Saturday, April 7, 2007

How I Became a Sci Fi Catholic, Part 2

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Read Part 1.

College. In my freshman year in college, I got into an argument with a Catholic about the real presence. It was a short argument, and I don’t even remember what either of us said, but I do remember realizing I knew nothing about Catholicism, whereas previously I had thought, as the Fundamentalists I grew up with thought, that I knew all about the Catholic Church and its blatant, self-evident mistakes.

In my junior year, I went the way of Cowper and became convinced I was irrevocably damned, not because I thought I had been reprobated from all eternity past, for I had no developed concept of Calvinist teaching, but because I had talked myself into the idea that I had committed the unforgivable sin. The initial psychological agony lessened after about a year, but stayed with me to some degree right up until the time I determined to convert to Catholicism, a total period of probably around two or three years.

The Charismatics. I prolonged that agony by getting involved with the Charismatic Movement, about which I’ve previously written on this blog.

The church in which I grew up was quite anti-Charismatic, insisting that certain gifts of the Spirit (what we Catholics call charisms) known as the “Sign Gifts” had gone out of existence when the canon of the New Testament was complete. This doctrine, which has no biblical basis, comes in soft and hard forms. In my home church, we followed the soft form, acknowledging that miracles were still possible. In the harder Calvinist churches, theologians insist that after the close of the New Testament, all visions, miracles, and the more spectacular charisms ceased because they had only existed to prove the veracity of the New Testament. I don’t understand such thinkers and never did. To disbelieve in miracles, a Christian would have to stop up his ears whenever the microphone is passed for personal testimonials.

Even as a teenager, I concluded it is unbiblical to say certain charisms had ceased to be. The proof text of choice is 1 Corinthians 13.8, which reads, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end” (NRSV). The argument runs that because the word cease is different from come to an end, it means tongues will stop at an earlier date, that is, when the New Testament is complete. This is baloney exegesis of the first rank. Even if cease somehow means “cease earlier,” which it doesn’t, it still does not mean “when the New Testament is finished.” I don’t think there’s a word in Greek for “stop when the New Testament is finished,” no matter how much some theologians would like to find one.

This issue points up a typical problem with Protestantism. Protestantism involves a certain straining for an idealized first century Church, as if that was real Christianity and all sects today are merely pale reflections trying and failing to duplicate the first century Church by studying the New Testament and reenacting what they read. Catholicism, by contrast, teaches that the Church of the New Testament continues today, complete with all the problems, for an honest reading of the New Testament reveals that the first century Church was less than ideal. Catholic Traditionalism commits a similar error, straining for a Church not of the first century but of the 1950s or maybe the High Middle Ages. This error is called Antiquarianism.

So, I had no biblical objection to the Charismatics and still don’t. Nonetheless, interaction with Charismatics who were always quick to point out every mistake I made or criticize any personality traits or personal interests they didn’t like heightened my frantic feelings of guilt, and I feared that if I dared disagree with a Charismatic, I would be blaspheming the Holy Spirit for sure.

However, I began to notice that, though all the Charismatics claimed to have messages from the Holy Spirit, those messages often conflicted with each other or with Scripture. I finally decided I had to disagree with a Charismatic while at a church where the guest speaker was telling us how he had been healed of diabetes. He had gone to a prayer meeting, laid hands on himself, and fallen on the floor. Convinced he was cured, he stopped taking his insulin and ended up in the hospital twice. When the doctors asked him if he was diabetic, he told them no because, after all, he had been cured.

I grew skeptical while listening to this. The man had diabetes, but he couldn’t admit it because his faith was based on a personal experience. If he admitted his diabetes, it would be to him like a denial of Christ. His faith was in the wrong thing, and that is the basic problem with Protestant Charismaticism: Typical Protestantism is about faith in personal interpretation of the Bible, but Charismatic Protestantism is about faith in personal emotional experience. This poor man with diabetes was in the same condition I was in--his guilt and feelings of inadequacy had driven him to irrationality and unhealthy behavior.

Graduate School. I ended my undergraduate years disillusioned with the Charismatic Movement. I said to myself, “I appreciate their enthusiasm, their belief in miracles, and their worship of the Holy Spirit. Now, if only there were some sort of control, some sort of authority to rein them in, someone to officially weed out the private revelations that don’t agree with Christian teaching, then the Charismatics would be alright, but as it is, they’re dangerous.”

