Part 3: Conversion
(This is part three of a three part series. For part one click here.)
Even though I was raised being told that we couldn’t be certain about a great many things, I was also raised to believe that truth was absolute. If that seems like somewhat of a contradiction – well, it seemed that way to me as well.
The absolute nature of truth comes from the premise that truth conforms to a fundamental reality of which God is the foundation. [Tweet This]
If truth conforms to reality at a fundamental level, then by definition it is both certain and absolute. That means that truth isn’t relative in spite of the morally (and now religiously) relative society that we live in, because truth by it’s very nature excludes. Not in a negative sense, but in the sense that two diametrically opposed things can’t both be true at the same time. Sometimes, people will object asking whether mere men can even apprehend the truth. It should be admitted that just because absolute truth exists, this doesn’t mean that it can be apprehended with certainty. But, I would point out that this is the same slippery slope which leads to agnosticism. The agnostic position is primarily the acknowledgement that God may exist, but that we can’t know for sure – i.e. that we can’t have certainty.
For me, introducing divine revelation into the equation really helps to answer the question of whether we can know and apprehend truth. I delve into these questions in greater depth in my posts Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Reason and Thoughts on Absolute Truth and Certainty in a Post-Modern Relativistic World.
This lack of certainty has always bothered me intellectually, but it began to bother me in increasingly more pragmatic ways as well. As a young man, my father had the unfortunate job of trying to answer all my questions about sexuality. Incidentally he did a very admirable job – he would schedule entire weekend get-aways with each of us kids out in a cabin in the woods just in order to “have the talk.” Certain things were very clear – no sex outside of marriage. Other things were much less clear. Is masturbation right or wrong? My dad explained that he was raised having been taught that masturbation was a sin. However, James Dobson, an Evangelical Christian psychologist said that masturbation was natural and not a sin. Who was right? He wasn’t sure, and so he couldn’t present me with a certain answer.
These same issues plagued me many years later when I became a father and began to have “the talk” with my boys. I found myself struggling with the same questions that my father had, namely, “What do I tell them?” Lengthy conversations with bible college professors and friends who were pastors, led in turn to lengthy conversations with my sons which amounted to reservations, warnings, cautions, and a whole lot of I don’t know. Probably better if you try not to; but it’s only natural. I don’t want you to feel guilty, but you really have to watch out for lust. On the other hand, I’d rather have you manage your lust in that way than actually have sex outside of marriage….
This lack of certainty began to bother me even more profoundly when I became a pastor. To have others ask me questions and to only be able to give them multiple choices to chose from while pointing out the pros and cons of each position was incredibly frustrating. To have to say, “We can’t really know for sure…” and to find it as deeply unsatisfying as they did even as I tried to convince them that, “that’s just the way things are” was for me completely unacceptable. It felt wrong. It felt untrue. I was not sure that I was willing to accept the premise that we can’t be certain. That it was somehow “wrong” or simplistic and naive to desire certainty.
To me this issue of truth and certainty seems to be a fundamental difference between the Protestant and the Catholic. Within my Protestant upbringing there was no “certainty” on what constitutes and is necessary for salvation. Whether salvation can be lost. Whether baptism is necessary. Whether baptism and communion are Sacramental. Whether or not there are any such thing as Sacraments as all. Whether works are necessary in addition to faith, and the list goes on and on. And I found it unacceptable to be unable to answer our congregation with any degree of certainty on not just these basic issues of faith, but also questions of morality as well. Is masturbation wrong? Is birth control wrong? Is divorce and remarriage okay? What about homosexuality? For me, the answer cannot be, “I don’t know” or, “well, let me tell you what I think…” This is unacceptable to me as both a father and as one who was shepherding God’s people.
So, do I believe that we can know everything with certainty? Not remotely. Do I believe that we should be able to articulate what is necessary for salvation and to live a life which is pleasing to God? I do. Do I believe that we should be able to declare with all Christians everywhere the historic Creeds of Christendom, confident that they are true and certain summaries of our faith? I do. For more on this subject feel free to check out my post, A Devolving Faith ~ The Bare Essentials of Christianity.
We had moved to Northern California and I had taken a new job – largely so that I could begin to work on my Mdiv at Fuller’s Sacramento campus, and all of a sudden I found myself at the proverbial cross roads of life. I had taken a step of faith and moved with my family so that I could get my degree and pursue full-time vocational ministry, and now I was seriously considering not only the claims of the Catholic Church, but also what claims that Church may have on my life. I found myself reflecting on a passage from Saint Mark’s Gospel where Christ commands the disciples to go before Him by boat to Bethsaida. They obey but are forced to fight the wind and the waves all night long before Christ comes to them around 3am walking on the water. He comforts them, calms the wind and the waves, and they proceed together to the other side of the lake where they come to land at Gennesarat.1 Did you catch that? He tells them to go to a certain place, allows them to struggle all night to try and get to where He directed them to go, and then comes to them and brings them somewhere else entirely. No comment is made, no explanation is given.
