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The Church, or Christ?

A Catholic priest once told me something an older priest said to him at a party for his archdiocese’s seminarians headed off to study at the North American College in Rome: “Those poor boys. They leave here in love with Jesus, and come home in love with the Church.”

I thought about that reading the Orthodox priest Andrew Stephen Damick’s blog entry about people who proclaim Orthodoxy without much Christ involved. Fr. Damick writes:

I saw one commenter want to call everything in the Church “the Gospel,” including relics. But that only works as a sort of metaphor, not as a precise action. Can you hand someone a relic and say, “There, I have preached the Gospel”? Or can you teach them about fasting and say, “There, I have preached the Gospel”?

And whenever I see the Gospel metaphorized like that without explicitly including speaking actual words conveying the actual good news, I know that the Gospel has been turned into a metaphor that means everything but actual good news. It may be good, but the “news” has been lost somewhere.

There is a famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi (but probably not spoken by him): “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

I have grown very much to dislike that saying, because it’s being used by many to mean, “Don’t go and preach the Gospel. Go live a good life and mind your own business. Maybe someone will ask you about it.” Yes, of course, our lives ought to reflect our belief in the Gospel, but we cannot leave that belief wordless. Preaching is fundamentally about language. You don’t see the Apostles going into all the world and setting a good example and hoping that maybe someone will ask about Jesus.

If your model of evangelism precludes what the Apostles did, then your model of evangelism has a problem.


Some may regard this approach as Protestant somehow, that we’re “leaving out” the Church in our preaching and setting up an individualized salvation. But it’s not. Or, if it is, then the Apostles are also guilty of that. But they’re not.

No, this approach is to put what should be first actually to be first. There is an order to these things. We preach Christ, and if someone is converted, then all these other things will make sense and will develop their spiritual lives to move beyond the initial conversion to the deepening transformation.

If we teach someone how to make the sign of the cross but never tell them what happened on the Cross, then we have a problem. If we preach what happened on the Cross but don’t happen to mention making the sign of the cross, there isn’t a problem. Learning the sign of the cross can come later as part of what it means to live out all that Jesus commanded.

Read the whole thing. One of Fr. Damick’s readers, a new convert to Orthodoxy, wrote in response:

Orthodox Christians, particularly converts, spend a LOT of time talking about being Orthodox but very little time about how that has affected them spiritually. Lots of conversion stories, very few transformation stories. Lots of apostolic succession and other “I’m in the True Church” affirmations but little about how they have drawn closer to God and their fellows since entering it. Just what does having “the fullness of the Christian Faith” mean if not communion with God and others within the Body of Christ, and how this spills over into the world? These testimonies should bubble out of excited, grateful followers of Christ — there would be no way to stop it. I want Orthodoxy to be more than an identity or a label. I want Christ.

Boy, is that true. I think it’s an immature convert thing. That’s exactly the kind of Catholic convert I was. It was not the Catholic Church’s fault, any more than Orthodox converts behaving this way is the Orthodox Church’s fault. In my case, as a Catholic convert, I found it so much easier to talk about the Catholic part than the Christ part. Don’t misunderstand: ideally, there should be no difference. But of course, there was. I fell in love with the Church, and lost sight of Christ — and I didn’t know that I had done this until I was put to the test.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Had I been a strict churchman and less of a Christian, I would have joined the circle-the-wagons crowd in the face of the scandal. I didn’t. But as I have said many times, if I had spent more time doing the things actual Catholic Christians are supposed to do — pray a lot, read the Bible, do works of charity, tell people about Jesus and how he is changing my life — instead of reading and arguing about Catholicism™, I would have been much more resilient in the face of trial. By the time I washed ashore in Orthodox Christianity, I had no fight in me left to be a professional Orthodox. It’s not that I don’t believe in the Orthodox Christian faith — I do, I really do — but rather that I have been down the path of self-deception, in which I told myself I was serving Christ when in fact I was serving the idol of the Church: an idol I created.

