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Thursday, June 30, 2011

VI: Laying the Groundwork (Without my Knowledge)


The winding road that eventually brought me to the Catholic Church first took me through Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. I grew and developed as a Christian in so many wonderful ways while I was a student there, and while it was a thoroughly Evangelical Protestant environment, God used many of my experiences there to lay the groundwork for my conversion to the Catholic Church. This, of course, only became apparent to me years later.

Through the required theology classes at Liberty, I become for the first time intimately acquainted with the many diverse and divergent views within Protestantism. It was disconcerting to me to realize how deeply Protestants did not agree on many important doctrines.

For example, I learned about the various views Protestants held on baptism: those within the more mainline denominations such as Anglicans and Methodists hold to a form of baptismal regeneration, that baptism imparts actual grace to the believer, while Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals hold a strict symbolic view, that baptism imparts no grace whatsoever and is “just” an outward expression of the inward change that Christ has already completed when the believer prayed to be “saved.” There are, of course, many shades between these two extremes. Additionally, churches differ on who could be baptized: some churches believe in infant baptism, while others only baptize someone when they are old enough to make their own personal decision for Christ, assumed to be around age 8 or older. Finally, Protestant churches differ on how to baptize, some holding that mere sprinkling with water will suffice, while others maintain that baptism is not valid unless the person is completely immersed.

What was most disconcerting to me was that the proponents of each differing view had their own scriptures to support them, so it was a very confusing endeavor to try to discern which was the actual “Biblical teaching.” It seemed to me that all one could do was to examine the various opinions and supporting scriptures and pick a view that seemed the most reasonable to oneself.

It was something I wrestled with for a while, but I ended up having to set the contentious question aside since the absolute certainty of which was the correct view seemed impossible to attain. In the end, since I felt so close to Jesus in the Southern Baptist context, I figured that I would just go ahead and continue with their view on baptism, and on most issues, while realizing that not all Christians held the same view.

One little odd difference of opinion from mainstream Southern Baptism doctrine I held was regarding the Blessed Trinity. Through Bible study, I had developed a personal view of this mysterious doctrine that made the most sense to me: Namely, that there is only One God, and that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Trinity were simply different modes of operation of this One God throughout history. It was like an actor who plays many roles in a stage production - only that God, being God, can play these different roles at the same time. For example, when Jesus was on Earth, praying to His Father: They were one and the same Person: the One God, under different guises. When the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, and the Father spoke, this was an instance of all three roles being played by the One God at the very same time. This was, in my view, why, after the apostle Philip asked Jesus to “show us the Father”, that Jesus replied: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 NIV). To me, Jesus was clearly saying here that He and the Father were one and the same Person, no difference at all. This made complete sense to me.

However, I was told by the professor in one of my theology classes that this view was a heresy condemned in the early centuries of Christianity called “Modalism” or “Sabellianism.” I found this interesting but in the end it did not bother me, as I thought (in my arrogance): Who were those people back then who called something a heresy? They could have been wrong. The professor replied that the vast majority of Christians in all times believed something different from me, namely that God was three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, from all eternity. There was something called the Eternal Sonship of Jesus, that He was God’s Son from all eternity. Fatherhood and Sonship to me seemed finite labels to place on an infinite God - how could He be divided up like that from eternity past? My view made more sense to me. Additionally, his argument that the “majority of Christians” believed something else held no weight for me, as I immediately thought of Martin Luther, who alone stood up against the vast majority of Christians of his time and began preaching something different, and brought about the Reformation.

The fact that Protestants extol so greatly the rebellion of Martin Luther against the accepted Christian teaching of his day, but then discourage those who would challenge the current teaching of their particular Christian group was to me, even then, a strange irony.

Additionally, I encountered a certain extreme manifestation of Sola Scriptura that bothered me greatly. I experienced this not at Liberty University but at one of the Southern Baptist churches off campus I attended. Sola Scriptura, as I understood it, was that everything God wishes to teach us about the Christian faith He teaches through the Bible alone. The church pastor in this Bible study group took it a step further: That God speaks only to us through the words of Scripture, the Word of God. He speaks in no other way to us. Not in our heart, not by circumstances, not through other believers, only through the Bible. To me that seemed to be going too far. I had been experiencing God personally in an ongoing way and hearing Him speak in my heart and it was not always through the actual vocabulary of scripture verses, which is what this pastor taught. I even asked him to clarify his teaching, and he reiterated it: Anything God wants to say to us He will only say through the words of Scripture.

This to me seemed wrong. I had been expecting God to be guiding me after I graduated college, into a vocation and to the places He wanted me to go. Scripture alone was not going to tell me where to live and what job to have. I believed that God through His Holy Spirit lived in me and I was trusting in His living guidance in my life. I did not long for a relationship with a book, however inspired: I longed for and had found a relationship with a living person: Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.

Afterwards, I started noticing references in other settings about the Bible alone being the “God’s guidebook for our lives,” and that any doctrine not taught in the Bible is not true. Something about this general doctrine just did not seem quite right to me, but I could not fully understand why at the time. It was not until several years later that it became vividly clear to me that this doctrine of Sola Scriptura suffered from a fatal logical fallacy: the doctrine that all Christian doctrines and practices must be taught in the Bible is itself not taught in the Bible. I was not ready for the full weight of the reality of this truth yet, but the initial stirrings were there.

