My previous blog post was a fairly detailed critique of the book The Naked Gospel. I feel about that blog post how I felt about the book. That is, I was favorably disposed toward it at the outset but the longer I thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with me. I’m not discussing the book anymore, though I will say the limited praise I gave it was overgenerous for what it deserves. Today’s post is a recantation of the limited agreement I expressed with The Naked Gospel. Then moving beyond the book, I want to expand a little more about morality’s relation to Christians, hopefully elucidate a little better.
First things first, I’m walking back my endorsement of Andrew Farley’s idea that the Ten Commandments, being part of the Mosaic Law, are not applicable to believers under the New Covenant. I found his arguments compelling at first, but trying to make the idea my own didn’t sit well with me. It left me increasingly discomfited up to now. I like to think the Catholic Cave is something of an amateur workshop for tinkering around with theological ideas. But a Heretic Hovel it shall not be, if I can help it. So much for the one time in years I try to take seriously anything coming from one of those megachurch types. I must’ve been delirious with Covid. Or suffering residual traumatic brain injury.
Earlier today a metaphorical lightning bolt struck me, knocking me off my high horse with a startling recollection of St Paul appealing to the Decalogue in Ephesians 6:1-3: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.'”
He makes a similar appeal in Romans 13:8-101 and upholds the necessity of keeping God’s commands in 1 Corinthians 7:192. It is true that the apostles (for the most part) don’t explicitly instruct believers to know and keep the Ten Commandments. They do, however, frequently remind the church how they should conduct themselves, and the content of these exhortations is rooted in the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Christ. It’s been almost universally taken for granted since the apostolic era that believers are free from the Mosaic Law, yet the Decalogue carries over into the church era as a nonnegotiable part of the deposit of faith. It transcends the parochially Jewish aspects of the Law because it’s the codification of the universal law God imprints on everyone’s heart3.
Nobody is exempted from obeying God’s commands, but believers in Christ are free from the burden of fear and legalism because of love4. To the extent we grow in love for Christ, obedience to God’s moral law will seem natural and pleasant. St Augustine famously summarized this as, “Love, and do what you will”5.
Love must also be formed by content. Throughout the New Testament, the apostolic writers provide positive instruction regarding the forms Christian love can and should take. Negative injunctions were also utilized to show us the moral boundaries we shouldn’t cross, but I maintain the majority of the Bible’s epistolary moral exhortation is positive. The church in Galatia received a brutal apostolic tongue lashing because they had fallen into legalism, but the positive exhortation we see otherwise assumes an audience generally motivated with agape and therefore not beset with legalism6. Catechesis (instruction) is the skeletal structure of Christian morality while agape is the blood, tissues, and organ systems which holds it all together and gives it life.
Yet we all know that nobody is entirely motivated by God’s love all the time. We all miss the mark of perfect obedience7 and are susceptible to deception8. Sometimes through no fault of our own we experience severe spiritual dryness, whereby the sweetness of prayer and obedience are nowhere to be found. In all such cases we must be prodded toward right action with law and its implied threats.
Enter Martin Luther’s law-gospel paradigm. For Luther, the only Christian life that exists is that which is nailed to the cross of Christ and lives by hope in his resurrection. It’s marked by a paradoxical dialectic between death and life, agony and beatitude, sin and forgiveness.
God’s righteous law in all its strength must be preached to believers in Christ, it must thunder God’s irreversible demand that to enter his kingdom we should attain no less than absolute perfection9. Christ himself has not excused anyone from this mandate10. The Gospel should be preached to believers in full measure, announcing unconditional forgiveness for the guilty11. The Gospel message must never be attenuated or qualified for fear of encouraging laxity or lawlessness. These polarities must be raised up high, side by side, never diminishing one for the sake of the other. The full measure of one actually should reinforce and strengthen the other.
All of this is to say that we live in Christ through faith in the midst of a never-ending existential dialectic between the good God creates within us, and the evil within us that God is always, in his incomprehensible holy alchemy, working to transfigure into the good.
As we grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we’ll be marked by joyful obedience which doesn’t feel so much like obedience to something external but rather, feels more like becoming the very person we felt within the depths of our being we were meant to be. Who has to be told or forced to just be themselves, when such a thing is the most natural and comfortable thing we can do? But because we’re all still in a state of transformation, of becoming and not yet, the fragmented and inauthentic aspects which remain of ourselves must be pruned so our growth in the Divine Nature may continue.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
“For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secret of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-16)
“and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
Bernard Häring, one of my favorite Catholic theologians, wrote regarding legalism and love, “One who is exclusively concerned with the normative formula without being taken up with the value which is its foundation will inevitably descend into a moribund legality.”
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
“What shall we then do here, since the Law continually commands and drives us, and we are powerless! For here my own conscience argues ever against me: Since I am to love God with my whole heart and my neighbor as myself, and I do not do it, I must therefore be condemned and God approves and confirms the sentence of condemnation. Who will counsel me in this instance? I do not know what to counsel you, says the Law; but it decrees and demands plainly that you be obedient.” (Martin Luther, 18th Sunday After Trinity, 2nd Sermon: Matthew 22:34-36)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
“What wilt thou do now in order to be helped? This thou must do: Believe on the Saviour, the Lord Christ, that he has taken away thy sin. If thou believest this, he is thine and thy sins will disappear; if not, then thou wilt never get rid of sin, but wilt always fall into it deeper and deeper.” (Martin Luther, 4th Sunday After Easter, Sermon on John 16)
It all started last week with a children’s magic show at the recreation center. Little did we know that the illusionist’s final trick would involve me disappearing from work about a week later.
Fast forward from the magic show to Sunday after church, Peter gets sick. On Monday Season develops cold-like symptoms. Tuesday she tests positive for Covid on a home rapid test as her symptoms worsen. I tested negative. Yesterday I went into work, tested positive on a rapid test and was immediately sent home. At 03:15 this morning I woke up feeling like absolute garbage, Season was feeling ten times worse, and Peter was at our bedside ready to play. The coup had begun.
Obviously feeling better ahead of his parents, Peter has been wide open nonstop today. I’ve discovered that the balance of power between parents and toddlers is defined entirely in terms of energy. When our energy levels can compete with his, all is well. Otherwise, welcome to the toddler tyranny.
Our little home, what we like to refer to as Ларстан, was once a communist utopia in miniature where everything was shared in common—including contagious diseases apparently. But once Season and I were neutralized by the Covid, Peter seized the reins of power and is now working us like prisoners in a hard labor camp.
I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. The noblest political experiments inevitably give way to autocracy. Make no mistake about it, though. Once we overcome our illness, the balance of power will be restored and Ларстан will return to its former glory. Until then, I write this to you from the underground as Peter the Peppy takes his first nap of the day. Tell the world our story.
If you want to know my opinion about abortion or the Roe vs Wade ruling, my answer is that I think we’d probably be better off without guns. As to private firearm ownership and gun control, I think non-medically necessary pregnancy termination is an evil which grows and thrives from an evil environment. How do I think we should approach these issues legislatively? Glad you asked! Let’s start by abolishing money. As the Scriptures say, the love of money is the source of all kinds of evil.
Huh? That’s right, scrap the whole wage earning and wealth accumulation system. Our socioeconomic order is built on the principle that our value as human beings is measured in proportion to our economic participation; this is a grave evil. We spend our lives in competition with one another for resources doled out stingily by the wealthy. We’re so brainwashed that it seems crazy to suggest everybody is entitled to the necessities of life without charge, regardless of the individual’s economic value. To enjoy lower prices for consumer goods and maintain a comfortable lifestyle, we depend on slave labor in undeveloped countries so the realities of humane labor don’t come to bear on our price tags.
When we grow old and infirm and no longer profitable, if we can’t afford the exorbitant rates demanded by the wealthy for humane treatment, we’re crowded into dirty nursing homes where as little money and effort is spent on our wellbeing as the for-profit management can get away with. Don’t worry though, the residents are probably too demented or heavily medicated to realize they live in nasty prison cells for old people. Just keep the television on and they’ll be fine. That our sociopolitical system is endorsed by so many Christians is an abomination on par with ancient Israel’s apostasy into the pagan cults of child sacrifice (see Jeremiah 7).
