Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reply to "The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms" (by Agnostic Ed Babinski)

Ed Babinski is an agnostic, and "one of the leading contributors of skeptical propaganda to the Talk.Origins Archive." He was formerly an evangelical Protestant and young-earth creationist (see his "testimony": "From Young Earth Creationist to Evolutionist"). Among other accomplishments, he has experienced the distinct honor of being nominated for the Antichrist for a Day Award (apparently someone else was appropriately more wicked, and/or a better "campaigner" LOL).

I have been in the mood lately to do some Christian-skeptic discussion (my first love in apologetics, going back to the early 80s). I've selected one of Ed's shorter papers (he has written some huge, meticulously- and massively-researched ones, which are -- false conclusions entirely aside -- quite impressive), because restricted subject matter works better in terms of a systematic working-through of the issues (one can't sensibly, constructively deal with 1000 things at once -- or even 100; or even 10).

The following is my reply, then, to his short essay, "The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms". There is plenty enough here to deal with, as readers will see. I have notified Ed of this paper, and presumably he will be willing to come and interact a bit (past responses of his indicated this). I urge everyone to treat him with kindness and charity if he does, and to do our best to provide him with a good Christian example of discourse, politeness, and defense of the faith.

* * * * *

Rebecca Anne Reed, whom I knew as "Becca," was a co-worker and friend with a good sense of humor. She died recently from a blood clot that moved from her lung to her heart. She was only 27 years old, engaged to be married, a lover of dogs and children, and working on writing a romance novel.

Such is the tragedy of life. Christians believe, however, that there is a purpose to everything. We may never discover it in this life, but that makes it no less likely for a loving God to have some inscrutable reason for difficult-to-understand things like this.

I attended her funeral, which was held in a Catholic church. One of the songs sung was based on Psalm 91, which declares,

Surely He will deliver you...from the deadly pestilence...You will not be afraid of...the arrow that flies by day; or of the pestilence that stalks in darkness; or of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you...Because you have made the Lord your evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your dwelling. For He will give his angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways...They will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and cobra; the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot...Because you have set your love upon Me [Yahweh], therefore I will deliver you...with long life I will satisfy you.
Ed's skeptical take on this is clear already: God's promises are null and void, and obviously vacant: just look at this poor woman; she was a Christian, and trusted God, but did that help her? No! Quite the contrary. God didn't do a darned thing to save her . . . Etc. I will comment on the wrongheadedness of Ed's analysis in this regard as we proceed.

Becca was beginning to attend church after having shunned it for a while. It was then that she was struck down at home ["no evil will befall you, nor will any plague come near your dwelling"] by an embolism ["Surely He will deliver you...from the deadly pestilence"], and died at age 27 ["with long life I will satisfy you"]. The irony of the words of that psalm being sung at Becca's funeral was apparent to me though no one else there seemed to notice, maybe because the psalm was matched with a pretty melody.

The basic Christian answer to this is to point out what sort of literature is being discussed. The Psalms are poetry, or what is known in Hebrew, biblical culture as wisdom literature. As such, by nature the sentiments and proclamations are not to be understood as absolutely applying in every particular, in a literal fashion. That's not how poetry works. Proverbs (a similar type of literature) works in the same way: a general statement is made, expressing a general (or, proverbial) truth.

It is not intended literally, but rather, as a broadly true observation of actual "sociological" reality. So. e.g., ". . . fools die for lack of sense" (Proverbs 10:21; RSV) or "He who trusts in his riches will wither" (Prov 11:28), or "He who walks with wise men becomes wise" (Prov 13:20). These are but a few examples, chosen at random as I opened this book. Clearly, proverbs and maxims and "wise, pithy sayings" or poetry are not literal expressions (as some biblical prophecies are intended to be) -- not in the particularistic way that Ed is making out that they ought to be interpreted. He has a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of this kind of literature, and how it was understood by the Jews at the time.

The same thing applies in certain statements in the New Testament, from Jesus and others (Jesus Himself often spoke in very proverbial, poetic, metaphorical, and hyperbolic terms):

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away . . . (Matthew 5:30)
. . . even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:21-22)

[but note how this seeming "absolute" is qualified in 1 John 5:14: "if we ask anything according to his will he hears us". Prayers can always be nullified or vetoed by God if they are not in our best interest. He knows a bit more than we do]

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9)

Much of 1st John, as the Gospel of John, is written in a sort of proverbial, or idealized language. For example, 1 John 5:18: "We know that anyone born of God does not sin . . ." (cf. 3:6,8-9). Of course, believers sin all the time. In proverbial literature, the intention is not absolute and all-encompassing, without exception, but rather, common-sense observation of what usually accompanies a certain state or condition. Thus, John is saying that "those in Christ do not sin," or, more accurately, "the essence of the person in Christ is righteousness; sin is contrary to the essence of a Christian."

Thus, also, he also expresses the thought, "those who believe in Christ will be saved and will have eternal life; those who do not will not be saved." (cf. 1 John 5:13). Those are general truths, but it is much more difficult to apply them to individuals, and this is expressing something different from absolute subjective assurance of an individual. In fact, John "contradicts" 1 Jn 5:18 (above) in 1 Jn 1:8: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

But in fact it is no contradiction, because proverbial literature is not meant to be interpreted in such absolute, airtight terms. In the book of Proverbs the classic example (26:4-5) is where it says "answer not a fool" in one verse, and in the very next it says, "answer a fool" (i.e., different situations dictate a different response, in prudence).

Now, in the context of Psalm 91, the idea is that "God can be trusted to be faithful to His followers. He is loving and merciful." The way to illustrate that in a poetic form, to poor farmers or shepherds in ancient Israel, is to put it in very concrete terms (the Hebrews were not a philosophical society, by Greek standards; they were very pragmatic and practical-minded and ritualistic; as Judaism is to this day).

