Follow by Email

Monday, October 31, 2016

And he that will reach it, about must, and about must go

As anyone who knows me is aware, I've been engaged for more than twenty years now in discerning whether or not I should enter full communion with Rome (i.e., "become Catholic"). This journey began--well, it probably began with my parents and grandparents teaching me the Christian faith in infancy. Discovering G. K. Chesterton as a teenager made me begin to think of Catholicism as a live possibility. Phil Kenneson, one of my professors at Milligan College, told me that "Rome was not a bad place to start" (by which he did not mean to convert to Catholicism, but to learn from "Rome" how to take church and tradition more seriously). But I first explicitly declared a desire to become Catholic in my first semester as a doctoral student at Duke University, in the fall of 1995. I had gone to Duke to study the Protestant Reformation, partly in hope of fending off my nascent "Romeward" leanings awakened by Chesterton and other Catholic authors I had read in my late teens. Also, Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity had taught me that the hyper-individualistic Protestantism I'd grown up with and around wasn't necessarily historic Reformational Protestantism. 

My desire to become Catholic in the fall of 1995 was perhaps premature. After all, I had barely started studying the Reformation, which was supposed to help me figure out what I thought about Protestantism. But all it took, really, was a close encounter with Catholics who really knew and loved their faith for me to fall in love with Catholicism. Or rather, I'd already fallen in love with Catholicism as portrayed in Chesterton, and meeting Tim Gray, John Sauer, and other devout Catholics at Duke made me leap to believe that what I already loved in theory could be true in reality. 

But I was young and naive and confused, deeply self-doubting and indecisive. Matt Levering, whom I met in the spring of 1996, warned me that "it will be a process of years." I'm not sure it needed to be--not so many years, anyway. But I'm temperamentally prone to believe that anything I want to be true can't be true. And there were plenty of people in my life to tell me that this particular thing wasn't true.

By 1998 I was convinced that I could never be a Protestant in any confessional or anti-Catholic sense. The choice was between ecumenical Protestantism (either Anglicanism or Methodism) and historic pre-Reformational Christianity (Catholicism or Orthodoxy). The Episcopal Church, of course, offered the best of both worlds, particularly in its Anglo-Catholic expression, which I encountered at St. Joseph's in Durham. But I never quite believed in the Anglo-Catholic claim that Anglicanism was Catholic rather than Protestant. Anglicanism has always represented for me not the repudiation of Protestantism but the hope for an ecumenical Protestantism leading to corporate reunion with both Rome and the East.

The direction of the Episcopal Church since 2003 has made that hope extremely dim. The Anglican Church in North America, which divided from the Episcopal Church over the question of gay unions, is also unlikely to seek union with either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. In the past decade or so I've looked more seriously at Methodism as an alternative. But the United Methodist Church seems also headed for schism over homosexuality. There appears to be no escape, within institutional Protestantism, from the dynamic of division.

Since​ ​2003,​ ​also,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been​ ​married​ ​first​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Methodist​ ​deacon​ ​and​ ​then​ ​an​ ​Episcopal​ ​priest (who​ ​happens​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​same​ ​thoroughly​ ​glorious​ ​person).​ ​She​ ​does​ ​not​ ​share​ ​my​ ​belief​ ​that​ ​we ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​Rome.​ ​She​ ​feels​ ​called​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​cranky​ ​voice​ ​for​ ​orthodoxy​ ​within mainline​ ​Protestantism.​ ​God​ ​bless​ ​her.​ ​I've​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​persuade​ ​myself​ ​that​ ​that's​ ​my​ ​calling.​ ​But​ ​I can't​ ​do​ ​it​ ​any​ ​more.
So I'm thrown back on my own individual conscience. This is paradoxical, because I was drawn to Catholicism as a refuge from individualism. The basic dilemma for any would-be convert to Catholicism is that in order to repudiate Luther we must become Luther. We must say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And I have found this extremely difficult to say.

To make things yet more complicated, from 2006 to 2012 I was assistant professor of Bible and religion at Huntington University, an evangelical college in northern Indiana. I knew that if I became Catholic I would probably lose my job. I wish I had told them, at the start, that I might quite possibly become Catholic, but since at the time I had already been talking about becoming Catholic for​ ​more​ ​than​ ​ten​ ​years​ ​without​ ​doing​ ​it,​ ​giving​ ​up​ ​a​ ​job​ ​for​ ​the​ ​mere​ ​possibility​ ​that​ ​I would​ ​finally​ ​take​ ​the​ ​plunge​ ​seemed​ ​overly​ ​quixotic. When​ ​I​ ​was​ ​laid​ ​off​ ​for​ ​financial​ ​reasons​ ​in​ ​2012,​ ​I​ ​rejoiced​ ​that​ ​I​ ​could​ ​finally​ ​follow​ ​my​ ​heart.​ ​But it​ ​turned​ ​out​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​that​ ​easy.​ ​The​ ​habits​ ​of​ ​indecision​ ​I'd​ ​built​ ​up​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years​ ​had​ ​made​ ​it almost​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​take​ ​the​ ​step.​ ​And​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wake​ ​of​ ​losing​ ​my​ ​job​ ​I​ ​was​ ​depressed​ ​and even​ ​more​ ​self-doubting​ ​than​ ​usual. Yet​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over​ ​again​ ​I​ ​had​ ​moments​ ​where​ ​I​ ​felt,​ ​with​ ​utter​ ​clarity,​ ​that​ ​this​ ​was​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was called​ ​to​ ​do.​ ​

