Sunday, August 29, 2004

The best way

[The following is perhaps the most important post/letter I've written to date. If you have any intention of reading it, I ask you to do so carefully, prayerfully and fully. Look before you leap, and read before you rant. Thank you. BTW, I apolgize for any weird formatting glitches and bumps that might appear in this; I wrote it on a Chinese-formatted PC and things can get a little tweaked in the Blogger transfer.]

[Once you've read this, have a look at some clarifications I added to this post, above.]

Many months ago (14 Dec 2003) on my earlier blog, Rocketagent, I wrote a short fairy tale about a man building a house for a King. Folks asked what the tale was about but I never explained – until now. The man is me and the King is God. So far so good.

The best way to hammer a nail is to hit it. The best way to try a meal is to eat it. The best way to say something is just to say it. So, let me say something: I want to become either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. This fact may baffle you; it may outrage you; it may in fact do nothing at all for you. Whatever your reaction, I assure you it has been the center of my life for just over two years now, and the source of much hidden anguish, confusion, joy, wonder, discovery, patience and prayer. For the past two years I have been wrestling with this decision and have finally found the opportunity to tell all my friends and family. I've agonized over when and how to make this announcenment but life has simply given this as the best time and "place." It's not ideal and I'm sure many would have liked to have heard earlier, or individually, or more gradually, or whatever, but I've done the best I can. Please forgive me for any hint of duplicity or disdain.

Much of the reason I delayed telling anyone so long is, first, because last year I was a full-time missionary and had a task to fulfill. I had a fairly significant leadership role and I knew launching such a wrench into the gears would further harm my already wounded team. Also, I knew my decision would very likely present some of my supporters with a conflict of interests and I didn't want to complicate things. It took me quite a while to get over feeling like a betrayer, so I at least wanted to finish what I started in good faith. I had every intention of announcing my decision over a year ago, but then I heard God's call to Taiwan and knew my announcement would have to wait for a better time. The reason I went through with this Evangelical mission a year ago despite my serious reservations about key points of Protestant theology and despite my serious leanings toward Roman Catholicism is that the absence of a firm decision for the latter left me with a firm default decision in favor of the former.

A second reason for my delaying this news has been my very academic, analytical nature. Though I can be a rash fellow in many things, I am rarely if ever rash about intellectual or spiritual ventures. When I decided to transfer from the University of Chicago at the end of my freshman year, I was accused of making a rash decision because I announced and executed my plan so abruptly. I understood this accusation, but also knew it was false. I did not rashly decide to transfer; I merely announced it suddenly after an entire year of living and thinking.

Likewise in this case, I have not made this decision – this decision to make a decision – abruptly; I have merely held off on announcing it en masse until now. My parents and a few friends know. Above all I wanted to give myself the time and thought and prayer to see if it was all merely a fluke, a fad, a weird phase. I didn't want to announce such a radical change without being able to give some intelligible reasons for it. Because I didn't want to come off half-cocked, I've spent the past two years reading and thinking and praying and reading, looking for loopholes, seeking the Lord wherever He leads me. As stereotype after stereotype and misrepresentation after misrepresentation fell, I felt the pull of Rome stronger and stronger. At bottom, I heard the Good Shepherd walking those old Italian streets and so I’ve hastened to that ancient city. Now here I am, wanting to be a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Though it baffles me, and though I know the deeper darker secrets of my own sinfulness, I must recognize the fact that I have a reputation as a strong Christian witness. Like it or not, I do have at least a modicum of influence in people’s spiritual lives. It is unbiblical of me to jeopardize people's faith – to scandalize them – with such a potentially shocking decision. Alas, it's equally unbiblical of me to stifle the truth God has given me. Hence, I've taken my time and tried to warm folks up to such news gradually.

