That’s the question posed in an article by Jonathan Fitzgerald (of Patrol fame) for Religion Dispatches. The question is meant to answer why so many evangelical millenials are joining the Roman Catholic Church. I first posted the essay on my facebook page because, though I’m rather happy chilling in Geneva with the other Presbyterians, a great many of my peers in evangelicalism have only found a church home when they crossed the Tiber and returned to Rome. And, if I’m honest, there are times where such a move appeals to me too. In response to the article, one friend commented on the posting that it seems like the whole essay – and the Augustine question in particular – is simply a more sophisticated way of saying, “Augustine was smart, Southern Baptists are dumb, so I’m going to Rome.” To my friend, it’s just hipster posturing motivated by pretty buildings and tradition. In fact, it’s really just another tired Christian ploy where we argue amongst ourselves about who has the “pure” form of Christianity. So really, we’re no better than the fundamentalists that Christian hipsters like to mock on a regular basis.
There is a strong element of truth to the criticism. There is something profoundly unoriginal in the so-called new evangelicalism. In fact, that’s the primary thesis of Matt Anderson’s essay The New Evangelical Scandal that first appeared in The City a couple years ago. In many ways the changes from old-style, fundamentalist evangelicalism and the 2.0 hipsterism of today are merely cosmetic. That’s a perceptive critique and one that young evangelicals, especially those dissatisfied enough to cross the Tiber, would do well to hear.
But there is more to the Augustine question than the pretentious posturing of disillusioned evangelical 20-somethings. There is a very real and substantive difference between the Christianity of Rome and what I’m going to call the Christianity of Houston. The difference comes down to the question of how Christians ought to respond to modernity. The answers given by Houston (which I’m using as a symbol for 20th century American evangelicalism) and Rome couldn’t be more different. In the case of Houston, we’ve capitulated completely to modernism, a move strongly encouraged by the American approach to religion which severs any ties between church and state, functionally making religion a marketable good. It places various strands of religious belief in a free market and forces them to compete with each other. So today we have a Christian arms race to see who can build the biggest auditorium, get the hippest worship band, or come up with the catchiest ad campaign. In this way, American Christianity has capitulated to modernity in the most important sense. Their way of seeing is fundamentally modernistic, driven by the free market and rationalism. Everything is a consumer good to be marketed, a thing’s value comes from its measurable and statistical significance. It’s a mechanistic world-view that makes everything we see and experience merely another cog in the larger mechanical structure. Yet as they’ve capitulated to the big picture of modernity, they’ve tried to fight against particular teachings of it, especially modernity’s sexual ethics and science. The net result is a critique of modernity that is superficial, ephemeral, and baseless. It yields an evangelicalism that, sadly, is often characterized by a foundational philosophical incoherence that hamstrings any effort to develop a robust Christian identity. It’s like the “localist” university prof who sits in his comfortable suburb office and denounces urban sprawl.
Rome’s attitude toward modernity is precisely the opposite. Where modernity has offered helpful ideas, they’ve accepted them. (Note their current attitude toward science and evolution, which couldn’t be a starker contrast from that of American evangelicalism. Certainly, they’ve had their problems historically – queue the canned Galileo argument from the New Atheists – but contemporary Catholicism is very friendly to science.) But on the whole, Rome has tried to hold modernity at a distance wherever possible. In it they saw a rationalistic world-view that tried to reduce everything down to that which we can know through our five senses. On this point, they formed a staunch – and, I think, quite formidable – defense buttressed by the impressive writings of countless Catholic intellectuals, of whom Chesterton is perhaps the most well-known. Rome has preserved a pre-modern way of seeing, which makes them relevant to generations living in the world after modernity. Their view of the world as pervasively haunted by the voice of God accords well with the sort of world described by James Wright or Willa Cather. There is more to the world than what we can handle with our senses. But this doesn’t invalidate what we handle with our senses, rather, it fills that physicality with new significance. Consider the incarnation: Jesus – God, himself – becomes a physical, tangible human being.
The haunted view of the world doesn’t negate the physical, it glorifies it. Rome’s is a way of seeing that is mysterious, beautiful, and life-altering. It encourages us to walk gently on the earth and delight in its many mysteries. In short, it’s an emotionally healthy way of seeing the world and living in it.
So when the many of us that grew up in Houston reach a point of disillusionment with Houston’s modernistic captivity, there is a natural attraction to Rome. C.S. Lewis writes about it in his account of his conversion, Surprised by Joy.
Now that I was reading more English, the paradox (of an atheist like Lewis being charmed by Christian literature and bored by the skeptics) began to be aggravated. I was deeply moved by the Dream of the Rood; more deeply still by Langland; intoxicated (for a time) by Donne; deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne. But the most alarming of all was George Herbert. Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called “the Christian mythology.” On the other hand most of the authors who might be claimed as precursors of modern enlightenment seemed to me very small beer and bored me cruelly. I thought Bacon (to speak frankly) a solemn, pretentious ass, yawned my way through Restoration Comedy, and, having manfully struggled on to the last line of Don Juan, wrote on the end leaf “Never again.” The only non-Christians who seemed to me to really know anything were the Romantics; and a good many of them were dangerously tinged with something like religion, even at times with Christianity. The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson — Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.
For most of us, even though we grew up in ostensibly Christian settings, it was a superficial, surface-level Christianity. The way we saw the world was not fundamentally shaped by our faith except on a short list of specific issues like homosexuality, abortion, the nation of Israel, and our assumption that everyone we met was lost and bound for Hell. But in the way we saw our jobs or our morning commute or our back yards… Christianity was silent. It was tedious, mindless, and dreadfully dull. Then we come to Rome and everything is charged with beauty, grandeur, and glory. And though many of us were raised in churches whose anti-Catholicism borders on bigotry, we find ourselves saying, Rome may be wrong, but all the rest are bores. When I look at the world, I can’t help believing that I’m looking at more than particles absurdly crashing together. In fact, the suggestion that it’s no more than that strikes me as almost blasphemous. Yet modernity would have me think that is all there is. And, sure, those particles can be damn interesting sometimes. I’m not suggesting we abandon all things modern. The scientific revolution was a gift and I’m profoundly grateful for it. I’m not suggesting that the world is less than particles crashing together. It’s certainly that and we should do everything we can to understand those particles and why they crash the way they do. I’m simply suggesting that it’s more than just that.
And that is why so many of us go to Rome.
Of course, I say all of this as a Reformed Presbyterian who – more and more – feels very much at home in this tradition. I have a great deal of respect for Rome, yet I stay in Geneva. I’ll explain why in a future post.