Saturday, January 14, 2012

A prayer for dispossession, a plea for ecumenism

When it comes to following Christ, so-called Christian living (a.k.a. discipleship), it is often the case that Catholics feel as though Evangelicals have nothing to offer us. In my experience this bias exists for a number of reasons, but generally speaking revolves around two things: fundamentalism, also known as biblicism (i.e., reading the Bible in a very literal and flat way, ignoring the various genres  found in Sacred Scripture, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures), and what is perceived as a lack of theological and intellectual rigor. In some instances these concerns are justified and born out. Nonetheless, it is important not to approach matters by way of a preconception, judging all the trees by taking a ten thousand foot view of the forest. Plus, experience matters. Knowing the Lord is not first and foremost an intellectual endeavor, but, as Pope Benedict stated clearly at the beginning of Deus caritas est, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (par. 1).

An example of something worthwhile by an Evangelical is the late A.W. Tozer's still magnificent book, The Pursuit of God. Tozer came to Christ as a teenager while walking home from his job at a tire company in Akron, Ohio. While on his way home one day he heard a street preacher say, "If you don't know how to be saved... just call on God." When he arrived home, he went up into the attic of his family's house and called upon God. The rest, as we say, is history. Despite never receiving any formal theological training, Tozer became very respected for his learning, not only about the Bible, but his grasp of theology and the Christian tradition. Proof of his knowledge are his books, which show his erudition. When combined with his obvious love of the Lord, what he writes is eminently worth reading, pondering, and praying.

At the end of each chapter in his The Pursuit of God (you can read the whole book by going to the link where you can download it as an Adobe Acrobat [.pdf] file), he composed a prayer. Below is the prayer taken from the end of his second chapter, "The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing," which chapter gives one of the best theological expositions I have read (including Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling) of the episode from Genesis 22:1-19, in which God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Showing forth the same view as that expressed by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, when they taught, "God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New" (par. 16), Tozer observed that it "is frequently true, this New Testament principle of spiritual life finds its best illustration in the Old Testament. In the story of Abraham and Isaac we have a dramatic picture of the surrendered life as well as an excellent commentary on the first Beatitude."

Father, I want to know Thee, but my coward heart fears to give up its toys. I cannot part with them without inward bleeding, and I do not try to hide from Thee the terror of the parting. I come trembling, but I do come. Please root from my heart all those things which I have cherished so long and which have become a very part of my living self, so that Thou mayest enter and dwell there without a rival. Then shalt Thou make the place of Thy feet glorious. Then shall my heart have no need of the sun to shine in it, for Thyself wilt be the light of it, and there shall be no night there. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Since this year we will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, in addition to showing certain affinities among Christians regarding Scripture and other discrete doctrines, I am including a quote from the Council's Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio: "Today, in many parts of the world, under the inspiring grace of the Holy Spirit, many efforts are being made in prayer, word and action to attain that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires. The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism" (par. 4).

Indeed, important ecumenical strides have been made with the various Orthodox and other ancient Eastern Churches, as well as with Protestant ecclesial communions, like the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification and Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's decree on Mary. However, in the United States and increasingly in other parts of the world, even places, like Brazil, which are traditionally Catholic, we must not neglect dialogue with Evangelical Christians, even those who are Pentecostal. After all, the tension in the Church between charisma and institution is one that needs to be held balance. As Catholics we tend towards institutionalization often at the expense of authentic charismata. I am waiting for new life to be breathed into the initiative undertaken by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, which began with the declaration Catholics and Evangelicals Together.

What I see lacking in many Catholic responses to the popular YouTube video, Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus and to the expressed faith of Tim Tebow, is that many lack either the intelligence or the prudence with which we are called upon to engage in ecumenism (some lack both), not to mention charity. Let's not kid ourselves, the practice of our beautiful Catholic faith can and often does turn into an empty formalism/ritualism, something Vatican II, being a deliberately pastoral council, sought to remedy. One of the remedies was to engage with other Christians, those whom we now call our separated sisters and brothers, from whom we can learn and who can learn from us. There is nothing inevitable about falling into formalism and/or ritualism, but it is a tendency of which we need to be aware and to resist, even as we recognize how liturgy shapes, molds, and makes us. Part of the genius of Catholicism is our avoidance of false dilemmas, that is, seeking to embrace both/and instead of rigidly insisting either/or.


  1. Regarding ecumenism, I think it's best for us to look towards what we share in common and then also at the same time be respectful and acknowledge what still separates without contributing to further separation or making the separation wider still. We can still pray with our separated brethren.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. At least in this instance, because we can pray with them we should. When I hear people express distrust, dismay, skepticism about "religion" so-called I think of the Hebrew prophets, like Amos, who warned Israel about elaborate worship even while they ignored the poor, the widow, the orphan. Here again, it is a case of both/and, not either/or.

  3. I was struck by the weekend's readings in the detail that Samuel was sleeping in the sanctuary. He was not sleeping just anywhere at all or in a random place. We need to bring the heaviest burdens to the Church, literally into the church building, altogether, to work it out amongst our brothers and sisters. We go with and to and into the church because we need it.


God's love for us is tireless

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34 No doubt you've heard the saying, "There's no rest for the wicked...