As an aside, another recollection from that same Bible study group mentioned above, is that one of the associate pastors who was teaching one evening voiced his doubts that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (still living then) was a Christian. He quoted some anecdotal evidence he had heard, that an Evangelical pastor had visited her and asked her some questions about salvation and he came away with the impression that she was not a genuine Christian, that she was “earning her way to heaven.” I recoiled from this, and had the thought that if my Christianity is too narrow to include someone like Mother Teresa, then something truly must be amiss.

I will mention a few more recollections about my time at Liberty that I feel had a great influence on my later conversion to the Catholic faith:

First, although I had a vibrant college social life, I also had a strong desire to spend time alone with God. I found the most solace in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. This became my sanctuary, among the rushing streams, the mountain vistas, the peaceful forests. There was a tangible sense of God’s presence there that I reveled in. I would bring along my Bible and journal and immerse myself in prolonged prayer with Our Lord.

There were two fervent prayers that took shape in me during these personal prayer times.

The first was: “Lord, do whatever it takes, no matter how painful, to make me all you want me to be.”This is what I consider “a dangerous prayer”, and I knew it was dangerous at the time. The dangerous part, of course, is the “no matter how painful” part. I was consciously giving God permission to allow me to suffer if needed to accomplish His will in my life. I knew from studying the scriptures that God works through suffering, and I wanted to fully die with Christ in order to have Him live in me. I was no believer in that brand of Protestantism commonly called “health and wealth,” that God never wants us as Christians to suffer, and if we do suffer it is because we have not had enough faith. No. I knew that God accomplishes His most powerful works through suffering and I was willing to open the door to let Him do that in my life.

Another prayer I prayed was: “Lord, make me the fullness of what you had in mind for a Christian to be when you sent your Son to earth to die on the Cross.” I emphasized “fullness”: I wanted it all. I actually at times pictured that I was praying these words directly into the heart of the living Jesus present with me. Whatever it was there in the heart of God, the fullest idea He had of what a Christian should be, then that was what I wanted - what I wanted Him to make me - and to do “whatever it takes, no matter how painful” to bring it about.

At the time, I thought that this would simply mean that He would make me a more devoted Christian, with a closer relationship with Jesus, more virtuous, more loving, more kind, and so forth. However, I recalled this prayer in new light years later, at the end of a dark and painful road, when God led me to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, “the fullness of the Faith.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Liberty University, and felt myself prepared to emerge into the wide world, energized to make an impact for Christ. I felt confident that God had a firm hold on my life, and I was ready for the next chapter to begin.

I graduated from Liberty with an abounding optimism, believing God had great things in store for me, and was willing to follow Him wherever He led me.

Though I felt that I had spent a great deal of time submitting myself wholly to Our Lord’s Will and felt fully prepared for anything He would bring my way, I was still caught completely unaware when at last it became apparent where He was leading me.

Continued in Part 7 of My Conversion Story: “The Road to Rome.”


Interlude: The Dangerous Journey

4 comments:

kkollwitz said...

"some holding that mere sprinkling with water will suffice"

About 15 years ago, the First Baptist Church here left the SBC over this very issue.

"That God speaks only to us through the words of Scripture, the Word of God." Wow. I wonder how the pastor treats the time after the death of the last apostle, but before the NT was organized into a unified whole.

"I also had a strong desire to spend time alone with God. I found the most solace in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. This became my sanctuary, among the rushing streams, the mountain vistas, the peaceful forests. There was a tangible sense of God’s presence there that I reveled in."

Wow again. Decades ago I had this same urge, and would go sailing in the winter when I'd have the water all to myself. I get that same sense now doing Adoration.

"[MT] was “earning her way to heaven.”

I hear this once every other year or so. I explain that MT would be the absolute last person to think she could do anything to "earn" heaven, but she did want her tree to bear the fruit of how much she loved the Lord.

“a dangerous prayer”

You ain't kiddin'.

Thanks for taking your time on these posts.

The Catholic Sojourner said...

Thanks kkollwitz for your readership, and comments - glad you could relate with some of my experiences -

As far as what Protestants do about the intervening years between the death of the last Apostle, and the offical canon of Scipture being established (about 300 years), the answer is often very simple: they don't think about it.

In my experience and reading, those Protestants who do think about it and investigate, end up converting -

---todd

Anonymous said...

Your blog has been such a wonderful discovery for me tonight, thank you. I'm a Catholic in faith/belief though not really a practicing one.

How did I find your blog? I heard about Pat Robertson's reprehensible advice that a man should divorce his wife with Alzheimer's and was so disgusted, I turned to the web to try to make sense of this. I "randomly" came upon a blog (Southern Baptist, I believe)--"randomly" because I must've only found it by God's grace--and saw your comments there with a link to this blog.

I found myself nodding in agreement to so much you have written here. It has been some time since I've contemplated the beautiful mysteries of our faith, and I'm grateful that you shared your story. It has stirred something in me. I'm feeling inspired, a reconnection with my faith. It wasn't what I was expecting when I sat down at the computer tonight, but I'm grateful I found your blog. Thanks again and may God continue to bless and keep you.

Todd said...

I really appreciate your feedback 'anonymous' - please stay in touch