Why do people do this? Why did I do this as a Catholic? I don’t really know. For me, as an adult convert, I found that talking directly about Jesus made me really uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my faith. In fact, I can recall specific instances in which I took a stand that earned me mockery, and even contempt. It was, I think, that I was afraid of sounding like a stereotypical Evangelical. (I mean no insult to my Evangelical friends and readers by that; I’m trying to be honest about the kind of Christian I was in those days.) I recall speaking openly about Jesus when I was in intimate settings with Catholic friends, but I had such an emotional aversion to doing so publicly. I’m not sure why, to be frank.

Evangelicals talking openly about Christ in public made me uneasy, in a way that doesn’t nowadays. I wonder if it was about respectability for me? I bet it was, to a large extent. Remember, I came into the Catholic faith at age 26, in Washington, DC, where I worked as a journalist. In the broad circles in which I ran those days, it was not respectable, exactly, to be a committed Christian of any kind, but it was understandable to be a Catholic. They had about them an air of mystery and intellectual seriousness. Secular people I would meet might think the Catholic Church was a harmful and hidebound institution, but they often had a grudging respect for it, even as they couldn’t stand it. From my late teenage years, the time I began to consider Christianity as a serious option for myself, there really was no doubt that if I was going to be a Christian, a Catholic Christian was the only kind I could be (Orthodoxy wasn’t even on my radar). I’m embarrassed to admit this today, closing in on 50, but a bigger part of it than I wish were the case felt this way because of the intellectual dis-respectability of Evangelicalism, as I saw it.

Don’t misread me here. I think there really are dimensions to Catholic (and Orthodox) Christianity that are very hard to find in other expressions of the Christian faith. But all that depth and complexity won’t do you any good if it doesn’t lead you to a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. I have to admit that back then, in my 20s, as a new Catholic convert, I had a sneaking admiration for Evangelicals. Fairly or not, their piety struck me as simplistic and at times annoying, but they had something I lacked: confidence, and a lack of shame about their faith. I had to dress my commitment up in all the church robes and incense and philosophical categories to make it acceptable to myself, in public.

The crashing and burning of my Catholicism was also the end of whatever Christless Christianity I had, though I didn’t know it at the time. As an Orthodox, I sometimes feel like I don’t show enough solidarity with the team, so to speak, in my public writing. But then I remember that the disorder of putting the Church before Christ had a lot to do with why I lost my Catholic faith. Fr. Damick, in his blog post, clarified for me what had only been intuitive and half-understood.

I remember last autumn, standing outside the Benedictine monastery in Norcia after having spent the better part of an hour alone in prayer in the crypt chapel, and thinking something along the lines of: Look, I deeply believe this stuff. God is real, and Jesus is alive. I don’t care what other people think: I’m going to say what I believe to be true.

It took a long time, and a winding path, but I finally had the pride and the snobbery knocked out of me so that I could find within myself the courage of an Evangelical — and for that, I’m grateful. I think a lot more of us Catholics and Orthodox should be Evangelical in our Catholicism and our Orthodoxy.

To be sure, I’m no more likely today to try to convert anyone by direct appeal than I ever was. I find myself incapable of that way of “witnessing,” not because I am embarrassed by Jesus, but because those kinds of conversations make me uncomfortable for other reasons. When I was irreligious, I hated it when people tried to have those conversations with me. They felt so intimate, and I didn’t believe that any would-be evangelizer had earned the right to have those kinds of conversations with me. They made me think that the evangelizer was trying to instrumentalize the possibility of friendship, i.e., was talking to me not because he had any interest in getting to know me, but because he wanted something from me: my conversion. Instead, the Christians who were most attractive to me, and who helped inspire me to become like them, were those who were open about their faith in the sense of living as if God made a visible different in their lives, and they didn’t hide or downplay the source of their joy. When asked about it — and you wanted to ask, eventually — they were happy to talk about it. Again, though, this was me; your mileage may vary.

