In The American Scene, Ross Douthat has written a very insightful response to a “searing indictment of contemporary Christian mores,” as he characterizes it, recently published in Books and Culture.
The Books and Culture article, by theology professor Ronald J. Sider, which appears in the January/February issue of the magazine and is available online, is called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” and points out the great difference between what contemporary American evangelical Christians profess to believe and how they behave. Sider cites the now-familiar statistics about tithing, divorce, premarital sex, racism, etc. which show that American evangelical Christians are on the whole only slightly less sinful, according to evangelical doctrines, than other Americans. Sider observes that those churchgoers with the strongest Christian beliefs tend to live less sinful lives. Hence, the answer, Sider says, is to strengthen the faith of individual believers. Sider exhorts his fellow Christians to develop a “longing for holiness” and pray for a revival within the church that will strengthen individuals’ beliefs.
It is an interesting article and one well worth reading, but Douthat’s analysis of the piece goes to the heart of the matter: the Calvinist origins of American evangelicalism—
“In Protestantism [Douthat writes], and particularly among those churches with a Calvinist stamp, this reality of perptual fallen-ness has often clashed with the emphasis on a single ‘born-again’ moment, and with the expectation that once a Christian gains true faith, works will inevitably follow. The presence of sinfulness in a Christian community thus becomes an indictment of the community’s faithfulness — and this, in turn leads to what you might call the ‘cycle of Protestantism,’ in which purity-seeking believers are constantly founding new sects and religious colonies, which expand and thrive but also drift away from their original moral austerity, leading in turn to splinter movements and the founding of a newer, smaller, more austere communities (as New Haven was founded, for instance, as a refuge from the increasing worldliness of Puritan Boston).
“Or alternatively, the inevitable slide into moral laxity leads to a cycle of revivals, in which the community recommits itself to religious rigor for a time, only to drift away again eventually, setting the stage for another revival — and so on, ad infinitum. And through it all, as the sects and splinter movements multiply, there remains an unspoken belief among the Calvinistically-inclined — a belief, I might add, that permeates Sider’s article — that a more perfect community, a true and permanent ‘City on the Hill,’ is just another revival away.
“The Catholic Church, by contrast, takes a rather more tragic view of Christian imperfectability (a necessity, a Protestant might say snidely, given the Church’s long history of Grand Inquisitors and Borgia Popes). Catholicism has its saints, of course, but they are exceptions to the rule — the community of believers is understood to be a community of sinners, not a society of the perfected. The signs and signifiers of the divine reside not in the all-to[o]-human Catholics who show up (or don’t) at Mass on Sundays, but in the mystical materials of the Church itself — in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments. There is an expectation that everyone will pray and strive for the sainthood that Sider urges on American Evangelicals, but it’s joined to an awareness that most people aren’t going to make it. (Hence Purgatory, incidentally . . .)
“The difficulty with the Catholic approach, though I think it’s the right one, is that a recognition of the pervasiveness and permanence of sin can easily be elided into a winking, ‘it’s-not-so-bad’ acceptance of sin. And we all know where that got us.”
Douthat is entirely correct in his observation that cause of the disjunction between American Christians’ beliefs and actions is to be found in evangelicalism’s Calvinist origins, and that the weakness of Sider’s case is his inability to get past that, which means that all he can do is call for more of the same, another revival within the church. The cycle must continue, if we follow Sider’s reasoning.
The moral problem of Calvinism is a theological problem, however, and it is this. All Christians agree that human beings are inherently sinful, and all agree that God is the source of all good things, and of all good works by human beings. Hence, sanctification—the process of cleansing a person and making them holy—follows salvation, not the other way around. (That is to say, a person is not made acceptable to God—holy, clean, sinless—and then saved by God. God saves a person and then begins the process of cleansing and purifying that will be perfected upon each individual’s death and entrance into Heaven.)
However, what I call the “magic moment” thesis of evangelical Christianity, in which a person participates in his own salvation in a sense, by “choosing” to “accept God into his life through faith in Christ” puts a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian. A Christian, according to Calvinism, must knowingly accept God. That sounds fine and sensible at first hearing, but if it is true, then inevitably a person is an active participant in his own salvation. If salvation requires both God’s will and an individual’s assent—even if we accept the premise, as Calvinists do, that assent will come only if God wishes it—the individual’s act is still an essential part of the process.