Speaking of child sacrifice, we all know abortion is cheaper than maternity leave. Corporations and their ladder climbing drones have more incentive to support abortion than the potentially career killing paradigm shift of childrearing. If you’re unfortunate enough to live in the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and are working yourself into the ground to barely survive, abortion is the more rational choice over carrying an unexpected pregnancy to full term. Much less feeding and clothing the child for years on end after you’ve brought it into the world. Mammon has spoken.
Euthanasia is preferable to the loneliness and frequent indignities so many of us are likely to suffer within the dank, urine-scented walls of nursing homes. That most nursing home residents are medicated with anti-depressants, anti-anxiolytics, or anti-psychotics should be no surprise. Proponents of euthanasia recognize how little dignity we afford the elderly and terminally ill. The worst part about their position is that it’s quite rational, on account of how we’ve organized society. If you can’t afford or find a proper doctor-facilitated suicide or are a DIY kind of person, you’ll be happy to know our gun rights culture is as robust as ever, restrictions are loosening. Again, Mammon has spoken.
So you see the popular debates about abortion, guns, war, euthanasia and the like, are predicated upon false choices. What good is overturning Roe v. Wade (or upholding it, for that matter) when our society is underpinned by competition for the acquisition of a manipulable social construct we call ‘money’ or ‘capital’? Abortion is a natural and inevitable consequence which springs forth from the wickedness of capitalism. It also legitimates the capitalist system, as does anything else that eliminates obstacles to serving capital more fervently.
What good is tightly regulating firearms, outright banning them, or stocking up on them for protection, if we live according to psychotic rules yet can’t seem to figure out why psychopaths keep popping up and shooting children? Sewage festers nastiness and multiplies contagion; let the reader understand. All but the most trenchant ideologists know violent crime is fueled mainly by drugs and greed, mainstays of the underclasses which capitalism naturally generates. Consider: nobody drives or walks through wealthy neighborhoods afraid of being shot or mugged simply for being there. Except maybe for members of our socially sanctioned underclasses whom the wealthy would prefer not to see near their homes. But everybody, rich and poor alike, know of impoverished areas you’d be wise to avoid for your own safety.
Under capitalism, there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. They’re both capitalist parties that exist to uphold the fundamental status quo. Our bipartisan political system is an illusion, if you think it exists to serve we the people. Donald Trump was a demagogue who deliberately deepened partisan divisions in society, made a pandemic worse than it should have been, and threatened to start a war with Iran to distract us from his impeachment. Oh yeah, and he tried to overthrow the government with his Capitol Hill Putsch.
By comparison Joe Biden appears to be a benign grandpa. Yet under the Biden regime, migrants continue dying and being persecuted at the Mexican-American border as they were under Trump. Scores of American citizens suffer want of food and adequate medical care, children continue to die at the hands of madmen with military grade hardware, and our government is starving Afghanistan by freezing their financial assets. I guess since the Afghans embarrassed us by not turning into a Western-style democracy at gun point, we’ll punish them from afar with passive genocide.
You may ask, what is the point of this tirade? You wanted to know my opinion about abortion and gun control, no? Surely you did because everybody is apparently required to have a strong opinion about such things as soon as public debate appears and disappears like a flash mob. If you don’t shout out your opinion, announce your tribe and reveal your alliances, you’re a nobody. Well, this was my answer. I don’t like answering such questions directly with the popular prefabricated choices because these are no choices at all. I’ll leave that to the Twitterati.
Our underlying problem is largely in how we conduct ourselves politically, i.e. how we deal with living next to each other and interacting with one another. Sure, we’re all wounded by sin and tempted to evil in many ways. I can attest that my heart is full of darkness and sin, sometimes to the point of almost driving me to despair. But we’re created in God’s image for the purpose of reflecting God’s love to one another, according to the various capacities God provides us. And this is good! Surely God’s grace is more powerful than our sin (Romans 5:20-21). But our environment exerts a huge effect on whether we tilt more toward vice or virtue.
Lest this blog post tempt you to think I despair of society, let me reassure you I do not. Not because I think we have any hope of making something good from the sewage that is the American way of life. There are good aspects to it, but the root is corrupt nonetheless. At any rate, American or not it’s impossible for us to build a utopian society on a large scale (though I think we could find great success with small intentional communities, starting with our own families). Rather, I place my hope in the love of God through Jesus Christ who, in the words of Julian of Norwich, can and will make all things well. Not merely in some hereafter at the expense of the concrete now. In my conception of Christianity I think primarily in terms of the here and now, in light of the promised final resurrection. The kingdom of God is already here and is growing, spreading. In fact, the kingdom of God is within you, according to Jesus (Luke 17:21).
Jesus was historically situated within a certain milieu, his ministry shaped by his life as a Jewish man in Roman occupied Palestine. He creates every one of us as historically situated beings, calling us not to be Gnostics who separate our beliefs from our material lives, but to leaven our lives and circumstances with the presence of Christ in us. To live as aliens subject to authoritarian rule but not mastered by it. Free from undue fear of death and want, and thereby free of the coercion the state depends upon. We’re to live not as violent revolutionaries or as reformers of an evil system, but as priests of God “creating a new society within the shell of the old”, to quote Dorothy Day. Let’s pray for the creativity and interior freedom needed to live more Gospel-oriented lives in a very anti-Christ political situation.
“Your eyes are the lamp of your body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be filled with light. However, if your eyes are diseased, your whole body will be in darkness. See to it then that the light inside you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp illuminates you with its rays.” -Luke 11:34-36
There’s a real danger here of reading these verses and piously neutralizing the impact of what Jesus was saying. Egged on by pastors and Sunday school teachers the world over, it’s easy to interpret this moralistically about having “custody of the eyes” and being mindful of what influences us. Ocular governorship and discerning our exposures are important, but it’s not what I think Jesus was talking about.
This little discourse is the climactic finale in a vignette wherein Jesus rebukes a large crowd because they gathered in hopes of witnessing a miracle, but they utterly failed to discern the presence of God among them. Diseased eyes fail to perceive the Incarnate Word in our midst, thereby casting the whole person into spiritual darkness and confusion. In our confusion we may bounce around from one spiritually elating experience to another in hopes of catching a glimpse of God in his glory. Or maybe we scoff with the Pharisees and look for security in hallowed religious traditions and structures. Perhaps we shrug it off altogether, figuring this is too ethereal to be of any concern. How sad the darkness is when we’re immersed in God’s loving presence yet are too hardened to notice!
To keep our eyes sound as the Scripture says, we should strive to live in the awareness of God’s active presence among us. It’s not possible to think consciously about this at every moment of the day, but God’s active presence should be the ground on which we land after we finish a task or are able to slow down a minute. It should be the mindset we settle back into and repose in throughout the day as much as we’re able. One of my favorite verses to recall is Acts 17:28: “In him we live and move and have our being”. I also like to [try and remember to] pray the Angelus in the morning, midday, and evening to train my mind to return to the thought of Christ’s nearness. Arrow prayers are an ancient method the early desert hermits used to keep themselves grounded in God’s presence throughout their busy days.
All that said, as I try harder to be an active contemplative, I increasingly notice that I habitually flee from God’s presence. It’s not so much a matter of avoiding prayer, though I’m guilty of that sometimes. Rather, it’s a matter of failing to embrace the incarnate presence of God in the parts of my daily life from which I frequently seek to distract myself. Following Jesus is a matter of faithfulness in the seemingly little things in our daily lives1. And being faithful means being attentive. Simone Weil famously said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
For my part, I often try to escape from the moment with reading. The irony is that this reading is often theological. Imagine the stupidity of ignoring the real presence of God in the concrete moment in order to read about God in a book! Welcome to my brain. I may not be as addled by handheld electronic devices as many of my contemporaries, but I share the same modern affliction of becoming easily bored in the moment and looking elsewhere for the instant gratification of mental stimulation.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read a book or check our phones when we’re bored. Rather, I think the deeper issue is examining how often and easily we become bored, and learning why. Perhaps the root issue is that we need to retrain our minds to recognize that always and everywhere, we’re immersed in the active presence of our loving God. Perhaps we need to be, as St. Ignatius would say, contemplatives in action.