Two asides: 1) Also, "conversion" is technically incorrect for my situation, since only formal heretics need to convert. I am, according to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, merely a material heretic and need only be "reconciled" with them. Conversion entails baptism; reconciliation does not. 2) The reason I keep mentioning Roman Catholicism *and* Eastern Orthodox is that I have not yet discerned which body possesses the fullness of truth. My interest in Orthodoxy stemmed from my interest in Catholicism. Once I saw the shared fundamental strengths of these two “lungs of the Church” (as Pope John Paul II calls them), I knew I’d have to breathe deeply from both, even though I’d ultimately have to reside in only one. (God hasten the Reunion – ut unum sint!) I admit I have a very strong intuitive, and perhaps merely "Western", preference for Roman Catholicism, but I also recognize the issues are complex. Despite the great strengths of Roman Catholicism, I see a good (but obviously not overwhelming) deal of merit in Eastern Orthodoxy's key disagreements with Roman Catholicism. I'd be a fool just to stride past Eastern Orthodoxy because it’s more foreign and less accessible for me than Roman Catholicism. It may go without saying the key dispute is the role of the bishop of Rome, viz., papal supremacy. (Another time, another place!)

Now, let me explain the three earliest and strongest motivations for my reconciliation with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The first reason I felt this draw was that I realized Catholics were real people, and, more than that, they were real Christians. They were and are real sheep of the Lord and they need good brethren and discipleship just like any other believer. This became clear to me when I was researching anti-Catholicism two summers ago. At the very least, I got past the comforting illusion that things on "this side" of the Kingdom were so much better than "over there."

Second, I came to realize that just as God had put His living, doctrinal truth into a very concrete thing – a book, a bible, in fact – He had put His living, liturgical truth into a very concrete thing – a body, the Church. I realized I could not remove the Bible from the Church, and, just as importantly, I could not remove the Church from the Bible. In a word, I’ve come to see the biblical and philosophical value of Sacred Tradition. I was once discussing St. Thomas Aquinas and the riches of the Christian heritage with a good friend of mine, one of my best brethren in the Lord. He surprised me by saying he loved “all those old guys,” since I took him for a contentedly modern Evangelical. Though from afar, he revered St. Augustine and St. Anselm and St. Aquinas and St. Bonaventure and many other big Catholic greats (minus all that “saintly” baggage, of course).

"Why?" I asked him.

"Because it's hard to believe it all just stopped back then," he said, in so many words. Because the Bible age was so rich in divine truth and power it seemed impossible it just ended – he said in so many words. He had a strange and suspicious hunch that precisely because God’s power has not diminished with time, neither has His ability to inspire and guide His Church as in the biblical times faded. My friend was onto something deep; without even realizing it, he was onto Tradition. Tradition means "the Bible age" is now, not merely "back then." Further, orthodox tradition means all of "now" is measured against the "back then" of Scripture. There can be no Scripture apart from Sacred Tradition and no Tradition apart from the Sacred Scriptures.

The Scriptures are the vocabulary of faith – what to say – and Tradition is the grammar – how to say it. The Scriptures are the living wisdom of the Faith and the Church is the living prophet of that wisdom. The Scriptures are the music of truth and the Church is the only instrument that plays it properly. (The human soul is the medium, the ear, for that music.) The Scriptures are the script and Tradition is the play itself; the Author and the Director are one and the same. The Scriptures are the genome of faith, Tradition is the divine lifeblood, and the Church is the organism itself. The Bible *is* Tradition, in fact: encapsulated and preserved for all time in the Church. The Tradition, in turn, is the Bible extended and expanded through time in the life of the Church.

Every Protestant knows the Church only makes sense in the Bible. As Calvin said, the Bible is the school of the Holy Spirit. But what not many Protestants recognize, and certainly what I didn't recognize, is that the Bible, in turn, only makes sense in the Church. We know the marks of the Church based on the Scriptures. And we know the contents of Scriptures based on the testimony of the Church, in the tradition of the Fathers. And we know the Fathers based on the authority of the Church. Round and round it goes, like a beautiful, celestial, harmonious, unbreakable Trinitarian dance. Far from being foes, Tradition and Scripture form one mysterious whole in the Church. Scripture, in fact, is but the crowning gem of the Tradition.