The Jews weren't philosophical, but it doesn't follow that they were stupid. They were not. Along with the promises of the Psalms and maxims of Proverbs were also the sober teachings of the book of Job: perhaps the most famous expression of the perplexities of suffering ever written. Job was also part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Jews were quite familiar with it. And Job is much more like "real life," isn't it (Ecclesiastes offers a similar perspective also)? People suffer, and agonize over why that is, if God exists, is good, and can be trusted to bless the "righteous," or those who place their trust in Him, follow Him as disciples, and accept the free gift of His enabling grace and mercy.

The moral of the story at the end of Job (after the righteous Job had endured incredible suffering, which seemed counter to the proverbs of the righteous having an easy go of it), was that God is God: He is far above us, and ultimately inscrutable:

God: "Can you, like him, spread out the skies?" (Job 37:18)

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4)

"Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it." (40:2)

Job: ". . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." (42:3)

English professor Leland Ryken, in his book, The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1974, 123-124), writes about how we should approach the Psalms as poetic literature:

[W]e should come to the Psalms with the expectation of finding there the expression of religious feelings. We should not expect to find an account of historical events, since ordinarily a lyric poem will make use only of so much history or narrative as necessary to make clear the nature and source of the emotion being presented. Nor should we expect to find an exposition of theological doctrine. Theological doctrine can be deduced from the Psalms, but that is not their main business. The Psalms, being lyric poetry, exist primarily to give expression to the emotional side of religious experience.
Referring particularly to the sort of statements that Ed objected to above (since he mistakenly wants to interpret each of them hyper-literally), Ryken observes:
An example of antithetic parallelism is the statement "the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish" (vs. [1:]6). The function of such parallelism is artistic; it presents a pleasing pattern without asking that every statement add to the logical content.

(Ibid., 127)
Ryken's point about type of literature and how this relates to interpretation of the Psalms is made even more clear in his commentary on the famous Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd . . . "). The Jews were well aware (being human beings) that life involved suffering, and that belief in God did not wipe this out. They were not the simpletons and ignoramuses that Ed's commentary would imply (as if they had some namby-pamby, fantasy world, head-in-the-sand, pie-in-the-sky notion of the reality of life and inevitable suffering):
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil." Centuries of Christian experience have fixed the meaning of the phrase, "the valley of the shadow of death" as a reference to human death. While this is one of the figurative meanings of the verse, a literal rendition of the text would be "the valley of deep darkness" (RSV footnote). The literal image is that of a very dark valley, where the fear of sheep would be at its greatest. The valley and darkness are both archetypal images of evil and danger . . . It is part of the realism of the poem that the speaker implicitly acknowledges the inevitability of adverse experiences. What the poet claims is freedom from fear, not freedom from evil. He bases his assurance on the abiding presence of God, as evidenced by the clause "for thou art with me."
(Ibid., 131-132)
Here are a few more examples of such "realism" and awareness of the reality of suffering, even for the "righteous," in the Psalms:
Psalm 46:1-3: . . . God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 71:20: Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.
Psalm 73:26: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
Psalm 94:19: When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.
Psalm 119:
50 This is my comfort in my affliction that thy promise gives me life.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep thy word.
71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.
75 I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me.
93 I will never forget thy precepts; for by them thou hast given me life.
Psalm 138:7: Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life; thou dost stretch out thy hand against the wrath of my enemies, and thy right hand delivers me.
For further examples throughout the Bible, see my paper: "Reasons for Suffering and Encouragement and Hope in the Midst of It: A Biblical Compendium."

Religious services are not designed to make you think more rationally, they are designed to "move" you.

Well, here is the attraction of the critical, garden variety skeptical remark at the expense of those sterotypical "ignorant, irrational" Christians. Let's look more closely at this for a moment and see who is really being unreasonable. First of all, there is nothing wrong with not always thinking "rationally", if by this we mean that there is, therefore, no place for (strictly speaking, non-rational) moving, emotional discourse, thoughts, reflections, and so forth. Rationality or left-brained, logical thinking is not all of life (and thank God that this is the case).

Imagine if a man approached his wife (particularly at romantic moments) with all logic and no heart and feeling: "well, Mrs. So-and-So, we have a marriage license, and part of the normal development of marriage is to engage in . . . and this is because of evolutionary-induced physical and chemical desire, so it's only logical that we set aside a bit of time once in a while to . . . since it is mutually-beneficial and happiness-inducing, so how about an appointment at 10:00 tonight?" -- well, you get my drift.

Secondly, to be non-rational is not to be immediately irrational. I have shown through painstaking literary and biblical analysis above that the Psalms are simply not the type of literature that Ed falsely assumed them to be. He approached the text (even apart from the theological framework, which is secondary to our immediate concerns) in a woodenly-literal (what might be called) "hyper-rationalistic" fashion which completely bypassed the need to understand the nature and purpose of the literature under consideration. This is a very common occurrence in skeptical, agnostic, and atheist circles, I must regretfully inform my readers, from long, sad personal experience.

Thirdly, there is nothing wrong with being moved on appropriate occasions; nor is this intrinsically contrary to "rational thought," as the grammatical construction of Ed's sentence above falsely implies. I should hope to be moved at a funeral or a wedding. Those are precisely the times when reflection on marriage and death and what they mean and signify, should take place. At such ceremonial or ritualistic occasions, a citation of the Psalms is precisely apt because it expresses the deepest meanings and emotions of life. Does Ed want Mr. Spock to perform these services, for heaven's sake?

That's not to discount the importance also of thinking about these issues rationally as well. Hopefully, men and women will think seriously about their potential mate and life-partner. And it is altogether rational to think deeply about death and where we will go or not go when we die. I am only objecting to the cynical, patronizing disdain for the emotional, "moving" aspects of such ceremonies and "rites of passage," as if there is something wrong, or "irrational" about this.

