Not Your Average Baptist, Methinks

At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for a good conversion story.  The tale Dr. David Gushee shares in his posting is a moving account of a soul moving toward the open arms of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It conjured for me the youthful memories I share with him of what this encounter was like: “a rush of excitement, relief, and tears,” and on the other side of that moment, the realization that something had changed, and that consequently my life would have to change along with it.  It was glorious!  And while I no longer feel the language of ‘inviting Jesus into one’s heart’ in that classic, sinner’s-prayer-way is necessary for souls to enjoy union with Christ, I do think every soul (even and maybe especially those baptized as infants) should enjoy a moment of developmental maturity where suddenly one’s walk with the Lord becomes one’s own. 

It would be tiresome here to discuss the obvious ways that Catholics and Baptists disagree.  Dr. Gushee does, however, invite an interesting discussion about how his walk in the Baptist tradition is rather atypical.  While it could be described as the position of at least some Baptists that Catholics may be going straight to hell, or that Catholicism is a pagan cult masquerading as Christianity, Dr. Gushee has embraced certain aspects or practices of Catholicism in his response to my original posting.  He doesn’t get explicit about what this looks like, but it certainly makes a more welcoming space to talk about places where our traditions could enrich each other than some Baptists I’ve encountered.  

A concerning observation of the Baptist tradition for me (which Dr. Gushee mostly eludes) is a certain individualist bent.  The “me, Jesus and the Bible” take on Christianity that I’ve witnessed at times doesn’t resonate with my experience of what it means to submit to something larger than myself in the form of Holy Mother Church.  And yet, Dr. Gushee seems NOT to affirm this individualistic tendency when he writes: 

“A historical sensibility is needed to compare and contrast Baptist ways with other ways and to understand the ebb and flow of Baptist patterns over time. Such awareness would lead, among other things, to seeing that the churches as covenanted communities of disciples, and not just earnestly striving individuals, is the longer Baptist heritage.”

This idea of ‘covenanted communities’ seems somewhat closer to the experience of the Church that I most appreciate.  Presumably a covenanted community would become an entity more imposing than each individual member, and those individuals could lean in on that ‘largeness’ as a way to combat individualism.    Why is this important to me?  Because ‘me, Jesus, and the Bible’ can quickly turn in on itself. Human nature tends toward a kind of narcissism, and it becomes easy for us to remake Jesus into someone we want or need Him to be in a given moment without the safeguards of tradition, and how the Church has understood Him (or God’s Word, for that matter) through the many centuries.  I realize that last bit might make average Baptists uncomfortable…though maybe not Dr. Gushee?

I also love the Dr. Gushee shared in his response to my original posting that his wife’s conversion to Catholicism has been a part of the openness he has to the Roman Catholic tradition.  In one of the finest encyclicals on marriage, Casti Connubii, Pope Pius X1 asserts:

“This outward expression of love in the home demands not only mutual help but must go further; must have as its primary purpose that man and wife help each other day by day in forming and perfecting themselves in the interior life, so that through their partnership in life they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor, on which indeed ‘dependeth the whole Law and the Prophets.’…This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof”  (23, 24).  

Dr. Gushee seems to exemplify this dynamism in marriage, as he has allowed his own Christian practice to become ‘hybridized,’ presumably in part as a way to live out the sacrament of marriage with his Catholic wife.  One could argue that marriage is also a safeguard against the narcissism which is rampant in our culture.  Dr. Gushee explains this openness to something outside his own Baptist tradition as fulfilling:  

“My spiritual life now feels whole, reflecting the entire religious trajectory of my often fragmented life and with each Christian tradition offering dimensions of liturgy, theology, tradition, church culture, and ethics that speak profoundly to me. This is religious hybridity, which is not unusual in these days but certainly not what I expected my journey would look like.”

I confess I can’t tell, reading his generous words, whether I hold a misguided stereotype of Baptists, or whether he just doesn’t fit the average mold of his tradition.  Perhaps it is both, and I’m certainly inspired by his openness! 

Still, every now and then Dr. Gushee worries me with language that does harken back to something I’d call individualistic.  For example, he writes, 

“I cannot claim to ‘represent’ either Baptists or Catholics. Just myself — and, yes, maybe a whole bunch of post-fundamentalists and post-evangelicals, yet another community in which I now claim some measure of religious identity.”

I say that this worries me because it sounds like so much depends on how each individual figures things out, in the context of his own walk with Christ.  It opens the door for a kind of ‘cafeteria Christianity’ where we pick and choose the parts that look yummy to us and assemble them according to our own preferences and sensibilities on our own divided plastic tray for personal consumption.  We might hear echos of individualism in this passage from Dr. Gushee as well:

“My path looks more like creative, critical, appropriation of scripture and tradition by modern Christian people who want to bring the best insights of the faith to bear in their lives and churches for the reign of God, care of creation, and human flourishing in this broken world. The riches of the Catholic tradition, including the insights of Vatican II, are a key part of that. Count me as one who honors the legacy of Vatican II and has attempted to weave its best work into my own efforts to follow Jesus.”

I’m of course thrilled that Dr. Gushee is open to the parts of the Roman Catholic Church that please him!  But somehow, this picking and choosing doesn’t ring true with my understanding of the obedience Christ demands when he calls us to follow Him.  Alas, this is the sadness of the fragmented Church, in that the call to follow our Lord is no longer a simple choice to follow Him, but rather a wading along trying to find our way through the many, many ‘Christian options.’  We have all played a part, in one way or another through our various traditions, in this fragmentation.  But Dr. Gushee makes it easy to hope, especially in that vibrant picture of the spiritually hungry young man he describes, that we can all continue to commit to being on the path, following Christ.  Dr. Gushee’s posting bears witness to a stalwart hope that Christ will lead us into truth, and to that heavenly banquet, where cafeteria trays will no longer be needed.

P.S.  Dr. Gushee, while part of your response to my posting read, “I cannot help but read Christina Wassell as belonging to one of the most resistant anti-Vatican II sectors of American Catholicism. I find myself in near-complete disagreement on that score,” I must politely ask you to reconsider.  

My attendance at an FSSP parish is a deliberate choice NOT to reject Vatican II.  The Fraternity celebrates the old rite in all its fullness and glory, but doggedly remains in full communion with Rome and the Holy Father.  There can certainly be disagreements about how elements of Vatican II have been implemented (any serious reader of the documents of the council has to admit that implementation of the documents has been faulty at best), but even in the midst of the harsh, recent motu proprio, the FSSP ascribes to a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ when it comes to Vatican II.  

Perhaps worth a look: