Self-driven Faith

December 29, 2008

It’s ironic that a common Protestant view of Catholicism is that it’s a self-driven religion. I always had the stereotypes in my mind that Catholics try to work their way to heaven and have all these strange man-made rituals to get them there and make them feel spiritual. After over twenty years in evangelical churches and only three in Catholic churches, I think this may be a classic case of Freudian projection. What Protestants accuse Catholics of, they are guilty of themselves.

Over at the blog, Thoughts from a Ragamuffin, Ragamuffin has talked about the hype generated at many Protestant churches like the upbeat big band music and the dynamic preaching necessary to keep a church alive. I wish I could find his specific post, but I’ve lost it. The problem he discusses and that I have found in these situations is that sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. You could smile and clap and sing but can’t “enter in”. Often enough for me it’s because the kids are wiggling on my lap, or ready for a nap since they’ve been up all night. I don’t feel like working myself up into a spiritual frenzy. Like Ragamuffin has said, it’s comforting to profess your faith in the liturgy even when you don’t feel like it.

There are the respected men and women of God at these Protestant churches who always seem to have it all together and be able to “enter in”. They’ve memorized every verse in the Bible, their prophetic accuracy is over 50% (if you’re Pentecostal), they attend every meeting and are “forerunners” or some other word-of-the-day. I have seen the best of them fall. Affairs, divorces, homosexuality… it does seem most of these problems have to do with sex. I’ve also heard from our pastor at different times “Let’s judge this leader by his fruit” and “You can’t judge the godliness of a person by their personal life”. Fifteen years later, I’ve had the privilege to judge these “forerunners” by their spiritual fruit as well, and let’s just say that the church is no longer a church and they no longer lead anything. One excuse I’ve heard for disasters like this one is that the pastor or church was new and inexperienced. I’ve not so secretly thought that if there was a heirarchy of experienced leaders, some set rules of initiation, and less of an emphasis on venerating leaders based on their own powers then we wouldn’t set ourselves up as easily for such a fall. Sounds Catholic to me.

This self-driven spirituality has always been a problem for me. Ironic, isn’t it? Protestants (who have probably never read the canons of the Councils of Orange or Trent) accuse Catholics of trying to work their way into heaven, while they time after time they try to keep their spirituality and liveliness of the church going through their own abilities. I know it’s not the same in every church, but I think the Protestant system sets people up to be considered spiritual by their own power, by what they do and how great a faith they have. I’ve known several people who have given up their faith altogether, because they thought if they were saved “once and for all” then they would stop struggling with their sins, and couldn’t take being disappointed. I always knew I never had that power to make myself spiritual and backed out of the whole scene, terrified of becoming a hypocrite like the others.

On the other hand, in the Catholic Church I have found a series of rituals and graces available to everyone who wants them. It’s not dependent on how many prophecies you make that come true or how many people you’ve prayed for that get healed or even leading a spotless public life. Any individual can avail of God’s grace through the sacraments and become closer to God. Not because of the wondrous faith he has or his sinless record, but because of his hunger for God and that small amount of faith that it takes to step forward and act on your belief, making use of the sacraments. There’s something poetic about crying out for God and seeking him in the Eucharist.

Chris has known about my distaste for the self-induced spirituality of Protestantism and the comfort I take in the Catholic faith. So this Christmas, he gave me Mother Teresa’s secret writings, “Come Be My Light”. She is quoted as saying “If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The darkness she talks about is this lack of feeling the presence of God in her daily life. Although close to him early in her life, she lost her sense of closeness with God when she went to Calcutta to become one of the poor she ministered to. She became like them – completely impoverished, thirsting for the goodness and love of God.

I wonder if Mother Teresa had any idea when she begged her superiors to destroy her letters how many of us feel the same way at times and would benefit from her example of faith. Abraham, when he was asked to put his faith in God and do something he didn’t want to do, he did it anyway. It was credited to him as righteousness. I think it rings truer to believe in God and commit yourself to following Him no matter what you want or how you feel than setting up your whole faith on the greatness of your ability to purely believe.

I contrast Mother Teresa’s committed faith to the self-centered faith of Martin Luther. As a monk, he obsessed over his own sins instead of dedicating himself to the will of God. He relied on his own belief (I don’t even want to call it faith) to save him instead of the graces available in the church. He rejected authorities because they weren’t as well read or intelligent as he thought he was. I’ll give a more complete portrait of Luther when I finish his biography, but his narcissistic motivations seem clear enough to me. I compare Mother Teresa to the son who told his father no, but did his will in the end, and Martin Luther to the son who told his father yes, but did not do the will of the father.(Matt 21:28-31) I don’t think she ever told God no, but certainly did the will of the Father however she felt. Luther seemed to never think twice and consider that the Father’s will might be different than his own.