How much meaning one can pack into one cynical sentence! I think if Ed were questioned about what he meant here, we would find much or all of what I have complained about. Even if he himself did not mean this, then certainly many other skeptics, atheists, and agnostics would think in these ways, so my point would still have general application and relevance to the discussion.

What I find quite humorous, comical, and ironic (sorry, Ed, I can never resist this), is the fact that, in the very act of looking down their "intellectual, rational, logical ('hard') noses" at the supposed gullibility and irrationality of Christians and their alleged naive view of reality, the skeptic is usually found to be far more irrational and gullible. I think I have amply demonstrated this above, in the present case.

The "more rational than thou" skeptic becomes more wrongheaded and illogical (and too often, downright silly and foolish) in proportion to how much of an ax he has to grind (sometimes also based on their own past). Ed's a sharp guy; he could have easily done a bit of study about wisdom literature and how it is and was interpreted by the Jews at the time and Christians throughout the centuries, and thus prevented his flatly-wrong conclusions about the Psalms. But he did not do so. That's a shame, but at least it provides us a classic example of the folly of much of skeptical "biblical hermeneutics" (we should call it "anti-hermeneutics" or "Bible butchery," as far as I am concerned).

Upon reading Psalm 91 later, after the service, I noticed how it consists of a list of outrageous "promises" of earthly security, stringing absurdity after absurdity, until the author wound up with "angels" not allowing him to stub his toe.

What is absurd is not the passage itself (which is not absurd at all, when understood as poetry and an emotional affirmation of trust in God), but Ed's seeming inability to interpret it sensibly, according to the rules of literature, interpretation, and (hopefully) some semblance of other biblical books which cast a great deal of light on this passage, as I have tried to demonstrate throughout this response. Ed assumes that the ancient Jews were gullible, naive idiots who had a sort of fairy-tale vision of the world (hence, "outrageous" and filled with "absurdity") which would cause them to interpret such poetic utterances as foolishly as Ed does, in his rush to condemn and patronize the biblical and Christian ethos.

That judgment applies far more to folks like Marxists, or the Enlightenment philosophes, who showed themselves incredibly stupid and naive with regard to human nature (since most of them didn't believe in God) and the nature of society, but not to the biblical, Hebraic-Christian theistic tradition in its best forms. There are all sorts of ironies here, but I'll let readers ponder them on their own. This is a fairly simple matter. But Ed doesn't see it, because his overwhelming bias against the Bible and Christianity will not allow him to. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers: Malcolm Muggeridge:
Our twentieth century, far from being notable for scientific scepticism, is one of the most credulous eras in all history. It is not that people believe in nothing - which would be bad enough -- but that they believe in anything -- which is really terrible. Recoiling, as they do, from accepting the validity of miracles, and priding themselves on seeing the Incarnation as a transcendental con-trick, they will accept at its face value any proposition, however nonsensical, that is presented in scientific or sociological jargon -- for instance, the existence of a population explosion, which has been so expertly and decisively demolished by Professor Colin Clark of Monash University. Could any mediaeval schoolman, I ask myself, sit through a universally applauded television series like Bronowski's Ascent of Man without a smile of derision at such infantile acceptance of unproven and unprovable assertions?

(Vintage Muggeridge, edited by Geoffrey Barlow, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, 74-75, "The Bible Today," from a lecture delivered on 7 October 1976)
Trust in Yahweh and your life will be like Superman's (or like that of another "well nigh invulnerable" comic book character, The Tick!) You'll be invulnerable to "arrows" [a modern day version of this Psalm would probably add that "bullets shall not harm you, and atomic bomb radiation shall not burn you even though thousands around you melt into puddles of ooze" - which reminds me...Pat Robertson, in the late 1970s gave a rousing speech about how "machine gun bullets" wouldn't be able to hurt true believers]. So, like Superman (or The Tick), you need not worry about any disease, deadly animal, poisonous snake [even if you walk upon it], or even worry about jamming your pinky toe! That's what the psalmist promises will happen to those who "trust in Yahweh."

In light of all of the above clarification, one can readily see how truly ridiculous this analysis is. Rather than proving that the Psalms are "absurd" and to be mocked, Ed only proves his own ignorance of the literature and the culture which produced it. Presumably, this was a lack of his former fundamentalist environment, and remaining baggage from that period of his intellectual odyssey, but I can assure him and anyone else that not all of us Christians were so stunted in our rudimentary education in our religion.

To round out the amusing irony, Ed has to cite an example of the obligatory "foolish Christian character" and include the usual mockery of silly distortions of Christianity, rather than dealing with the best, most respectable examples. What's the point? I could see it if his purpose was strictly an examination of fundamentalist know-nothing excess and folly, but his purpose is ostensibly a critique of the Psalms and the supposedly infantile view of the world and suffering found therein. To do that right requires a lot more than he has provided us. The attempt to subtly imply that all or virtually all Christians are idiots and simpletons will not help his case, because people know better than that. There are too many Christians around. Granted, many of us have a long way to go in many respects spiritual and intellectual, but we're not that stupid.

Compare Psalm 37:25, where, at the end of a long life the psalmist sings that he has "never seen the righteous forsaken, or his descendants begging bread." Most people do not go through life so blind to reality and accident statistics as the psalmists apparently did.

Case in point . . . it's poetry, Ed . . . and it needs to be interpreted correctly, not with the goal of proving that the writers and readers were idiots and silly fools.

What's even more ironic is how other portions of the Bible deny the "inspired lessons of the psalmists." Jesus "trusted in Yahweh" but look what happened to him (Ouch)! Or look at the "mystery of the suffering of the righteous" according to the book of Job. Job (if such a person ever existed) would probably have beaten the author of Psalm 91 over the head in disgust at his naivete (as it was, some of Job's friends argued like the Psalmist that "none of this would have happened to you, Job, if you trusted in Yahweh and were righteous," and Job of course, proved such a view naive to say the least).

