Monday, March 28, 2011

Bookstore Thoughts

Sometimes when I’ve had a long day at school I stop by a bookstore just because being around so many books energizes me. Mondays are actually my busiest day of the week this semester and I was up late studying for a Greek quiz, so today qualified as a bookstore stop day.

One book that caught my eye was a book actually co-written by evangelical Notre Dame professor Mark Noll. I became a fan of Mark Noll several years ago after seeing him give a talk in Boston and consistently recommended his book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” after I’d read it (all of it!). As you might have guessed from my bookstore perusing habits, my eyes are a fair bit bigger than my stomach (brain?) when it comes to reading books. I’ve read the first chapter of so many books and finished so few of them that I sometimes feel embarrassed by it.

That all goes to say that I read one small section of this particular book, “Is the Reformation Over” and now have a whole series of reflections on it. I knew about the book and actually had it on that vast mile long “books to read” list I keep somewhere in my crowded head.

The section I read was (understandably) on evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism over the years. Thoughts:

The Mark Noll Factor

Here’s one internal conversation I went through. I admire Mark Noll and many other prominent and not at all prominent evangelicals who I’ve known over the years. I haven’t heard all their arguments for why they’re not Catholic. Shouldn’t it then be possible that there’s some missing key, argument, or insight that would pull me back as I prepare to fling myself into Catholicism?

This thought came up, and the interesting thing is not my (the other me’s) response, but the fact that I don’t feel upset or threatened by questions like that. Believe it or not, I feel Catholic, and I feel comfortable feeling Catholic. There was most definitely a point where my mind had crossed over to Catholicism, but the introduction into my head of some new anti-Catholic argument would then emotionally upset me because I felt like I had to look at everything all over again. That hasn’t happened for quite some time now. My mind continues to think, but my heart feels oriented and in place in a way that it didn’t for some time. It was a scary thing making this transition. At some point, it felt like when I’m switching gears on my bike and it feels like I’ve gone out of one gear but not quite made it into the next. I just had to pray and keep on pedaling, and to my great relief, the new gear has caught.

I’ve thought a lot about the relation between my mind and heart over the last two years. At first, I thought that it was really intellectual questions that forced me to examine Catholic Christianity. In hindsight, my faith was always lying there as the foundation to those questions. My mind or intellect was never something external to my faith and who I am.

So I feel ok knowing there are intelligent evangelicals out there who have actually thought about whether they should become Catholic or not and decided against it. Not that they’re exactly analogous, but I knew before that many intelligent atheists, agnostics, etc. had considered Christianity and decided against it.

What They Left Behind

In this book that I read in the bookstore without purchasing ($25!! Who has that kind of money?), Noll went over some of the most prominent evangelical to Catholic conversions of the past couple decades, stories that I was all familiar with, and tried to present an overview of things they claim they appreciated in their new communion and missed in their old congregations. (In part he relied on this excellent study by an evangelical on why evangelicals become Catholic)

And that made me think, what exactly, if anything, am I leaving? Thank God that this isn’t the 16th or 17th century so the social consequences are not quite as extreme as they once were. Most of the examples Noll listed included things like fellowship with an enthusiastic and Bible literate community and enthusiastic hymn singing. I can definitely see what they mean. I know I’m blessed here at Notre Dame to be surrounded by many practicing and even enthusiastic Catholics as well as an astounding number of mass options. That may not always be the case.

Those things may be missed at times, but I would dare to argue that they’re never fully left behind. At Sunday Vespers (evening prayer) the other day we sung an American spiritual as our opening song, and at a short concert given afterwards, the selections included classic Catholic texts like a Marian prayer and excerpts from Augustine’s Confessions as well as the Protestant written classic Amazing Grace.

As an evangelical I would sometimes wince a bit at some theologically questionable song lyrics, sermon points, or book excerpts. Even as I received teaching, I was supposed to be critically thinking about whether it lined up with what I knew of Scripture or not. Now, I think not all that much changes. I hope to maintain contact with evangelical culture and to embrace the good in it, knowing that there are many evangelicals who have much to teach me. As always, I will have to discern how new teaching fits in with what I know of God and God’s revelation. I now choose to always think with the mind of the Church. And I couldn’t be happier to do so, because the mind of the Church is the mind of Christ. I can turn not just to my neighbor in the pew, but to 2000 years of family members to ask, “wait, is that true—is that what we believe?”