I can only speak for myself here, but everyday is a battle against longstanding habits of selfishness for the sake of giving my Beloved the generous attention befitting of true love. This means striving to give full attention to the people around me and to whatever the present moment requires of me. May the Lord grant us the grace of attentiveness and generosity, that we may thereby enter more fully into the experience of Christ’s love.
“[God’s] will for us was the twenty-four hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to ‘do the will of God.’ No, these things, the twenty-four hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.”
“The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. The trick is to learn to see that—not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God’s will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.” -Walter Ciszek, SJ
My ongoing theological revolution in recent years hasn’t been limited to abstract matters of soteriology and ecclesiology. I’ve done much reading about what it means to concretely live the Christian faith. After returning to Catholicism I subscribed to Commonwealand America, progressive Catholic magazines which introduced me to new ways of looking at things. Pope Francis has been a major influence in my understanding of what living the faith means. Dorothy Day, Søren Kierkegaard, George Fox, St Francis of Assisi, Beth Haile, and Shane Claiborne—to name a few—have contributed to my formation in this regard.
To sum up what could be a lengthy post in itself, I’ve been learning that Christianity is truly a radical faith. I don’t mean in a Jesus is awesome, he’ll change your life! kind of way that you hear often from pulpits or youth rallies, where the people proclaiming such silliness live remarkably un-radical lives. Christianity, what is presented to us in the words of Jesus and the Epistles, is actually radical. There’s a Chesterton quote about this I really like1. It seems to me that the more faithful we are in conforming ourselves to the image of Christ, the weirder we’ll get and the more we’ll find ourselves getting into trouble with the status quo. And don’t think your average church leader or church goer will be on your side; they’re more likely to be among your detractors. But don’t worry—St Francis of Assisi, St Lawrence, and many other Christians before us were radicals whose preaching and lifestyles would get them in trouble and draw the ire of most mainstream church folks.
For me, learning [slowly] what it means to follow Jesus in my milieu has meant approaching American society and its structures with increasing skepticism. It’s moved me ideologically away from merely reform-minded thinking, to scrutinizing the very structures our society is built upon and learning how the American political and economic systems are violently antithetical to Jesus. Capitalism, for example, as a system is thoroughly anti-Christ. The foundational worldview of capitalism depends upon propagating a false anthropology of the human-as-consumer whose existence is justified by his economic participation. Naturally, capitalism foments greed and violent competition between us, thereby destroying our potential for any serious commitment to the common good, mutual cooperation, and care for one another. The devout capitalist, as a worshiper of Mammon, can have no conscience beyond what the market demands, and no greater purpose than to increase profit margins by whatever means available.
Militarism is another idol the American church has largely befriended. We waged a bloody war in Afghanistan for 20 years, where the ordinary people of that country shed more blood than the combatants on either side. They paid a terrible price for a cause they didn’t understand and didn’t ask for. Now that country we “liberated” is starving en masse under a brutal regime, as we continue to withhold all their financial assets we promised to control for the sake of their economic stability. Sounds like genocide to me. Yet churches across America every year have 4th of July patriotic services and cheer their young members for joining the military, rather than warning them of the incongruity between imperial military service and following Jesus. I admit that because I try to follow Jesus, I’m unpatriotic and I’m not proud to be an American. If that last statement rankles you, ask yourself why.
Listening to God
During 2020 my relational approach to God, what we tend to label “spirituality”, underwent its own revolution. I became interested in the Catholic charismatic renewal after reading some books by Ronda Chervin. From there I explored a lot of material from the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s charismatic ministry. I had been a longtime scoffer at charismatics, lumping them together with schwärmer and TV charlatans. However, my exploration of charismatic gifts from a Catholic viewpoint changed my mind. I became especially interested in the gifts of healing, discernment, and prophecy. In fact, we believe Season has the gift of discernment.
My prayer and hope is that while I carry out my duties as a paramedic, the healing touch of Christ reaches people through me. I’m open to the possibility of overtly miraculous cure taking place through me. We should remember that healing cannot be reduced to the medical realm. God can and does heal deep emotional wounds, fractured minds, and addictions to sin. I believe God mostly heals through seemingly mundane things such as good medical treatment, praying for one another, and being a compassionate listener. This is all stuff I can and should do everyday at work. Because of my interest in healing, I’ve been diligently wearing a green scapular for a couple of years.
Something else I’ve picked up from the charismatic renewal is learning to open myself to more direct communication with God. In the past I’d had some interior experiences of God’s loving presence, but I was afraid to open myself to them for fear of falling into delusion or fanaticism. Gradually though, I have been learning to lower my barriers and embrace the Holy Spirit’s loving presence in my heart. In the process I’ve had more wonderful experiences of God’s presence, even what I would interpret as signs.
Whenever I have a mystical-type experience I try to write all about it in my journal. These experiences can be a source of strength or insight when looked back at later. Of course, mystical experiences are not the focus of discipleship. They’re more like icing on the cake, if even that. They can certainly puff up the mind with vanity, and I think most of us don’t have more mystical experiences because our pride couldn’t handle it. But I think my walk with Christ is certainly evolving into a fuller, deeper experience as I learn to be still and discern God’s presence and voice. A guiding principle the charismatic renewal taught me is this: Jesus is speaking to each of us and wants to be known. We just need to practice listening.
Where we are now
I’ll conclude this spiritual autobiography series by talking about family and church. When I returned to the Catholic Church, Season explored a few other churches before going back to First Baptist. We both spiritually flourished under this arrangement for a good while. We were finally at peace within our church homes. A lot has happened in these past several years that I won’t get into now, but the results have been emotional battle scars, a stronger marriage, a son named Peter, and an interesting spiritual/theological equilibrium between us.
It was good for us to worship and root ourselves in the churches where we best connected with God, even if we hadn’t achieved the one church ideal we initially sought. I have no doubt it was God leading us back to our own churches to feed, heal, and teach us. Eventually though, it seems God had in mind to lead us elsewhere. It just took a bit of prodding. I’m getting a weird Abraham and Sarah vibe writing all this, but I’ll go no further with such a comparison. It suffices to speculate that our churchly nomadism might be an unexpected path God would lead us through as a married couple.
The first prod came with what Season likes to call a “thorn in the nest” at First Baptist. This thorn over time intensified until it was nearly all she could focus on at church. With the intensity of this thorn and the concomitant anxiety Season felt, she lost sight of why she was even going to church. In the midst of wresting with this thorn, she one day decided to accompany me to a weekday Mass. We were both surprised that she wanted to do this, but it was nice to have her with me.
Season has never been terribly comfortable at Catholic worship, though she never denied that authentic Christianity was what was preached and practiced there. Much to both our surprise that day, she felt largely at ease in this quiet little weekday Mass. More importantly, she felt God’s presence and peace there. Thereafter it became a more regular routine, at least once a week, that we would attend weekday Mass together. Season continued to feel an unexpected sense of peace and spiritual healing. The priests and Mass goers also were reasonably tolerant of our exuberant 1 year old.
Eventually Season made the difficult decision to leave First Baptist permanently. Much discussion and prayer went behind this decision, and the goodbyes were sorrowful. But she knew in her heart of hearts that First Baptist could no longer be her spiritual home, that God was using a rather unpleasant “thorn” to drive her elsewhere. She made it clear to me and everybody else that even though she was attending Mass and felt God’s presence there, she had no interest or intention of becoming Catholic. I was cool with that; I think we were both just happy to finally be worshiping together, albeit in a rather unexpected way.
Ironically, during our time attending Mass together, I was feeling restless and desirous of something more than the individualism of attending Mass and leaving. Before the pandemic I had attempted to get involved with my parish; I wanted to be part of a close-knit community of like minded believers. First I tried the monthly mobile food drive. There was potential there for building relationships in the community, but as a night shift worker the daytime hours I put in drained me and messed up my sleep schedule. Plus the elderly man they paired me up with, whose driving was frightful in its own right, aggravated me with his badgering attempts to recruit me for the Knights of Columbus.
Next I tried the monthly class on Salesian spirituality one of the priests lead. I really liked these sessions, and I attended them until they were shuttered on account of the pandemic. I’ve been sad that the parish hasn’t restarted them. Once a month in the evening, I got to meet with a small group of like minded believers who were interested in deepening their discipleship. Participation in this group didn’t satisfy the intangible longing for community, but I couldn’t tell you why. I can only say that I loved these meetings, yet desired something more. Something deeper. I tried to find a Catholic charismatic prayer group somewhere in the county, but the few that existed were limited to small enclaves of immigrant communities who spoke their native language in the meetings.
