Sunday, April 8, 2007

How I Became a Sci Fi Catholic, Part 3

Read Parts 1, 2

The summer after my first year as a graduate student, I housesat for a professor and spent much of my time reading books. I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read the Primer on Roman Catholicism for Protestants, which is a good way to become Catholic. I read two polemical books full of essays by top Protestant leaders, Justification by Faith Alone and Sola Scriptura. They’re another good way to become Catholic, as they consists almost entirely of ad hominem attacks without substance. What’s shocking is that the authors are all prominent Evangelical leaders, indicating that Evangelicalism really has lost its intellectual base.

Sexuality. Somewhere in the midst of it all, I discovered teachings from The Theology of the Body. I need to back up and mention that for several years I had been questioning Protestants’ glib acceptance of contraception. My reasoning went like this: Years earlier, perhaps in high school, I had encountered arguments that the Bible says nothing about abortion and that, therefore, Christians ought to consider abortion morally acceptable. Rather than strain certain Psalms or passages from Isaiah into anti-abortion proof texts, I said to myself, “I know Christians have been opposed to abortion and infanticide from the beginning. Can we turn our back on that teaching now?” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was arguing from Tradition.

Sometime in college, I read John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 38. Calvin was quite plain on the matter: Contraception is murder. I don’t remember if this viewpoint surprised me or not. I tried to pass it off, but I couldn’t. The immorality of contraception was not a Catholic teaching only.

I also gained the impression that contraception was an excuse for a selfish lifestyle. I knew many Christian women (I’m sure men are the same way, but my experience was with women) who wanted to marry but contracept for five years before having children. If you’re wondering why, it’s because they wanted to be able to have five years of consequence-free sex before “settling down,” just like the culture was telling them they should. Eventually, this attitude began to repel me.

When I got to grad school, the ads for contraception on the walls of the health center further influenced me. While waiting for my wonderful universal Canadian health care, which I could receive without being robbed blind by an insurance company that won’t pay for most of my medical needs, I would have to sit in a chair opposite a photograph of a naked woman’s lower torso with an ad for the new female condom written across her pubic triangle. Is anything more degrading to women than contraception? Admittedly, this was just an ad, but to me, it captured a worldview. Contraception turns a woman’s body into a sex toy, an object fit for abuse or use in advertisements. It assaults her sacred status. I wanted to be as opposed as possible to the worldview behind such ads.

I was adamantly pro-birth control for most of my life because I learned it from my elders, but when I finally discovered what the Catholic Church really teaches about sex and marriage, I recognized it. By that, I mean it is what Protestants are blindly groping for when they talk about purity, abstinence, and the sacredness of the marriage bond. The Catholic Church, unlike the Protestant churches, has a fully realized, fully developed teaching on marriage, sexuality, celibacy, and sacred virginity. She has these things because she has 2,000 years of tradition and theological development and because she recognizes that marriage is a sacrament, that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, that the Virgin Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. The doctrines most difficult for Protestants all tie in, in some way, to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. But that teaching is so beautiful, so unmistakably Christian, I couldn’t deny it. But once I accepted it, other doctrines were sure to follow.

Opus Dei. During the summer I housesat, I took a class in French. There, I met a vibrantly Catholic young man who introduced me to all the priests and other students who lived at the Opus Dei center. During the next school year, I took a class on the Catechism, there, though it was mostly review for me. Incidentally, one of the Opus Dei priests was a major sci-fi buff, but, unfortunately, I never managed to engage him in a prolonged discussion.

The priest who taught the class later wrote me to ask how I was doing, and I replied that he probably knew I was considering Catholicism. I told him that, wherever I ended up, I would always take the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sex with me.

Other Stuff. Over the course of graduate school, more and more Catholic doctrines convinced me. While jogging one morning, I had an argument with myself about the Catholic hierarchy. By the end of my run, I had convinced myself that a hierarchical structure was necessary to have effective excommunications. At some point, I also realized the Catholic hierarchy was exactly the sort of control I had thought the Charismatics needed. Imagine my delighted surprise when I learned there are Charismatics in the Catholic Church as well! I was much impressed by the Church’s distinction between general and private revelation. Not only does such a teaching keep the Charismatics in their proper place, it also answers the previously mentioned objections to miracles and visions.

One thing I must mention: While reading the Catechism, I had a profound moment similar to Luther’s tower revelation. One teaching stood out for me and offered me great comfort, the teaching that despair is a sin. That seems like a funny thing to find comforting, but if despair is a sin, then it is always wrong, and if despair is always wrong, then there is always hope, and if there is always hope, then we can always be forgiven, no matter what we’ve done. Calvinism could never offer me such comfort. It was that teaching that at last evaporated the anxiety I had carried for so long.