The third, and certainly most important, reason for my decision is the Eucharist. Once I understood the beauty and power and reality of Christ offering Himself in the Eucharist, I could not resist. That holy meal, that life-giving offering, that supernatural embrace of the Crucified and Glorified One became the pearl of great price, and I was ready to sell everything if it meant having Him. I'm painfully aware how bizarre such a passion may seem to many of you, since, of course, I already "have" Christ by faith. This is true, and is no less true just because Christ is more fully present in the Eucharist than elsewhere, than in any other mode. Now is not the time to discuss it, but my Eucharistic frenzy has everything to do with the sacramental ("incarnational") rather than merely pneumatic ("spiritual") nature of Christianity. I hungered, and I hunger, for the Eucharist in addition to my enjoyment of Christ by faith precisely because encountering Him in the Eucharist is supremely by faith.

Beyond these three points, I would not like to discuss the exact -- and many -- reasons why I have withdrawn my long-standing belief in Christ as a Protestant. There's no need to pick fights just for the sake of picking fights. Rather, I ask you to email me (or leave comments here) about specific questions and concerns. I do want to make it clear, though, that my embrace of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox is infinitely more about a fuller embrace of divine truth than it is a petty, snotty rejection of the "flaws" of my Protestant heritage. (In particular I was very taken by the power of Catholic moral theology, and its sexual theology, especially as it has been re-dynamized under Pope John Paul II.) I am leaving – now reluctantly, now happily – not because Protestantism stinks, but because I’ve caught a whiff of an even more sumptuous feast.

I cannot emphasize enough how happy I was to be a Protestant – a stolid Calvinist in fact – over two years ago. I had absolutely no interest in leaving my Protestant faith, and certainly no interest in Roman Catholicism, other than a typical reverence for some famous Catholic thinkers and writers. And no, it wasn’t the "smells and bells." Until I learned the point and power of liturgy, I found a lot of the "high church" formality off-putting and a little insincere. When this all began, I assure you I fought it, loathed it, feared it and denied it as strenuously as I could. But God is stronger and wise than I.

No one in his right mind despises a well made chassis just because it lacks an engine; but no one of sound mind thinks a car without an engine is anything but a lemon. There may be no reducing the offensiveness to my Protestant brethren, but in this whole process I've not aimed to spit on the chassis of my Protestant faith. I simply want to get a feel for the engine of Catholic and Orthodox truth that makes it drive. Or, in other terms, I do not hate the wooden table at which I've eaten for years. I simply want to find the living tree from which that table came. It may sound odd, but my embrace of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox actually stemmed from my ongoing efforts to be a more faithful Protestant. Believe it or not, my discovery of the catholic orthodox faith resulted from my pursuit of biblical truth.

Now – and *please take my word for this* despite all I’ve said – although I have tremendous confidence in the Catholic and Orthodox faith, I should make it clear I am still not out of the woods. There is still a lot of Protestant kick in these bones. I could, possibly, end up a Calvinist again. (For the record, I think Calvinism is the only satisfying and consistently Protestant belief system out there.) Like I said, I *loved* being a Protestant! I am taking myself through a rigorous examination of the core beliefs of orthodox Protestant (whatever that may be, exactly), so I do not delude myself with a straw man. I am willing to acknowledge, for the sake of humility, I may be missing something crucial and it will only take a good dose of biblical wisdom to sober me up. If I had to scratch that itch and put a number on it for you, I'd say I’m 90-10 sure Roman Catholicism is the fullness of the Christian truth (and 100% sure it's at least 90% of the truth ;) ) Nevertheless, being unable to side resolutely with any of the three titans in this situation puts me in a tight spot; I'm everybody's friend and enemy at once. Ach, well, stuck in the middle with Him.

The complement of this Protestant exploration is further rigorous study of the main tenets of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I'm not trying to head-fake myself or intellectually what-if myself to death, but I must admit my profound ignorance in many of these matters. I can't do this alone, and I refuse to be flippant and incautious with the gift of faith God has given me. Many people would like me just to jump across the Tiber; others of course want me to retreat to Wittenberg and Geneva as quickly as my chicken legs will carry me. Maybe I am trying the Lord's patience with the need for human certainty, but so far He has guided me sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, always lovingly. With Him I'll continue, at His pace, in His time, by His light. Besides, it's fun to keep learning.