For my graduate work, I went to the University of Toronto to study Near Eastern Archaeology under Dr. T. P. Harrison. While I was there, I had my first prolonged interaction with Catholics and also read more intensively in science fiction and fantasy. Here are a few things that happened to me or that I thought during this time:

The Church. I believed, based on Scripture, that there was a Church. I believed, based on logic and constant drilling from my Fundamentalist teachers, that two contradictory truth claims cannot simultaneously be true. I believed the Church must teach the truth. Putting it all together, I jettisoned the so-called denominational theory of the Church, believing the Church must be in agreement with itself if it is to teach truth. Since the various denominational churches teach different things, only one of them could be the Church, not all of them. I made it my mission to find the Church, though I never expected to succeed.

The Rosary. As an undergraduate, I had taken a minor in Philosophy of Religion. My almost worthless studies mostly involved listening to Dr. Marcus Borg preach on Pluralism, a bankrupt philosophy if ever there was one. Nonetheless, after I got detoxed from Borg’s heresies, I took away one thing, an earnest desire to meditate, though like many Protestants, I had no idea how to begin. Fortunately, my dabbling in Buddhist meditative techniques was brief. Many other Protestants aren’t so lucky.

Early in my graduate schooling, an active and evangelistic Catholic invited me to pray the Rosary with his group. I asked him to explain the Rosary, which he did. I then informed him that, as a Protestant, I could not pray the Rosary in good conscience. He politely offered me a book, Scott Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen, which I agreed to read; after all, I already had a reasonable overview of Buddhism and had been through a few comparative religion courses, so I had no objection to learning about other people’s faiths; indeed, being generally interested in culture and religion, I was eager to do so. I found Hahn’s book unconvincing, but I was attracted to the Rosary this friend had shown me.

After that, I read an article in Christianity Today entitled, “The Blessed Evangelical Mary.” The article acknowledges that Protestants have generally slighted the Blessed Virgin and even suggests, shockingly, that it is appropriate for Protestants to pray the first half of the Hail Mary, since it’s biblical.

At first, I did not pray the Rosary, but I did realize the Rosary was a meditative prayer--exactly what I had been looking for. I made it a habit to roll out of bed when my alarm went off and say my morning prayers: At first, I said one Our Father, one half of the Hail Mary, and a few other prayers while trying to meditate on an event in the life of Christ with each prayer.

Sometime later, another Catholic friend commented that he had too many Rosaries and wanted to get rid of them. I told him I’d take one. He tried to give me an elaborate gold one, but I demurred; it seemed to me he should keep it, and besides, it had a Eucharistic icon at its center, whereas I, for whatever reason, wanted one with a Marian icon. I began praying the Rosary, reciting, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” on the Hail Mary beads. At some point, I don’t remember when, I said heck with it and started praying the entire Hail Mary on the Hail Mary beads.

What Must I Do to Be Saved? In the midst of all this, to find the answer to my fear and guilt, I was reading about Protestant doctrines of justification. I can think of no better way to remain Catholic or cease to be Protestant than to study this subject. Though Protestants agree on the unbiblical phrase faith alone, they disagree on what the phrase means. Their disagreements with each other are as big and as serious as their disagreement with the Catholic doctrine.

Let me explain some of that. Protestant views of justification now come in at least four major flavors: Lutheran, Calvinist, Arminian, and “Non-Lordship.” The last is what you’ve probably encountered if you’ve ever gotten into a discussion with a Fundamentalist, and it was the teaching of my own religious background.

The basic Protestant view, on which, as far as I know, they all agree, is that justification is separate from sanctification, whereas in the Bible and in Catholic teaching, the words are synonyms, though they capture different ideas about what salvation is. In the Protestant view, justification is God’s declaration that an unrighteous sinner is righteous because when God looks at the sinner, all he can see is the righteousness of Christ, which has been imputed to the sinner. So the sinner is not actually changed. Luther’s famous image for this is of snow falling on dung. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the long process of becoming a better person. The Catholic view, by contrast, is of Christ’s righteousness being infused in the sinner, so the sinner actually becomes righteous, not merely declared so. This is the real difference between the Protestant and Catholic views, not the faith vs. works dichotomy you may have heard, which distorts both the Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. Catholics and Protestants agree that a person can be saved only by grace, though Catholics tend to paint Protestants as fatalists, and Protestants tend to paint Catholics as semi-Pelagians.