After the lock downs were over and society began to return to some appearance of pre-pandemic normalcy, I even looked on the website of a local Episcopal church to see what sort of small groups they had going on. They periodically host some interesting looking classes on prayer, spiritual exercises, and even icon writing. However, they never responded to any of my email inquiries, so I decided this was a door God wasn’t opening for me.
Alas, one cold January day early this year (now I’m working day shift), my partner and I picked up an elderly lady in a small apartment for something or other that for us, was rather routine. At the hospital my partner realized she had left her coat in the apartment, so we went back after clearing the hospital. Thankfully the lady’s husband was still at home, and he was friendly toward us. He warmly received us and chatted us up in the kitchen for a good while. During the course of our visit we learned that he pastors a Lutheran church not far from my house. He gave us both a business card and invited us to visit his church if we didn’t already have somewhere to worship. My partner left the apartment with her coat, and I with an idea planted in my head.
To wrap up an already protracted story, out of this sense of restlessness I visited the Lutheran church one Sunday, by myself. Season was puzzled why I wanted to go and I had no good answer other than to say I was interested. I didn’t know either, only that I felt some vague hunger. The church was small and cozy, a very small community of mostly elderly worshipers. The worship was spiritually satisfying, the people genuinely welcoming, and the pastor grateful that I had helped his wife. I visited this church here and there, then Season eventually decided to come since I seemed to see something in it.
She too, found the worship spiritually nourishing. We talked about how if she hadn’t been going to Mass and getting accustomed to worshiping liturgically, she probably wouldn’t have appreciated this little church so much. We both loved that we could receive Communion together. Especially important, and surprising to us, was that the pastor and the parishioners alike heartily welcomed us and didn’t mind Peter’s energy. We both believe it’s important to raise Peter in the church in such a way that he grows up from early on attending worship with us.
We do our best to minimize the inevitable disruptiveness of a toddler, but we believe that church is family and therefore should act like one, foibles and all. I learned this from the Catholic Church, as it was in the Catholic Church that the sound of crying babies during worship became second nature. Protestants have done a terrific job at encouraging a culture of segregating children off to their own little corner during worship, where their presence can momentarily be forgotten. I say, “Let the little children come to me.”
Anyway, this tiny Lutheran parish does indeed feel and act much like a family. They’ve been remarkably welcoming of us and Peter’s Sunday shenanigans. The pastor’s philosophy is much the same as ours; he believes church should be a space where young children can be young children, and eventually with developmental maturity and parental guidance they’ll calm down and learn to worship as part of the community. We sit in the back most pew where Peter is easier to manage, and his vocalizations and even running around have become background noise. It’s not all running around and acting silly, though. He pays attention to what’s going on and sometimes sits through sermons quietly and attentively.
At the Easter service we had Peter baptized. We did not baptize Peter when we attended the Catholic Church because we didn’t like the implication (and canonical requirement) that Peter would thereafter be obligated to the Roman Catholic way. Neither of us wants Peter to deal with a conscience later in life that, if he decides God is not leading him to follow Jesus as a Catholic, would harasses him about it. Baptism in a Lutheran church does not make him a dyed in the wool Lutheran. It simply means he’s baptized into Christ. Season and I have achieved a remarkable theological synthesis we never before thought would be possible. We of course have plenty of divergent theological ideas and preferences, but at the core of things we’re on the same page. And we’ve been working harder at developing a mutual prayer life.
I mentioned in the previous episode that my ecclesiology makes room for Protestant churches to be acknowledged as legitimate churches within the church catholic. I hold to this, and I think of myself as Catholic even as I now attend a Lutheran church. There’s much I appreciate about the Lutheran tradition, but I cannot wholeheartedly subscribe to all that the Lutheran confessions teach, any more than I can fully subscribe to all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches.
Yet I believe the same sacraments are just as validly celebrated at a Protestant church as in a Catholic or Orthodox church. I have my own ideas about salvation which essentially amount to sola fideà laapokatastasis. I pray the Angelus daily and the Rosary regularly. Every night I’m at home, I cross Peter’s forehead with holy water and bless him, then rock him to sleep while quietly reciting some Catholic prayers and Psalm 23. I wear my green scapular as a devotion, and rosary beads around my neck in case an opportunity pops up to pray a decade or two. I believe in the priesthood of all believers according to Luther’s teaching. My faith is becoming a more intuitive, personalistic love affair with Jesus, though the abstract philosophical and theological elements remain important.
So that’s it. That’s my spiritual autobiography up to the present day. Of course, my actual spiritual autobiography isn’t finished until I draw my last breath. Even then only God can judge me and give a complete account of my life’s story. My intention in 2020 was to take two or three posts and talk about who I am as a Christian and how I got there, but this project took off in a different direction and only now is finished after 22 blog posts over two years. I admit there’s a lot I’ve left undone and a lot that could’ve been said with less words and circuitous rabbit trails. Maybe one day I’ll revisit my autobiography and write an improved version. For now though, take it or leave it, this is my “official” story and I’m sticking to it. Please pray for me and my family as we attempt to discern God’s path for us. May God direct you and me, all of us, “in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
“My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. … [T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Chesterton, G.K. What’s Wrong with the World. ch. 1.5.
Under the tutelage of a kindly Salesian priest I was healed of an anxiety ridden, overly scrupulous conscience. After his departure I felt lost for a while, but I realized that he taught me the basics of walking with God, then moved out of the way so I could more fully embrace my love. Furthermore, I was rejecting a dead form of orthodoxy to which I had previously been beholden, in exchange for a living relationship with God where using my own mind and judgment was a virtue. A lively relationship with God is risky business and leads us to who-knows-where, and I think many times we hide behind walls of doctrine and conformity to church authorities for a sense of spiritual safety. But [ironically enough] Pope Francis has spoken out against this time and again, to the ire of many.
The last few years as a returned and liberated Catholic has been a time of dramatic conceptual shifts and changes. I mentioned before the biggest revolution in my thinking came about when, before my return, I encountered the ideas of theologians Robert Jenson and Herbert McCabe. After my liberation from scrupulosity and fear of thinking the wrong way, the fruits of their ideas began to show forth in how I approached Christianity.
When Herbert McCabe wrote about God’s forgiveness being both prior to and the cause of our contrition1, I took this to mean that all of us are forgiven (perpetual present tense) because of Christ, regardless of baptism or anything else. Admittedly, I don’t think McCabe himself would have run quite this far with his idea, but I think my conclusion stems naturally from the logic with which he started. This means the most horrible sinner in the world is at every moment fully forgiven, and it’s only for him to realize this and be transformed by that Good News. Robert Jenson’s definition of faith2 as the state of being confronted with God’s unconditional proclamation of forgiveness and having thereafter to deal with it, together with the first observation formed the basis for my personal theological revolution. I learned to read the Scriptures and church teaching through the lens of Romans chapter 5.
As I became more proficient with my new hermeneutic tool, it seems in hindsight inevitable that I would eventually embrace the idea of universal salvation through Christ Jesus. Apokatastasis is the patristic era word for the belief that all within the created order will ultimately somehow be brought to a fully realized state of reconciliation with the Father through Jesus Christ. It takes quite literally the New Testament passages (mostly in Paul) which provocatively suggest this very thing.
Look at Colossians 1:19-20 for example: “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross [through him], whether those on earth or those in heaven.”
My reading of St Isaac of Nineveh, his universalism and ideas about how God’s punishments are always for the purpose of healing3, was a good theological adjunct to this. Same goes for my reading of 19th century Scottish evangelical George MacDonald4.
Radically altering some of my fundamental theology was not something I took lightly. However, as I encountered glimmers of God’s love here and there, sometimes in a Spirit-filled person such as my former spiritual director, other times in the random kindness of a stranger, occasionally in an interior sense of God’s loving presence, I was making connections and recognizing this God of love in what may be called “theology of hope”.
To me it seemed that the dominant soteriologies, which demand of us fulfillment of certain conditions in order to receive the grace of God and escape an eternity in hell, are distortions of the radically Good News that Jesus loves us and has reconciled all to the Father. I decided I would no longer be afraid to follow the logic of the Gospel to what I saw as its inevitable conclusion. As the author of the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog likes to put it, “Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.”