In addition to book-larnin', another major part of this journey is worship. I have explained to my Banner church team that this process is my greatest priority, and I will be setting aside time for attending Catholic Mass, Orthodox Liturgy, and going through RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in the Catholic Church), all of which will take place against the backdrop of living and talking with my friends here. Unless I find some major errors in Roman Catholicism, or major defense in Protestant, I intend to be confirmed a Catholic by next summer. From now until then I place my life, my mind, my will squarely where I've always tried to keep them: in God's hand.

A closing request. As convenient and civil as it is to say Catholicism and Orthodoxy and Calvinism – the whole dizzying panoply of Christian life, in fact – is just a matter of taste, I ask you not to take that route. It seems sensible, and much simpler besides, to say I just want to change my worship style, or experience God in a new way, but I think this attitude is a simplistic cop-out. It can be a stunning idea for an Evangelical to imagine, but our worship whims might actually have to be molded anew based on the truth of Christ's Church, rather than vice versa. It's taken me some time to comes to grips with the fact, but God is still the designer of holy worship, and the vast liturgical tradition of the Church is the record of His holy art.

As I said, the biggest draw for me to Catholicism (and yes, Orthodoxy) is not the maze of chutes and ladders about extrinsic and intrinsic epistemic certainty, collective authority versus sectarian subjectivism, and all the rest – no, the draw is ever and ever more about worshipping God the way He desires. Anthropologically speaking, there is nothing much lacking in Protestant (especially high Protestant) liturgy to draw people into a "pious state of mind". If the goal of worship is merely to ennoble the human spirit and gather believers together with the shared presence of God the Holy Spirit, I guess all's fair in love and ecumenism.

However, objectively speaking, and according to the will of God in Christ, I am every day losing my grip on the worth of any ecclesial worship apart from the Eucharist. The Eucharist, and the Mass generally, is not superior for some subtle aesthetic and psychosocial reasons about encountering the numinous or kerygmatically entering the hermeneutic spiral or some other abstruse blather. The spiritual value of the Eucharist -- its inestimable worth in the eyes of God even apart from the response of us wee mortals -- is the propitiatory work of Christ recalled to God for the benefit of man at every Eucharist.

The Eucharist actually saves the world; it does not, as Calvin argued, merely encourage and sanctify Christians. Hence, the Mass is so ornate, so beautiful, so disarmingly finicky, because all that human effort points to the divine power at work during it. The beauty of the Mass is a sacrament of the work of the Mass; and the work of the Mass is the chief work of God: the Eucharistic offering and salvation of the world. I want a Church that is bigger than me, a Church that conveys an air of only barely containing the worship God has given it. Such I see in Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christ said that when He is lifted up (in His Passion), not merely proclaimed or remembered, He will draw all people to Himself. And at every Catholic Mass and Orthodox Liturgy for almost two thousand years Christ has been lifted up in body, blood, soul and divinity. That is the fundamental draw I feel.

Hey, quite a mouthful, innit? It's almost unbelievable that I'm writing and sending this. For two years I've lived in semi-paranoia, watching my words, hiding books, feigning disinterest, suppressing suspicious links to overtly Catholic web pages, etc. Truth be told, I've gained a fair (in)famous reputation online under a grotesquely Germanic pseudonym, Geistesweisheit. (Go ahead, you know you want to: Google it, and my proper name.) Even bigger truth be told, for the past two months I've been blogsitting one of my favorite Catholic blogs, Mark Shea's "Catholic and Enjoying It!" (CAEI) (renamed "Not Quite Catholic But Still Enjoying It!" (NQCBSEI)under my quixotic watch).[1]

Well. So. That's been my secret life; this is my "coming out" letter. But hey, now I'm free! I no longer have to hide! It may make me that much more vulnerable to arrows and rocks, but at least I'm no longer hunched sweating it out alone in the cave. Practically, this means I will no longer feign neutrality, I will no longer suppress links to Catholic or Orthodox pages, and I will no longer abstain from posting "Catholic" thoughts.

This whole post may seem like one more feat of verbal excess on my part. If so, it's one less issue for you to worry about. But if I did strike a cord, pray, think and email me.

Okay, fire at will.

Grace and peace to you,


[1] Although each Permalink at CAEI says they're "by Elliot Bougis", not all posts are from me.

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