Rorate Caeli

Knowledge and Redemption

The Sunday before Christmas, in addition to Sunday Mass at my regular parish, I attended services at a small, protestant church, of the Church of God denomination (if this is the right nomenclature). The reason why isn’t important, but the experience itself was – it made me both depressed and thoughtful.

The people were open and friendly. Down in the small basement cafeteria they talked and sipped coffee, while upstairs the kids completed last minute rehearsals for their Christmas production.

The service began with a few Christmas carols, followed by a “few words” from one of the elders. He talked about how hard the pastor worked and how much he deserved a generous Christmas donation. A collection was taken. He emphasized the importance of writing all checks for tithes to the pastor rather than to the church itself (IRS considerations). Another collection was taken. He noted that the Christmas prayer service would take place on the 21st so that the pastor and his family could travel out of state for Christmas.

Then came the children, who performed less with enthusiasm than with a grim sense of purpose. There were maybe a dozen of them, dressed in white sheets, waving tinsel and “dancing” to a very loud, rock-style praise song.

Finally, the pastor spoke for several minutes, proclaiming the birth of Jesus to a piano accompaniment. As his tone grew deeper and more emotional, schnibbles of bread and plastic thimbles of grape juice were passed out and consumed, and a few minutes later, it was over.

What is a Catholic to make of this? I don’t mean to speak uncharitably of these folk, or of others who believe as they do, but, to put it with my usual lack of delicacy, how is it possible for good people to settle for so little? In the end, gathered in the small, sparsely furnished room, beneath a bare cross, these disciples had only the warmth of their fellowship to sustain them. A fellowship based on what? On a sense of shared knowledge, or shared access, that is not available to an outsider? But surely, any group has that!

I would put it this way, and I hope that in doing so I am not exhibiting a blundering lack of charity, for I know enough about these folks to know that they are good, and goodness ought not to be disparaged. In the Mass, the first action is an acknowledgement of sin. After the readings and the homily, prayers of supplication are offered. Our sins and our helplessness – our utter unworthiness – is expressed beneath the tortured body of Christ. But after all that, we arise and receive the Body and Blood. What have we done, what could we possibly do, to deserve such a gift? Nothing – of course.

In that spare little church, however, the salvific arc was greatly attenuated. The prayers were well said, but the Body was merely bread, the Blood merely grape juice. The service was an observance only. And that is sad. It bespeaks an attitude whereby salvation is a done deal, an almost contractual guarantee, something that happened twenty centuries ago, and now remains only to be commemorated by the congregation’s optional presence, and by its participation in a purely symbolic gesture. We know what we know. Thin gruel indeed.

Referring to the protestant spirituality of the American south in the early 19th century, the non-believing “religious critic” Harold Bloom remarks in his book, The American Religion, that “depravity is only a lack of saving knowledge”. Conversely, then, lack of depravity is only possession of saving knowledge. Redemption is in the "knowing". Once you know what you know, however, is nothing more required? If not, then the gate is considerably wider than the Savior indicated, and the gatekeeper is a gnostic.

4 comments:

Author said...

As an exercise, I suggest you write a description of the (current) Catholic mass seen through the eyes of one of these Church of God pentacostals.

Their theology equates the warm fuzzy feelings generated by participating in the service with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

For them the mass is a lifeless, mechanical exercise - empty ritual. The expressions of Catholic piety that they see strike them as joyless, as superstition. Haven't Catholics heard the good news? If they have why don't they act like it, etc., etc. There is a little half-hearted singing. They read some from the Bible but they don't really preach the gospel. Nobody ever gets saved at the mass. The pastor gets up, stands behind the table and reads from a book. The people line up to receive the communion bread, sing a little bit and go home as fast as they can.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Charles,
Fair enough – sauce for the goose. You have already written a more effective description of “the (current) Catholic mass seen through the eyes of one of these Church of God pentacostals” than I am likely to manage, so I will work with that.

Much of what you say is a judgment upon the slovenly inattention of individuals, rather than on the Mass itself. Slovenly, inattentive individuals are not unique to Catholicism, of course. Pentacostals have them too. Usually, they stay home.

The remaining criticisms – “empty ritual”, supernaturalism, etc. – are familiar enough, and often issue from wayward priests and bishops within our own Church.

I’m sure you can guess my response: the pentacostal criticism, in the main, boils down to a perceived lack of enthusiasm (in the Knoxian sense). They choose to blame this on a defective ritual. However, I suspect that, to the pentacostal enthusiast, all ritual is defective, more or less, because it tends to confine his enthusiasm. For the Catholic, “enthusiasm” guarantees nothing. Enthusiasm can be forced, faked, or generated by the wrong things. For every slack-jawed, non-singing Catholic, I’m sure there’s a pentacostal forcing himself to appear animated, enthusiastic, and “on fire”, because that is what communal peer pressure demands, though of course they choose to think of it as the action of the Holy Spirit. But enough point-counterpoint: as your remarks imply, we are to some extent misunderstanding and talking past one another.

Author said...

I agree with everything you say but I would add this thought.

I don't think the case against enthusiasm works to convert enthusiasts. The reason is that their faith, as expressed by them, is too closely tied up with the happy feelings they are "addicted" to for their spiritual life. When you tie this kind of thinking to the prosperity gospel and to premillenial notions of believers escaping the tribulation through the rapture the notion of suffering with Christ withers.

A pentacostal of this type has got to start asking hard questions and many of them are not intellectual people.

Another route to conversion is close friendship or marriage, where they can learn about Catholic piety up close over a long period of time.

Compared to Calvinistic fundamentalists I think they are more open to images, Mary, and the communion of saints. Like Catholics and unlike cessationists they believe in miracles, pray for them and expect them.

I know that many of them have a deep and genuine faith in Christ which we should always respect while praying that they will know the fullness of his Church this side of heaven.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Charles,
Thank you for these comments. In this blog entry I was attempting to understand, intellectually, an experience of a couple Sundays ago. Your thoughts, and your gentle caution, are most appreciated.

I would like to develop the last paragraph of that entry at greater length at some point. That particular egg is not yet ready to hatch, but when it is, if it is, I would especially value your input.