Well, this is a little better. I am replying as I read, so I didn't know that Ed mentioned Job, before I did so myself. The fallacy here is that he makes no attempt to try and harmonize the Psalms and Job, in a unified Hebrew vision of the world. He assumes that Job is "realist" and that the Psalms are infantile and reality-denying (so that they blatantly contradict). But this is simply not required. One only has to understand the nature of the literature and the given purpose of any particular passage. Ed's problem is literary and hermeneutical (and logical [inconsistency] ). The problem is not massive, weird, amazing hyper-contradictions in the Bible that he and other skeptics think they see all over the place (usually due to almost immediately-evident fallacies that a student of the Bible can point out with ease).

And what about folks who were never members of "God's chosen people" yet who lived long loving happy healthy creative and prosperous lives? The psalmists were blind to that reality also.

Not quite. Ecclesiastes, which is in the same general category of what the Jews called "the writings" or what we know as "wisdom literature," speaks quite a bit to this "problem" in the Jewish and Christian worldview (which really isn't one, if fully thought-through, and when the entire context of biblical thought is known). For example: ". . . a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction" (Eccl 6:2; cf. 4:1, 7:15, 9:2, many others).

The prophets are also full of accounts of the rich but wicked rulers oppressing the common man. This presupposes that in these instances the "wicked" man or "fool" (which biblical literature, of course, regards as ones who do not follow God or believe in Him) is prospering while the "righteous" man or community of same is not, by the very fact that they are being oppressed. If Ed has missed all this in the Bible, then he either has not read the prophets at all, or has forgotten a very major theme in them (see, e.g., Amos 4:1, 6:1-6, Mic 2:1-2, Zech 7;10, Mak 3:5, Is 5:12). The psalmists also wrote on this theme, contrary to Ed's misinformed assertion otherwise (49:16-18, 52:7, 73:3-16).

Besides an egomania of blessings tied to their earthly existence, the psalmists sung about cursings, or "perfect hatred," toward any non-Hebrew people whose egos dared to affront their own. About such people the psalmists' wrath knew no bounds:
Let his days be few...his children fatherless...his wife be a widow...wandering about begging...seeking food far from their ruined homes...let a creditor seize all he has...strangers steal from him...none to extend a hand...nor to his orphaned children...may he be cut off from the memory of the earth...But Thou, Oh Yahweh, deal kindly with me...Do I not loath those who rise up against Thee, Yahweh? I hate them with perfect [utmost] hatred...The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance, he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked...That your foot may be dipped in the blood of your enemies and the tongue of your dogs may be dipped in their blood...Blessed [or happy] will he be who dashes your little ones against the rock.

[Ps. 58:10; 68:23; 137:9; 139:21-22 & 109]
Any ethical Supreme Being must puke at the sound of such passages being sung to him. (Not to forget equally grotesque passages found in less "sing-able" portions of the Hebrew Bible, like Exodus 32:27-28; Deut. 5:9; 6:13,15; 7:2,4; 13:6-9; 20:16,17; 28:45,47,53; 32:42; Lev. 27:28-29; Num. 31:8-9,15-18; Joshua 7:26; 11:20; Judges 11; 1 Sam. 15:3; Jer. 19:9; 51:20,22; Hosea 13:16.)

This very common atheist / skeptical critical theme gets into different territory, having to do with God's perfect prerogative to judge wicked persons among His creation. If a self-existent Supreme Being has the power to create sentient, conscious beings with a soul, then He also has the right to judge them when they rebel and go astray, away from their Creator, in Whose image they are made, and to Whom they owe allegiance. There is nothing contradictory or "unethical" in any of that. It is entirely self-consistent. So the Psalmist often speaks from a poetic perspective of God's justice and wrath. The problem is when people take it upon themselves to judge wrongly.

The problem here (apart from the unnecessary condescension) is the ultimate circularity of the viewpoint of the judge of these things: in this case, Ed. He has to persuade folks that he knows what is right and wrong, and that there can be no argument against his conception. In the atheist worldview, these beliefs are ultimately groundless, arbitrary, or reduced to (at least a potential, if not actual) nihilism. So Ed can come round and contend that God is evil because of x, y, and z passages in the Bible. He assumes a certain ethical standpoint (that arguably usually goes back to biblical ethics, when all is said and done), and then applies it to God, seemingly never thinking that God as Creator is in a different category than we are, and that He has the prerogative to judge His own creation. It's a criticism of supposed internal inconsistency in Christianity, so it must necessarily grant our own categories of thought, for the sake of argument.

This is where it gets very tricky, because basically one has to adopt theistically grounded ethical conceptions and constructs in order to judge the God of that system, because God is the ground and essence of Christian morality. "God is love," so it says in the Bible. And then Ed has to envision a Christian believer standing in judgment of God and saying, "my morality is superior to His." The believer (which is what we are dealing with at the moment) won't do that, because he recognizes his limitations and dependence on God, and God's transcendence and all His other attributes, as a fundamental lesser, or subject of that same God. The non-believer can do it, of course, but it is arbitrary and grounded in merely his own opinion, which carries no particular weight in the overall scheme of things.

One may quibble with difficulties in the Christian position; the "problem of evil" and so forth (and these are real and serious issues; I readily agree), but at the same time, if they reject the Christian worldview and start disbelieving in God or taking an agnostic position towards the question of His existence, then they have to come up with some superior alternative ethical system which isn't either arbitrary or unworkable in practice. I maintain that it cannot be done. For much more treatment of that subject, see the debate which I consider was with one of the most worthy opponents I have ever encountered:
"Dialogue With an Atheist on the "Problem of Good" and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (+ Part Two) (The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)"
(vs. Mike Hardie)

Thanks to Ed for a stimulating discussion, and I eagerly look forward to his subsequent comments.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

On the Objectionable Use of the Terms "Romanist" and "Papist"

By Dave Armstrong (11-20-04)

I think proper, accepted terminology is very important. People have a perfect right to be called whatever they want to be called. This is understood in our humdrum daily lives, where we will ask a stranger what their name is, how to pronounce their name (if necessary), etc. We would never think of deliberately calling them names which are offensive to them (unless we are self-centered bigots).

