cast out the son I am holding in my arms together with me. For I shall not be parted from him. Either you cast him out together with me, or you let us both remain here–or do you prefer a church without Christ’? (Desiderius Erasmus, quoted in Scott Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization, p. 33)

Of course, I do not think that the recovery of the veneration of Mary as theotokos, the God-bearer, as the Council of Ephesus in 431 professes her to be, requires becoming Roman Catholic. Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten have demonstrated how possible it is from a Lutheran or Anglican context to recover a high place for Mary within the theology and piety of the church.  But Smith is right to point out that American evangelicals have been ‘innoculated’ against Mary, and that therefore she does not appear within the life of the church except where she cannot be avoided, namely at Christmas. And he is right that evangelicals become very nervous about idolatry whenever Mary’s name is brought up.

The other charge that sticks is #18: ‘Note your dissatisfaction with the heavily cognitive, often rationalist, nature of much of Protestantism’, which is closely linked to #33: ‘Consider the historic sociological connection between the Reformation and secularization’. The latter charge is quite a bit more specious historically and is probably impossible to substantiate. I have yet to read the latest attempt to do this, Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, but I sincerely doubt that Gregory will be able to succeed where Louis Dupré and others have failed. But the former claim, that evangelical Protestantism is heavily cognitive and most often lacks a sacramental imagination, seems basically sound to me. And it’s clear that without a sacramental imagination, one cannot properly value the material, such that one is almost inexorably bound to capitulate to the gnosticism of late modern American culture. But once again, I think this is more of an historic connection within evangelicalism than a necessary one. There is no reason why evangelicals cannot read the Fathers, or even read Calvin and Bonhoeffer, and develop a sacramental theology while retaining all that is fair within evangelicalism. That is what I hope to do and what I hope I have been doing. I have a great appreciation for Roman Catholicism, especially for the nouvelle theologie that has done so much to restore the place of mystery within Catholic theology, but nothing that Smith has written here has convinced me that the time has come to swim the Tiber.