The more I learned to see the God who loves, the more I recognized this God in the Scriptures. Putting my faith into concrete action started to feel more intuitive. It started making more sense to me how the increase of sin is defeated by the still greater overflow of grace (Romans 5:20). I felt deep identification with an icon of St. Anthony I once encountered in an Orthodox church, where he holds a scroll reading, “I no longer fear God. But I love him.” This remains one of my favorite icons and reminds me of my journey.
My conceptual revolution did not come without cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance flowed from my struggle to square my developing understanding of the Gospel with Catholic Church teaching. Like most Christian traditions, there is a strong dose of transactionalism embedded within Catholic doctrine. Commit a mortal sin? Then it can only be forgiven by sacramental confession, or perfect contrition (but nobody can know the quality of their contrition). Die in a state of mortal sin and you’ve died outside of God’s saving grace. Transactionalism.
However, I felt that even the transactionalism of Catholicism could be legitimately reinterpreted in light of my unconditionalist, non-transactional view of the Gospel. It seemed to me that universal salvation could also square with Catholic theology. Hans Urs von Balthasar made a famously valiant effort. After Vatican 2 there was a growing number of theologians who believed mortal sin was less prevalent and harder to commit than previously imagined. A few radically suggested that mortal sin might even be a theoretical possibility, but highly unlikely considering how contextually bound and limited the human creature is when it comes to how we make choices. The more I’ve thought about this, the more it makes sense to me.
If we eliminate transactionalism and the threat of everlasting hell, what do we do with the entirety of Christian living as imagined by Catholicism? Well for starters, I think it frees us to learn to follow Jesus out of a purer love when we don’t have the threat of eternal suffering looming in the background. Christian life certainly becomes a more joyful affair. The sacraments are no longer heavenly transactions where we offer up our sins and contrition in exchange for forgiveness and grace. Rather, the sacraments can be better appreciated as sacred spaces where heaven and earth touch and we experience foretastes of the heavenly banquet. The sacraments are God’s word of healing, forgiveness, and promise efficaciously spoken over us through various ritual means. They’re outpourings of the Divine Presence which everywhere and always is. The sacraments are gifts of the kingdom which has already come and is yet to come.
I don’t think everything within the Catholic Church can be squared with the understanding of the Gospel I’ve articulated, and this has come at the cost of any possibility of full submission to the Roman magisterium. However, I must stick by what I see as the Gospel because unconditionalism and non-transactionalism seems to me the heart of The Good News of Jesus.
Consequently there are teachings from which I dissent. Much of it involves ecclesiology. For example, I cannot honestly assent to the teaching that the [Roman] Catholic Church is the one true church in a way that relegates churches not in communion with Rome to the status of schismatics, “ecclesial communities”, or heretics. De necessitate esse salutis omnes Christi fideles Romano Pontifici subesse (That it is of the necessity of salvation for all Christ’s faithful to be subject to the Roman pontiff). Catholic teaching on this has softened over time from Unam Sanctam to Lumen Gentium, attempting to widen the scope of what it means to be in saving relation to the Catholic Church without totally compromising the above-mentioned core principle.
I certainly believe the Roman Catholic Church enjoys a primacy of honor among the others, and even enjoys unique charisms. In the geographic and political east, I believe the same applies to the Orthodox churches. However, I don’t think Rome’s primacy excludes other churches not officially in communion with Rome, from their share in the body of Christ that is the holy catholic church. This includes Protestant churches. I imagine various Protestant churches enjoy their own unique charisms as well. To borrow from Luther, wherever believers gather in the name of Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments, there will be the body of Christ (the catholic church).
How exactly free from error the Gospel proclamation and administration of sacraments must be in order for this to hold true, is in my opinion best left to a large dose of mystery. In regards to the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I believe they’re willed by God to be the core Communions of Christianity, the bulwarks which hold the rest of it together. History seems to attest to this, and in this particular sense I assert the superiority of the apostolic churches.
This is a huge deal. Does all this mean I’m not really Catholic, in the sense of being a Roman Catholic? How many teachings of the Catholic Church can one reject or accept only with modifications until that person is no longer Catholic in any meaningful sense of the word? These are questions I continue to wrestle with. As I see it, the lonely road of not fully identifying with any while still identifying with many, is a potential cost of daring to following Jesus. I could very well be wrong about most or all of this. I must remain humble and recognize this fact, all the while following what I believe to be the Spirit’s lead. My theology changes and evolves, and I’m learning to not put too much stock in the stuff I think up. But the Spirit’s over all direction and influence in my life is a more sure thing. The Spirit will take us on paths as variable as the individuals we are, but we have to be willing to take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into the cloud of unknowing.
“The coming into us of God’s own life of love shows itself in two aspects: our repentance, and our being forgiven, our death to our sins, and our new life of love. It is not at all that God waits for us to be repentant before he will condescend to forgive us, like someone saying: ‘I’ll forgive him provided he apologizes.’ We do not express our contrition in order to persuade God to grant us his forgiveness. Our contrition is God granting us forgiveness. Of course, the form of words or signs that we (or, at least, most of my Christian friends) use can give the impression that God needs persuading, that we must beg him for forgiveness, that we should plead for him to turn his anger from us, and so on. But all that is just metaphor, a figure of speech. We speak to God as though he were someone we had insulted or offended, and we have no other suitable way of praying: there is nothing wrong with performing Hamlet so long as you don’t call in the police half way through and have Claudius arrested for murder. Not to express our contrition in some such way would simply be a sign that our contrition is bogus, and therefore that it is not really the forgiveness of God. Our sins being forgiven is not, then, distinct from the other manifestations of the life of God in us, the life of love which expresses itself in our forgiving others. It is not that God refuses to forgive our sins unless we first forgive those that have sinned against us. That is only a picturesque way of talking. Our forgiving others is the work of God’s forgiveness in us. It is not that God refuses to forgive unless we forgive others. It would be logically impossible for him to do so. God’s act of forgiveness is not a change in him. It is simply the change by which we become, for example, forgiving instead of vengeful.” McCabe, Herbert. God, Christ, and Us. pp. 122-123.
“In Reformation language, ‘faith’ is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like ‘justification,’ the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these new terms. Faith is a mode of life. Where the radical question is alive, all life becomes a hearing, a listening for permission to go on; faith is this listening—to the gospel.” Jenson, Robert. Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. p. 41.
“To suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found in him is abominable. By implying that he makes us of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the Divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will—let alone believe of God that he has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature he has brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of his grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did he withold his care for them, even for a moment.” “If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known—with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly—such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God because of his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but also calumniates him.” Alfayev, Hilarion. The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. pp. 283-284.
“God is forgiving us every day—sending from between him and us our sins and their fogs and darkness. Witness the shining of his sun and the falling of his rain, the filling of their hearts with food and gladness, that he loves them that love him not. When some sin that we have committed has clouded all our horizon, and hidden him from our eyes, he, forgiving us, ere we are, and that we may be, forgiven, sweeps away a path for this his forgiveness to reach our hearts, that it may by causing our repentance destroy the wrong, and make us able even to forgive ourselves. For some are too proud to forgive themselves, till the forgiveness of God has had its way with them, has drowned their pride in the tears of repentance, and made their heart come again like the heart of a little child.” MacDonald, George. Unspoken Sermons. p. 21.
Returning to the Catholic Church was a breath of fresh air like none other. No more did I feel beholden to the wasteland that is contemporary American Protestantism, where the faddishness of so-called evangelicalism—its crappy postmodern architecture, entertainment-driven worship, unconscious or perhaps even willing servitude to advertising and the forces of the market, and bad theology which created a weird hybrid of semi-Pelagianism and Gnosticism—seemed ubiquitous, often poisoning the liturgical Protestant churches around it. This judgment sounds a bit harsh even to me at this point, but this was how I felt at the time.
Now I could rest easier in a world of sacraments, liturgy, stoutly incarnational theology, icons, scapulars and rosaries. The silence during daily Mass was balm to my overstimulated soul. I still sometimes read Luther and other Protestant sources; my conceptual world was by this point becoming rather eclectic.