Yet in religious matters, all of this is too often reversed. Not only are folks called names that they object to (and have for sometimes hundreds of years), but the people who do it try to justify it on absurd grounds. Examples of this are the derogatory, pejorative terms for Catholics, such as papist and Romanist.

I've never heard a Methodist object to that name. Often, Calvinists like "Reformed" better as a title, but I've never really heard one object to being called a Calvinist (and that word is used in many many of their own books). There are commonly accepted terms for groups, and they ought to be used. It is simple courtesy and charity.

We may call people a sort of alternate nickname (I do it myself) -- and this may be in a critical sense, or with an "edge" to it -- but it is important to note that such a nickname is not understood as their primary name or the one they themselves prefer to be called. Such alternate titles or nicknames shouldn't be routinely applied to large, historically and sociologically significant groups. Everyone knows what their real titles are. And that's the whole point about titles: they are based on common, accepted usage (much like dictionary definitions of words which are ultimately dependent on real-life usage.

It's true that sometimes we can legitimately war against a title, because a principle is at stake. Hence, I refuse to acknowledge the terms Enlightenment or the abuse of the term Dark Ages (when it includes even the late Middle Ages) because those are prejudiced, deliberately hostile terms which arose from secularist, anti-Christian schools of thought. I vigorously deny that the so-called Enlightenment was some great advance of civilization. It was quite the contrary.

But the terms Catholic or Reformed or Lutheran or Methodist are not such that they can be overthrown by the whim of personal opinion. I deny that Reformed are truly "reformed" from my perspective (which has to do with how Catholics define reform from within their own paradigm and ecclesiology -- the term is already inherently weighted against Catholic Tradition), but I accept the title because a title is a title. For that matter, I deny that Jewish Orthodox are orthodox (which means "correct belief"). But I use the term because that is what they call themselves.

Likewise, some Protestants may resent calling us Catholics because to them this implies that other Christians aren't "catholic" (in the sense of the Nicene Creed); yet this is our chosen title. We believe that our Church is uniquely universal, just as you believe that yours is truly, uniquely "reformed" -- even over against Arminian fellow Protestants -- (whereas ours is supposedly not, in fundamental ways). Both schools claim unique characteristics for themselves which exclude others in some sense.

It's unavoidable. We all have beliefs, and someone else is bound to be excluded (or offended) by them. A different belief-system shouldn't, however, be immediately offensive (unless it involves hatred or some other sin). On the other hand, deliberate use of offensive terminology (based on the stated preference of a group so-called) is a different story. It is far more a matter of respect and politeness and diplomacy than of theology.

The use of terms like Romanist, papist, and (to a somewhat lesser extent), papalist, and the deliberate refusal to use the commonly-accepted and preferred Catholic, or to always (and for a particular polemical purpose) qualify it with the preceding "Roman" (which actually excludes some 21 non-Latin rites in the Church, and was originally derived from polemical Anglican usage in the 16th century -- in the attempt to be "catholic" without the pope) is, therefore, a condescending, uncharitable, impolite act, which offends the great majority of Catholics.

Why is it that Catholics are so often singled out by being referred to in ways that we have repeatedly objected to? To me, that is a dead giveaway that prejudice and some sort of strong hostility is in play, either consciously or unconsciously. No doubt many people do this out of force of habit, since it has been going on so long in their circles. But that makes it no less obnoxious for those of us who have to put up with this unnecessary, childish, and rather silly annoyance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

"Why I Returned to the Catholic Church" (Al Kresta). Part II

I got this call to pastor a church (Shalom Ministry) in 1985: a job that eventually would lead me to the Catholic Church. I didn't know it at the time. I was looking for this church and I figured that since it wasn't out there, I'd make it myself. And that's what ended up happening. Since there was no church that I felt conformed to a biblical shape, that I might as well use this opportunity to experiment a bit. I really did believe when I entered pastoral work, that you had only two choices: it seemed to me that you could go the independent church route, where every pastor is their own pope, and they've got the Bible alone to work with, or you ought to get honest with yourself, and go ahead and become Orthodox or Catholic, and accept an authoritative teaching church. I really didn't like all the mediating positions in between. Why do you want denominations? Why not -- if you're going to accept the authority of a tradition -- accept the authority of the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, which at least have a developed theology of tradition. Tradition is inevitable.

I thought that the real problem with the evangelical churches was lack of doctrine or Scripture study, and good preaching, and I quickly found that that wasn't the case. There's probably too much teaching. You get up on a Sunday morning, and you prepare a message, and you would preach, and rain on 'em, and it'd be forgotten by the week after, and you'd wonder why you're doing this: your best ideas and study, pouring it out on them. But what people needed was spiritual apprenticeship, discipleship, an elder or spiritual leader to model the Christian life for them. If they needed preaching, let 'em listen to John MacArthur, or buy a book of sermons. You can do that now.

I did see that my approach was destined to futility. And I saw a lot of moral failure. That didn't scandalize me. I knew who was sleeping with who; who was lying about who, and I would confront it, and sometimes people would repent, and sometimes they didn't. But what scandalized me was the ability to use what I called "the language of ultimacy": like "the Lord told me," or "are you sold out for the Lord?," or "we have nothing to live for but saving souls": always this kind of high-pitched language of commitment, which didn't bear any tangible relationship to the lives that people were leading. And these people were not intending to be hypocrites. It was just the function of evangelical language. It was their symbol-system. This was the way they talked. The problem was that the language began to substitute for the reality, so you could talk about your commitment to soul-winning, or how missions has to be number one, and yet sit home and not do a darned thing. But you knew the language. It was just part of the tradition: the revivalistic tradition. It was a way of applying a spiritual anesthetic.