Beginning to Understand Indulgences

December 11, 2008
Oftentimes I wonder if people really understand a thing before they rail against it. Maybe it’s our natural tendency to conform information in the world around us to our present world view. It makes us automatically reject any foreign concept existing off our radar, even if the real understanding of that concept isn’t opposed to our current beliefs.

I don’t claim to fully understand indulgences or why the church has chosen to make use of them, but I’m not going to reject it based on the already tenuous Protestant concept of “saved once and for all”. Our salvation is a continuing thing. We become more Christ-like with every right step in the race. Personally, I would hope God isn’t done with me yet, because I’m certainly not a finished work. In that spirit, here’s a few thoughts that make indulgences less foreign and less repulsive to the Protestant mind:

I just found out recently that the Catholic Church has made a distinction between two consequences of sin. The first is separation from God and eternal damnation. The second is the attachment to worldly things that is left in us as a result of sin. This second consequence is termed “temporal punishment” by the Church. It can easily be understood by any person aware of their own condition, saved or unsaved. You gossip with the neighbor lady down the street, and there’s a part of you that yearns for the next juicy tidbit she might have to offer.

According to the Church, we must rid ourselves of this temporal punishment, which is really the imperfect condition we are in, either in this life or in Purgatory. Simply put, this is our refiner’s fire, purifying us to make us suitable to see the face of God. (Mal 3:1-3, 1 Cor 3:10-15) An old song comes to mind:

Purify my heart
Let me be as gold and precious silver
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold, pure gold

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy
Set apart for You, my Master
Ready to do Your will

Purify my heart
Cleanse me from within and make me holy
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from my sin, deep within

Is there really a difference? Or has the Catholic Church simply acknowledged a mechanism for such a thing? There’s a mechanism in Purgatory and another in indulgences. They cannot save you from eternal damnation and separation from God, only faith in Christ can do such a thing. (Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter VIII) They do provide for your increase in justification, your increase in purification, so to speak, becoming more like Christ. Indulgences aren’t a get-out-of-Hell-free card. They’re a step in the direction in which you’re already headed.

Here’s the online Catholic Catechism including the sections on indulgences.

So Much Hostility

December 6, 2008
I’ve barely gotten my feet wet in the Protestant and Catholic apologetics blogs and websites, and I’m very seriously considering withdrawing from it altogether. There is an advantage to having a person explain things to you rather than a book, but the hatred flying about the place is almost too much to stomach. People aren’t much interested in understanding their oponent’s position before they try to blast it apart with ad hominem attacks and tired rhetoric.

Half the problem seems to be some sort of misunderstanding based in semantics. If we could all learn to speak the English language more precisely maybe there would only be five worldwide Christian denominations instead of thousands. Otherwise, there are very basic theological problems that this all stems from i.e. “Is there any good at all in anything we do or are we totally corrupt?” There can be valid viewpoints on either side. Why can’t both sides actually listen to the other side’s reasons and then say, “Well, that’s where we differ, I think you’re wrong.” What’s with all this “You’re stupid because you think that!”?

It’s not stupidity. I was in a Protestant frame of mind this side of five years ago. There’s a whole different language and set of concepts that comes with it. Now that I’ve had a “paradigm shift” so-to-speak, I see how different it is than I thought. I can remember how Catholics looked from the other side. It’s sickening, and I keep hoping that people will want to overcome their misconceptions. Time and time again, even my own family defers my hope. Everyone’s just out for the kill, trying to earn another merit badge or run up their soul count saved for Christ. Nobody listens.

The Beginning of My Mental Conversion

December 5, 2008
Although it can be hard to trace in hindsight, I think the biggest help in changing my mind about Catholicism was seeing first hand that it wasn’t what I thought it was. My eyes were opened about different issues separately and through different events, but I can begin with the major issues Chris and I faced when we were considering marriage (because they dealt with how you live your life together): contraception and infant baptism.

On contraception:

I kicked and screamed on this one. I thought natural family planning would be difficult and unreliable. I thought Chris was hell-bent on keeping me subdued and pregnant till I was driven to an early death (a mindset that I now realize comes from eugenic propaganda, go figure). I’ve always been against abortion of any kind, so the pill which can be abortifacient was not an option I wanted to take, but I was not against barrier or sterilization methods of birth control.

