Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Conversion In Two Distinct Stages

I had a theological and intellectual problem in 2008: What is true about God, and how do I know whatever I find is true? The thing I kept running into, the thing that cannot be overstated, is that there are too many good, holy, smart people to dismiss them all as heathen, or morons, when you happen upon an impasse or a disagreement. This is even harder to do when we share some fundamental agreements of deep conviction and methodology, such as the inerrancy of Scripture, and that Scripture alone is the only infallible rule for faith and practice. If you hand the Scriptures to someone like me, and say, "Learn these. Study these. Learn how to teach and preach the Scriptures to others" that's exactly what I'm going to do. By all means, give me commentaries. I want as much background information as I can get, so that when I begin to prayerfully prepare to exposit them, I can rightly handle the word of truth.

I don't really think it's shocking that we read books and training manuals from people who weren't necessarily Reformed and Presbyterian. In the spirit of "taking every thought captive," we'll take any truth we can find and affirm it. More than that, we'll use it. As small a world as conservative Reformed theology can be, we'd be using a clip or an illustration from your favorite movie or show faster than you can say, "Kuyperian sphere sovereignty." Every inch of creation has been claimed by Christ, and counterclaimed by the Enemy, and you get the idea.

It starts as a half-thought, in the middle of doing something else: "I wonder why that guy wasn't/isn't Reformed?" The thought-train continues. "Hasn't he read [prooftext] in the light of [topic]? Well, anyway, these insights are great, despite what he got really wrong." Reformed seminarian kid chuckles to himself, as he thinks about what arguments he'll use later to convince his friends in the half-serious discussion about C.S. Lewis, and how he was really Reformed. In the end, you brush the thoughts aside, because you've got a Greek exam, and a Bavinck response paper in two days.

"Evangelicals" is how we described ourselves. It serves a dual purpose, mind you: We can let people know we are Protestants, without conceding anything to the Catholic Church, and we can affirm the personal conversionism of the Great Awakening. But we're not those thoughtless "broad" evangelicals; goodness, no. We're "confessional."

It's a rite of passage to read Chesterton's Orthodoxy at some point. It's actually a selling point that he's Roman Catholic. If you're Reformed, and you don't actually wrestle with the claims of the Catholic Church, Catholics just seem like crypto-Reformed bohemians who made a mistake. Especially the writers. Also, anyone British gets a pass. Why? We didn't know.

I must have had, or heard, 300 conversations that start out, "The Church should..." "We as the Church aren't very good at..." Does anyone know to what we were referring when we said, "Church"? Frankly, I think we just assumed we knew what each other were talking about. Isn't that weird?

Now, I wasn't one to consign all non-Reformed to the fires of Hell, and I never knew anyone who did. We're united by the things that matter: Faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. Amen? The problem is, those are slogans, not points of dogma. It leaves me with no answer to dogmatic questions, as such, and as a member of a "Church" whose only common tenet is non-Catholicism.

The Roman Catholic Church isn't on the radar. Other than those writers we really liked, Catholics are those weird superstitious people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, if that, and who haven't actually heard the saving gospel. Let me drop the guard a second here, and speak as a Catholic now: We'd have already converted most of you Reformed, if we didn't have two generations plus of dead "cultural Catholicism" and the prejudice it engenders, to overcome.

"What is the Church?" When you start to really ask this, you're probably past the point where any Reformed can help you. "What is the mechanism by which dogma is preserved and known?" Let me know if you find a Reformed answer.

I picked up "The Shape Of Sola Scriptura" in 2009, because I had a relativity problem. What's true, and how do I know? If you're going to promise to "save" Sola Scriptura from bad practice and misunderstanding, you'd better bring the goods. Well, he tried. Maybe the principles of Protestantism have no "goods." What if the methodology itself, applied consistently, destroys knowledge of supernatural things?