Continuing Conversion

Some people think the word “convert” shouldn’t even be applied to people like me. After all, I’ve been trying to follow Jesus for quite some time. Coming into the Catholic Church hardly constitutes a complete reversal of my life. The Church recognizes this, though. This last Sunday we went through a rite called the “Call to Continuing Conversion”. The bishop came and said some prayers for those of us planning on entering into full communion with the Church in just a couple weeks. And I like that. We’re all called to continuing conversion, and for me, I’ve discerned that entering into full communion with the Catholic Church is a necessary part of that.

As a final note, I hope that my evangelical friends and family will hold me accountable in living out my Catholic faith to the best of my ability in the years to come. It’s quite possible for people who make inter-ecclesial conversions to become bitter. I don’t want to be, and I don’t intend to be. I don’t want to become blind to the many good things I’ve experienced as an evangelical. Neither do I want to feel sorry for myself for any hardship I’ve endured by moving well past my cultural comfort zone in order to become Catholic. Even if it turns out that being Catholic is really hard, I want to count it all as joy. I would gladly lay down much more if I heard Christ calling me to do so.

So those are some sober thoughts. At this point this decision feels natural and right. When I think of not following through, the idea seems odd and disjointed. It’s a big decision, though. One I should and have and continue to think about seriously. It has implications for the rest of my life—implications I can’t possibly know analyze and assess no matter how hard I try. I can’t help but think of the marriage metaphor again. I hope that, if I ever do get married, I feel as sure in my heart of my commitment then as I do right now. 

PS: I hope to actually go to a lecture by Mark Noll on Evangelicals and Catholics tomorrow evening. I just jotted down these thoughts so they didn't get away, but I may or may not have some thoughts to add later. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Faith (Alone) and the (Full) Gospel

In a lot of ways my pre-Catholic understanding of the gospel was paradoxical. The gospel was the most basic of basic Christian truths. It was simple, it was short. Everyone desperately needs God. God became man and died so we didn’t have to. I heard this hundreds of times at the end of services, in books, on the radio, in Sunday school. Nothing was more foundational than the gospel.

There were other references we made to the gospel, though. In some Pentecostal circles, one could hear of the “full gospel”. In contrast to the “standard” gospel narrative, this one emphasizes God’s redemption of our material life as well as of our immaterial soul. God’s redemption of humans means we don’t have to be sick or poor anymore. Other voices within evangelicalism emphasize God’s redemption of our physicality in a somewhat different way: God intends to use the Church to address the poverty and injustice that abounds throughout the world. In yet another view, our redemption means that we’re called to holiness; every specific area of our lifestyle can and should be affected by God’s sanctifying work in our lives. Some emphasize the continuing work of the Holy Spirit for sanctification. Some emphasize our free will in choosing God’s gift to us; others emphasize God’s sovereignty. What does it mean to be justified, sanctified, saved, redeemed, or to persevere? Few things were as disputed as the gospel.

So I never put too much stock in supporting “the” Protestant view of justification over and against a Catholic one. I thought I was just holding the Christian view, or at least searching for it. Somewhere in the back of my head I held a vague notion that Catholics at some dark time in history had believed that we could work our way to heaven, but it turns out this was never really true.

The questions I asked about salvation as an evangelical were undoubtedly quite different from the questions which those from other strands of evangelicalism would have asked. In the strand I come from, if one takes an honest look at the actual possible beliefs about salvation, one might agree more or less with any argument made, but in the end it all seems difficult to discern. I was prone to agree with others in classifying things that are difficult to discern as “non-essentials” or “doctrines that cause dissension”. I was therefore never wedded to a doctrine of faith alone in the way that many evangelicals from a Lutheran or Reformed background are.

On the phrase “Faith Alone”

In fact, I had no trouble dismissing the idea that I should in fact feel a particular attachment to it. I’ve heard many sermons that present faith alone as the central doctrine of Romans and Galatians, but the phrase “faith alone” never occurs in these letters. In fact, the only time it occurs in the entire Bible is in James. (I don’t mean to bang an anti-Luther drum, but it does seem relevant to note that Luther was so sure of his understanding that he inserted the word “alone” into Romans 3:28 in his translation of the New Testament. Protestants have long since recognized this as problematic and have returned to the original wording) Protestants have reconciled themselves to the fact that the one mention of the phrase in the entire Bible specifically says that we are not saved by faith alone, but why should I? It seemed that by doing so we subvert a “plain reading” of one part of Scripture by reading it through the lens of what we think should logically follow from another portion of Scripture.