So Chris more begged me to accept his view on this rather than stonewalled me like he has done on other issues. He showed me the catechism and explained the Catholic teaching that sex must always be both unitive and procreative, and the two purposes cannot be separated. In the end, since my view was more permissive I grumpily consented to his so as to not force him to sin against his conscience. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” 1 Cor. 8:9

We signed up for the Natural Family Planning class put on by the CCL. There were four monthly classes, a massive book, and a bunch of pamphlets and materials they put out. Through the first two classes I whined perpetually about the method, how it was so subjective, that I didn’t think we’d be able to do it, it wouldn’t work, and on and on. By the third class, we had it down. We skipped the fourth class because it was pointless to keep going. Now the method seems really clear and simple to me. I love the health benefits of not drugging myself and screwing with my hormones. We have both successfully avoided and achieved pregnancy. I now recommend the method to others, especially since I know a lot of women who can’t use the pill for health reasons, are allergic to certain birth controls, or have trouble getting pregnant.

I still have trouble with the idea that sex must always be unitive and procreative, not just one or the other. I even see periodic abstinence as making sex only unitive, since you’re infertile at that time. I guess they say that since you’re not working against baby-making during the act, you’re “open to life”. The idea grows on me even now, because I see how degenerative the loving act of sex has become in our society. Forget unitive and procreative, sex has become purely recreational. The masses are desperate to free themselves from any and all consequences of sex. This is the mindset that has dehumanized individuals, leading to sexual assault and abortion. In practice, the Catholic teaching seems to be the way to go. It protects the family and guards against perversion, not to mention protects the woman from medicinal harm. This may be the first of many issues in which I’ve judged a tree by its fruit (Matt 7:15-20), and found the Catholic way is best.

On infant baptism:

I was baptized in an outdoor pool by my uncle, who is an ordained minister, in the middle of winter. I was eleven years old at the time. My parents waited until I could make the decision for myself, and “confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” Rom 10:9. They believed it was merely a symbolic outward confession of your internal conversion, and not a necessary one at that.

Chris came along and wanted to baptize our babies as Catholics. He lost two points with me off the bat. I hadn’t yet agreed that our children would be raised Catholic, and baptizing babies was foreign. Neither he nor I can remember exactly how I accepted the first point. I think it was a gradual thing. As I came to accept the Church and see her for what she is, the more I wanted to raise our kids Catholic.

As for the second point, baptizing babies, I grudgingly consented to baptize our children with the condition that if they wanted “re-baptized” as adults, Chris would support them. He said that was nonsense, I insisted, he said he wouldn’t be able to stop them now, would he? So I went with my crazy Catholic husband to the baptism class at our local parish ran by our priest, Father Chuck. He is a rather open minded (but not heretical) priest. He’s good at explaining issues to us Protestants, including us in things, explaining traditions, and most importantly, he looks like Santa Claus and is just as congenial. Going to mass was a frighteningly foreign thing for me to begin with, and a friendly face was a huge help.

In this baptism class, Father Chuck went around the room getting people’s religious backgrounds and baptism stories. He explained the important and universal aspects of baptism like being baptized with water and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He discussed the differences between immersion and sprinkling. He explained the baptismal fount at the entrances, and that when people cross themselves with the water, they’re remembering their baptism. He suggested ways of helping our children remember their baptism, keeping their baptism candles on a shelf with a picture of the event, along with the little sashes they provide “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Gal 3:27

After initializing all of us with these pleasantries, Father Chuck moved on to finer points of theology. There were two major issues: the meaning of baptism, and baptizing infants versus adults. My initial standpoint that baptism is merely a symbol wasn’t much of a barrier to accepting the reality of baptism as a grace given to sinners, washing away their sins and admitting them into the membership of the body of Christ. He also explained that the Catholic Church doesn’t re-baptize people who’ve already been baptized with water in the name of the trinity, because they’ve already received that grace. It would be nonsense to try to re-grace them.

During this class, I found my perspective shift rather suddenly on the issue of baptizing infants. Catholics saw this as a way to initiate members into the body of Christ, a path that parents can readily claim for their children since they are the ones responsible for raising them. This especially makes sense viewed with the belief that salvation is an ongoing process. It’s not as if they’re saying they’ve saved their children “once and for all”, in a common Protestant sense of salvation. They’re claiming their children for Christ and setting them on the right road. There’s also the idea that whole households got baptized together in the early church (1 Cor 1:16, Acts 16:15, Acts 18:8). In the end, I was looking forward to claiming my little girl for Christ.

As far as the actuality of the grace of forgiveness in baptism, I wasn’t as convinced at the end of the class. There’s plenty to support it biblically (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38 Acts 22:16, etc.). However, I think this is closely tied in with the issue of sola fida, justified by faith alone, and the understanding of how God’s grace is conferred. I have just recently been looking into these issues, but there’s far too much to get into it in this already lengthy post.

And that’s how it started. Things began to make sense because they worked. I could accept them as at least logical and self-consistent. Then, slowly, I began to see truth in it by judging the tree again. I’m trying to get to the point where I can embrace these things as my own. Intellectually, I think I’m mostly there, unless some craziness is unearthed in my research in which the Catholic Church rejects Christ as Lord. Until then, I have some more reading to do.