When I say, "There is no principled distinction between Sola Scriptura, and "Solo" Scriptura," I'm not actually speaking as a Catholic, or an apologist, as if that's some heinous crime. I'm still in fact speaking as the guy who had to sit and cry for hours in 2009, because Mathison destroyed his own argument. God bless his intellectual honesty; it's the best part of the book. If he's got mountains of anti-Catholic prejudice to surmount, that's sad, but it's not an argument. At that point, I did not accept the authority of the Catholic Church, or its Magisterium. That was 2 years away. If I ask for an argument against the claim that begins this paragraph, you'd better bring me something better than your antipathy for the Catholic Church. Because I didn't have prejudice then, and I certainly don't now.

You may readily accuse me of bias in my assessments of history, current papal statements, and all manner of things now, because I do accept the Church's authority. This changes theological methodology, by its very nature. But the question of whether a Reformational methodology is actually workable can be asked by any observer. It is not, strictly speaking, simply a point of Catholic apologetics.

I regard the motives of credibility for the Catholic Church as the Church Christ founded to be an entirely separate discussion from that of the dogmatic principle, and how it may be found. The fact that the two discussions arrive in the same place oftentimes is no excuse to be a lazy coward, if I may be so bold.

I still regarded three groups as distinct, as an enquirer: 1. the early Church; 2. the Catholic Church today; 3. the Christian communities birthed in the Reformation. It only makes sense to consider becoming Catholic, if and only if reason suggests that (1) and (2) refer to the same reality.

Most of the profitable Reformed and Catholic dialogue is going to turn on the organs of infallibility, and the conditions under which it is exercised. Even as an uncommitted enquirer, the gravest problem with Sola Scriptura seems to be an inability to distinguish in a principled way between private opinion, and divine revelation. To bring myself back to the beginning of this story, it seemed wholly unreasonable to prefer my judgment, and my subsequent adherence to a secondary doctrinal standard (and an ecclesial authority subject to Scripture and that secondary authority) to that of another person's. Our alleged reliance on the aid of the Holy Spirit did not appear to be dispositive. It seemed also to be the case that our differences on major issues would persist, even if the secondary authorities did not exist. Hence the claim that Sola collapses into Solo. If I decide how and when the authorities function as authorities, their number is not particularly significant. The true authority is me.

It is indeed a great mercy that Reformed and Catholics agree that the definitive revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. Ecumenism does not consist in merely celebrating and affirming what is held in common, but rather, inquiring as to the basis for that commonality, and building upon it. True ecumenism is dialogue concerning matters of revealed truth, in order to reach agreement in that truth.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken: The Paradoxical Joy Of The Cross

Suffering and joy are not the same. When I tell you that I felt great joy right after the car hit me, it's not in spite of the suffering; it's not after the suffering, either. "In the midst of" is about right, if you will pardon the cliche. The suffering is its own thing. You can hurt and sorrow in it while being joyful. Why? Well, we've always heard that joy is deeper than a feeling; it's true. Joy is a habit, a permanent disposition of confidence in Christ's victory over death and Hell. Joy is living faith, weaponized. I've got to hand it to the Lord for the timing: shortly after Holy Mass on an Easter Friday.

I had half a thought on the ground there that this wasn't what I was planning today. Imagine that.

I was mostly annoyed that I wouldn't be using the free slider coupon I'd just gotten for adding $1 to my order, to feed hungry kids.

A trusted guide said to me, "After all this, you don't hate!" I understood what he meant, but I understood instantly that the poor lady in the car is only a bit player in the bigger story. Whoever she is, she probably feels terribly about it. Even if I were so inclined, I'm not likely to shout angry obscenities as my life-blood pours into the street. I'm more perturbed by an Andrew McCutchen double in the gap in a key divisional game than I was at this poor woman.

I think maybe I got a gift of the joy of the Beatific Vision, Christ's own joy in saving us. "The joy set before him." "I am filling up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ." Christ the Victor has this way of magnifying Himself. Think of it: Christ chose me to magnify Himself. Well, OK, then. "Lord, this sure seems like a poor choice of personnel!" I'd like to think he laughs at me, every time I say this.

