The Blessing of a Wrathful God
There was (and still is) some good discussion on the weekend thread about the decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism in Latin America. One thing that keeps coming out, both in the commentary and in the Pew study that sparked it (see that post and thread here) is that many Latin Americans who leave Catholicism for Protestantism do so because Protestantism, at least in the forms they are receiving, demands something of them. It expects the men to stop being drunks and womanizers. It expects them to stop beating their wives, and to work hard and support their families. It gives them help in doing so. It changes lives in practical ways.
It’s not that Catholicism endorses drunkenness, womanizing, and the rest; it’s that for whatever reason or reasons, Latin American Catholics feel little or no pressure from their church to live by a Christian moral code in this way, and no inspiration to do so either. Why this is I cannot say. But I see that Kevin O’Brien, the Catholic writer in St. Louis, walked out of mass yesterday and wrote a jeremiad about this same thing in American Catholic churches. He calls it The Heresy of Inconsequentialism. Excerpt:
So what is this weird thing that is happening all over the country, and apparently all over the world? What is this weird religion that calls itself Catholic?
This is the religion of antichrist, of Christ without the cross.
Others have called it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but that phrase is not only awkward, it’s a misnomer. For this heresy is neither Moralistic, Therapeutic, or Deist.
There is nothing Moralistic about the Suburban Parish Mass at all. Universal salvation is offered to everyone, regardless of your ethical beliefs or practices. There’s nothing Therapeutic going on there, either. Any good therapist challenges his patient to get better, and not to continue wallowing in his addictions and bad choices; I’ve never heard any homily or modern hymn do anything like that; we are always affirmed right where we are. And this whole thing isn’t exactly Deism, for there is a personal God in the mix and we do more or less pray to Him, or at least we try to if the music isn’t too loud.
So what is this sick and bizarre heresy that we find in the vast majority of Catholic parishes, especially in the suburbs, that we find in Mainline Protestant churches and that the “Progressives” at the Synod on the Family are pushing? If it’s not really Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, what is it?
The whole thing is here. I sense that O’Brien is frustrated with this idea going around that the problem with the Catholic Church is that too many trads and conservatives are behaving too judgmentally, keeping folks away. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, of course, but in my own 13 years as a Catholic, the absolutely opposite was true. I can only think of one parish I was part of where the priest ever preached anything of substance. Ever. It was almost always mush. If I didn’t educate myself about the faith on my own, I never would have learned anything about the Catholic faith and what it meant to be a Catholic, aside from the fact that God loves me just like I am, and the only thing I need to do is accept my wonderful self as it already is.
I’m actually not exaggerating. If your experience in your parish is different, good for you. I mean that: good for you. You don’t know how rare that experience is.
I was so grateful when I was on my way into the Catholic Church for the strong, clear teachings of the Church on morality, which I received from reading Catholic books and magazines, and papal encyclicals. I was something of a mess when I sought out the Catholic faith. I needed what it had to offer me: a way out of the mess I had made and was continuing to make of my life.
And it worked. It required years of prayer, repentance, and receiving the sacraments. But it worked.
Here’s the thing: it worked in spite of parish life and pastoral guidance. I mean, it worked because I educated myself in the faith, and dedicated myself to living it out in spite of the fact that there was little or no support in the parishes I searched out.
I hasten to say that I don’t intend this post as a slam against the Catholic Church exclusively. I have to talk about it because that’s where my experience is. I have an ex-Orthodox friend who grew up in this kind of Orthodox church (he became an Evangelical). I know Protestants who came out of churches like this. When Kevin O’Brien says, “Why would any normal human being seek something like this out?”, I understand what he means. Why should anyone bother going to church where nobody demands anything of you?
For me, coming into Christianity believing that God was wrathful was a blessing. Why? Because it compelled me to face that fact that God is holy. I felt the enormous difference between myself and Him, and how sunk I was in, well, sin. People don’t like that word, but I can’t think of a better word for what I was doing. The pain I caused other people. The fool I made of myself, time and time again. The wonder that I didn’t kill myself or somebody else drunk driving. And on and on. It’s ingenious the way Dante has designed the Inferno, in the form of a downward spiral, because that’s exactly how it was for me: wheeling slowly but steadily downward. Reading Catholic books, and beginning to pray, and becoming convicted of my own sin and need for a Savior — all this caused me to become a serious Christian, and a serious Catholic Christian.
All Christians are a work in progress. I’ve written here before extensively about my own intellectual pridefulness, and how that worked to undermine me in the spiritual life. I don’t mean to say that one day I was a wreck and the next day I was great. It doesn’t work that way. What I do mean to say is that believing that God exists, and He is holy, and He will judge me — all of that sobered me up, philosophically and theologically (and otherwise), and started me on the journey toward God.
