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.

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Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part I

I’ve now read through Christian Smith’s other book explaining his journey to Roman Catholicism, which is actually presented as a ‘how to’ manual – How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. He doesn’t say it, but I suppose the ninety-five steps nicely mirror Luther’s ’95 Theses’, which as Smith points out at one point, is actually a deeply Catholic document and not a ‘protest’ text in any meaningful sense of that word. Smith invokes Thomas Kuhn’s famous ‘paradigm shift’ model of scientific change to describe how an evangelical might end up as a Roman Catholic. Kuhn’s argument, in essence, is that scientific theories are ‘world pictures’ that do not change gradually, simply on the basis of accumulating evidence. Scientists work within an established paradigm of what he calls ‘normal science’, and over time anomalies inexplicable within the current theoretical framework begin to accumulate. Efforts are made to accommodate the paradigm to these anomalies, but if there are a sufficient number of such anomalies and another paradigm is suggested that is able to explain and integrate these anomalies, a theoretical revolution is likely to take place in which new paradigm of normal science takes the place of the old. Something like a paradigm shift rather than a gradual accumulation of evidence is necessary, according to Smith, for someone to go from being a ‘good evangelical’ to a ‘committed Catholic’.

Smith’s book is pretty snarky towards the evangelicalism from which he has emerged, and the ‘descriptive’ passages of the work make very little effort to hide it. I definitely don’t mind a little sarcasm here and there, so this feature of Smith’s writing doesn’t bother me. For instance, I’m a fan of this barb:

People around you and maybe you yourself pray with a lot of particular, but by now so-familiar-that-they-usually-go-unnoticed, phrases, such as, “Father God”, “we would lift up”, “I just have a heart for”, “as unto the Lord”, “nit our hearts together”, “we are convicted”, “if be your will”, “pray a ‘hedge’ around”, and “in Jesus’ name”. About 10-20 percent of the words used in the informal prayers of more than a few of the people around you consist of the one word “just”–as in, “Lord, we just ask that you just give us the eyes just to see you, Lord”. Your community believes in praying authentic, spontaneous, personal prayers–not rote, ritualistic, formal, dusty, traditional prayers. It once occurred to you, however, that most people’s spontaneous, personal prayers sound an awful lot alike. They actually seem to follow standard formats. (pp. 21-2).

But what does bother me is that the snark is in service of painting an inexcusably broad-brush portrait of American evangelicalism. I’m sure the logic and practice of the communities that Smith is describing as the ‘normal science’ of evangelicalism exist somewhere, but it is not descriptive of the communities of which I have been part. What’s really inexcusable is his tendency to lump together confessional and non-confessional evangelical traditions together. Non-denominational Bible churches and Reformed churches such as the CRC or the PCA, which are creedally oriented, have very little in common together. The latter have a de facto teaching office in a way that the former do not, which provides both the framework for and the limits within the Bible is to be read. Even if these communities as a whole tend to use the rhetoric of biblicism in defense of their confessions, i.e. that the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession are a mere distillation and systematic presentation of ‘gospel’, the theologically astute within these denominations explicitly see themselves as operating within a tradition governed by creedal commitments.