If I could bottle this joy, and hand it to you, I would. If you ask for it, though, be prepared for the Cross. Maybe my heart was asking for this joy, in something beyond words. The Holy Spirit was interceding, beyond my ability to ask.

I went to Adoration the other day, and right after Confession, I was there before the tabernacle, and I told the Lord as the tears streamed down my face, "I'm so glad you let that car hit me!" It's one of the greatest gifts I've ever received. Because I know the love God has for all of us, at a level no dogmatic pronouncement could ever capture. The consolations, as always, recede. Normal life returns. But love like this leaves an imprint on your soul.

I wouldn't trade this whole experience for anything.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adventures In Chastity: Practical Advice For Men

I'm inspired to write this post because the news is a steady drumbeat now of some powerful man who acted sinfully, inappropriately, or downright criminally toward a woman. Plenty of Christians right now are struggling with the virtue of chastity, or bearing the burden of their sins against that virtue. As a man who has been "that guy," (more than you have, I'm pretty sure) I have found a few things that helped practically. [Oh, crap, this is about to be a listicle.--ed.] Sorry, man.

1. Decide to stop hating yourself. God actually loves you more than you do, infinitely, and especially when you have failed spectacularly. Your destiny is not Hell, ultimately. God's "desire" for you is Heaven, seeing Him and sharing His friendship forever. So the first step is to want what God wants, and to reject any thoughts you might have that sound like, "I'm a failure and a freak, who will never be able to obey the commandments." That's a lie, straight from Hell.

2. For the love of God, go to Confession. Go every time you fall, especially in regard to self-abuse and pornography. I don't know your story, or how you got your habits, so I can't tell you the state of your soul. I do think you should refrain from the Eucharist, if you've committed one of these sins since your last confession, unless and until you get contrary advice from your confessor, or spiritual director. Also, many people go to different priests, because they are embarrassed. If you want to win, stop doing this. One confessor or two (ideally from your parish) know you, and they know how and why you struggle. If they love you for the sake of Christ, they're not going to beat you up too badly about it, or worse, tell you it's no big deal. If you can't find a priest to tell you the truth in love, go to another parish.

3. Pray to Mary. I won't tell you that you have to pray 8 Rosaries in a day, or even one. But Our Lady and Blessed Mother is the living epitome of chastity. Pray when you are tempted. Pray when you are not. Pray the Hail Mary. Pray the Memorare. ("Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary...") Just do it. Give thanks to God for every second, minute, or hour of purity.

4. Keep a schedule, and stick to it, as far as possible. Nothing good happens after midnight. If you're up past a certain time, it better be a good reason, and recognize the danger for what it is. Our guards come down when we are tired.

5. Recognize your feelings. Are you angry or sad? How about lonely? Have you ever talked to God or the saints about the things that bother you? Fantasy is the realm of a man who feels a lack of control. He feels powerless, weak, or unwanted. You're reaching out for some consolation, frankly, because everything sucks, or so it seems. You may have noticed that our society doesn't care about men and their feelings. They aren't going to say, "We appreciate you, we value everything you bring to the table." The opposite is true. Find some dudes that love you, no matter what. Talk to them. Ask them to remind you of the things they really love about you. The things you're good at, the things that enrich their lives. If you do this enough, it will begin to seem less weird and gay. Frankly, I use that word intentionally. There is so much homosexuality, I think, partially because sexuality is the only time (if at all) a man gets to say what he really feels deep in his heart. "I love you, and I couldn't imagine my life without you" literally sounds like a song lyric. But until a man can say this to another man in a non-sexual way, we're not getting anywhere. You don't have to say those words, but men can know without saying it. Stop joking about being close to other men, and just be close to other men.

