In a previous post I spoke of Josiah, the friend of my daughter Ivy. It has been over two years since they met, and they have now officially been dating for more than a year. Initially, the flap was over the age difference, a full four years. In the early stage of their friendship, that dominated our thinking. We thought of him as "Josiah, the 21-year-old." As he came to be more of a regular fixture, however, we forgot about the age difference, and he became simply "Josiah, the boy who really likes Ivy."
At that point, however, began the serious business of getting to know the kid. And there is where we ran headlong into the first hurdle -- faith differences. Josiah comes from a deeply religious and beautifully faith-filled home where love for God is carefully taught and modeled by his parents. The difference is that his family is Catholic, while we are non-denominational evangelicals. Catholics and evangelicals agree on the most important aspects of faith, but as they say, the devil is in the details. For the moment, this issue has become paramount, so he has now become -- just while we work this through -- "Josiah, the Catholic (who really likes Ivy)." What we are realizing is that Catholics and evangelicals play well together, but they do not necessarily marry well together.
We knew Josiah was Catholic before they started dating. My spidey senses told me, however, that he was more than a solid character, and I was hopeful his brand of Catholicism matched our evangelical faith better than the average, run-of-the-mill Catholics we knew (those who are more Catholic by heritage, rather than by faith). To start, he and his seven siblings were or will be homeschooled all the way through high school. Further, without knowing that this was very much on my (or Ivy's) radar, he showed Ivy pictures of his church and the flowers for which his family was responsible during the Christmas season. He also showed her a picture of the Halloween pumpkin he had carved the previous year: an impressive rendering of the face of Jesus. Hello! He won some brownie points there!
But in addition to those things, just my sense of Josiah was that he lacked the worldliness typical of most college sophomores. He still lived at home with his parents and siblings, and his younger siblings clearly adored him. We definitely got the feeling that Ivy was his first real girlfriend. And he took the remarkable step of calling Tom, going out to lunch with him, and asking his permission to date her. I assumed at the time that his parents had put that idea into his head in light of the age difference, but no! That was all his own idea and his own initiative.
So, while I knew we were going to have to discuss Catholicism eventually, all these things made it easy to keep it on the back burner for the moment.
Josiah's mom was much more forward thinking. Apparently she had alarm bells ringing and red flags waving from the get-go, and sadly, she was not being unreasonable -- there is an issue here. These kids are both surrounded by people who care deeply about their respective faith traditions, the faith of their children, and the faith of their future grandchildren. Moreover, Ivy and Josiah themselves care deeply, irrespective of their families and friends.
Isn't something topsy-turvy here though? We have a problem because two young people who love the Lord -- the same Lord -- were raised with different ideas of what it means to worship Him (the same Him). Shouldn't this be reconcilable? Isn't the most important aspect of this that they love Jesus and honor Him as Lord?
Yeeessssss....but. But. But, but, but.
I had been giving it a lot of thought even before it came to a head. To a large degree, this a man-made division. To the extent that the kids each seek Jesus actively, personally and directly, the issue evaporates. Jesus is the object of our worship. He is the goal. The church, whether Catholic or evangelical, is a tool we Christ followers use to help us in our pursuit of knowing Him better and obeying Him more fully, that's all.
As a computer science major in college, I once had a conversation with a guy getting an engineering degree. He told me he viewed computers as a necessary tool, like a pencil -- obliquely casting an aspersion on my chosen major. He discreetly left it there, but I understood his point: he was interested in what the pencil could do for him, but not in the pencil itself. He would never make a career of studying pencils!
In the same way, I wonder if we are we in danger of worshiping the vehicles of our faith rather than the Author of the faith? Sometimes, I am afraid we are. And I do not think one tradition is less guilty of this than the other! We all have a tendency to be lazy in our pursuit of Christ, preferring to rest on our alliance with the church we believe to be the "true" one.
I hope we recognize that each tradition brings to the worship its own beauty and grace. Evangelicals bring a focus on a personal relationship with God and an emphasis on personal study of the Word. Catholic mass fosters a sense of awe and wonder in the presence of a holy God, something that can get lost in an informal evangelical service. Evangelicals rejoice in the confidence of their salvation through Christ's work on the cross with no stipulations, no hoops to jump through. Catholic sacraments provide formal opportunities to express publicly our love for the risen Savior and our trust in His saving work. Evangelicals emphasize small group Bible studies to discuss the Word and to encourage each other through fellowship. Catholics embrace the beautiful and trustworthy language of the ancient liturgies, succinct and powerful reminders of the bedrock of our faith. What richness could come from bringing the two traditions together!
