Tension with Catholicism (2)
I ended the previous post by saying that I had taken Religious Studies for GCSE. The real GCSE exams were at the end of two years after commencing the GCSE subjects. I became a Christian around halfway during this 2-year period.
The two components of GCSE RS between them managed to put me in a salvation crisis (perhaps something like that experienced by Martin Luther and countless other Christians who see something of their story in his own).
We worked through Luke’s Gospel chapter by chapter, so it wasn’t long before I came across John the Baptist. This figure terrified me, with his fire and brimstone preaching, and his exhortation to repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance. Not only was his talk of the Last Judgment / Day of the LORD terrifying, but the moral standard he put forth seemed impossibly beyond my grasp.
The ethics side of the course reinforced this fear. My teacher was someone who had spent part of his life caring for people (I recall a story he told that involved hypodermic syringes being in somebody’s sink). Confronted with life’s big social problems – poverty, terminal illness, abortion, war – I felt small and sinful. What had I done to relieve the suffering of others? When I looked at Jesus’ call to sell all we have and follow Him, I felt worse. I felt what I think many would call “middle class guilt”.
In this context, I also did not really know who Jesus was. This question kept returning in our study of Luke’s Gospel. I understood that Jesus was called Son of God and Son of Man and that the latter title was taken from Daniel and that the words God spoke over Christ at the Baptism were taken from Isaiah (and the Psalms?). I could see that the God in heaven was the Father and that this Jesus figure walking around Galilee was His Son – but I had no grasp of Trinitarian theology.
I was also studying Ancient Greek and Latin at the time. I had long loved the classical world and its myths. This was the framework in which I understood Jesus – for me, He was analogous to Heracles or Dionysus, sons of Zeus. How much time in the early days of RS I really spent on this question I do not remember. I do know I was unclear and essentially and Arian, I suppose. Still, the question troubled me.
I do recall that many years prior to that I had asked my father about this “Son of God” business. I believe this was during my primary school days in the UK, perhaps as a consequence of my Sunday school-style education. My father told me that Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God (for so he had been taught at school), but he could not explain any more than this – so I was left with Arianism, thinking that Jesus had been somehow created or something.
To make matters worse, in those primary school days, when we were taught about Easter, I believe the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost was mentioned as being given to the Disciples after the resurrection. This was hard for a little boy to understand, so I came away thinking that the Holy Spirit/Ghost was the resurrected Jesus – that Jesus had been raised from the dead as a ghost.
Returning to the GCSE years, Luke’s Gospel was making me miserable – wretched one might say. I became a Christian in a mood of crisis, promising God that I would attend church. My feelings towards God were mixed.
On the one hand, God appeared as a frightening Judge, whom I had no hope in the world of pleasing. Images of hell from “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment” lurked in my imagination. On the other hand, I could not change the fact that this same God had answered my prayers on various occasions. To Him, I attributed my present safety and well-being.
In this context I was wrestling with Romans in my spare time. Parts of it seemed to offer hope to me in my wretchedness, but other parts were terrifying. The mentor I then had recommended a particular website to me, which, though non-denominational, tended to write from a fairly Lutheran perspective regarding salvation.
This writer (who has since gone to be with the Lord) would quote from the Bible and give references to support his arguments. This meant that, between reading the website and hearing the Bible at church (and reading from my Good News version) I was now gaining some basic Bible literacy.
I noticed that the writer often quoted from John’s Gospel. So, struggling with Luke, I decided to have a look at the beginning of John. It was at this time that some pieces began to fall into place and my past misconceptions were corrected. I began to have some conception of the Trinity closer to the truth. I saw that Jesus was God (but not the Father) and that He had risen bodily from the grave (perhaps our lessons on the end of Luke helped in that regard and/or Paul’s description of the resurrection in Corinthians). I saw that the Holy Spirit was a person in His own right.
This, combined with the Lutheran-style blog posts on justification, allowed me peace and helped me to love God. If I could love Jesus, who had died for me, I could love the Father who sent Him and whose character was the same as His. No doubt my pastor was also helpful in this regard. He preached the love of God and his sermons used accessible language.
Somewhere in all of this I also asked to be baptised. Looking back on it, I cannot say what exactly was my thinking in every respect, but I know that one of the motivations was essentially obedience. I knew I had not been christened as a child and I understood Christian baptism as a kind of commandment. Accordingly, I asked to be baptised in order to obey the commandment. My pastor baptised me and I gave a short testimony.
As time went on, I continued to be drawn to Catholicism. But I had doubts. I wanted to be Catholic, but I questioned my own motivations. I also questioned the safety of the Catholic Church and its purity. My family had some bad experiences with clergy in the past and my father questioned the ritual (which seemed superstitious) that he had observed in Catholic liturgy. On top of this, the website I was reading understood the Whore of Babylon in Revelation as the Catholic Church, leading a one-world religion in the last days. It also believed that one of the Letters to the Seven Churches was about how Christianity had been corrupted in the days of Constantine and following. In this model, Catholicism was a Christianity that had strayed from the purity of the Early Church.