The situation with good works is the same. Calvinists, correctly believing that church membership is not a sufficient proof of one’s salvation, conclude that, as the apostle James noted, an individual’s works are the evidence of one’s relationship with God. Well and good. Unfortunately, the onus is then on each individual Christian to show the world that they are right with God. And here is the problem: given that the individual’s assent to God’s will is a central element in salvation, then it would seem that at least to some degree an individual’s struggles with sin are not entirely in God’s hands. After all, one must consent to being made holy. And if one is not entirely holy, who is at fault? Surely not God, who is all-powerful and perfectly good. The one who is at fault is the individual whose inherent depravity has caused him to resist God’s efforts to sanctify him.
That is indeed the truth about sin, as all Christians would agree. The problem, of course, is that there is no way out of this trap once one enters it. The individual is responsible for his or her own sins, and although God has already forgiven them (as a consequence of the magic moment), no amount of human effort can fully dislodge the sinful impulses from an individual and stop their evil consequences.
Catholicism, as Douthat notes, has an answer. I should say that God’s Word provides us with the answer, which Catholics and other pre-Calvin Christian denominations (such as Lutheranism) have not forgotten. It is this: the effectiveness of the Sacraments. Douthat notes that Catholics see God as working “in the mystical materials of the Church itself — in doctrine, in scripture, and above all in the sacraments,” but it is important to note that evangelicals accept the first two completely but have a distinctly different understanding of the sacraments. To them, the sacrament of baptism is an individual’s response to salvation, which happens during the moment in which he accepts Christ into his heart.
Communion, similarly, for Calvinist-influenced Christians is a Christian’s response to God: it is not a way for God to put something directly into the individual (specifically, the True Presence of the Lord in His body and blood), but rather a way for an individual to show God his personal devotion and witness to others that God is real and cares for each person, an act which God will reward by strengthening that person’s faith.
For Christians with pre-Calvinist assumptions, however, the sacraments are real. (We do differ on the number of the sacraments, but all agree on at least two: baptism and communion.) For pre-Calvinist Christians, as I shall call this group for short, God actually works His power in us through the sacraments.
In baptism, the Holy Spirit of God is placed in the individual, and he or she is stamped as a child of God. The individual is taken into the Church universal, the body of Christ, and is thereafter perfectly free to stay or leave. But the actual entry does not require any action on the part of the believer. No act of assent is necessary. Hence, in pre-Calvinist thinking, the Christian has truly had no part whatsoever in his or her salvation. No one can take any credit for being saved, nor for any good works they do, nor even for remaining in the Church.
Of course, as Ross noted, this can give people a tendency toward latitudinarianism, given that all is so easily forgiven.
However, that need not be so, because of the other major sacrament: communion.
In communion, the presence of Christ is in the bread and wine (consubstantiation), or the elements are turned into the real body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), and when a sincerely penitent believer partakes of them, that strength of God is placed in them anew. Here, too, God is doing all the work. Yes, the believers must confess their sins (privately to a priest or publicly in the liturgy), but God is truly doing the work of renewal.
I recall that Flannery O’Connor once said of evangelicals’ idea about communion, “Well, if it’s just symbolic, then I don’t want no part of it!”
I can understand why, and in her charmingly tart way O’Connor set forth a crucial reason for the perennial laments about the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience among evangelicals themselves. Evangelical theology places a huge amount of responsibility on the individual Christian, who is, after all, no more than a highly fallible human being who has been redeemed by God and remains always a work in progress. Pre-Calvinist Christians can proceed to the altar for refreshment and renewal, and need bring nothing to the table but their sincere repentance.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, after that “magic moment” in which they ask Christ to come into their life, are perpetually under the gun. Once saved, good works are supposed to follow inevitably, and every failure is a failure of the individual, certainly not of God.
All Christians agree that any sin is a consequence of human depravity, not a shortcoming of God’s power or mercy. For evangelicals, however, there is no supernatural recourse, as there is for pre-Calvinist Christians. One can only continue try to try harder. And as both Ronald Sider and Ross Duthout note, at some point such self-sanctification becomes too great a burden to bear.
Given that evangelicals do indeed believe in the supernatural, I would suggest that there is a viable alternative to their agonizing “cycle of Protestantism.” That is to recognize that there is true power in the sacraments. It will require a rethinking of very important doctrines, and it will surely subject both the individual and the Church to new hazards borne of human sin; but it will also, in the wonderfully paradoxical way that God often works, remove a great and unhappy impediment to Christians’ achievement of “the peace that passes all understanding.”
I’d consider that a trade well worth making.