6. Admit if you've been dealt a rough hand. Are you the child of divorced parents? Did one of them die when you were young? Did they abuse substances as you grew up? [Geez, you're 3-for-3 so far.--ed.] Is there an illness or infirmity that could make you more prone to these sins against chastity? These things don't excuse our sins, but they do make things harder. The great news is, every time you triumph over temptation in the face of these challenges, your merit is all the greater.

7. Recognize that the near occasion of sin is too late to start fighting. You won't win that fight. If there is a trigger for you, you have to get rid of it. Even if you feel like a total loser. If the PBS NewsHour is a trigger, get rid of it. Even if you're the only one. No one has to know.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken: The Time Of Darkness

I have written before about the accident that nearly claimed my life. Some parts of the struggle can't be seen or described up close. You need distance and time to see what's really taking place. Many months later, I can describe it.

Right after the accident, and for four days afterward, I felt almost unimaginable joy. I know it sounds crazy, but I won't lie to you. I could say I've never understood real love until then, and in some sense it would be true. I knew that God loved me, as the only reality that exists, as if it were air, or food. If you were there, I don't know what you saw, but that's what I knew. The physical suffering was there, but it was completely irrelevant. My most difficult moment, if that is the right thing to call it, was consoling my mother when she first saw me. No one can touch your heart like your mother.

I don't remember praying for myself at all. I remember praying for a man dying of cancer, who somehow got hurt physically. I couldn't see him, but I could hear the staff talking to him. Sometimes perspective is right in front of us. You don't need long memoirs or ruminations; life and death is the present reality.

There were two brothers who got into a knife fight, there at the same time I was. Maybe their father was telling the truth, and they were horsing around. But suppose not. Suppose these brothers hated each other, and here they were. I'd much rather be a disabled person struck by a car while walking home from Mass and Arby's.

It's a little easier to feel tremendous joy when you have two friends like Bryan Cross, and Bob Lozano. This wasn't a normal happening, but Bob and I did what we always do: laughed and joked. If they made a movie about us, it would be called, "Goofball Saints". In any case, Bob was the one to tell me Bryan was coming down from Iowa. I'll be happier I'm sure, when I see my bride walking toward the altar for our Nuptial Mass. Until then, I'll be thankful for the happiness I felt in that moment. You see, Bryan is what I call a "Memory Maker." We've experienced a lot of different things together, and by grace, he has a way of capturing the profound. Or at least being there for it. All the joy and goodness of the years since the spring of 2009 when we met was present to me when I heard he was coming. I was excited to know what mercy would show to him, and what he'd share with me. He's friend, family, and teacher, all rolled into one. I know he must have felt many different things upon hearing this news, but it was not a time for sorrow.

All this joy, where is the darkness? I underwent the major surgery to fix my face and jaw on May 4. All of the potentially dangerous things medically happened after this. All of that difficulty was merely an occasion for a temptation against faith, or hope. Probably the worst I will ever know, by the mercy of God. I heard a constant voice in my head saying, "This is your life now. You won't get better. Your faith is a lie. You are a liar and a fraud." Guess who?

Eight days it was like this. I didn't know what to do, and I couldn't speak. I'm not exactly sure what "giving up" would have looked like, but I can tell you this: The physical hardship is a drop in the bucket, compared to despair. Despair is the opposite of the supernatural virtue of hope. I'll take any suffering of a physical nature, over this despair. It lurked like a physical presence. Like many new Catholics, I was amazed and thankful for the saints, but truthfully, I thought they were crazy. I no longer think they are crazy. I know why they ask to suffer. God's love added to anything is just God's love.

I'm pretty emotional as you read this now. People said they were amazed that I could be so joyful in my recovery. If Hell is an endless, unending ocean of despair--set aside the physical torments for the moment--then some small joy in the face of suffering is easy. It's easy.

I'm just an ordinary sinner. But I got a taste of Hell, by some severe mercy, and it's enough. Enough to understand what this whole thing is about. The next time you pray, or do anything spiritual, remember what I've said. If you know that you are loved by God, you can endure anything.