Earlier today, popular–and rightly so–progressive Evangelical Christian blogger Benjamin Corey posted a piece called When Bad Theology Tricks You Into Praying to A Toy (Should We Pray to Saints?) on his Patheos blog, Formerly Fundie. I very much appreciate Dr. Corey’s work, which seeks to redeem the Evangelical wing of Christianity from its entanglement with the politico-religious right, calling on his fellow Evangelicals to embrace what he (and I) feel are the best inclinations of their Evangelical and our common Christian tradition. Dr. Corey’s is a message of inclusion and outreach to the margins, and he’s not afraid to respectfully bump heads with the more conservative–and, it seems, dominant–voices in Evangelicalism.
It’s inevitable, I suppose, that Dr. Corey and I will have different perspectives at times. He remains rooted in Evangelical Christianity, and I, though loving, respecting, and welcoming Evangelicals as sisters and brothers in Christ have never been one. My own Christian journey has taken me–if I may oversimplify–from a conservative Stone-Campbell Movement perspective to a conservative Roman Catholic perspective to a progressive Roman Catholic perspective to, almost full-circle, a progressive Stone-Campbell perspective, as a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). A diversity of opinions under the umbrella of Christianity is a very good–and very biblical–thing, so my taking respectful issue with him here shouldn’t be read as a rejection or condemnation. I was, however, troubled by today’s blog.
In commenting on the story circulating social media about the Brazilian lady confusing a Lord of the Rings elf toy for St. Anthony and praying to it for years, Dr. Corey made a theological case against the practice of the cult of the saints, ultimately concluding:
But because she was taught to follow superstitious tradition instead of Jesus, she literally became an idol worshipper without even realizing it.
Earlier in the piece, Dr. Corey recognized that “It’s true that this practice is commonplace within two major streams of Christianity (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), which also means that by the numbers, the majority of Christians world-wide pray to Saints.” He rightly pointed out that the majority need not necessarily be correct. He also made it clear, by identifying Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions as Christian, that he is not coming from a place of bigotry.
But here’s where I might challenge Dr. Corey: if a practice is part of the living prayer life of the majority of Christians which, at least to some degree, the cult of saints is, then that means it’s likely–or at least, I hope he’ll consider–possible that the practice has been a real means of real people having real encounters with divine grace. I hope he’ll consider that the practice may not be aberrant–it may just be foreign to him.
I’ve fancied myself open minded and inclusive in my approach to theology for some time now, yet working as a hospital chaplain, I frequently encounter variations of Christian piety that are very much unlike my own. And I’m tempted to dismiss them as primitive, as superstitious, even as aberrant, but, thanks to the willingness of my sisters and brothers in this ministry to knock me upside the head, I realize that more often than not, I’m bringing my own assumptions about what good piety looks like with me, and setting up Jeff Childers as the paragon of prayer and virtue. Which, I ain’t. I’m glad to have my fellow chaplains with me to call out my theo-xenophobia!
In a recent piece on the Immaculate Conception, I mentioned that, in 20 years as a Roman Catholic, I never really integrated the cult of the saints into my personal piety. I didn’t (and don’t) oppose it, but my prayer methods and habits were formed in a different community with different traditions. It was only a couple years ago, getting to spend some time in a Hispanic inculturation program, that I came to a new appreciation of this type of prayer. Those who are devoted to the saints, as different as their piety looks, are expressing the same awe, the same gratitude, the same sense of dependence on the transcendent mystery that Jesus named “Father” as I am when I pray extemporaneously or dig into the Word.
The cult of the saints is a form of piety that vividly illustrates that we’re inter-connected, that we’re all in this together. It’s a way of honoring Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and humanity that did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, sharing in our humanity that we might share in his divinity. The Christian story celebrates that Christ brings us all with him into the divine identity, that we become pats of his sacred Body, and that his Spirit dwells in all of us, praying in, for, and through us. Like Dr. Corey, the cult of the saints, this great cloud of witnesses that stand before the Father with and in the Blood of Christ that we need not fear to approach the divine, ain’t my joint.
But the piety of the millions through the ages who have been drawn closer to Christ through this foreign and weird feeling devotion ought not to to be lightly dismissed as superstitious or aberrant. Their devotion to the saints has been the sacred means of empowering them to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. It is a treasure of the Christian heritage.