Among the many (of course) excellent items in this issue, there is Ralph Wood’s thoughtful and intelligent review of Mark Noll’s latest book, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (pp. 43-46). The review provides a discerning brief overview not only of the American evangelical past but of its present condition and future prospects. So astute an analysis disarms criticism, but, on reflection, two aspects of Professor Wood’s argument strike me as subject to reservation, and those reservations seem of general enough application to deserve elaboration.
The first item involves mood rather than substance. First Things receives essays and reviews from evangelical intellectuals on a regular basis, and in virtually every case (I cannot offhand think of an example to the contrary) the dominant theme is one of lament. The title of Mark Noll’s best-known book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, reflects the characteristic habit of mind. Evangelical thinkers have a remarkable talent for self-criticism, and Prof. Wood’s review, laudatory towards Noll’s achievement but notably unenthusiastic in its appraisal of the current evangelical condition, is no exception. He is not entirely critical, but he is in no danger of being thought Pollyannish. If Wood and other intellectual leaders had their way, evangelicals would find no comfortable pews on Sunday mornings.
Why this is so I am not certain. Perhaps the recourse to the jeremiad is a conscious attempt to offset a certain mood of self-congratulation, or at least pious com placency, that is not unknown among rank-and-file evangelicals. One sometimes encounters there a style of humility that seems suspiciously like its opposite: “I’m deeply humbled, Lord, that you have chosen so unworthy a vessel to accomplish such great things for your Kingdom.” (That form of aggrandizement-by-abasement is not, of course, restricted to evangelical expressions of Christianity.)
Be that as it may, the unrelenting insistence on self-criticism seems to me questionable. Christians necessarily worry about the sin of pride, and we all need periodic warnings against self-satisfaction. But successful churchmanship cannot consist solely of cautionary reminders of inadequacy. The Church is built, after all, on confidence in God’s promises and assurance of His grace. Perhaps evangelical intellec tuals think that their community of faith is so suffused with positive self-regard and so immune to self-doubt that it can only benefit from regular rehearsals of its limitations. And perhaps I am extrapolating improper ly from my own experience within Lutheranism, where, I am convinced, persistent internal preoccupation with how awful everything is has had dispiriting and debilitating consequences.
But, as an outsider to evangelicalism, I do not see that its situation is so unsatisfactory as its in-house critics seem to suppose, and I cannot help thinking that the apparent alienation of those critics from its on-the-ground reality must, over time, do damage to its prospects. Are the internal critics, I sometimes wonder, so concerned for the good opinion of their colleagues in the academic theological guild that they distance themselves more than they really intend from those aspects of evangelical life that outsiders are inclined to disdain?
My second reservation proceeds from the first. Prof. Wood’s basic criticism of evangelicalism is that it does not embrace as much as it should the theological and ecclesial virtues of other Christian bodies, especially those of the Catholic Church. He cites Rabbi Manfred Vogel’s epigram—“While America has been good for Jews, it has been bad for Judaism”—and applies it to evangelicals. Evangelical Protestant ism has benefited from liberal democracy’s gift of political and religious freedom, but it has also been corrupted by liberal democracy’s “church-subverting vices, especially its individualist and voluntarist notions” of religious life.
Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular have, in Prof. Wood’s view, too uncritically aligned themselves with “the American political project.” In so doing, they have risked the scandal “of muting the gospel’s offensiveness, its necessary disjunction with all cultures and nations.” Moreover, voluntarist assump tions have often led evangelicals “to violate the radically obediential and communal character of Christian faith.”
The case of Billy Graham illustrates the evangelical dilemma. Prof. Wood notes Graham’s great gifts and accomplishments, but he also addresses what he sees as his characteristically evangelical shortcomings, in cluding “his virtual adulation of Ronald Reagan, his immunity to real religious doubt, and especially his decisionist and non-sacramental brand of revivalism.”
Wood wants in general to infuse a more catholic (and Catholic) sensibility into evangelical piety. Evan gelicals could do with more appreciation, he says, for the patristic tradition; they “need to recover the Church’s witness during the first five centuries.” He suggests that they also have to think more seriously “about authoritative ecclesial offices and social teach ings,” and he explicitly invokes Pope John Paul II as a model to be emulated.
One’s instinctive reaction is to applaud Prof. Wood’s admonitions. His analysis of evangelical ism’s failings seems—at least to this non-evangelical observer—mostly on the mark. The problem is that his pre scriptions call for, in effect, a squaring of the theo logical and ecclesial circle. He wants an evangelicalism that will encompass all the Christian virtues and avoid all Christian vices. But all systems of thought, religious and otherwise, are partial. They are also all package deals. Their distinctive strengths come together with distinctive weaknesses. Neither in theology nor any where else can we maximize all good things all at once.
Prof. Wood wants an evangelicalism that will be at once individual and communal, fully engaged with the culture and yet distinct from it, authentically Protestant and authentically Catholic. He wants, in short, an evan gelicalism that will no longer be distinctively evan gelical—even as he wants a Billy Graham who would no longer be Billy Graham. We cannot blend incommen surable qualities.
Evangelicalism has flourished in America, under peculiar American conditions, to a degree equaled nowhere else. In so flourishing, it has unavoidably absorbed elements from the culture that have not been entirely healthy. There have been trade-offs along the way, not all of them positive, but trade-offs are as common to Christian piety as they are to economic life. One cannot neatly categorize the impact of American democracy on American Christianity as either a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. It has been, as all such cultural interactions are, a Complicated Thing.
The pluralistic nature of the American Christian experience has been, in my view, a blessing, even if necessarily a mixed one. Our communities of faith have much to gain from continued mutual instruction and example. On many fronts, including the theological one, we can work beneficially with one another. But we cannot exchange fully our distinctive virtues.
Evangelicals and Catholics together? Of course. But not evangelical and Catholic at the same time.