I can comprehend the assertions of many of my intelligent Christian brothers and sisters who honestly think that James isn’t laying out a doctrine there, but that St. Paul elsewhere laid out a doctrine which the Reformers had to put into different words to properly defend. I don’t agree, though. And I find it less plausible that we should be able to arrive at the doctrine of faith alone (which today means quite different things to many different people) without the aid of and even despite the received Tradition of the Church. If faith alone is the heart of the Gospel, then we have to accept that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the many Christians absolutely immersed in the Scriptures managed to miss the heart of the Gospel, which was simply lying there for them to read. The Reformation catechisms, their doctrinal statements, the belief statements on the websites of nearly every church or institution that has meaningfully impacted my life make that move by affirming faith alone, but they all claim to have no authority apart from an accurate reading of Scripture. I would be dishonest to Protestant principles if I accepted their reading of Scripture on their authority. 

So if the gospel can’t best be encapsulated by the words “faith alone” what can we say about it? Here’s an attempt to positively describe something of what the gospel is, with special attention paid to elements that I feel I’ve “discovered” and that have brought me closer to Catholicism:


“Though he was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God
Something to be grasped at.

Rather, he emptied himself
And took the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of men.”

Philippians 2:6-7

The Good News starts with the news that God became a man. If we understand this it should make us uncomfortable. What we learn from it is immeasurable. God is more than an idea that we came up with. Like Christ’s eventual death on the cross, the incarnation was an act of astounding love and self-emptying. To understand something of the love of God is the beginning of understanding how far we fall short of it, and of how much humanity cries out for renewal and redemption. Even then our redemption was in process.

Participation and the Atonement

“The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he will also deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”

2 Tim. 2:11-13

As Christians have traditionally believed, those baptized are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, truly becoming members of His body. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)

There are a lot of different angles to view the Gospel through. In the traditional narrative that I received the main point was what we call “substitutionary penal atonement”. The image is that of a courtroom where I stand on trial. My sins are presented and I’m declared guilty. Very guilty. In fact, the only just punishment is death.  But all of a sudden there’s someone standing beside me, who gently asks me whether I’m willing to believe or to accept the fact that He will die for me. I say yes and off he goes to the electric chair or the firing squad in my place.

There’s something to that. It was foreshadowed in Genesis 22 where God miraculously provides a substitute so that Isaac didn’t have to die as a sacrifice. It’s not all of it, though. Why would someone who is dying in my place tell me to take up my cross and follow him? Why did Jesus feed His disciples, saying “this is my body which is broken for you…” before He went to die for them? Why did they participate in Him, become part of Him, before He underwent His most intense suffering?

I remember being deeply affected by one of the talks at Encounter, an annual youth retreat for the youth in Ukarumpa. The part that got me was the idea that there was part of me that still needed to die. 

“Christ suffered for you,
and left you an example
to have you follow in his footsteps….

In his own body
He brought your sins to the cross, --
So that all of us, dead to sin,
Could live in accord with God’s will.”

1 Peter 2:21, 23-24

And at that point in time that made sense to teenage Nate. In the basic salvation model I’d received, much of our gratefulness was for a reprieve from divine justice. And, once again, I think that’s an important element of it. I don’t think that’s all of it, though. Sin is actually slavery. It really is. In disobeying God I not only disobey Him, but enslave myself to something else. To be redeemed, I not only need to know that God will take me back, taking upon Himself the capital punishment due me, but also that He can free me from my chains to sin.

The Passion

In the ultimate act of love, Christ willingly gave up His life for His friends. In doing so, he both offered Himself as a sacrifice and disarmed the powers of darkness. God turned the world upside down so that what seemed like a loss was actually a victory. As Jesus lay on the cross, many were undoubtedly prone to avert their eyes from the cross, just as people look away from crucifixes today—but when we do we avert our gaze from the love of God.

When we’re united to Christ, we’re united to the whole of Christ, including His death. His death was something that was needed, something that was just—only because of our sins which had been joined to Him on the cross. Jesus did something which we never could have done, but we are invited to participate in Christ’s life and even His redemptive mission, even when this means following him to our own crosses and “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24)

“in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ's sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world” (“Salvifici Doloris”, Pope John Paul II, 1984).

The Resurrection

All would have been for ought, though, if Christ had not risen from the dead. We were, after all, united to Him even then. We who were baptized died with Him. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Cor. 15:20) Because we died with Him, we will also rise with Him. Death itself, the primary curse from the fall of man, will in the end suffer defeat. Just as Christ defeated sin by obedience, so He defeated death by resurrection.


This was way longer than I intended for it to be, and I’m acutely aware of this post’s shortcomings. Please take it as you would if I was explaining my understanding sitting on a porch…not as if I’m systematically laying them all out in a term paper. As always, feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts with me.

