When Theology Gets in the Way

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Imagine with me a website designer who is courting a potential client. The web designer possesses a certain technical knowledge that allows him to deliver a product, but it would be counterproductive for him to talk about the specifics of CSS or Java coding with his unknowledgeable client. Instead the web designer will discuss how the website will engage with customers better, will be easier to navigate, the potential new audiences reached, and other benefits associated with the new design. His sales pitch, to be effective, must concentrate more on the experiential side of things.

I think this helps to explain some of the differences between a typically Catholic vs. a typically Evangelical approach to ministry. There is a tendency for Catholics to operate within abstract theological frameworks while Evangelicals approach things from an experiential point of view. This has resulted in Evangelicals having a much better "sales record" than Catholics despite Catholics having a more robust technical/theological knowledge (to any Protestant/Evangelical readers, no disrespect is intended - please allow me a moment of unapologetic personal conviction here). Sometimes, it's our theology that gets in the way, our desire to explain things on a technical level rather than an experiential level that people can relate to.

NOT JUST A MATTER OF APPROACH

Yet I believe there is more than a difference of emphasis going on here. It's not as though Evangelicals have merely employed better marketing techniques, much less that they have employed gimmicky recruitment practices (as many Catholics have unjustly accused them of). I believe that there is a cultural heresy active in the Catholic environment that results in the erroneous downplay of experience in the life of a believer.

Let's look at some examples:

  • Someone suffers from shame over past sins. We tell them not to worry, that if you've confessed your sin then you've been forgiven. So don't worry about your feelings, what's really important is that you've been forgiven.
  • Someone says they feel like they don't have a personal relationship with God, or that they feel more distant from God lately. We tell them about how everyone experiences dryness in prayer, that this is normal, and that the important thing in your relationship with God is to be consistent in doing your prayer, to seek the God of consolations not the consolations of God.
  • The same Jesus who healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, said to his disciples, "You will do greater deeds than these" (John 14:12). We reference St. Thomas Aquinas saying that the forgiveness of sins is a greater act of power than the original act of creation, so if you bring even one person to confession you've done a greater thing than all of Jesus' miracles combined.

If I've offended anyone, let me clarify that technically speaking I agree with every one of the statements above. HOWEVER, I believe statements like these frequently mask a cultural heresy that puts limits on the goodness of God, that relegates His actions to the merely metaphysical level. It is a sort of dualism that separates the hidden, inner spiritual life of man from his conscious experience.

What is needed is a more integrated view, one where our expectation is that, in the normal course of things, these inner realities will radiate out into conscious experience. Those who have received the Spirit through Baptism, for instance, should expect to see the Fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) - become more and more present in their lives. Everyone has ups and downs, but these should be taken as the norm in the life of a Christian, and the lack of these for an extended period should be viewed as problematic, symptomatic of an area of life that needs to be touched by God's grace and the Resurrection of Jesus.

A LARGER CONVERSATION

I am a little overwhelmed at the number of things I would like to say on this subject, but it occurs to me that any direction I consider branching off in has been treated very well elsewhere. Here are some excellent articles that expand on this conversation:

  • In Carole Brown's phenomenal article in HPR, she defends the importance of having a conscious, experiential personal relationship with Jesus. She also touches on Pope John Paul II's decision to incorporate a phenomenological (loosely equivalent to "experiential") approach in his teachings. Admitting that it was an insufficient ground for a systematic theology, he nevertheless upheld its importance to the work of theology and evangelization.  See The Problem with "Not" Having a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
  • Towering intellect Alice von Hildebrand discusses the Catholic discomfort with "feelings" in her article In Defense of Feelings.  She writes, "Today, more than one respectable thinker wages war on emotions, considering them enemies that must be fought in order to liberate ourselves from their tyranny. I challenge this view. Indeed, such a position is incompatible with the Catholic ethos as exemplified in the liturgy, the lives of the saints, and great Catholic literature."
  • I think that what I have described as a cultural heresy is closely related to the culture of silence that Sherry Weddell talks about in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. Both cultures display an unhealthy uneasiness among Catholics regarding personal experience. She writes, "Many, if not a majority of, Catholics don't know what 'normal' Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about...their relationship with God except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"
  • What does it look like to take a more experiential approach? This Pastoral Quotient article on declaratory prayer is a great starting point for inviting identity to become experience.
  • In one of our youth ministry meetings last year, I gave a talk that I titled Learning God's Character which touches on similar themes. Metaphysics deals with the nature of God, but relationship deals with how we view His character. Learning the character of God is therefore critical to making an accurate interpretation of your experience.