The Blessed Virgin. And through it all, somehow or other, there was Mary. It began with that plastic Rosary my friend gave me. I wouldn’t call myself a great Marian devotee, though unlike many former Protestants, I can’t say Marian doctrines were a big issue for me. I still find Hahn’s Hail, Holy Queen mostly unconvincing, but I could not shake one of his arguments: Hahn notes that Luke 1.39-56, where the Virgin visits Elizabeth, is modeled on 2 Samuel 6, where King David brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. I already knew that Luke models his narrative on Old Testament passages, so I had to admit that Luke is purposely equating the Virgin Mary with the Ark of the Covenant.

Other doctrines on the Blessed Virgin followed. Let me be clear that I did not grow up with the experience of many former Protestants: My home church did not ignore the Virgin Mary, I heard sermons about her, and no one insulted her to prove how non-Catholic we were. I don’t recall ever having a problem with the title Mother of God, for I could defend it with a simple syllogism: Jesus is God, Mary is the mother of Jesus, and therefore Mary is the mother of God. The only two doctrines that gave me any difficulty were the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Indeed, if the Church did not teach them dogmatically, I would not believe them, or rather I would “believe” them as useful and important stories without sure historical basis, much as I “believe” St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus or “believe” trees contain dryads or “believe” my collected dragon figurines come to life at night, have various adventures, and return to their places just as I’m getting up in the morning. But because the Church does teach them, I do believe them, and they have enriched my spiritual life.

I am a better person than I would be without the Virgin Mary. I admit I have misogynist tendencies, but now whenever I’m tempted to say something negative about women, I remember the Virgin Mary and shut my mouth. The Virgin Mary is blessed among women because her blessedness uplifts and dignifies women. The Blessed Virgin is a temple of God incarnate, which should remind us that all women’s bodies are temples of the image of God. The Virgin Mary is a sign of God’s abundant love and grace: It was not necessary to his eternal plan that he should give us his mother to be our mother. He did it because the Lord delights in giving good things to his children.

The Eucharist and the Sacraments. I discovered in graduate school that I could discover six of the seven sacraments in the Bible. I’m not sure which six they were, because now I can find all seven. This made it difficult for me to continue in the Protestant doctrine that the sacraments are two in number.

In particular, the Church’s teaching on marriage is the only one I know that satisfactorily explain’s Christ’s teaching and the so-called Pauline Exception. Christ permits no divorce, but St. Paul allows that a non-Christian who wishes to divorce a Christian may do so, and that the Christian is then free to remarry. As I understand it, in the sacramental view of marriage, the marriage between a Christian and non-Christian is not sacramental and so can potentially be dissolved. In a non-sacramental view of marriage, St. Paul is watering down Christ’s teachings on marriage. No wonder so many Protestants allow divorce and are beginning to allow same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the final teaching I accepted was the Church’s doctrine on the Eucharist. Some apologists believe this is the doctrine to tackle first with Protestants, but they’re wrong. The Eucharist is source of our faith, but also summit; when you’re constructing a tower, you don’t build the spire first.

Certainly, I dabbled in the real presence for a while before I actually accepted it. I thought I accepted it until I told a Catholic friend that I had read a Protestant who actually claimed--and I thought he was being so silly and ignorant--that Catholics took transubstantiated hosts, placed them in a golden sunburst-shaped thing, and--here was the best part--actually worshipped them! Oh, how I chuckled over that one!

When I learned this Protestant was actually correct, I realized I had only been toying with notions of the real presence. I believed in the real presence because it matched scripture and because the doctrine I had always been taught, that the Eucharist was only a symbol, made no sense. Why would Jesus go to such trouble to establish a symbol? I grew up with the same questions about the Lord’s Table I had about baptism. When the communion plate came my way with my individual cup of grape juice and my individual saltine cracker, I would always ask, “Why do we do this?” As a Baptist, I heard many sermons on what the Eucharist is not. I can’t remember even one on what the Eucharist is.

I determined that a merely symbolic view of baptism, communion, and laying on of hands is in sharp discord with an ancient worldview. Would the first Christians bother with ritual acts of no substance? I doubted it; they were ancient Jews, not modern skeptics. And they were devout. They did not practice ritual for ritual’s sake. Would anyone walk into the temple precincts and say, “All the slaughtered animals, all the beer and wine poured out, all the bread burned are signs of God’s goodness. They’re not really sacrifices, but symbols”? He might not get out alive. If the sacrificial system of ancient Israel is a real system of real apotropaic magic designed to stave off cosmic chaos with blood, could the New and better Covenant replace it with mere symbols? It should replace it instead with a better sacrifice, one that need be given only once, one that at last rights the universe permanently and sanctifies it, one that we can participate in every time Christians gather to worship. That is what the Catholic Church teaches. Protestants teach that the Old Covenant was merely symbolic, and though they teach that Christ’s sacrifice is real, they bar believers from participation. They do not allow Christians to receive their God into their bodies, and they thereby inadvertently attack the marriage covenant as well, which symbolizes these things. No wonder they accept contraception and divorce.

