The story is told that the fundamentalist leader Bob Jones, founder of a university famous for its segregationist policies, said of C. S. Lewis something to the effect (accounts vary) of “That man smokes a pipe, and that man drinks liquor—but I do believe he is a Christian!” The irony, which would have escaped Jones, is that others would have to say, “That man uses the Bible to create racist ideas and policies and oppress black people—but I do believe he is a Christian.”
This kind of bemused mutual appraisal is part of what an old magazine would have called the weird and whacky world of ecumenical relations. People who seem to come from different planets find themselves in the same room, just because they’re all friends of the host. They’ve heard very different things from their host, and some (Bob Jones for one) obviously have heard him say things he never in a million years said, yet they often manage to become friends.
In my life among divided Christians, I’ve seen both Protestants and Catholics who’d written the most blood-curdling denunciations of the other’s faith sit down with the people they’d essentially described as heretics and treat them as fellow believers. They ought to be trying to save the others from their great and damnable errors.
They don’t, though. One might say that they’re cowards or that they put fellowship over truth. I don’t think they are or do. They see something in the other that their theology doesn’t cover. (Catholic teaching does cover it, but many of us in polemical mode write as if it didn’t.) The Protestant or Catholic as a theological abstraction is one thing, a thing you can beat down, the Protestant or Catholic praying with you another.
Our “What I Want From Catholics” series illustrates this. (I describe what we’re trying to do here, which at the end includes links to the contributions so far.) Each writer has his disagreements with Catholicism, some of them severe, and each sees Catholics as his brothers in Christ. Catholics return the favor, even when doing so requires turning the other cheek. As the old magazines might also have put it, Amazing But True.
The great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen had something profound about this. He founded Westminster Seminary and was a leader of the mis-named Fundamentalists of the 1920s. He’s the modern patron saint of hardcore, take-no-prisoners Reformed Christianity.
In his book Christianity and Liberalism, still a helpful analysis, he writes about the very deep division “between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms.” Catholicism is “a perversion of the Christian religion,” he claims,
Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church.
A biographer records that working with the YMCA in the trenches in World War One, Machen found himself worshipping with Catholics, which was hardly something the serious Presbyterian of his day was going to find himself doing. It suggests something unusually and admirably sympathetic in Machen’s character as well as the advantages of extreme situations for breaking down the boundaries between Christians, something aggressive secularism is doing today.
In another work, in which he’s defending Catholic schooling from the public school hegemony of his day, Machen wrote of our differences: “Does this mean, then, that we must eternally bite and devour one another, that acrimonious debate must never for a moment be allowed to cease? . . . . There is a common solution of the problem which we think ought to be taken to heart. It is the solution provided by family life.” He explains:
In countless families, there is a Christian parent who with untold agony of soul has seen the barrier of religious difference set up between himself or herself and a beloved child. Salvation, it is believed with all the heart, comes only through Christ, and the child, it is believed, unless it has really trusted in Christ, is lost. These, I tell you, are the real tragedies of life. And how trifling, in comparison, is the experience of bereavement of the like!
But what do these sorrowing parents do? Do they make themselves uselessly a nuisance to their child? In countless cases they do not; in countless cases there is hardly a mention of the subject of religion; in countless cases there is nothing but prayer, and an agony of soul bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.
That was the great Presbyterian’s answer to religious division. “Prayer, and an agony of soul bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.” It’s a wise answer. But there’s something else to be said, something encouraging. The man who believed Catholicism a perversion of the Christian faith found his separation from Catholics an agony of soul.