We like to think of ourselves in the evangelical tradition as other than mere churchgoers. You tended not to exercise the judgment of charity towards the churchgoer, and to say "they're not part of us until they prove they're born again." And I saw this as a spiritual arrogance, but it was more a function of language than of the heart of people.

One thing that happened as I began pastoring is that I began to see the failure of "mere Christianity." It was a great discipleship tool. But it was a terrible curse when you wanted to disciple people. It was good for breaking down barriers between Christians and getting them to talk to one another and respect one another, but not very good in trying to teach people a worldview or trying to grow in grace. I would call it the "inner contradiction of mere Christianity." It is unintentionally dishonest and gives the wrong impression about matters vital to Christian growth and maturity. In a sense you're selling people a bill of goods. You're hooking them with a minimalist conception of the faith, and then once they get in, you start laying on them the obligations. Nobody means any harm by it, . . .

By discounting as non-essential to Christianity, anything that would interfere with the evangelistic task, we imply to the convert that only those things which he assents to at conversion, are the essential things. Thus, major biblical doctrines like the Church, worship, work of the Holy Spirit, even the authority of Scripture, end-times teaching, even ethical teachings like our obligation to the poor, the unborn: all those things are minimized and therefore considered secondary and non-binding to the convert. People are called to Christ the head, but it's disconnected with Christ's body. To come to Christ in the New Testament always meant coming into a particular community; accepting this community and them accepting you, and that also meant the tradition and the way of life of the community. This approach cannot sustain a church or a tradition, and not enough to give much direction in life's decisions.

"What you are converted by is what you are converted to." Since the evangelical principle is the Bible alone and the Bible doesn't use the word Trinity and doesn't refer to abortion specifically, how important can these things be? That's the way the argument will go, and I hear it all the time. Free church Protestants have no reliance upon institutionalized teaching authorities. The authority in their mind is them, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. And quite honestly, that's wrong. That's not biblical. The biblical pattern, is me, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the Church of God. The community is an essential dimension of the biblical experience. So you end up with what? Private interpretation. It's me, the Spirit, and the Bible. And while evangelicals say you should be a member of a church (Billy Graham will say that), usually converts are made by driving a wedge between the convert and the Church. Often, you'll hear in evangelistic presentations: "baptism isn't important, this isn't important, denominations aren't important. What's important is you and your relationship with God." In the right context, that point can be made, but the subtext of the message is "once you get saved, it's you and God." So this private interpretation is really overwhelming. We become "theological Atlases." No one person is able to do that against the spirit of the age. You need the full body to teach authoritatively. You can't do it yourself. You can't do it: not authoritatively. To sit there as a papal substitute and do it, independently of, say, the college of bishops, research universities, is wicked. But it's done, all the time.

Great evangelical leaders that have come up this century, who have been very helpful: people like Francis Schaeffer, who I owe an enormous debt to; notice how they function within the evangelical community. They don't function as the leader of a church, but as authoritative celebrities. Their audience has no recourse to hold them accountable. There's no structure set up.

Mere Christianity also undermines confidence in the local church, or (if you believe in them) the denomination, which is secondary to one's primary commitment to Christ. But this is schizophrenic. It pits the head against the body, and ultimately it betrays Jesus Who says the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, the body. These things are connected. The head doesn't regard the body as a "necessary evil" like many evangelicals do. They think that you gotta go somewhere to get Bible teaching, so you go to church. [The Church] is secondary only in the sense that it flows from my commitment to God, and is entailed in that commitment. How ecumenical is mere Christianity, if it removes the doctrine of the Church, which is central to two of the three Christian traditions? So it really isn't very fair to Orthodoxy and Catholicism. [It amounts to saying that] God is not able to adequately reveal Himself through the things that he has made, or the people that He has called. It's a slap in the face of God.

Mere Christianity is dishonest in that it requires a soft-peddling of differences between Christians. And it belittles our brothers and sisters in the past. When we say "let's transcend and rise above all these denominational distinctives," we are actually emasculating the various Christian traditions. The very things that Wesley and Luther and Calvin found as solutions to the problems of their day, we're saying, "it's not important. Let's just get above 'em. It doesn't matter that these brothers regarded these things as central and essential to the Christian life. We're so superior to them that we can just rise above it." And I find that that's a very belittling approach to these men and women. Accept them on their own terms. Disagree with them if you have to. But don't say they're irrelevant. Within their systems, these denominational distinctives are meant to be solutions to serious problems in the Christian life, and when we don't take them on their own terms, then we're regarding these men and their traditions as pathological, petty, or unwise. I think Luther was wrong [about justification], but I can't say he's unimportant, you see. And that's what I don't like about "mere Christianity."

By 1987 I was pastoring a church and hosting an evangelical talk show, but I found my heart growing really hard and full of disdain for the tradition that I was supposed to be serving, and I knew that wasn't good, so I made a list [of some of my criticisms] in my journal:

1. Lack of a coherent worldview, which leads to a denial of Christ's Lordship.
2. Methods which cheapen the gospel and promote confusion in converts ("what you are converted by is what you are converted to").
3. Manichaean dualism which is inconsistently and conveniently applied to beat others with one's own taboos.
4. Cultural naivete which presumes the priority of Anglo-Saxon culture and an ignorance of ancient biblical culture and its distinctive marks over against its Mesopotamian, Roman, and Greek backgrounds.
5. Flippancy towards divine mystery and paradox; a loss of the sacred, which is best seen in a casual attitude towards the sublime and lofty.
6. Meaningless and saccharine expressions of piety, and a retreat into jargon.
7. A suspicion of intellect.
8. Evangelicalism has become so shaped by modernity that it is privatized, secularized, and has adopted pluralism.
9. A naive pride in its own tradition of traditionlessness.
10. Duplication of effort among institutions.
11. Individualistic to the point of rebellion.
12. Too many personality cults.
13. Ignorant of its own history.
14. Bizarre prophecy schemes which create escapist mentalities and loss of a stable future orientation.