But when I realized that Catholics worship the Eucharist, I confronted my belief in the real presence directly. If the Eucharist is indeed God, then it is fit to worship. I could not argue with it, but I had qualms about practicing it. Nonetheless, I did. It was a step of faith, one that took my belief in the real presence from the realm of theory to the realm of practice.

My science fiction reading was again a big help to me in this. My reading about magic and other wondrous things enhanced my sense of need for efficacious ritual and beautiful religion. I felt a constant, deep hunger for Jesus.

Conversion. To cut this short, I finished graduate school and moved to Wyoming for a job. I went through an RCIA class here and became a Roman Catholic at the Easter Vigil Mass of 2006. My first confession was a great blessing and comfort to me. Though it’s certainly no excuse for bad behavior (we call that presumption), it is good to know that Jesus is always waiting there in the confessional, ready to forgive. I know from conversations that many Protestants walk around with constant guilt, unable to find absolution because no authoritative source grants it to them. It’s very sad, for it’s unnecessary. It’s good to be home.

Conclusion. Though Protestants agree with Pascal’s image of the hole in the human heart only God can fill, they deny that God fits the hole. Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism teaches that all our religious impulses are essentially evil, that even though Protestant religion seems inadequate, we must continually repeat to ourselves, “I am saved by faith alone” to assuage lingering feelings of guilt or spiritual hunger. Religious impulses, such as the desire for religious objects or rituals, must be suppressed because they are “pagan.” This did not sit well with me because I had a degree in anthropology and a love of sf, both of which showed me a greater diversity in human thought and culture than I had previously suspected. I was heavily under the influence of C. S. Lewis and was falling under the spell of G. K. Chesterton. Because of Lewis, Chesterton, and my own love for imaginative literature, I believed Christianity was a fulfillment of mythology, not its antagonist. I believed also that magic, an apparent cultural universal, must be a straining, however disordered, for genuinely efficacious ritual. I believed that human desire for God must match the God humans desire, though I acknowledged then and now that human religious desires can be perverted. I termed all this natural religion, similar to natural law; just as a true moral code must match the natural law, so a true religion must fulfill the needs of natural religion. The Protestant Christianity of my upbringing, being generally opposed to myth and ritual, does not match the natural religion.

I have drawn the conclusion, or at least the hypothesis, that Protestantism, at its very roots, is mythophobic: Luther threw some of the most imaginative books out of the Bible; Calvin ridiculed the Catholic Church because so many hoax relics were floating around; Evangelical leaders attack the Church for the Stations of the Cross, which add imaginative elements to the Lord’s Passion; myth is generally held in suspicion. Protestantism is at its core an assault on the religious imagination, an attempt to strip Christianity of its myth and leave it naked. Protestants appear to believe that true, incorruptible, foolproof Christianity will finally stand pure and undefiled when the last vestiges of human imaginative accretions are purged. Yet, how do you know when to stop stripping? At what point does imagination become historical reality? When there is nothing left that is reminiscent of pagan myth? Then there will be nothing left of our religion. It is the basic act of the Protestant to empty Christianity of its doctrines and practices, and so all Protestantism, even in its conservative forms, is the basis of liberal Protestantism, which has grown weary of attacking Marian devotion or relics and attacks instead the incarnation, sin and redemption, and the resurrection.

Indeed, can Christianity be healthy if it does not accrete fictions? When something like a religion moves people, it carries them away. It activates and enlightens their whole beings, including their imaginations. They will make up saint stories, invent histories, believe in phony relics because they love God, love their religion, and love all things associated with their religion. A religion without mythological development is fossilized and close to death. Even the Protestants have not escaped this, for they have myths of their own, albeit meager ones.

It is for that reason this blog exists. Protestant liberalism has made inroads into Catholicism, as everyone knows, but somehow Protestant anti-imaginativism has made inroads as well. This blog champions imaginative writing not simply because it is my hobby and passion, but because it is a form of something vitally necessary if Catholicism is to thrive. A religion without myth is dry as dust. It has no ability to teach or hold the attention of its children. Without good imaginative stories, it cannot pass on morality in the world’s oldest, most effective method of passing on morality. Without good stories, it is less appealing than even Wicca, which in the face of robust, healthy Christianity, should not be appealing at all.

D. G. D. Davidson makes his home in Wyoming where he works as an archaeologist and writes science fiction. He is currently working on a novel about talking dinosaurs, fallen angels, magic crystals, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. He is also occasionally working on the screenplay for a dance movie tentatively entitled Step Up and Take the Lead While Dirty Dancing in a High School Musical. He expects it to be a big hit.
blog comments powered by Disqus