Calvin significantly altered Luther’s doctrine by adding to it a few notions, especially the concepts of final perseverance of the saints and eternal security. This means that the person who is saved remains saved no matter what and that he will inevitably persevere in holiness until the end of life. Calvinists are hard-pressed to explain apostasy from such a doctrine and are hard-pressed to explain various scripture passages warning of apostasy and its consequences. Attempting to explain that has probably led to the next two views.

The Arminian view holds that salvation can be lost. How to lose it and how to get it back are vaguely defined because Arminians lack defined concepts of mortal sin and the sacrament of penance. Arminians and Calvinists enjoy blaming each other for Christians’ lack of conviction or moral behavior.

The last view is the product of a recent split within Dispensationalism. The so-called “Lordship Controversy” presents us with two types of Dispensationalist: those who believe a Christian must accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and those who believe he must only accept Christ as Savior. In the new view, a person can behave as an utter reprobate but go to Heaven in the end if he has had a conversion experience at some point in his life. It is, in effect, Zen Christianity: just one enlightenment experience required to reach Nirvana. This is the religion of my upbringing.

There’s even another view, that of Dr. Earl Radmacher, a prominent conservative Baptist speaker, which I will call Antinomianism. Radmacher teaches that a person need accept nothing, that he must merely make an intellectual acknowledgment of the truth of basic Christian doctrines in order to be saved. Afterwards, he could presumably believe and do whatever he likes without affecting his eternal destiny. This is the final devolution of Luther’s heresy.

I was disappointed and disgusted to find we could not even agree on the utmost basic question of Christianity, “What must I do to be saved?” Radmacher says just believe; the Lordship-only types say just believe and accept; the Arminians save believe and work; the Calvinists say believe and you’ll inevitably work, unless you don’t, which means you never really believed; and I’m still not completely sure of what the Lutherans or Anglicans say, but I am pretty sure it involves belief and work. At any rate, Luther produced a lot of confusion just to make a point about the difference between imputed and infused righteousness, and contrary to what I learned as a child, the Reformation hadn’t even freed us from work. Most Protestant teachings still require it.

On top of all that, I was getting the impression that Protestantism as a whole represents a gross distortion of St. Paul. Was he really trying to form a sharp dichotomy between belief and behavior, or was he trying to argue against Judaizers who insisted Gentile Christians be circumcised and practice Jewish Law? St. Paul writes of the importance of work. He upholds love as the greatest virtue. He worries about the possibility of his own falling away and that of his flock.

I learned, too, that Luther’s teaching is not so much Pauline as hyper-Augustinian. It was St. Augustine, not St. Paul, who fleshed out the doctrine of original sin, which Luther took even further. To be strictly biblical, Protestants would have to return to an embryonic version of that doctrine, such as can be found in the Eastern Church. Instead, they have expanded it until it is all encompassing, until it destroys, or at least mortally wounds, free will, so that Luther could write on the bondage of the will and Calvinists could preach the need for irresistible grace.

Scripture. This difficulty points up a basic problem with the Protestant view of the Bible. It should be evident from the diversity of Protestant doctrines that the Bible is not self-interpreting, as they claim. But beyond that, the teaching of sola scriptura is self-refuting, for it does not appear in scripture. Besides that, Scripture proves inadequate as a sole source of doctrine; all Protestant churches cheat and take doctrine from other sources, no matter how much they may claim otherwise. Worse still, without an authoritative statement from outside the Bible, there is no way of knowing if the early Christians even collected the right texts in the Bible, for the Bible contains no divine table of contents. Even if it did, there would be no way of knowing whether that table of contents was actually inspired. This problem led Presbyterian John Gerstner to the absurd declaration that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books. I may never thoroughly understand all the viewpoints on justification: I find the Catholic doctrine on justification more beautiful, but not more convincing. However, I cannot escape the fact that the Protestant view of scripture is built on sand.

I do, however, respect Protestant reverence for the Bible. Catholics revere the Bible as well, for it is, after all, our book. But some Catholic apologists, eager to attack the Protestant view of Scripture, sometimes go too far until it seems they attack Scripture itself, much as Protestants do when attacking Catholic Marian devotion. Though biblical illiteracy is a cultural, and not a Catholic, problem, I do appreciate the heavy emphasis on the study and memorization of the Bible that was part of my upbringing.

Read Part 3
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