All those things were weighing on my heart: bang bang bang bang. I realized "why am I doing this? My heart is not really in the revivalistic tradition anymore."

There's no way of escaping tradition, at two levels: sociologically and theologically. Sociologically, why does the church exist? Once you're inside a community of people, you begin doing things a certain way. You fall into certain traditions. They do develop. There's no avoiding them. And the traditions usually exist for fairly good reasons. Within the church, questions come up: how are you going to have communion? How are we gonna baptize? What are you gonna teach the new convert? Questions have to be answered. And so you begin a tradition. It's the social glue that brings cohesiveness to a clan or a tribe. In order for any group to retain its identity for more than one generation, they have to articulate their reason for existence to the next generation. And no group can do that effectively by merely saying, "we're Christians. Mere Christians," because there are thousands upon thousands of such groups, and the questions always remains: "well, what's your group's reason for existing, and not joining up with another?" And so I kept asking that question at Shalom: "why don't we go down to the first church down the street?" And eventually about half of 'em did [laughter]. It was after I resigned that they ended up doing it.

Tradition forms the backdrop of particular doctrines, and if you lose the tradition, you end up losing the doctrine. If you lose the tradition that led up to this statement that "Jesus was God in human flesh" (and part of the tradition was the battle which was fought), then you lose the meaningfulness of the doctrine. It ceases to be significant. You have to be self-confident about your roots, otherwise you'll be tossed to and fro by the winds of modernity. So as a pastor, then, I had to come to grips with this question of tradition, both sociologically and theologically. It was clear to me from reading the Apostle Paul's letters, that he believed in an unwritten tradition that he was passing along to his people. He referred to what he had passed on that he had heard from other witnesses. And he expected that to be binding. So the question wasn't whether there would be tradition or not. There would be. The question was: by what authority do you determine right tradition from wrong tradition?

I guess the coup de gras for me on this issue of tradition was the realization that evangelical Protestantism has tradition right at its core. The canon of Scripture is itself a tradition nowhere established in the Bible. It's a church tradition. Francis Schaeffer was very good in that he taught me that one's presuppositions and first principles must be able to be lived and not just thought. And yet Protestantism cannot live out faithfully its commitment to the Bible alone, because on that basis there'd be no canon of Scripture. There'd be no Bible! So Protestants are in the terrible position of having its primary authority not being able to justify its own existence. They have to justify a collection of books, which are secondary to the Word. The Word is prior to the community. The Word calls forth the community, and the community gathers around that Word. The process of inscripturation is subsequent. It comes as the community reflects upon the Word, and is used to crystallize and condense that Word for posterity. Jesus Himself functioned as the Word, which drew a community together, which then produced certain documents and collected them.

Another thing that hit me as a pastor was the nature of the Church and Church government. Francis Schaeffer had taught me back in 1974, in his book, The Mark of a Christian, that in John 13 and 17, Jesus talks about a real, visible oneness, a practicing, practical oneness, across all denominational lines, among all Christians. We cannot expect the world to believe that the Father sent the Son, and to believe that Jesus's claims are true, and that Christianity is true, unless the world sees some reality of the oneness of true Christians. He kept talking about oneness in terms of people getting along with one another. He did not like the Roman Catholic Church at all. He thought it was an enforced uniformity and he complained about conservatives and progressives squabbling miserably in the Roman Catholic Church. But what he did do for me was focus on "visible." It had to be visible. This unity had to be observable by the unbelieving world.

[recalls the story of an erring, unrepentant, sinning brother in his congregation, who left when confronted] How can you exercise restorative church discipline, if all they do is bump off to another church? So all of a sudden institutions became not a bad thing, but a good thing. If we were part of a denomination we probably could do something. But then again he could just go to another denomination. So I began thinking about issues of excommunication, by what authority do you excommunicate; what are the guidelines for it? And it dawned on me that the New Tesdtament never expected a situation where, if you were barred from the fellowship, that you could just go over to some other fellowship! The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, says "I'm gonna turn this fellow over to Satan for the salvation of his soul," and in 2 Corinthians, he has to say, "listen, back off this guy! You've disciplined him enough; he's at the point of despair. Welcome him back as a brother."

That was a major turning point, because my pastoral work was jeopardized by the existence of competing fellowships. This really disturbed me, in a way that's hard to describe to people who haven't been in that [situation], but my pastoral effort was now cheapened. How can you discipline if there's no unity of the body? Even in the New Testament, with all the disagreements among believers about law and grace and circumcision and eating of meat offered to idols, and qualifications for leadership, splintering into independent groups is never advocated. In fact, one of the few offenses that give us reason to separate from a brother is the offense of disunity (Romans 16): "I urge you brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions. Keep away from them." So I was big on this church unity thing, but it was all invisible, spiritual, all out here. And it wasn't working very well.

I'd also taught on 1 Timothy 3:15: "the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth." It was one of those sermons where I would say, "and that's us!" And I'd look out there and I'd say, "like hell it is!" This is a joke! Here we are, 125 of us: "the pillar and foundation of the truth." And Paul wasn't referring to some invisible reality.