The most “Evangelical” thing I’ve ever done was write the How Dante Can Save Your Lifebook, in which I was unreservedly open, even in a raw way, about what God did for me. There’s one event I recount in the book, a mystical one, that I hesitated to include, because I thought people are going to think I’ve gone round the bend with this. But I left it in there because it was enormously important to the story, and it really did happen. I have found in giving talks about the book that I am less reserved in speaking about this stuff than I ever have been. Still, the intimacy that conversations about soul matters requires is hard for me to achieve off the printed page.

I’m not sure that what afflicted me explains what’s going on with the “Christless Orthodoxy people Fr. Damick criticizes. Generally speaking, I think a lot of these folks are people who turn to the Church — meaning theology, philosophy, liturgy, and all the trappings of ecclesial life — as an indirect way to insulate themselves from the terror of an actual encounter with the living God. In a muted and roundabout way, that’s what I did. As Fr. Damick explains, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things of the Church, but they are only valuable insofar as they point us to that transformative encounter with the divine. I addressed this point in How Dante:

The coffee shop was alive with the burble of conversation and the hiss of the espresso machine, but I could barely hear it. Something was happening within me. I pulled out of my book bag an English version of Dante’s first book, Vita Nuova, a gift from its translator, Andrew Frisardi. Something I had read there about the difference between idols and icons aided my understanding earlier in the journey. I found the passage again and read:

An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the sense, to direct communion with the intelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon—our approach to it is what makes the difference.

This insight had clarified earlier to me the nature of my disordered relationship with family and place. Now it expanded my understanding of my basic condition. It wasn’t simply that I saw family, place, and religion as idols—that is, as ends in themselves—but that my distorted vision prevented me from seeing them as they really were: as icons, damaged though they may be, through which the light of God shone. They were not ends, but imperfect means to the perfect end: God.

Here was the means of escaping the dark wood: reorienting my inner vision to see the world around me as an icon, not an idol. I had to judge all things by the degree to which the light of God shines through them, and to which they serve as a sign pointing toward God.

And I had to turn myself into an icon. That is to say, as long as I sought my ultimate good through increasing my pleasure and decreasing my pain, I would be serving the idol I had made of my own ego, not serving God.

I was not yet certain what that would entail, but I knew I could do it.

Fr. Damick’s blog post above derived from an earlier one in which he proclaimed the discomfiting truth that Orthodoxy in America is terrible at evangelizing. He said, in part:

I even once heard a presentation from no less than the head of the Department of Evangelization of one Orthodox jurisdiction whose primary advice in how to grow parishes was “Just be the Church.” When pressed for an explanation for this nebulous advice, it came out that he meant that one should set up a parish and start doing services, then just wait for people to show up. (Of course, it wasn’t mentioned that this priest’s own success in leading a successful parish might have been conditioned by being an English-speaking church plant in a rapidly-expanding local economy with a huge influx of new residents.)

If you liturgize it, they will come. Come and see. The services will teach them everything. Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved, right?

As you may imagine, that kind of sloganeering does not much appeal to me, because it at least seems to me that its underlying message is “You don’t have to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. You don’t have to teach people the Gospel message.” Of course, those sayings do have good meanings, but they’re being misapplied.

They’re often treated like magic—get people in the door, and God will do the rest through the magical magnificence of Orthodoxy’s aesthetic power, which assumes, of course, that your parish is well-appointed with iconography, the choir is excellent, etc. We do indeed need to work to make sure that there’s something worth coming and seeing—it’s not magic—but even if we do all that, if we do not have the Gospel, none of that will really matter.

We need to expose that attitude for what it is—a distortion of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox tradition is missionary, and it is catechetical. We often talk about the Fathers, but I am not sure how many people read them. If they did, they would discover that the Fathers are missionary and they are catechetical. And the starting point for both those actions is the Gospel.

Preaching the Gospel and teaching the newly-baptized disciples of Jesus all that He commanded is the very last thing the Lord Jesus told us to do before He ascended into Heaven. So it’s not really an option.

 Read the whole thing. I have heard that “just be the Church” line a lot. Reading Father Damick’s earlier post, I realized that I am the sort of person on whom “just be the Church” is more likely to work. But then, I am and always have been an intense seeker, one whose spirituality is heavily grounded in aesthetic experience. I am an outlier.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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