Building on Nature

In his Letters to an American Lady, on November 10, 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes. I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity: how much more one has in common with a real Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalising, occidentalised specimen of the same categories.

I think Lewis has a point. One of the things our faith teaches us is that grace builds on nature — that God begins with the human “raw material” He creates and, if you will, co-creates us via the risky business of giving us free will. Accordingly, human beings have spread out across the globe in a vast array of cultures (including religious cultures) that respond to Christ in a vast assortment of ways. (And yes, if Paul on the Areopagus has anything to teach us, it is that non-Christians, when they respond to the “light that lightens every man,” are, in some sense, responding to Christ, though very imperfectly. If it were not so, Paul would have told pagans to abandon their pursuit of the Unknown God, not identified the Unknown God as Jesus Christ [Acts 17].)

Within the Catholic communion, in which the fullness of Christ’s revelation subsists, we see a host of different sorts of spirituality and piety. A Franciscan is not a Dominican is not a Jesuit is not Carmelite, but all are Catholic (giving rise to a host of Catholic intramural jokes, such as the interview I once saw with a Franciscan who noted that “Dominicans are great preachers and Jesuits are brilliant, but when it comes to humility we’re tops”).

When we go to the heart of these different approaches to Christ, we discover the mysterious fact that the more Dominican a Dominican is, the more different he is from a Franciscan, yet the more they grow together in the love of Christ. The great icon of this, of course, is the friendship of Francis and Dominic themselves. The one couldn’t organize his way out of a paper bag and was no great shakes in the book-learnin’ department. The latter was one of the greatest organizational minds in history and had a penchant for book learning that left a deep impression on his learned followers (among them, St. Thomas Aquinas) that endures to the present day.

This mystery is at the heart of the Catholic Faith — which is, after all, the Catholic Faith. Jesus called twelve apostles, not just one, and began the Church from the get go with the proposition that He would be found in the crazy diversity of a Body.


And so, the American, French, African, Irish, German, and Chinese Catholic churches are all recognizably different — but all are recognizably Catholic, too. On the good side of this, it means that, as grace perfects nature, you wind up with Christians — both inside and outside the Catholic communion — who ripen according to their nature. Only Polish Catholicism could have produced a Pope John Paul II, for instance. And a John Henry Cardinal Newman could only have arisen among the English. Likewise, there is something deeply American about a Dorothy Day; and the profound Russianness of Solzhenitsyn makes trying to transpose him to, say, American culture like trying to imagine turning the Gulag Archipelago into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. As they say, liver is good and chocolate is good, but chocolate on liver, not good.

This curious tendency of things to become more themselves, not more homogenized, can be seen in the world of converts to the faith, too. I remember once listening to a recording of Scott Hahn in the early 1990s (this was before we’d met). A friend of mine remarked, “You can take the preacher out of Protestantism, but you can’t take Protestantism out of the preacher.” She was referring not to his theology (which was thoroughly Catholic), but to his delivery. Till the day he dies, Hahn will be an American Presbyterian-flavored Catholic, just as Tom Howard will be flavored by his upbringing as a Philadelphia Evangelical-cum-Anglican, and Dale Vree will bear the marks of a radical who converted to the Faith. These are all good things, because God consistently allows our nature to be the raw material He fashions into the image of Christ.

And so Saul becomes Paul, but he bears forever the mark and mindset of a Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee of Pharisees. St. Augustine, renewed in baptism, put off the old self and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, but he remained the brilliant Latin rhetorician and thinker that could only have sprung from that time, culture, and place. St. Teresa of Avila is the peculiar combination of pious saint and saucy smart aleck that a Spanish and Jewish background of that time and place could produce. Where but in 18th- and early 19th-century England could a moral force like William Wilberforce have arisen and met with the success he did? Where could a C. S. Lewis have arisen but in the time and culture that he did? A French Lewis is as unthinkable as an English Thérèse of Lisieux or a Norwegian John XIII.

Conversely, when a Christian or a culture goes bad, it gives off a peculiar odor that is unique to it. American Protestantism could never produce a Rasputin, just as Orthodoxy could never produce a Jimmy Swaggart. Randall Terry is a unique product of the volatile mix of American Right-Wing Protestantism alloyed with FoxNews-ified American Right-Wing Catholicism. Outside his highly specified environmental niche, he would perish like a rare African orchid. Much as moderns fear his return, the reality is that Torquemada is the denizen of a particular sort of religious culture that can no more be reproduced than Jurassic Park can recreate the Cretaceous period.

John Shelby Spong is what Episcopalianism smells like when it dies and rots, just as Heinrich Himmler is the stench of a particular sort of Prussianized, occultified semi-Catholic German culture from the early 20th century. Jeremiah Wright is likewise what a politicized Protestant Black American Church that has lost touch with anything resembling a supernatural gospel smells like, just as Unitarianism is the upper-middle-class white version of the same thing. Trying to put either into the context of, say, third-century Ethiopia is impossible. They are creatures of their time and place.

This matters because one of the things the Church has always grappled with is the problem of enculturation. The Church decisively broke with the notion that a single human culture could contain the New Wine when she told the Judaizers that they were wrong to insist that Gentiles had to be cultural Jews in order to be saved. The Church has gone on busting molds ever since and casting the gospel in all manner of foreign garb. So we see art portraying Jesus as Chinese, or renderings of the crucifixion by Rembrandt in which everybody is dressed in contemporary Dutch clothing. When Mary appears at Guadalupe, she does so in the likeness of the oppressed Native American, not in the likeness of the Spanish. Again and again, the Church follows Paul’s practice of becoming all things to all, that some might be saved.

But that does not mean the gospel mutates. Instead, it too becomes more itself in the very process of spreading out across every nation, language, tribe, and tongue. To be sure, it walks the world’s longest high-wire act as it does so, and that is not for the timid — who, ever since the Judaizers, have built what they thought were fortresses but in fact were prisons intended to keep the gospel safe from being sullied with disgusting heathen humanity. But since the Word became flesh and welcomed the first Roman centurion, Syro-Phoenician woman, and curious Greek, there’s been no stopping Him from finding points of contact with everyone on earth. It is the nature of the gospel to redeem humanity, not just me and my comfy peer group. And it seems to be the habit of the Holy Spirit to shake things up as He does so. I wonder what He will do next?


Image: St. Francis and St. Dominic, Della Robbia, Hospital of St. Paul, Piazza Santa Maria Novella

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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