A Friendly Introduction to Catholicism | An Interview with Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of Faith | Ignatius Insight | February 10, 2011
Fr. Dwight Longenecker was brought up an Evangelical, studied at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and later was ordained an Anglican priest in England. After ten years in the Anglican ministry as a curate, a chaplain at Cambridge, and a country parson, in 1995 Dwight was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He ministers at St Joseph's Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, and in the parish of St Mary's, also in Greenville. He has written several books and published in numerous religious magazines and papers in the UK, Ireland, and the USA, writing on film and theology, apologetics, Biblical commentary and Catholic culture. He blogs regularly at "Standing on My Head".
Fr. Longenecker recently spoke with Ignatius Insight about his book, More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of Faith, published recently in a new edition by Ignatius Press.
Ignatius Insight: Who did you write More Christianity for?
Fr. Longenecker: More Christianity is written for Evangelical Christians. Coming from an Evangelical background, and appreciating much from that tradition, I wanted Evangelicals to have a friendly introduction to Catholicism that was free of harsh argumentation, and which used language and concepts with which they would be familiar. The book is also an excellent introduction to Evangelical ways of thinking for Catholics. Families who have members on both sides of the fence would do well to read the book together.
Ignatius Insight: What influence did C.S. Lewis have your journey from attending Bob Jones to becoming Anglican to entering the Catholic Church? What is your approach to Lewis' understanding of "mere Christianity"?
Fr. Longenecker: I discuss Lewis' influence on my life in the introduction to the book. Coming from a fundamentalism that was often suspicious of the intellect, and sometimes intentionally ignorant, Lewis preached a Christianity that was intelligent, learned, witty and astringent. I had travelled to Europe a couple of times as a student and got a dose of Anglophilia, so when I had the chance to study at Oxford it locked me further into my love of Lewis and his world.
Ignatius Insight: What are the strengths of Lewis' "mere Christianity"?
Fr. Longenecker: Lewis' work is a classic of Christian apologetics. He steers the unbeliever through the basic essential questions regarding the existence of God and the divinity of Christ. He piles argument on argument and does so in down to earth language that is free of theological jargon, ecclesiastical mumbo jumbo and high brow references. He not only wrote a classic apologetical work, but showed the rest of us how to write about religion for ordinary people.
Ignatius Insight: How about the weaknesses of "mere Christianity"? Can you give an example of how Catholicism fulfills and completes something lacking in "mere Christianity"?
Fr. Longenecker: Lewis was very keen to steer around the thorny problem of denominational allegiance. In his introduction he says that becoming a Christian is like entering a hall which opens out into lots of rooms, and that eventually you will need to not only become a Christian, but choose which room to live in. His underlying assumption, of course, is that all the rooms are of equal value and it doesn't really matter which one you choose. However, he goes on to say that you mustn't choose the room according to which one you like best, but which one you believe is most true. This is a huge weak point in Lewis' book, and in all his work for that matter. He never really went on to ask the crucial questions, "Which church really is most true, and how do you know this?" My friend Joseph Pearce has examined this in his book C.S.Lewis and the C atholic Church. If Lewis had pursued that question rigorously I believe he would have ended up a Catholic.
Ignatius Insight: Do you see differences between how many American Evangelicals view Catholicism today compared to when you were being raised and educated as a Fundamentalist? Where do you think Evangelical-Catholic relations are headed in the next decade or two?
Fr. Longenecker: Yes. Being brought up in a fundamentalist church in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and then going to Bob Jones University, we were surrounded by old fashioned 'Chick tract' anti-Catholicism. The anti-Catholicism at Bob Jones University was even more strident. I think things have changed very much for the better. Many of the old anti-Catholic assumptions are still foundational to Evangelicalism, but they are no longer on the surface, and Evangelicals are much more likely to at least consider Catholicism to be 'one of the options'. Over the next twenty five years we will see an increasing drift in the Evangelical churches away from what I call 'the old time religion' to a form of liberal, humanistic Protestantism. At the same time those who are looking for the historic church will find their way 'home to Rome'.
Ignatius Insight: Early in the book, you write that the search for the Church founded by Christ is the "search for the true church, not the perfect church." Why is this so important?
