“A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies,” observed the 19th-century Anglican F.D. Maurice. I came across his quote while I was an Anglican theological student at Oxford and it changed my life, for if we take it seriously it corrects one of the worst tendencies of human nature—and one of the tendencies that is at its very worst with religious people. That is the tendency not only to think we are right, but to be convinced that everyone else is wrong. It is the tendency to define our beliefs by what we deny rather than by what we affirm.
At the time of my discovery I was on a journey from American Fundamentalist Christianity to ordination as an Anglican priest. Protestantism is, by definition, a reaction against something, and that something is the Catholic Church. My Protestant background, therefore, had conditioned me to be skeptical. We were skeptical of non-Christians because they were worldly and unsaved. We were skeptical of Protestants in the mainline denominations because they had “gone liberal.” We were skeptical of fellow Evangelicals who were called “Neo-Evangelicals” because they had compromised with the liberals. We were skeptical of most everyone else but ourselves, and most of all we were skeptical of the Catholics. Maurice’s little dictum made me sit up and think. It was one of those moments of enlightenment: In my journey to Anglicanism, whenever I tried to affirm something new I invariably entered into more truth, and whenever I remained a skeptical and protesting Protestant I was invariably denying something which had good and positive elements to it.
I resolved at that moment that whenever I came across something new I would try hard to affirm and not to deny. I decided to give new ideas, new spiritual practices, new customs, and new ways of worship a chance before I rejected them. Maurice was an old-fashioned liberal, and although I was by instinct and formation a conservative, I decided to be liberal in the original sense of the word: that is to say, genuinely open-minded, curious, and ready to give the benefit of the doubt.
In time this approach brought me into the Catholic Church. I had moved from American Evangelical Fundamentalism to English Evangelical Anglicanism, and the step from there to Catholicism was the result of my attempt to be open-minded and accepting of ideas and customs that were new and strange to me. So, for example, when I was invited from the staid and stark worship of Anglican Evangelicalism to experience the Anglo-Catholic worship of Pusey House in Oxford, I went with an open mind. I soon came to understand, then to appreciate, that form of worship with its statues, candles, incense, and vestments. When I encountered a Catholic understanding of the sacraments and the priesthood, I tried to understand and to accept rather than respond with my instinctive Protestant criticism and rejection. Some years later a friend came back from a pilgrimage to the great English Marian shrine of Walsingham and brought me a rosary. I can remember holding the beads and feeling repulsed, but then Maurice’s quote popped into my mind and I asked myself why a billion Catholics should be wrong and I should be right. I got a book instructing me how to pray the rosary and got started.
After my reception into the Church, the idea that Catholicism was “more Christianity”—as opposed to C.S. Lewis’ mere Christianity—became more and more of a model for my understanding of the faith. Like most converts from another Christian tradition, I never regarded becoming a Catholic as a repudiation of either my homegrown Evangelicalism or my adopted Anglicanism. As a young student, I had explained to my bewildered parents that in becoming an Anglican I was simply adding more things to the wonderful faith they had given me. Becoming Catholic added even more to what I had been given within Anglicanism.
This approach to the faith provides an excellent model for Catholic apologetics. It is easy to meet the bulldog approach of Protestants with similarly pugnacious tactics. A Protestant throws an anti-Catholic punch, the Catholic punches back—more pugilist than apologist. It might make for a good show, but it doesn’t make much more than that. We can win a debate, but lose souls. With the “more Christianity” approach, we can win hearts as well as minds.
I Agree With You!
If, as a Catholic, you disagree with a Protestant on every point, you will only confirm his conviction that Catholics are wrong about everything. Instead, affirm as much as you can. Indeed, you should be able to affirm everything he affirms—you just can’t deny what he denies.
Here are some examples: Does your Evangelical friend believe in the inspiration of the Bible? So do you. Does he deny the authority of the Catholic Church? Sorry, you can’t deny what he denies. Instead, you affirm the inspiration of the Bible with him, but you ask why he denies the inspiration of the Church. Doesn’t he believe at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit came down and inspired the apostolic Church? By affirming what he affirms, but not denying what he denies, you are able to remain positive and upbeat.
Does he think Peter was a great missionary, a great warrior for Christ, and a great preacher? So do you. You also believe Peter was the leader of the early Church, that Jesus gave him a special commission, and that with that commission went special authority. You show your friend why this is true from the Gospels and ask him why he denies what is so clear in Scripture.
Does he love Jesus and serve him? Has he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior? So have you. You love and serve Jesus Christ. You follow him as your Lord and Savior, but you also honor his Mother Mary. Does he believe in miracles? So do you. In fact you believe that a miracle happens every time the priest celebrates Mass. It’s a miracle Jesus commanded and said would happen. Your friend’s belief in miracles is too limited.
