Psychological Disorder or Simply Bad Manners?

Here is a plea to Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Roman Catholic parish of Ft. Wayne/South Bend: call off Christian Smith! Please!!

Apparently, Smith is so caught up in his conversion to Rome that he has failed to join his fellow communicants in their Fortnight for Freedom. As many may know, Smith has not only joined the Roman Catholic Church, but the distinguished sociologist of American religion has also written two books that justify his move. One takes on the problems of sola scriptura, the other explains how evangelicals can become Roman Catholic. Why those books were not enough is a mystery. But here we are, smack dab in the Freedom Fortnight, and Smith has posted through Pete Enns a piece about the narcissism of conservative Presbyterians:

But for present purposes, what the narcissism of small differences very powerfully explains, I think, is the prevailing tendency among conservative Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in the U.S. to spend so much time, energy, and attention arguing over and policing and prosecuting what in reality are relatively minor—sometimes absolutely obscure—matters of doctrine.

It is not just that they were traumatized by losing Princeton to the liberals and so always feel on edge. Those who sustain the entertainments of doctrinal and biblical legalisms are also in fact so darn similar to each other, and that theological and organizational proximity makes what are often really only very small differences seem life shaking.

If you look at the fine print of this piece you will find no examples of such mountain-out-of-mole-hill making. (But even uninformed readers might connect the dots to Enns, Westminster, and the controversy over inerrancy a few years ago.)

I do not doubt that conservative Presbyterians do this, though whether we need to invoke Freud is another matter. As John Muether pointed out in a comment to Smith’s post:

This is what Neuhaus called the law of theological propinquity — one reserves most strident criticism for those closest, in part as an effort at boundary maintenance. It seems to apply to sociological theory as much as reformed doctrine.

I suspect that even in Roman Catholic circles, if Smith looked hard enough, he might find such forms of boundary maintenance, like those distinguishing Opus Dei from Call to Action. In fact, the United States is thriving on differences that might look to Turks or Japanese like small differences. Do Republicans and Democrats really differ on the economy and national defense? Do Irish-Americans really look at the world differently from Swedish-Americans?

So why would Smith go out of his way to reduce the convictions of his former friends, communicants, and family members to psychological malfunctioning? One explanation might be narcissism itself. Smith is so caught up with his own pilgrimage that he needs to justify it. As his own definition of narcissism attests:

It is narcissistic because it is driven by a quest, very real even if unacknowledged, to feed the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church.

This is not meant to be merely an echo response. Smith’s books deserve more comment than this post, and his arguments will receive scrutiny in the forthcoming book that Muether and I are writing. What is meant here is that a smart guy like Smith should have enough intelligence to consider his own posture in these debates, not to mention the manners of an assured convert who doesn’t need to wear his faith on his sleeve and make others feel uncomfortable. Could it be that Smith is still suffering from the evangelical piety he used to defend?

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7 Comments

  1. Mike K.
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    His books on biblicism and emerging adulthood have been on my to-read list for a while, but that guest post reads like a NY Times editorial. Are his published works better?

  2. Posted June 29, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Mike K., Smith’s sociology is good, even if his stuff on evangelicalism was not sufficiently critical. But as an apologist for Rome, he is smug. (What’s up with that?)

  3. Posted June 29, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    And if limiting leadership to (white) males is an example of doctrinal legalism, Smith may have a rude awakening in Rome. Last I checked, Roman leadership is very dudeish.

  4. sean
    Posted June 29, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    True Zrim, but at least in the american scene we liked to sprinkle it with a healthy dose of the, ahem, effeminate dude. The atmospheric appeal of Rome isn’t so alluring once you’ve sat in the pew awhile(says this former cradle catholic).

  5. Brandon
    Posted June 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Did Christian Smith consider himself “Reformed” in some way before prostrating himself before Antichrist… er, I mean, the Pope?

  6. Posted June 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Brandon, Smith was in the PCA. Does that count as Reformed? (kidding, mainly).

  7. Posted June 30, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    In a few conversations over at C to C I’ve picked up on a noticeable defensiveness (among those who have paddled across the Tiber from the Reformed shore) over any question or problem suggested as to Roman doctrine or practice. Whereas, when I talk to a devout life-long Catholic (like my boss) he tends to be more or less open about questions and can admit to some things that might not add up. Those conversations tend to be a rather easy give-and-take.

    It’s almost as if some Reformed gone RCC have to “prove their move” by refusing to admit to any possible inconsistency in the RCC paradigm. The RCC exists, in their apologies, as pristine and consistent from Peter to the present.

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