Fr. Longenecker: G.K. Chesterton once said the Catholic Church was for him because when he went to the other churches his umbrella was always there at the back when he went out, but when he went into the Catholic Church it had gone because someone had stolen it. The Catholic Church is for sinners, and one of the greatest eye openers for the convert is to realize that the perfect church does not exist. He should change his expectations and look for the true church instead. One of the greatest jokes about church hoppers and shoppers is that they keep moving from one church to the next because every church is a disappointment to them, and they never see that perhaps they were also a disappointment to that church. If we search for the true church rather than the perfect church, then when we find it we can strive to come up to it's expectations rather than expecting the church to come up to ours.
Ignatius Insight: You describe Marian beliefs as "the most controversial area between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians". Why is that the case? How can Catholics best addressed misunderstandings about Marian dogmas and devotions?
Fr. Longenecker: Scott Hahn's wife Kimberly once said she had three big problems about becoming a Catholic: "Mary, Mary and Mary". Catholics should understand that the Evangelicals' objection to Marian devotion is based on their love and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. They think Mary is at best a distraction, and at worst a false idol. The problem, of course, is that Catholics' devotion to Mary is based on the same thing: their love and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Catholics believe she draws us closer to him. Evangelicals can't understand how that can be true. The best analogy to communicate with Evangelicals about this is the Bible. They love the Bible because it draws them closer to Christ. Without the Bible, they claim, they would not know Christ. It is through the Bible that they come to see and love Christ for the Bible reveals Christ to the world. Evangelicals understand this. Its only a short hop therefore, for them to see that we see Mary as they see the Bible. She is no more a distraction to Christ than the Bible is. Instead, it is through her and by her that he is revealed to the world.
Ignatius Insight: You also note that "it is in our common prayer that Catholics seem most unlike Evangelicals". What are some examples of this? Why are Evangelicals usually so opposed to the use of memorized prayers and to liturgy?
Fr. Longenecker: Evangelicals value above all the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is their friend, their Lord and their Savior. They speak to him informally and casually in their prayers as a child would to an older brother or a trusted uncle. They feel it would be false to use formal words out of a book. it would be artificial for them to use the words that someone else wrote. It wouldn't seem natural and real. They would regard it as 'vain repetition' or 'empty formality'. Of course, they fall into their own repetitious patterns of prayer, for no one can be heart felt and original all the time. I'm afraid Catholics sometimes confirm the Evangelicals' worst fears on this one. If an Evangelical were to witness a rosary prayer group for instance he would find it very hard to deal with. I'm not criticizing rosary prayer groups--just saying they are a cultural stretch for most Evangelicals because all they would hear was "Catholics muttering and chanting their vain repetitions."
Ignatius Insight: A key point you make throughout is that "Catholics do not believe differently than other Christians; rather, they believemorethan other Christians." What is good example of this argument?
Fr. Longenecker: I was very influenced by a little phrase by the English writer F.D. Maurice. It is 'A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies." That's very good and worth thinking through. It really helped me come into the Catholic Church eventually because whenever I was introduced to a custom or a belief which was alien and which (because of my fundamentalist background) I was inclined to reject, I stopped and tried to affirm what was good about it rather than reject it simply because it was alien to me or 'Catholic'. This mentality is very life giving and positive, and it is this mindset on which my book is established. My thesis is that wherever Evangelicals are affirming something, we Catholics affirm it too. We affirm what they affirm. We simply don't deny what they deny.
Examples of this are manifold throughout the book, but to give just a few, Evangelicals affirm and love the Bible. So do Catholics. We both say it is inspired and infallible. We both believe that Jesus Christ is revealed through the Bible and that we may not believe anything which contradicts the Bible. However, Evangelicals reject tradition. Catholic do not share that denial. Evangelicals love Jesus. We love Jesus too. They claim him as their Lord and Savior. So do Catholics. They trust in his mercy and forgiveness. So do we. However, they deny the proper veneration of the Mother of the Lord. We cannot share that denial. Instead we joyfully invite them to cease denying the fullness of the faith and to be dissatisfied with Mere Christianity and instead to explore the fullness of More Christianity.
Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Essays:
Further Up and Further In | | Fr. Dwight Longenecker | From the Introduction to More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith
A Perspective From Across the Pond | A Conversation with Dwight Longenecker (March 16, 2005)
Escape From Puritania | Joseph Pearce | An Excerpt from C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
The Thought and Work of C. S. Lewis | Carl E. Olson
C.S. Lewiss Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
An Hour and a Lifetime with C.S. Lewis | An Interview with Thomas Howard
The Relevance and Challenge of C. S. Lewis | Mark Brumley
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Why Fantasy? | Richard Purtill | From the Introduction to Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
C.S. Lewis and the Inklings | Various Articles and Columns
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