The priest who welcomed me back into the Catholic Church by way of sacramental confession became my spiritual director for the better part of a year before he left. He taught me that Catholicism can and should be a source of joy, not needless burdens of guilt and shame. I learned to approach the altar and receive the Eucharist without undue fear of sacrilege or letting my sense of unworthiness keep me away. My scrupulous conscience, a broken moral compass that alarmed at every little thing and was practically no conscience at all, was healed under his direction, with frequent reception of the Eucharist and less frequent confessions. A Salesian priest, he taught me that prayer should be simple and spirituality should be practical and down to earth. This last one has taken me much longer to learn. In fact, I’m still working on that one.
He gave me a little book called The Spiritual Directory of St Francis de Sales. I’ve cycled through various breviaries, devotionals, and more free form styles of prayer over the years, but The Spiritual Directory has a habit of showing up once in a while to reset and re-calibrate me. As I write this, I’m in the process of just such a re-calibration.
Rethinking previous ideas
Catholicism was my rightfully re-discovered home, but like all families it came with its own dissensions, discords, and dysfunctions. It seems fitting that when I returned, the Catholic Church was embroiled in debate about whether the divorced and civilly remarried could return to the sacraments without canonically regularizing their marriages within the bureaucratic and often heartless machinery of church marriage tribunals. The lengthy intra-ecclesial debate, often partisan and downright nasty, was in response to Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. I wasn’t in a remarriage situation, but returning to the church in a canonically unrecognized marriage with the complications I discussed in the last episode, placed me in fundamentally the same situation as someone whose marriage could never be recognized canonically. Thus, I had a lot of skin in this fight.
I discovered that the Catholics with whom I previously felt an ideological kinship, had now either turned into anti-Francis partisans or were cautiously ambivalent about all his talk of mercy and pastoral accompaniment for sinners. I discovered that I didn’t share their concerns, and in fact I really liked Pope Francis. Furthermore, I fully supported his modest suggestion that Catholics in canonically irregular marriages might be better served by returning to the sacraments after a period of discernment and repentance. I was encouraged when the bishops of Malta took this a step further and issued rather generous guidelines on the matter, and Pope Francis gave them a nod of approval. Under this new pope I felt like I actually had a place within the church, even if many naysayers would prefer to have people like me practically excommunicated.
It’s amazing how your ideas and priorities change when suddenly you find yourself in the hot seat and in need of mercy. When I first joined the Catholic Church, I was very much a conservative (if that’s the right word) on matters of theology and church discipline. I was among the rank and file of so-called “EWTN Catholics” who were likely to view Benedict XVI’s papacy as a sign of hope that the church would start purging the unorthodox from its ranks and look a little more pre-Vatican II. Of course, all my supposed orthodoxy and concern for orthopraxis didn’t help me overcome a scrupulous conscience or actual sin, nor did it prevent me from abandoning Catholicism after a measly two years.
Now returning home a humbler man after something of a wilderness experience, I was in great need of leniency. My old ways of thinking, reflected in others who I formerly would have cheered, appeared harsh and legalistic. It seemed that maintaining the appearance of an unchanging Catholicism was more important to them than bandaging spiritual wounds and helping brothers and sisters back to Christ. I was appalled at how my former ways of thinking stood in cold judgment against me. If “orthodoxy” meant subservience to abstractions at the cost of souls, or embracing historical myopia for the price of believing a particular image of the church, I wanted nothing to do with it. I resolved to think more independently; religion would no longer be a matter of conformity and having my opinions handed to me. My religion would be a love affair with the Incarnate God, to loosely paraphrase Chesterton.
At some point during our attendance at the Lutheran church, I felt a persistent sense of calling back toward Roman Catholicism welling up within me. By this point I was thoroughly dissatisfied with my efforts to find a spiritual home within Protestantism. My theological development took me on a journey away from Rome, through Canterbury and Wittenberg, and frustratingly right back to the shores of the Tiber. While away from Rome I sought to ground my beliefs within the legitimate streams of catholic tradition, but time and again I puzzled over how to differentiate, apart from a central magisterial authority, the legitimate currents within catholic tradition from the heretical maelstroms. I found common ground with John Henry Newman as he reflected on his transition from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
“My stronghold was Antiquity; now here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected. I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite. The Church of the Via Media was in the position of the Oriental communion, Rome was, where she now is; and the Protestants were the Eutychians.”
“I soon found it to follow, that the grounds on which alone Anglicanism was defensible formed an impregnable stronghold for the primitive heresies, and that the justification of the Primitive Councils was as cogent an apology for the Council of Trent. It was difficult to make out how the Eutychians or Monophysites were heretics, unless Protestants and Anglicans were heretics also; difficult to find arguments against the Tridentine Fathers which did not tell against the Fathers of Chalcedon; difficult to condemn the Popes of the sixteenth century, without condemning the Popes of the fifth.”
John Henry Newman
I still I had a few bones to pick with certain aspects of Catholic theology and history, but it wasn’t anything I thought would necessarily hinder my return to the Catholic fold. The one truly big obstacle to my return was the non-canonical status of my marriage (according to the Code of Canon Law), and my unwillingness to ask Season to violate her conscience in order to canonically regularize our marriage.
Having “contracted an invalid marriage”—to use the dry clinical language of canon law—meant I could not licitly participate in the sacraments until our matrimony was recognized by the church. Marriage is a sacrament, and in the eyes of ecclesiastical officialdom ours was invalid—meaning not a marriage at all—because it had not been submitted to the church. Therefore, according to the Catholic Church, we were technically unmarried and living in a persistent state of fornication. Hence, the laws against my participation in the sacraments until I repented and amended my ways by ceasing sexual activity until our marriage could undergo the process of canonical recognition. I understood the logic of these laws and in principle didn’t disagree with the church’s authority to make spiritually binding decisions. Nevertheless this all seemed morally out of proportion, like the church was laying on the guilt and condemnation awfully thick in such matters.
Anyway, one thing I was learning is that there’s religion on paper and there’s religion as it’s practiced at the local concrete level. “Pastoral care”, in the context of the Francis papacy, has come to refer to the practice of making religion work for people, not the other way around. Tired of fretting about it endlessly in my mind, I finally met with the head priest at our local parish to frankly lay my concerns at his feet and find out whether a return to Catholicism, sacraments and all, was possible without asking the impossible of Season.
This priest was friendly and welcoming, radiating joy and genuine concern for me. He took my concerns seriously and advised me to go home and pray about it, and be the best Lutheran I could be in the meantime. He said that if I decided God was indeed leading me back into Catholicism, I should not hesitate to receive the sacraments and leave the canonical issues in the hands of God’s mercy. He never gave me the impression that marriage law was a matter of indifference. Indeed, he encouraged me to seek canonical recognition with the church, but to do so in God’s timing and not be anxious about it. For this priest, the issue of canon law was obviously secondary to what he saw as the importance of receiving the sacraments for the sake of my spiritual well being. His sense of proportion made sense to me.
Nonetheless, I was nervous that perhaps I had merely found a rogue priest who didn’t take things as seriously as he should. Don’t get me wrong, I felt wonderful and liberated after meeting with this priest, but my skeptical side warned me to slow down and cross examine everything. So I set up a meeting with the head priest of the traditionalist parish in our county. I knew this priest already, and he was a gentle soul who would sooner hug you than say a harsh word. But he also took Catholicism very seriously and I trusted he wouldn’t fudge the rules or soft pedal the truth with me.
When we met in the hallway outside his office this cheery plump priest brightened my day with a warm smile, the kind of smile you might imagine the father had in the prodigal son parable. He hugged me like an affectionate dad and told me that I’d been on his mind lately. After a brief chat and catching up with each other, I told him my situation and what the other priest told me. I wanted to know if this was sound advice or errant claptrap. The good padre got quiet and after a short interval of what appeared to be deep thought, he broke his silence. He didn’t see any problem with the advice I’d been given. He cautioned me not to put off regularizing our marriage, but said he didn’t see an issue with receiving the sacraments in the meantime.
Having received this wonderful news, I went home rejoicing and thanking God that the doors to Rome weren’t slammed shut to me. I still took a few weeks afterward to make a decision, but now it was becoming undeniably clear to me which direction I was traveling. My discussion about it with Season didn’t involve the canonical status of our marriage or anything like that. We talked instead about why I wanted to go back and what this meant for us. We decided that if I was returning to Catholicism, Season would look for a different church because she hated going to the one we had been attending.