In​ ​February​ ​of​ ​2014​ ​I​ ​was​ ​rereading​ ​Tolkien's​ ​​Silmarillion​,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​came​ ​across​ ​the passage​ ​where​ ​Morgoth​ ​impersonates​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​leaders​ ​of​ ​Men​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​them:​ ​“the​ ​Sea​ ​has​ ​no shore.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​no​ ​light​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West.​ ​We​ ​have​ ​followed​ ​a​ ​fool-fire​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Elves​ ​to​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​the world.”​ ​And​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​in​ ​that​ ​moment​ ​that​ ​the​ ​same​ ​voice​ ​of​ ​despair​ ​was​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​had​ ​held​ ​me back​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times​ ​from​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​known​ ​this,​ ​really,​ ​at​ ​least​ ​since​ ​2005,​ ​when​ ​I wrote​ ​a​ ​blog​ ​post​ ​called​ ​“The​ ​Ecclesiology​ ​of​ ​Limbo.”

To​ ​remain​ ​Protestant​ ​is,​ ​for​ ​me,​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​back​ ​from​ ​fully​ ​committing​ ​myself​ ​to​ ​faith​ ​in​ ​Christ.​ ​It’s hedging​ ​my​ ​bets.​ ​This​ ​of​ ​course​ ​is​ ​not​ ​true​ ​for​ ​most​ ​other​ ​Protestants.​ ​Indeed,​ ​no​ ​one​ ​should even​ ​consider​ ​becoming​ ​Catholic​ ​unless​ ​they​ ​have​ ​the​ ​same​ ​experience​ ​I​ ​have.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​reason to​ ​become​ ​Catholic​ ​is​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​convinced​ ​that​ ​this​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​way​ ​for​ ​you​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​Jesus.​ ​I am​ ​so​ ​convinced.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been,​ ​morally,​ ​convinced​ ​of​ ​this​ ​for​ ​a​ ​very​ ​long​ ​time.

And​ ​so​ ​I​ ​am,​ ​finally,​ ​resolved.​ ​I​ ​don't​ ​know​ ​if​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​received​ ​at​ ​Easter​ ​or​ ​at​ ​some​ ​earlier​ ​point, but​ ​when​ ​the​ ​local​ ​parish​ ​RCIA​ ​leader​ ​tells​ ​me​ ​that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​ready,​ ​I​ ​am​ ​going​ ​to​ ​enter​ ​full communion​ ​with​ ​the​ ​Catholic​ ​Church.​ ​I​ ​do​ ​not​ ​want​ ​to​ ​break​ ​communion​ ​with​ ​any​ ​other Christians.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​still​ ​discerning​ ​how​ ​I​ ​can​ ​live​ ​out​ ​both​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​I​ ​ought​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in communion​ ​with​ ​Rome​ ​and​ ​my​ ​conviction​ ​that​ ​all​ ​baptized​ ​believers​ ​are​ ​members​ ​of​ ​the Church.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​it’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​do​ ​this​ ​as​ ​a​ ​Catholic.​ ​But​ ​it’s​ ​impossible​ ​for​ ​me​ ​to​ ​do​ ​it​ ​as anything​ ​else.

My​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​journey​ ​can​ ​be​ ​summed​ ​up​ ​in​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​John​ ​Donne​ ​(ironically​ ​a​ ​convert from​ ​Catholicism​ ​to​ ​Anglicanism):​ ​“On​ ​a​ ​narrow​ ​hill, Rugged​ ​and​ ​steep,​ ​Truth​ ​stands,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​that​ ​will Reach​ ​it,​ ​about​ ​must,​ ​and​ ​about​ ​must​ ​go, And​ ​what​ ​the​ ​hill’s​ ​narrowness​ ​resists,​ ​win​ ​so.” I​ ​don’t​ ​think​ ​my​ ​path​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​as​ ​long​ ​and​ ​winding​ ​as​ ​it​ ​has​ ​been.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​trust​ ​that​ ​God​ ​can​ ​use every​ ​twist​ ​and​ ​turn​ ​in​ ​the​ ​tapestry​ ​he​ ​is​ ​weaving.​ ​I​ ​entrust​ ​my​ ​past​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​my​ ​present​ ​and future​ ​to​ ​His​ ​loving​ ​and​ ​mysterious​ ​care.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Al Smith the papist demagogue: the origins of a "democratic institution"

Apparently there is something called the "Al Smith dinner," which is a "democratic institution" in danger from Donald Trump.

