Other Christians Are Wrong, Sure. So Try to Get Inside Their Heads.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of our series on Christian Unity.
My Protestant friends think this kind of thing is just bats. But maybe really heretical. The shirt he’d just put on scratched his neck, Joe Grabowski explained on Facebook. “I was about to change the shirt when I realized today is Friday, and now I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
Catholics observe the day of the Crucifixion with little acts of penance. Traditionally, we don’t eat meat and maybe even skip a meal. Sometimes we throw in a few other small sacrifices, like wearing an uncomfortable shirt.
My Protestant friends would say that Joe’s wearing the shirt was either: a) silly and pointless (that is, bats) or b) a denial of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the Cross (heretical). As a Catholic, let me say: Given what you believe God has told man, fair enough. Go ahead, make fun of Joe.
He’s a Good Guy
But don’t just make fun of him. Readers may know Joe as the media guy of the National Organization for Marriage and a writer for The Stream. If you talked to him about any other subject, you’d think he’s a good, sane, thoughtful guy.
Separated Christians may want to stay away from each other, but the world throws us together. You know your Joes, if you’re a Bible-thumper or Mackerel-snapper. Guys you trust, guys who love God, good, sane, thoughtful guys you think completely screw up the Christian faith.
So here’s the trick, my Protestant friends: Assume he really is a good, sane, thoughtful guy. Even when he’s doing something you think bats or even heretical. Assume that he loves Jesus as much as you do, because he does, and that maybe he see’s something you don’t. If he’s as wrong as you think, you need to figure out why he’s wrong before you can help him get it right.
That trick depends on an even harder one. Here’s the harder trick: Try to get inside his mind and imagination. Learn his theology if you can, but it won’t tell you much.
The World as He Sees It
Try to see the world as he sees it. Work to feel things as he feels them. See what he really loves. Watch how he loves the things he loves. See who he thinks about and who he tries to please. Find out what sends him to his knees and brings to his feet. Keep yourself from arguing with him. That you can do later, if you feel you need to. Now just to try to understand him from the inside.
That’s really hard work. Not everyone can do it very well. Even fewer people can do it and explain it to others.
But you have to try if you have friends like Joe. And you do. Separated Christians may want to stay away from each other, but the world throws us together. You know your Joes, if you’re a Bible-thumper or Mackerel-snapper.
Guys you trust, guys who love God, good, sane, thoughtful guys … that you think completely screw up the Christian faith. Either bats or heretics, but brothers in Christ.
Really Hard Work
How can you do this, because your friend’s religion really is weird? I think one thing really helps. As I said, skip his theology for now. Look at your friend’s devotions and hymns. How does he pray? What does he sing?
When I was a teenager, some friends took me to their Baptist church. I thought a lot of it weird. Lovely people but gosh, what they believed …. They read a lot of Paul, which made no sense to me. The theology I didn’t find appealing. They lived pretty narrow lives. Some were strikingly kind, but a few were mean, snarling fundamentalists from the Book of Liberal Stereotypes.
Try to get inside his mind and imagination. Try to see the world as he sees it. Work to feel things as he feels them. See what he really loves. Watch how he loves the things he loves. See who he thinks about and who he tries to please. Find out what brings him to his knees and brings to his feet.
The first time I heard that second one, I can’t tell you how gross I thought it was. A fountain filled with blood? Eeeeeuw. But here’s the thing. I also watched everyone sing. I saw how many believed every word, including a lovely older man who teared up all the time. Because they believed it, I began to think about it. Because I thought about it, I saw how beautiful is the hymn’s vision of God’s love for man. I saw what my friends felt.
That first verse: “And sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” To be clean, to be innocent again, wow, I thought. I didn’t believe it, but I saw why they sang it with tears. And that last verse, gosh:
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save:
I’ll sing Thy power to save,
I’ll sing Thy power to save;
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save.
A Life of Singing
Heaven would be a life of ongoing gratitude. It would be a life of singing. I loved that. Whatever screwy stuff these people believed, I thought, they wanted something really good. I had to respect that.
So, friends, do the hard work of trying to get into each other’s minds and imaginations. Start with what your friends love, with how they pray and sing, how they worship the God you both adore. It’ll be a stretch. Protestant friends, wait till you get to the Memorare. But try. As a Baptist friend says, “I think this will bless your heart.”
David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes the monthly “Last Things” column for the New Oxford Review. He is finishing a book on death and dying to be published by Sophia Institute Press.