One particularly clear, sunny day I met again with the local priest in a side room of the narthex and made my sacramental confession, marking my return to the Catholic Church. It was a wonderful feeling to be back and to feel welcome. On my initial conversion to Catholicism, I traveled this strange new path alone without any guidance from a spiritual director. That obviously ended disastrously, so this time I wouldn’t make that mistake. The priest agreed I should visit him periodically for spiritual direction and sacramental confession.
We met every month in his office for an hour of chatting about my spiritual life and struggles, and concluded each meeting with sacramental confession. I confided in him about my scrupulosity (excessive, inappropriate feelings of guilt), and he helped me overcome it. Being a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, scrupulosity is difficult to defeat except by facing it head on with the guidance of an experienced, trusted director. My scrupulosity was eventually overcome by receiving the Eucharist often and only going to confession once a month when I met with my spiritual director.
When I first became Catholic and attempted to walk the path myself, I went to confession frequently and rarely received the Eucharist out of fear of committing sacrilege. Indulging my scrupulosity and trying to lone ranger my way in the church obviously didn’t work out too well. But the God of love and endless second chances worked a resurrection out of my self-inflicted death. My spiritual father was to leave for a different assignment within less than a year of my return. He had been a Godsend, and when he left I felt completely lost. However I discovered that God had effectively worked through this priest’s ministry to nurse me to new health until I was able to stand and walk confidently on my own two feet.
What does the religious life of a mixed-denomination household look like when you have a lifelong Baptist married to a lifelong Baptist turned Catholic who recently left the Catholic Church and became Lutheran with strongly high church affinities? There’s no standard answer to what a multi-denominational household should or will look like. For us it meant a lot of frustrating “church hopping” during the first two or so years of marriage, then a lengthier and more fruitful interval of going to our own separate churches while learning to honestly appraise and respect our commonalities and differences in religious viewpoint.
For the first year of our marriage, Season and I settled into a routine of going to our own churches, Baptist and Lutheran respectively. Season was already committed to the music pastor search committee in her church when we married and I was reeling from my recent fallout with Catholicism. During this first year we moved to a larger metropolitan area in an adjacent county, where the number and variety of churches were multiplied exponentially. I soon found a nice “high church” Lutheran parish in our new locale while Season attended the Baptist church. There was a relative sense of calm in this arrangement, although by this point we weren’t very good at fruitfully discussing religion. I admit much of the fault for that came from me.
After Season fulfilled her obligations to the search committee roughly a year after we married, we decided it was time to look for a church we could both attend together. I was quite apprehensive about this new venture, knowing how different the two of us were in our liturgical sensibilities and religious outlook at the time. Reluctantly, I agreed that I would not go to my own church off to the side while we looked for a church together—otherwise, what was the point in looking for a church we could both accept? With that I bade farewell to the Lutheran parish I was beginning to feel at home in. That is, after we attended it together and confirmed this was not Season’s kind of church. Scratch that one off the list.
For approximately a month, we attended a small nondenominational church situated just down the road from us. We enjoyed the feeling of quaintness of walking to church together on Sundays. This was a small, friendly and welcoming congregation who made us feel right at home. Except, I deplored the worship style and the theology implicit in American evangelicalism. Season and I both agreed the preaching sucked, as it generally lacked focus and could devolve into a monologue of complete randomness. Mostly because of my objections, this one was a no-go. Such a shame, because this one had potential as a family-like community right down the street from us.
We visited another nondenominational church where we had to pass through a gauntlet of aggressive greeters to get inside. Neither of us liked the preacher, who we both agreed seemed like a jerk. And of course, I couldn’t stand their rock concert style of worship. No dice.
We tried an Anglican parish that met in the auditorium of a high school. They attempted to strike an interesting balance between traditional liturgy and contemporary praise and worship styles, without compromising their Anglican identity and its sacramental theology. I thought they actually accomplished this rather tastefully, which is a huge compliment considering how much of a snob I was about liturgy at the time. There wasn’t anything either one of us disliked about this parish, but for some vague reason it didn’t feel like the right fit. Too bad, because they really seemed to be on to something with their particular church model.
Next, we tried a Lutheran parish in another town where neither of us had ties, approximately 20 minutes from where we live. Initially it looked like something we could both agree to. It wasn’t that there was anything particularly impressive about this church, except that we both thought it was neat the parishioners took turns baking the sacramental bread for Sunday worship. It was more that we both found just enough something to make the experience tolerable, and they managed to not offend either of our sensibilities enough to drive us away. Milquetoast as this parish was, we thought we had found an acceptable compromise. We lasted for 9 months.
As the newness wore off and we tried settling in, the less satisfactory this arrangement felt to us. For me, their liturgy (or lack thereof) was too watered down in an attempt to be both Lutheran and contemporary Evangelical. Because they tried too hard to be two irreconcilable things, they lacked a coherent identity as a church. I most certainly did not appreciate this. For Season, the parish was entirely too cliquish. The more we attempted to get involved, the more obvious it seemed that we were outsiders who weren’t quite fitting in. High school on Sundays? No thanks. For both of us, the pastor’s inability to preach a coherent sermon went from being a fault we tried to excuse to an unforgivable violation of his most sacred duty. I mean, a pastor who can’t effectively proclaim God’s Word is more useless than the male nipple.
In the background of all this church hopping was the rich tapestry of multiple story lines being written and simultaneously woven together to form the tale of our conjugal life. During our exploration for a new church, as we slowly learned how to live together and make joint decisions and navigate in-law issues, at work I was the nervous new guy trying to figure out how to be a paramedic and not screw up too bad. I still struggled a lot with my old military identity in my attempts to forge a new post-military sense of identity, and I suffered at times from near-crippling anxiety and depression. After what I would call a nervous breakdown and [separately] a prolonged period of unremitting depression, I finally went on medication for my mood issues. We suffered a miscarriage. We were greatly blessed to have one of the women from the Lutheran church minister to us in a deeply personal way during the loss of our first pregnancy, and we look at this as the bright spot in an otherwise grey church experience. We subsequently enrolled in grief counseling and learned a lot of great tools for our marriage. Deaths occurred in both sides of the family. Joyous events were celebrated.
In the midst of all this, I experienced increasingly nagging uncertainty over the rightness of my decision to leave Catholicism. I waffled between the felt excitement of discerning my own path and theology within a Protestant tradition, and trepidation that I might’ve screwed up and stepped outside the boundaries of the established church of Christ and the apostles. During the month when we attended the nondenominational church down the road, I remember laying on the couch on Holy Thursday recovering from an illness and being overwhelmed with a profound blend of sadness and a sense that I needed to return to Catholicism. It was like I was shocked back to my senses and realized I had run away from home to a foreign country. I began to fervently pray the Rosary, something I had up to this point jettisoned from my life in the name of being consistent with my rediscovered Protestantism.
I don’t remember how long this state of mind lasted, but by the time we started going to the Lutheran church I had found a way to shake off the uncanny nostalgia for Rome. However, going to a not-so-Lutheran Lutheran parish, where the liturgy was weak and proclamation of God’s Word almost nonexistent, I was again afflicted with a sense of sadness and alarm that I must return to Catholicism. I kept all this to myself for a good while, but I quietly resumed my Rosary prayers and Chaplet of Divine Mercy devotion. At some point I started attending occasional weekday Masses, sitting in the rearmost pew and suffering much desire for the Eucharist.
My struggle with whether or not to return to Catholicism was not punctuated so much over theological or historical issues, but rather over anxiety about what it would do to Season and me, and how I was to reconcile our non-canonical marriage and be able to return to making confessions and receiving the Eucharist. Despite all my attempted theologizing to the contrary, for the most part I didn’t find the majority of Catholic theology objectionable per se. It is true that I had grown rather uncomfortable with the idea of papal infallibility and how exactly that came to be a thing within Catholicism, and I consistently found myself balking at the notion of complete submission to Rome’s magisterial authority.