Let's be honest here. Josiah believes Catholicism to be the truth, but he is not Catholic because he believes it is the truth. He is Catholic because he was born into a Catholic family. In the same way, Ivy believes evangelicalism to be the truth, but she is not an evangelical because she believes it is the truth. She is an evangelical because that is what she born into. Period.
My point is that Josiah and Ivy were each presented with the truth about Jesus as young children. They both grabbed hold of Him and wanted Him in their lives (something not every child from a religious home does). From their hearts, they each fully ascribed to the faith traditions of their families as the only means they were given to live out the faith they accepted. Catholic or evangelical, they both started in the same place: a readiness to receive Christ.
So why do we have a problem?
Well, Catholics do hold beliefs that evangelicals could never swallow. Transubstantiation seems to get a lot of press when there is talk of where the traditions diverge, but really, I suspect it's only for the fun of saying the word. If you want to believe that the bread and cup become the actual body and blood of Christ, you have at it. I cannot imagine why it should bother anyone what one person believes or doesn't believe regarding that. And maybe there are some other differences that each party can easily roll with.
But (sigh), there are thornier issues at hand. And this is where Josiah's mom is coming from, I'm sure.
My brilliant brother-in-law, who is getting his Master's degree in biblical studies, sent me a paper he wrote outlining the differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism. More precisely, it was a precis, which is apparently what you call a book report once you're out of the third grade. So these are the points presented in the highly regarded book, Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie.
This paper was literally a Godsend as faith conversations between Ivy and Josiah became increasingly foggy and chaotic, possibly even slightly acrimonious. The paper is divided into three sections: Areas of Doctrinal Agreement, Areas of Doctrinal Differences, and Areas of Practical Cooperation. As I read the first section, the Areas of Doctrinal Agreement, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Yes! Do you see? These are the most important and glorious things, and we agree!!! How could we ever argue when we agree about these wonderful things?
Then came the Areas of Doctrinal Differences. I steeled my heart and held my breath, but I could not forestall the cold realization that, indeed, Catholics and evangelicals do not swim in the same stream.
The third section, Areas of Practical Cooperation, buoyed my spirits slightly, but led me to the depressing conclusion with which I began this post: Catholics and evangelicals play well together, but do not marry well together.
Maybe there is still hope. After all, Ivy does not want to marry the Catholic church; she wants to marry Josiah. And whether Josiah knows it or not, Jesus does not look at him through the prism of the Catholic church. He looks at Josiah, just Josiah, all by himself.
I am suggesting that although he is Catholic, maybe Josiah himself, for example, does not see the sacraments as causes of redemption, but rather symbols of redemption. The Catholic perspective of institutionalizing salvation through required sacraments is an absolute showstopper for an evangelical. The nuances of Josiah's beliefs about the sacraments make all the difference. Other examples: Maybe believing in papal infallibility does not represent a cornerstone of his belief system. And does believing in the sinlessness of Mary constitute heresy from an evangelical standpoint? Maybe it's just faulty theology, until you cross the line and begin to worship her, and maybe Josiah stays on the evangelical side of that line. And does Josiah really believe that the priest can absolve him from sin? Is the priest's work a necessary adjunct to Christ's work on the cross? Or does he simply find welcome relief from guilt as he confesses his sin to another human being (James 5:16).
These are troubling and nuanced discussions. Truthfully, before Ivy came along, I am not sure Josiah himself would ever have had reason to think through these things. The other day Josiah was over and I pounced on the opportunity to yammer at him about all that was bottled up in my heart regarding these things. I did way too much talking and not nearly enough listening. He said at one point, "I could just start talking about what I believe, but I think I would just end up saying stupid things. I think I should go find out more about these things first." What a wise answer! You see why I like this kid? (Proverbs 18:13, 17:28; James 1:19, 3:1-12)
Nevertheless, I have to believe, and I believe this with my whole heart, that the more they tread lightly with regard to their respective religions, but rather focus on the Author of their faith, the more likely everything will fall into place.
The more they try to force an evangelical girl into a Catholic belief system,
the more they try to pry a Catholic boy away from his beloved heritage,
the more they are headed for heartache, conflict and tears. It could be their undoing.
If they succeed, one of them could end up violating his or her conscience. If they fail, they could end up abandoning their faith foundations altogether in favor of a weak and tepid fellowship with each other. Neither is a good option.
So the day Josiah was over, this was my (regrettably cheesy) take-away for them: chase Jesus. Just chase Jesus together, actively and visibly. Dance with all your hearts on the common ground. Somehow He will have the answers for them that Josiah's mother and I do not have. I believe He can make this work out.
Josiah, the Catholic, loves Ivy, the evangelical. That is the earthbound view. How will their story end?