Instead of debating and arguing with your Evangelical friends, get them to affirm the good things about their faith and then agree with them. If they start to get negative, ask which sin they think is worse: believing too much or believing too little? Which is worse, to be guilty of unbelief or to be guilty of being gullible?
When I come to the Judgment Day I would rather say, “Well, Lord, I’m sorry, I guess I took it all in, hook, line, and sinker. Yep, I believed it all: transubstantiation, infallibility of the pope, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, incorrupt saints, stigmata, bleeding statues. I was taken in by the whole lot, and I hope you’ll forgive me for being gullible.” I’d rather say that than, “I’m sorry, I didn’t believe. I was skeptical. I was cynical. I doubted. I spent more time trying to find out what wasn’t true than discovering what was true.”
The “more Christianity” approach to apologetics affirms what is good and positive about the faith of non-Catholic Christians without being either condescending or false. Being positive towards our separated brethren doesn’t mean that we endorse or turn a blind eye to their rejection of the faith.
“More Christianity” apologetics puts the Catholic apologist in the driving seat. The “opposition” expects to disagree with you on every turn: You turn out to be positive and agree with them on many things. He believes you are not even a Christian and are going to hell: You embrace him as a Christian brother and say you hope and trust that he is on his way to heaven. He will find this disarming. And now you are in a position to challenge him on his denial of Catholic doctrine.
Why, you may ask, does he deny and reject Jesus’ mother? Jesus honored her; the angel Gabriel honored her; Elizabeth honored her; the unborn John the Baptist honored her; Joseph honored her; the shepherds honored her. She said, “All generations shall call me blessed”; Catholics have always honored her. Why are you, who are normally so fervent and loving in your faith, so cold-hearted when it comes to the beautiful Mother of Christ?
Why does he cling to the Bible alone while rejecting all other.aspects of the historic faith? Prayers to the saints, veneration of icons, liturgy in worship, processions, prayers for the dead, the Mass as a sacrifice, infant baptism—all these things were part of the ancient Church. Why does he keep the Bible but throw out all the other parts of early Church practice? This is “mere” Christianity indeed! Why so little when he could have so much? Why such a barren and limited understanding of the faith?
Further Up and Further In
More Christianity gives a firm foundation for apologetics that is not only positive but expansive in its scope. It keeps the big picture in front of us rather than allowing us to get caught up in the minutiae of argument. Some apologists enjoy the cut and thrust of swapping biblical texts, quotes from the Church Fathers, and authoritative statements from theologians and scholars. I prefer to keep to the big picture of affirmation or denial because, at the end of the day, we are concerned about a person’s soul.
Most Evangelicals are good Christian souls. They love the Lord with a fervor and keenness that is admirable. They do not wish to be negative or feel that they are narrow in their views or denying the truth that the Lord might have for them. Therefore, to display a Catholicism that is big-hearted and hearty, affirmative and joyful, tolerant and confident, loving and accepting is to reveal to them a perspective on the whole faith which they never knew existed.
The good Catholic apologist should be as jolly and wholesome as Chesterton, as bellicose as Belloc, and as acute as C.S. Lewis. He should welcome debate as a pathway to truth and a way to go “further up and further in” to God’s wonderful truth and life. When this approach works, it makes Catholicism seem full of goodness, truth, beauty, fresh air, humor, and an atmosphere that is as big and open as a universal church.
A Better Analogy
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis spoke of the Christian Church as a hall with side rooms. Once you come into the Church, he says, you must choose which side room (or denomination) you are going to dwell in. Lewis, who is normally so sharp, misses the point. He assumes that all the side rooms are of equal value, yet he says in the same passage that you must not choose the room according to your own preference, but according to which one you think is most true. He doesn’t draw the final conclusion that if one is more true than another then there must be one room which is more true than all the rest, otherwise the choice of rooms is not mere Christianity, but mere relativism. And why put people in a cramped side room? I think he should have invited them not only into the hall but into the great mansion beyond.
Instead of the analogy of the hall and the side rooms, I prefer the analogy of an art gallery. A Christian enters a venerable and vast art gallery. By the happenstance of entering through a particular door, he finds himself in a particular denominational gallery. This gallery—let us suppose it is a gallery of impressionist art—is full of beautiful and priceless paintings. The person in question lives in this one room of the gallery and loves the paintings hanging in this room. “More Christianity” says, “Yes, those paintings are beautiful and fine, but there is more—much, much more. The rest of the paintings do not negate the beauty of the impressionists; instead, they validate the impressionists and put them in their proper context.” The “More Christian” says, “Come, leave this one room of paintings and enter the gallery proper. There you will find a universe of art and beauty you never dreamed existed, and you will know at last that this is your true home.”
Further up and further in.