Chuck Colson, An Appreciation
Touchstone's first encounter with Charles Colson was in June 1988 at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he gave four lectures entitled "A Society in Peril" to the Allies for Faith and Renewal conference, where Evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians came together on matters of common concern.
At that time, nearly a quarter-century ago, he predicted, "Over the next ten years I see nothing but the erosion of religious liberty in America." Alarming to some at the time, his words have been borne out by events, as the erosion continues. While Colson may be best known for his primary ministry, Prison Fellowship, he continued to be engaged in the culture wars through his final days.
Colson, as many know, gave his life to Jesus Christ not long after reading C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. He was a strong proponent of Lewis as both apologist and advocate of "mere Christianity," a robust and undiluted devotion to Christ as presented in the Gospels and believed in by the historic Church.
Lewis's correspondence with the Roman Catholic priest (and saint) Fr. Giovanni Calabria is a prime example of Christian fellowship on this basis. In these Latin Letters Lewis had made a point about Christian unity that Colson deeply appreciated:
For Colson, Christian unity and apologetics were connected. In 1998 David Mills and I interviewed him at (where else?) a C. S. Lewis conference in Cambridge, England, where he was speaking. We asked him, "What would you say is the greatest challenge that Christians are facing as they go into the twenty-first century?" He replied:
Colson became a major player in building bridges between Catholics and Evangelicals. His work with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project was not without controversy, but the net effect of his efforts over several decades is undoubtedly positive. It forged enduring alliances.
Colson was accepted as an ally by many Catholic hierarchs, such Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. The Catholic writer Thomas Howard saw that Colson "was a doughty pioneer in awakening his Evangelical world to the awareness that the ancient Catholic Church is a mighty ally in this (apocalyptic?) struggle against the present Zeitgeist."
Colson's support for "mere Christianity" and his desire to work with allies brought him to regard our "journal of mere Christianity" as another ally among many. He twice visited the Touchstone editorial board when it met at the home of Leon and Mary Podles in Naples, Florida, where he also lived. And although he couldn't accept any of our occasional invitations to speak at a Touchstone event because of his extremely busy schedule, even his regrets were encouraging: "I'll try to support you in any way I can because I believe so deeply in what you're doing."
In 2007 Colson sent me a manuscript copy of his new book, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, and asked for a critique and endorsement. He explained that he "wrote this book in the passionate hope and prayer that it would bring together Christians from all different traditions to affirm what all true Christians must affirm, the fundamental truths of the faith." At age 75, he was still tirelessly working for the cause of Christ, as I summarized in my endorsement:
The growing alliance of Christians took on another dimension in 2009 when Colson invited several leading Eastern Orthodox Christians to a meeting to support the Manhattan Declaration in defense of the sanctity of life, marriage, and religious liberty. He wanted to "make a joint stand." The Orthodox came, including Metropolitan Jonah, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and Fr. Chad Hatfield, Chancellor of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, among others.
Spearheaded by Colson, Robert George, and Timothy George, the Manhattan Declaration was released in November 2009, bearing the signatures of more than 150 religious and ministry leaders—including three Orthodox bishops, more than a dozen Catholic bishops, and many prominent Evangelicals. A three-fold cord of witness had come together.
While Colson was not single-handedly responsible for this "new ecumenism," without him it would have been much weaker than it is today. The coalition grows and deepens, and we may be grateful for his labors for the sake of unity in Christ. In addition to being the constant friend and helper of those in prison, he was a bridge-builder for divided Christians.
Colson soldiered on, well into his 81st year, working with Christians of many stripes. At the memorial service for him in May 2012 in Washington's National Cathedral, a thousand or more Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox came together, as allies, beneficiaries, and mere Christians, to pay their respects and express their gratitude for his life and witness.
May Charles Colson rest in the peace of the Lord, and may his labors bear fruit, even a hundredfold, both here and in the age to come.
—James M. Kushiner
James M. Kushiner is a the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
“Chuck Colson, An Appreciation” first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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