I find this a bit ironic, since when Al Smith actually ran for president in 1928 plenty of people thought he was a danger to democratic institutions himself. He would take the Bible out of public schools:

Indeed, his candidacy was nothing more than a papal plot to smash the public schools with a club called "violence" and, apparently, poison them with a vial of holy water:

Among the many denunciations of Smith by indignant Protestants was a treatise by the Methodist preacher Henry Clay Morrison (founder of Asbury Seminary), called "The Battle of the Ballots." (This has been recently reprinted by Asbury Seminary's "Firstfruits Press.") Morrison claimed that, in fact, opponents of Smith had not invoked his religion as a reason to oppose him, but that his supporters had falsely accused his opponents of religious prejudice, and since the pro-Smith side had brought religion into the discussion Morrison was justified in discussing it. His closing peroration gives an idea of his tone throughout:
If Al Smith should be elected in the coming battle of ballots, the 6th day of next November, I shall be forced to believe that the curse of God has come upon us, because of our spiritual apostasy and reckless lust for wealth and pleasure that has come to characterize such a large per cent of our American people. May the Holy Spirit arouse our womanhood, awaken and stir the manhood of the nation, and may God in mercy save us from a reign of Rum and Romanism.
Does the desperate rhetoric sound familiar? Try this cartoon, also produced during the 1928 campaign (though it has nothing to do with Morrison), with the caption "Religious liberty is guaranteed, but can we allow foreign reptiles to crawl all over us/"

Morrison echoes these concerns, arguing that Smith was elected governor of New York "by the vast hords [sic] of un-Americanized foreigners, who have gathered by millions, in New York City, making it a menace to the peace and welfare of this nation." Morrison accuses Smith of calling for "an open door to immigrants," under the excuse of not wishing to separate families. He argues that since pretty much everyone in "southern Europe" is related to somebody already in America, this policy would amount to completely unrestricted immigration of people "raised up under the oppression of a Romish ecclesiasticism" and thus easy prey to the machinations of Tammany Hall.

If this anti-immigration rhetoric sounds like one side of the current debate, Morrison's worries about Catholic attacks on the public school system, "one of the cornerstones of our greatness," sound like the other. Indeed, if his criticisms of Catholicism sound like contemporary right-wing attacks on Islam, they also echo the language of the "Podesta emails" revealed by Wikileaks.

The worries of the 1920s don't map exactly onto the political map of the 2010s. Yet it's remarkable how persistent the basic elements are: fear of immigration, fear of corrupt crony politicians, fear of unscrupulous demagogues, fear of "alien" religious traditions undermining America's democratic institutions.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope. After all, the corrupt puppet of Roman despotism, defeated in 1928 by Herbert Hoover, would survive to become a "democratic institution" threatened in turn by a New York demagogue. I don't want to see Donald Trump give his name to a "democratic institution" of the future, and I'm not too enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either. But democratic institutions are, let us hope, more durable and more capable of renewal than the prophets of doom would have us fear.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The 'Am and the Yam

In my ongoing effort to read through the Bible in Hebrew, I just finished Jeremiah 5. One of the things that struck me about it this time through was the contrast between God's control over nature (v. 22) and God's people's ability to resist God (v. 23). God sets the sand as a boundary for the sea, and the waves of the sea can't pass it however much they may rage, but "this people" does manage to "turn aside and go away" from God's purposes.

In Hebrew, the word for "people" and the word for "sea" rhyme: "'am" and "yam." So the contrast comes through more sharply, at least to me (not being a Biblical scholar, I'm never sure if what I think I'm getting from the Hebrew is really what an expert, or an ancient reader, would get from it). Of course one possible theme here human beings' unique capacity to resist God through the exercise of their free will. But there's a further irony, because the passage is specifically speaking about God's people, whom God has chosen out of the nations.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the sea is portrayed as a symbol of the forces of chaos and evil, and specifically of the "heathen" nations who do not have a covenant relationship with God and who often persecute God's people. The tossing waves here remind me of the raging heathen kings in Psalm 2.

But the bitter message of this section of Jeremiah, I think, is not just that God's people outdo the forces of nature in their capacity to defy God, but that the heathen nations are paradoxically more submissive to God than Israel is. The Babylonians have just been described (in v. 15) as a nation God is bringing against Judah. In all their heathen rage, they are doing God's will. But "this people" manages not to.

Not much, it seems, has changed. Those of us aghast at the way large segments of conservative American Christianity have sold themselves to Donald Trump should remember that this is a very old story.

And, of course, we should watch for ways in which we, ourselves, manage to resist and betray God's purposes for us and for the world through us.