To return to a main point that might have been lost: I deeply affirm a Catholic understanding of salvation as participation in Christ. Based on reflection on Scripture I don’t affirm “extrinsic righteousness” in which God’s gift of grace preserves us from punishment but never fully transforms us back into who and what we were meant to be. Instead, I think God’s grace was meant to work its way into every little part of us by faith, enabling us to change the way we do everything and thus saving us from sin; saving us through faith working in love. The culmination of all of this is our complete union with Christ, the wedding feast of the lamb.

I’ll close with a quote from the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks on the doctrine of justification:

“Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone. But there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St Paul. It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfillment of communion with Christ. Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way.

At the end, we can only pray the Lord that he help us to believe; really believe. Believing thus becomes life, unity with Christ, the transformation of our life. And thus, transformed by his love, by the love of God and neighbor, we can truly be just in God's eyes.”

Make it so, Lord Jesus. Make it so.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thoughts on Lent, Confession, and the Weeks Ahead

I’m feeling the mid-semester crunch here at Notre Dame, but this transition into Catholicism can’t help but remain on my mind through everything. I hope to sit down and put some time into explaining my thoughts on justification over spring break, but in the meantime I just have some reflections.

General Update

A friend in my program just made the step I plan on making in about 5 weeks. He was simultaneously confirmed and received into full communion with the Catholic Church at a simple mass in the theology department chapel. (mine will be in the much larger basilica…but same idea) In the middle of the mass there’s a very basic ceremony involving a profession of faith and an anointing with oil. The profession of faith is itself also quite simple: "I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God." As he said it, I realized I felt ready even now to make the same declaration. It’s about far more than granting my personal stamp of approval to a particular denomination—it’s a statement about what the Church itself is and is called to be.

I feel good about becoming Catholic. There were so many days of asking God to stop me, to lead me to read the right thing, to convict me in my heart, to send the right person to me to stop me if I was in fact running further from God rather than toward Him. And always to keep calling me, to allow me to hear, to remind me to not put my hands over my ears like I so often do. And I hear God calling me into the Catholic Church now just as much as I’ve ever heard Him at any point in my life.

At some point becoming Catholic was an exciting yet scary idea—like imagining living out the rest of my days in some foreign country I’ve never been to. Now when I think of being confirmed it feels more like trading in my green card for a passport than like landing on Ellis Island. It turned out I had somehow always belonged here. Maybe it’s like growing up in little Italy and only later realizing that there was something even more like Italy than where I grew up. In some way it kind of was Italy, but Italy is more than pasta and cappuccinos. (my metaphors are infamous for overextending themselves to death so I apologize if that’s what just happened)

Thoughts on Reconciliation/Confession

Lent is also just beginning. I’m supposed to make my first reconciliation (confession) some time now. As one would expect, I feel somewhat intimidated by the idea, but I’ve also been longing for this sacrament for years and years. I genuinely want to do it.  The sacrament of reconciliation is not only real and good and true—it turns out that in a lot of ways it’s what I realize I need and want, and what I think many of us need and want.

I know that sin hurts both me and my relationship with God. It makes me less human, less of who I most truly am as one re-born into Christ. What am I supposed to do about it? I could probably get as many evangelical answers to this question as there are evangelicals, but the answer that I absorbed was this: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Jesus took away your sins on the cross and there is nothing you can do to change that in any way. Just know and believe that He in fact did that.”

But Jesus did actually tell us to do something: confess our sins. And I think we all feel a need for a sacrament of confession. I think the altar call, especially when we talk about being able to “recommit your life to Jesus” is an attempt to fill this gap in our Christian life. It’s public, it’s an action—and we have a kind of absolution spoken over us. It’s not enough to be told we’re forgiven. We want to raise our hand and acknowledge that we’ve seriously compromised the gift of God. And then while we pray and cry and listen to the music we can hear the pastor tell us that God takes us back unconditionally, even though we just acknowledged that we’ve failed to cooperate with God’s grace working in us. We know, instinctively, that even though God always takes us back, we need to reach out, to recognize that we’ve sinned, that we failed to cooperate with God’s grace.

It makes complete sense—that’s how reconciliation started in the early Church. It dealt only with “mortal sins” (which may not seem Biblical until you break out a dictionary and ponder what Paul meant by “sin that is unto death”). But the truth is that all sin at least messes with our relationship with God in some way—the relationship that Jesus died to restore.

The frightening thing, though, is that in my experience confession of any kind has been pretty much optional (regular confessions of any sort only being found with accountability partners—something recommended to young guys, but hardly ever presented as a central element of the Christian life). We were told pretty clearly that the disciples were given the authority to forgive and retain sins (John 20:22-23, Matt. 18:18), and that we are to confess our sins to one another (and specifically to the presbyters, or at least so it would seem from James 5:15-16).