Also, it seemed to me that the Eastern Orthodox have just as plausible a claim as Rome to being the church of Christ and the apostles. I discovered, contra many Catholic apologists, that church history is not a clear-cut ally to Catholic ecclesiastical and papal claims. If anything, I found that Orthodoxy and Catholicism were equally plausible, but ultimately mutually exclusive possibilities, when it came to the question over which church (if any) could be considered the one true church.
These were issues I had not truly appreciated or grappled with during my initial conversion to Catholicism, and the fact that now I was struggling with it indicated to me that perhaps my convictions had been less rooted than I realized. How much of the Catholic faith had I really understood or internalized when I enthusiastically joined the church, believing at the time that it was incontestably the one true infallible church established by Christ and the apostles?
Nonetheless, I was perfectly willing to return to the Catholic fold with all my doubts. But how could I in good conscience receive the sacraments, from which I was canonically barred, unless I reconciled my marriage to Rome’s dictates? I certainly wasn’t willing to ask Season to participate in a convalidation ceremony, which is basically a small stripped down wedding ceremony conducted by a priest for the purpose of canonically recognizing the marriage. I knew she would view participation in this as an acknowledgement that our marriage had not been one up to this point, something she cannot in good conscience go along with. Why ask her to violate her own conscience for the sake of mine?
If I didn’t canonically regularize our marriage so that it squared with the dictates of canon law, how could I participate in the sacraments with a good conscience? And why even return to Rome if it was impossible for me to receive the sacraments in good standing with church law? To go to Mass and know I could never receive the Eucharist, to not be able to hear the priest pronounce absolution of my sins in the confessional, was all too much for me to handle. I would either return to Catholicism and receive the sacraments, or not bother returning at all. And I was determined not to punish Season for my foolishness in the process. Meanwhile, the two of us were punishing ourselves in a crappy church experience because we both thought the other was getting something out of it.
In 2015 I was newly married, had graduated paramedic school and started full time on night shift at a large EMS service. Beneath the surface of all these American dream-type life changes, my religious life and interior spiritual world were undergoing paradigmatic transformation. This was for me a season of disorientation and searching for a new orientation. Doubt and hope. Anxiety and excitement. Shaken from comfort and stability, and therefore from the likelihood of complacency, I was in a good position to encounter the God who loves.
To encounter this God, I had to unlearn a lifetime of negative images of God. I had to “unlearn” the joyless, legalistic religion to which I’d been addicted most of my life and learn to laugh with the God of joy and mirth. Whether you’re learning a language or a religious outlook (both are quite similar), it takes a lot of time to internalize new ways of speaking and thinking because there’s a physical neurologic component involved. You literally have to create new neural pathways in your brain, and this requires much repetition and immersion. Hence the ancient church saying, Lex orandi, lex credendi.
Diving headlong into Lutheran books and podcasts, I began in earnest my education on speaking and thinking about God in terms of our reconciliation to him on account of Christ’s work, and not to think our religiosity amounts to even a hill of beans. My understanding of our life in Christ was heavily sacramental, and it especially emphasized an understanding of Christ’s self-gifting to us in our passive reception of the Eucharist. As a side note, many mistakenly label the Lutheran metaphysics of the Eucharist as consubstantiation, but this is in fact an error. The actual Lutheran teaching is called sacramental union, and the name itself is a good descriptor of what happens in the sacrament.
Simultaneously, I was learning from Eastern Orthodox sources to think of sin not so much as violations of legal commandments, but as a disease which distorts the image of God in us and darkens our minds. God’s judgment isn’t punitive, but rather for the purpose of healing. The sacraments are our medicine of immortality. Salvation means becoming pure icons of Christ in ways unique to each of us individually, and also as shared in common with the catholic whole of redeemed humanity.
The power of blogs
Without a doubt, blogs have played a significant role in my life of faith. Previous episodes of my spiritual autobiography illustrate this. While I was learning healthier images of God and growing closer to Jesus within the Lutheran communion, I happened upon a few blogs which were not insignificant in my formation. The first two are by now inactive but still available to read.
Even though I chose not to join the Anglican communion, The Conciliar Anglican blog was a great source of knowledge and encouragement during my interior realignment. It’s interesting to me that the author of this blog converted to Roman Catholicism not terribly long after my return. A Queer Calling is a unique blog coauthored by a celibate LGBT couple. I forget how I even found this one, but the perspectives of an Eastern Orthodox same-sex couple, committed to celibacy and church teaching, were for me a rich source of fascinating autobiography and food for thought. One of the authors’ eventual return to Roman Catholicism coincided with my early yearnings to return, and her reflections did in fact influence the direction I eventually chose. The Catholic Moral Theology blog helped me work through some difficulties when I decided to return to Rome.
One blog in particular has had an immense influence on my theological thinking: Eclectic Orthodoxy. As its name suggests, this blog is rather scattershot in its theological influences and discussions. However, the author is absolutely passionate about Christological universalism, the theological position which holds that through Christ all humanity will ultimately be saved. I was rather skeptical of this idea at first, but as I read the author’s posts on the subject and some of the books he discussed, I was more and more intrigued.
My fascination with this generous (maybe even catholic?) reading of the Gospel, over time transformed into a genuine attraction. Nevertheless, I hesitated at length to wed myself to such a paradigm-altering theology. It seems most of us can’t imagine living without the everlasting flames of Hell that we claim to abhor and fear. Eventually though, well after my reversion to Roman Catholicism, I finally realized that somewhere along the way I had become a universalist. In this regard, I’m in good company with church luminaries like Gregory Nazianzen, Isaac of Nineveh, Jerome in his early years, Origen, as well as a host of unsung Christians of antiquity. But I digress, as I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Jenson-McCabe Revolution
By far, the most enduring and significant paradigmatic realignment I underwent during my time as a Lutheran and early in my return to Catholicism, was exposure to theologians Robert Jenson (Lutheran) and Herbert McCabe (Catholic). I learned about them by way of the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog. It was from these two theologians that my thinking about the Gospel was reoriented away from transactional thinking toward non-transactional thinking.
Robert Jenson can be a bit difficult to read, in my opinion. I’ve read three of his books and liked one of them. But it’s that one book which changed my life. In his book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings, Jenson presented to me the clearest and most radical presentation of the Gospel I’d ever encountered. He’s the only theologian/pastor I ever read who in labeling the Gospel as “unconditional promise”, actually seems to understand the implications of “unconditional” and isn’t afraid to run with it.
He’s not a universalist per se, but he refuses to make threats of Hell part of the Gospel equation because doing so inevitably derails kerygmatic proclamation of Jesus by turning promise into transaction. As such, Jenson’s definition of faith liberated me from the prison of thinking about faith in terms of what I have to do (a common downfall of contemporary Protestantism).
In Reformation language, “faith” is not the label of an ideological or attitudinal state. Like “justification,” the word evokes a communication-situation: the situation of finding oneself addressed with an unconditional affirmation, and having now to deal with life in these new terms. Faith is a mode of life. Where the radical question is alive, all life becomes a hearing, a listening for permission to go on; faith is this listening—to the gospel.
Gritsch, Eric W., and Robert W. Jenson. “A Christological Answer to the Radical Question.” Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1976. p. 41.
If Robert Jenson dealt a lethal blow to the transactionalism which haunted me, Herbert McCabe double tapped it in the face for good measure. In his book God, Christ and Us, McCabe destroyed transactional thinking in his insistence that God’s forgiveness is anterior to our contrition and confessions. God’s forgiveness of our sins is the cause of contrition and repentance, rather than the result or effect of it.
When it comes to God, how-ever, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite. For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about.
Mccabe, Herbert, and Brian Davies. God, Christ and Us. London ; New York, Continuum, 2005. p. 122.
To say that my theology underwent major changes during my time in the Lutheran communion would be to grossly understate my experience to the point of insulting it. Conversion, plain and simple, is what occurred. Not a sudden one-time revival, but a progressive transfiguration of my orientation toward God. I picked up a radically new set of images, metaphors, icons which gradually pieced together for me an image of a God who truly does love me, who patiently loves me into his bosom rather than thundering threats from on high if I don’t meet certain conditions. I learned to speak a language which made available to me liberating concepts and metaphors. Of course, old habits and languages die hard, and to this day I still speak my new language with an accent that betrays the old one. But by the mercies of God, I’m no longer prisoner to the transactionalism which haunts Christianity and undermines Gospel proclamation.