What I found, though, is that the actual Catholicism you encounter in the parish — as opposed to in what the Pope says, and in what the books tell you — doesn’t act as if there is anything to be saved from. And if that is true, well, why go to mass? Or, if you are Orthodox and your parish teaches MTD, or Inconsequentialism, why show up at liturgy? If you’re Protestant in an MTD church, what’s the point of it?
In the Divine Comedy, the pilgrim Dante moves from re-awakening to the horror of sin in the first book to encountering the blissful love of the All-Holy God in the final one. The thing is, the Divine Love is the same everywhere. God’s holiness and love feels like torture to those who separate themselves from Him. If the church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — is not helping its people to repent and change their lives by making more room in their souls for the spirit of God, then what is it for, anyway? I’m serious.
I know that believing in a wrathful God has been a curse for many, many people. A reader who hasn’t commented in a while, Matt, was raised in a fundamentalist home, where God was nothing but wrathful. He lost his faith, and I can understand why. That was a horrible, vengeful portrait of God — and, ultimately, a false one. But it is just as false as its opposite, which gives us a God who is nothing but Mr. Rogers. I loved Mr. Rogers, but he was for children. We are not children, and should not want to be kept infantilized by our religious leaders.
In the past couple of years, I have begun to understand God in a more loving way than I had before. This is a great blessing, and I wish I had been able to know this God earlier in my life as an adult Christian, but I really do give thanks for the fear of God that descended upon me in my twenties, and shook me out of my sleepwalking. What I experienced in my imagination as a wrathful God was really a loving Father who wanted to save me, and could not do that if I did not grasp how seriously far away from Him I was, and where I was headed if I didn’t turn around.
I imagine those poor people in Latin America who come to Evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity know exactly what I’m talking about. Their pains are real. Their brokenness is real. They need help changing their lives. A church that gives them that will win their hearts. Makes sense to me.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Christianity as pietism, as described in this essay by the Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras. Excerpt:
Piety loses its ontological content; and, in addition, the truth and faith of the Church is divorced from life and action, and left as a set of “principles” and “axioms” which one accepts like any other ideology. The distinction between contemplation and action, between truth and life or between dogma and morality, turns into a schizophrenic severence. The life of the Church is confined to moral obedience, religious duties and the serving of social ends. One might venture to express the situation with the paradox that, in the case of pietism, ethics corrupts the Church: it turns the criteria of the Church into worldly and conventional criteria, distorting the “great mystery of godliness” into a rationalistic social necessity. Pietistic ethics distort the liturgical and eucharistic reality of the Church, the unity in life and communion of the penitent and the perfect, sinners and saints, the first and the last; they turn the Church into an inevitably conventional, institutional corporation of people who are individually religious.
A host of people today, perhaps the majority in western societies, evaluate the Church’s work by the yardstick of its social usefulness as compared with the social work of education, penitentiary systems or even the police. The natural result is that the Church is preserved as an institution essential for morals and organized like a worldly establishment in an increasingly bureaucratic fashion. The most obvious form of secularization in the Church is the pietistic falsification of her mind and experience, the adulteration of her own criteria with moralistic considerations. Once the Church denies her ontological identity — what she really, essentially is as an existential event whereby individual survival is changed into a personal life of love and communion — then from that very moment she is reduced to a conventional form under which individuals are grouped together into an institution; she becomes an expression of man’s fall, albeit a religious one. She begins to serve the “religious needs” of the people, the individualistic emotional and psychological needs of fallen man.
I’m talking rather about the kind of sermon we got yesterday in our parish: an anticipation of the Nativity Fast, and a discussion of the importance of learning how to deny our passions to make room in our hearts from the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. This has moral implications, obviously, but it is a far, far cry from moralism, or a socially utilitarian piety. It’s about transforming your spirit and your life, and doing it together. I don’t mean to come across as boasting about my parish, but I do want to express my gratitude for teaching that week in and week out challenges me to get over myself, to turn away from all that is not God, and to allow the Holy Spirit to redeem everything in my life. I am learning to love God more than I love myself, and in so doing, learning how to love myself and others as I ought to do.
It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s supposed to be hard. But I’ve spent a long time with the other thing, and believe me, I’ll take hard, because it’s real. And it’s consequential, in that it’s the kind of faith that compels you to accept that fact that this stuff matters, and matters eternally.
Churches that think they’re going to get more people by failing to teach and preach challenging things are dreaming. And, going back to Catholic blogger Kevin O’Brien’s post, I’m with him: anybody who thinks that the problem with American Catholicism is that it’s been too morally rigorous and judgmental is out of their minds. I find myself feeling pretty bad for orthodox Catholics, both conservatives and traditionalists, bearing the brunt these days of being told that they are the problem with their Church.