I’m familiar with a critique of this sacrament based on a critique of authority/hierarchy (Why can’t I confess my sins to someone who isn’t ordained?) and of questioning whether Christ can work in other humans at all (I therefore refuse to confess my sins to anyone but God in prayer). I think the former flies very strongly against the understanding of specific callings in the Church laid out so many times in the New Testament—and the latter strongly contradicts the very nature of the Church.

The point is not that God made hoops for me to jump through to get forgiven. The point is that God works so hard to restore relationship that He condescends to work through the Church. He comes to me in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments. The Church truly is the body of Christ, each with our own gifts and callings, and every member of the Church renders Christ more present in my life in some way. One of the callings of the priesthood is to administer the Sacrament of Confession—to render Christ present to others in that specific way. Christ loves us so much that He reaches out to us in humans—very flawed humans. Thus grace reaches us through grace.

In the spirit of Lent I hope to meditate on this, to realize how scandalously God continues to reach out to me and to the whole of humanity in the humblest of ways. I hope to become more aware of just how fully I've failed to adequately respond to this love, in order to ask what continuing conversion does and will mean for me. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Blessed Virgin Mary (Part...Last One!)

Ok, so now some of you may have found part of what I’ve said reasonable so far, but like I balked at the idea of TEN Hail Mary’s, you might be about to balk at a fourth post about Mary. I’ll try to move on to other stuff after this post. I just thought it would be helpful to dedicate a last post to recounting some more of my emotional progression in regards to Mary. A lot of my initial uncertainty stemmed from emotional reactions, and it was to those emotions that I would have to return in the end.

Instead of seeing Mary as a potential goddess figure competing with Jesus, I became increasingly aware of her as an actual person. She wasn’t just a figure from a nativity scene; she was a real person who had the immense privilege of living in close contact with the incarnate Son of God for years and years. I grew up in a culture that spent much effort cultivating our emotional dedication to Jesus Christ (which is a great thing). This training made it that much easier to begin to develop a devotion to Mary. After all, it really is quite natural to feel close to someone who you feel close to’s mother. More broadly, if we truly love someone, we begin to love the people that that person loves as well. And evangelicals feel that pull, too I think. We just only let our affection for Mary show around Christmas time for some reason. That’s certainly a central point of Mary’s life and of her connection to Jesus—but she was still his mother before and after His birth!

I remember sitting down and trying to pray a rosary by myself for the first time. I bought some rosary beads from one of the guys who sells random jewelry and sunglasses and such on Thayer Street right outside the Brown bookstore. This probably exacerbated any vague aura of doing something wrong that my Protestant instincts left me with. The Rosary is supposed to be a popular devotion precisely because it’s easy. For those of us who don’t have the Apostle’s Creed or the Hail Mary or the Glory be or the Fatima prayer or the mysteries memorized it’s not quite as easy. I looked at a sheet similar to this one and tried to go through it. I don’t think I finished the first decade. Meditating on the mysteries was hard for me since it was all new.

Only after I got to Notre Dame did I learn to appreciate the rosary, first by praying it with my roommate and then by myself.

And you know what the crazy thing is? I began to really like it. As a devotional practice I actually think praying the Rosary helps me to feel and grow closer to Christ. As the words all became familiar to me it was indeed easy to meditate as I prayed—to place myself beside Mary at the annunciation, the wedding feast at Cana, as Jesus made his way to the cross, as he ascended into heaven. And after I had spent some time beholding Jesus with Mary (like John at the foot of the cross), I indeed felt closer to her. Precisely because Mary’s life was so intertwined with Jesus’. And I not only feel comfortable asking Mary to pray for me--I want to! Like a much older and wiser mother-figure, whose reliance on and love for Jesus is completely solid, I can turn to her in confidence that she’ll pray for me and help me along my way.

It wasn’t an instantaneous change, but as my mind grasped the unique role of Mary in salvation history, a change in my feelings toward her just kind of soaked into me.

As a note, there are a lot of “Catholic” things that aren’t necessarily Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. (universal, that is) For example, the rosary is a great devotion, but it’s not like you have to pray the rosary to be Catholic.

So those are some reflections as a person who is still very much learning.

I’m hoping to reflect on some of the other “juicy” issues soon—the Gospel and the Papacy perhaps. As scattered as these posts may seem, it takes a fair bit for me to get them down into as semi-organized a fashion as they are. That just goes to say that I hope it won’t be too long until I post again. God knows.