So, amidst these doubts, though I thought at one time that God said I could become a Catholic, I felt I did not really have his blessing. I did not pursue that line. But, I did become evangelical. I wanted to share my faith in those early years after my conversion, and I believed that I had a duty to, because Jesus was the only way to escape the fires of hell.
I was part of the Christian Union at school, which reinforced this evangelical thinking. As far as I was aware, there were no Catholics in this group. So, though I explained I wanted to become a Catholic, there was no real move to help me in this direction.
I went to university and here I met actual practicing Catholics. I made friends with some, but generally tried to persuade them to become Protestant. I joined my college’s Christian Union, and took part in various evangelical activities. I sometimes attended services in my college’s chapel, but this was Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic.
As time went on and I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the Christian Union and started to abandon the Revived Roman Empire paradigm for the end times, Catholicism seemed less of a threat. I decided I would attend mass at the Catholic Church popular with the students to see for myself and show some solidarity with people I recognised as Christians. I did not go up for communion as I understood that Protestants were not supposed to take part.
Following my BA I stayed on for an MPhil. This was a hard year for me as some of my closest friends had now left. As time went on, I was also increasingly sad that I would have to leave at the end of the year. I did not have an idea for a PhD and thus could not secure funding to stay on. Academia was dear to me and I could not envision myself out there in the “real world”. Naturally, I was anxious.
In this context one of my friends who had now left was converting to Catholicism. We chatted online and I saw his journey. I also came across AATW in that MPhil year.
At first I was supportive. I had become essentially non-denominational by that point and thought that God knew what place was best for every Christian at every step of his life. If Catholicism was what the doctor ordered for my friend for this part of his life, then I was not going to dispute it.
I think, also, because my mentor had been raised Catholic before he went in a Pentecostal / Charismatic direction, he had fondness for it still. This tenderness on his part may have had something to do with my own change of attitude.
I also noticed that Joel Richardson and Walid Shoebat, from whom I was taking my cue in eschatology, were ministering to Christians in the Middle East, suffering under Islamic oppresion. These Christians were very often Catholic or Orthodox. I also heard Canon Andrew White speak at the church I was attending at university.
This brought home a hard truth – the Devil does not care about our denominational differences (except as a ploy to divide us). A Christian is a Christian is a Christian. They were suffering: I was supposed to love them and pray for them.
But I became concerned. My friend was becoming traditionalist in his Catholicism. I saw the kind of fire that I now associated with the early days of conversion. This traditionalism scared me. It was harsh; it appeared Pharisaical, unloving. It brought up all those old emotions I experienced in the days of my salvation crisis. I was already in a dark place – the place darkened.
I left university eventually and initially spent my time volunteering until I could find a job and work out what I thought God’s will for my life might be. In order to keep my mind active and perhaps help me discern God’s will, I asked Jessica if I could become a contributor at AATW.
AATW allowed me to meet more Christians from different backgrounds. In its own way, it was a kind of baptism of fire. It gave me intellectual engagement, but it also gave me sleepless nights.
Initially, I was keen to argue against the Catholic viewpoint. My friend’s traditionalism worried me, and I decided that, if it was a true reflection of what Catholicism is, I did not like it. However, I met non-traditionalist Catholics, who were kind to me. I softened again and I decided (though not all the time) to ignore traditionalism.
I grew increasingly convinced of two things:
(1) Maintaining fellowship was more important. The Catholics were always going to try and make me one of them, but that was not a justification for being nasty. I knew that my intellectualism was a source of pride, and that I had to learn love and humility. Would I succeed – who knew? But the aim must be to preserve fellowship so far as it depended on me. Agree with everyone – don’t make waves.
(2) The Catholics were right about some things and they knew the sources that mattered to them better than I did. I could not compete on that playingfield – not really – and at times they almost persuaded me.
Indeed, there have been times since joining AATW that I have come close to starting catechism class and joining the Roman Catholic Church. I have seen a number of prominent people become Catholics, and I can understand their reasons – some of those reasons carry weight with me.
But fundamentally, my outlook is not Roman Catholic. For all the things we have in common, I view Roman Catholics as belonging to a different worldview from my own.
When I was considering going into the missionfield with Wycliffe Bible Translators, I was called to their UK headquarters for a day of interviews. The “theological” interview left me deciding to revisit Calvinism (which I had previously rejected).
For a time I thought I was a Calvinist – but I eventually left that path. However, a consequence of that time was that I read an apologetics website written from a Calvinist perspective, and a lot of its material was (and is) anti-Catholic. This material was well-argued, using informal logic. It permanently put a dent in my pro-Catholic aspirations. Since then, even at times when I consider converting, there usually follows a thought that draws from the Calvinist material.