Looking back, I feel very certain that I was following the leading of Christ when I applied to seminary and moved my family to California. He just hadn’t told me yet where He was truly leading me and why.
Coming to the point of actual conversion (for lack of a better word) was unbelievably difficult. Not because of doubts – for the first time in my life I was receiving answers to my previously un-answerable questions! The difficulty was instead in accepting the words of Christ who said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”2 The difficulty was in forsaking friends and family and church for the sake of Christ. Of letting go of my plans and dreams and desires and giving them to Jesus. Of trusting Him to lead me even when I didn’t know where my final destination would be, or why the journey there had become so difficult.
Throughout this process, our friends and family were incredibly gracious, but they were also very concerned for our wellbeing. They were much like I was before I began to truly study Catholic teaching; they had many misunderstandings about Catholicism, and many wrong notions. As I have remarked on my home page, “It is often difficult to describe to others all the individual steps taken along the path which have brought you along the way to where you are today. Many have perhaps misunderstood my decision as a that of leaving behind one thing for something else, when in reality the experience has been one of adding to, not of taking away – of entering into the fullness of the Christian Faith.
There have been many who have asked me why I felt that it was necessary to enter into the Catholic Church; and I cannot find a more perfect answer than that of G.K. Chesterton who wrote that, “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” I would add that for me, there was also the indescribable joy of finding my home – of coming home to the place where I belong.”
For me the process was one of intensive study for almost two years before I finally told my wife that I needed to begin attending Mass and exploring for myself the claims of the Catholic Church. I promised her that I would continue to go to church with her and the kids, but that I could no longer resist God’s pull in my life towards Catholicism. When I said that, I honestly didn’t know if she would agree to attend Mass with me or not! But she was willing to go for my sake, and for six months we attended a local non-denominational church in the morning and St. Teresa of Avila’s parish in the evening as a family. My kids really got a lot of church during that time! Missy and I both agreed that we would enroll in RCIA classes (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), and nine months later we were received together into the Catholic Church on Easter Vigil of 2013. I can honestly say that that Easter Vigil service was one of the most profound and joyful experiences of my life!
All of this isn’t to say that I no longer have any questions at all or that I am under some delusion as to the Catholic Church being perfect. She has obviously had her share of failings and problems over the years and will continue to do so, maybe even more so now that I am a member! There have been priests who were dismal failures, bishops and Popes who were motivated by greed, selfishness, and a desire for power rather than love. The Church has done things both amazing and horrific in the name of God.
But, …she is Christ’s bride, made holy and without blemish by Christ Himself and by the righteous deeds of His saints.3 And like all brides, she has been joined to Him that the two may become one flesh. And it is through this incarnational mystery that we, the bride of Christ, become in that marital union of one flesh, the very body of Christ, with He Himself as our head.4
You see, for me, the balance has shifted to the point where I can no longer in good conscious consider myself Protestant. As I pointed out in my post Sola Scriptura ~ An Anachronism:
“I have a sizable problem with any theory that proposes itself in contradiction to the words of Christ who said, “And I tell you, …I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”5 Every Christian denomination which has since split from that Church, has essentially proposed some variation of the theory above. Namely that Christ was wrong; His Church was not preserved by Him, the gates of Hell did prevail against it, and it has now become necessary to split from the Church which He founded and start an entirely new church in order to return to the original teachings of Christ…”
I have come to the conviction that it was indeed Christ who founded His Church – not Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli, or the King of England, or John and Charles Wesley, or Joseph Smith, or Chuck Smith, or anyone else since that time. [Tweet This]
I have decided to trust in the plain words of Christ preserved in the Scriptures for us. I have, as a matter of fact, decided that when He guaranteed His Church that He would be with her always – even to the very end of the age; and that when He promised her that He would preserve her against the very gates of Hell6 – He meant it. I have decided that if I am to be His disciple then I should begin with obedience, and in obedience, belong to the Church that He established. And finally, I have decided that Christ is not into polygamy – He only desires one bride.
I will leave you with the words of G.K. Chesterton who wrote, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment a man ceases to pull against it he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it. But when that affection has passed a certain point it begins to take on the tragic and menacing grandeur of a great love affair.”
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Mark 6:45-53 ↩
Matthew 10:34-39 ↩
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:25-27, “…and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” Revelation 19:7-9 ↩
“He is the head of the body, the church;” Colossians 1:18a, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” 24, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” 2:17-19 ↩
Matthew 16:18 ↩
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 ↩