I think the thing that brought me through the home stretch was teaching through the book of Romans. In the Protestant tradition, Romans is the book par excellence on justification by faith alone. This provided my undoing. Finally, I'm into the text that evangelicals and Protestant love the most, and I find that the distinctive doctrines of the Reformation are not taught there. They're just not there. I found that Paul's disgust with works of the law is not a disgust with human striving to please God, but with the Jewish community's vain imagination that because they performed the works of the law, the practices that keep them distinct from the Gentiles, that they have special status with God. As I taught on justification, I saw that Paul did think that justification by grace through faith changes a person's life. All these arcane arguments out of the Reformation about extrinsic justification were only so much hooey. The Apostle Paul would have said, "this is a waste of time, guys. This is not the point." In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, justification and sanctification are linked together . . . God doesn't merely impute righteousness to you, but He does something in the soul to make you righteous.

Paul also expected the obedience of faith. It's as though faith is the response of trust, in the same way that obedience is the response of the will. Here you've got a gospel which is quite different than the gospel that is commonly preached. This was disturbing to me. I began to say to myself, "if I don't believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, where am I gonna go?" I didn't really think of myself going into Catholicism at all. I thought, maybe Eastern Orthodoxy. This was around 1988, 1989.

Another thing I learned while teaching through Romans was the inescapability of suffering if we are to share in His inheritance and glory. There was something about it in Romans 8 where the Apostle Paul actually links suffering; you must suffer . . . it seemed so contrary to, other than, the gospel I was used to hearing preached. Most of the gospel preaching you hear is, "come to Jesus because He will fulfill you; you'll receive some benefit." It's true, you do receive some benefit, so I don't despise all of that. But there's something wrong when the call to Jesus is not also accompanied with a call to suffer with Him. It's as if you're called to the resurrected Christ, but not the suffering Christ; as if people are given the crown without the cross. That struck me because I knew Catholics were big into crucifixes, and I said to myself, "they probably have some insight on this." And a Catholic friend of mine emphasized Colossians where Paul talks about "making up in his body that which was lacking in Christ's afflictions," and I thought, "now that makes sense of this teaching in Romans 8. Crucifixes make sense." It's as though people have to be reminded that there's no crown without the cross. Our baptism into Jesus is a baptism into His death. Christ's work is quite complete, but the application of it has to go on in the world, and so it's in that sense that we share His suffering because we are members of His body, applying the work of redemption which He wrought for us on Calvary.

Thirdly, I became aware that the apostles believed in sacraments of some sort; undeveloped, I think. But definitely there was a sacramental awareness. The baptism referred to in Romans 6 really is wet. In the mind of the apostles, water and spirit were not separate entities. The images go together: baptized by water and spirit, the washing of regeneration in Titus. And I began to think more and more about this: where do you find unbaptized Christians in the New Testament? You don't. Then I began making a list of what Paul says about baptism and faith. And I found out that the same things that are being said about faith are also being said about baptism. I came to the conclusion that in some mysterious way, they believed that when a person was baptized, there was some change that happened. I was convinced that it was far more than just a symbol.

The same thing happened with the Eucharist, when I taught about that, later on. I began to feel that I was just playing church, whenever we had the Lord's Table. It seemed so clear to me from 1 Corinthians 11, Luke 24, that Jesus was present in some real way in the Lord's Table. I knew that I could no longer participate, or preside over the Lord's Table.

Operation Rescue was another major turning point for me, because it exposed the papal pretensions of many evangelical leaders. When I saw the obvious biblical justification for Operation Rescue, and yet the resistance it got from major evangelical leaders, I said to myself, "there's really no hope for this community. In fact, it isn't a community; it's a bunch of disparate fiefdoms, kingdoms that these people have built. These are sheep without a shepherd. There's nobody here that can bring this together." If an issue like abortion cannot bring the community together, in this way, and if civil disobedience of this sort . . . if people like Norman Geisler and Bill Gothard can't simply let their brothers and sisters go about this work (they may think it's foolish, unwise, or that pragmatically it's not gonna work), but let 'em do it. Don't try to argue from the Bible against Operation Rescue, because you can't do it. It's an impossible job. Norm Geisler was on my show. A question was posed to Geisler [by another guest]: "are you telling me that if there were four-year-olds being slaughtered at governmentally-approved slaughter clinics, that you wouldn't trespass in order to save one of those four-year-old's lives?" He said "I would only do it if it was my kid." It was pathetic. I couldn't believe he said it. It was a reductio ad absurdum. And then I read Bill Gothard's material against Operation Rescue and it was sinful, it was a caricature of the position, and a twisting of Scripture like I've rarely seen from a major evangelical leader; and I had read papal statements, too, not on Operation Rescue, but on civil disobedience, and I knew there was a rich tradition in the Roman Catholic Church, dealing with social crises of this form, and what a conscientious conscience should do. Operation Rescue was one of the fional nails in the coffin of my evangelical experience. I was so terribly disillusioned by the response. I just couldn't believe it. I think you can construct a good argument against Operation Rescue, but not from the Scripture; rather, on pragmatic grounds. These guys wouldn't do that; they wanted to argue from the Scripture on it, and I said "there's no hope." That was a turning point for me. I could go on; many other reasons.

So I resigned [the pastorate] in December of 1990. I had wanted to a year before, but I had commitments. The church wasn't ready. These were good people. I didn't want to enter into battle. I didn't know where I was going, and I knew I wasn't fit to be a pastor, because you don't need the blind leading the blind. I shared with them about the Real Presence because by that time it was no longer speculative for me. I was thoroughly convinced on biblical authority. I told people that I was tired, fatigued. I had been working full-time at WMUZ [radio station; his talk show] and the church for over a year. I told them that I was thinking of becoming Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. I couldn't really stay at the church. I just felt bad. If you don't know where you're going, you shouldn't be taking people with you. I was on my own journey. I wasn't fit to lead them on it. So I keft the church and began pursuing Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

During the previous year, I'd had Fr. Peter Stravinskas on [the radio show], and during the course of some of his discussion, as he was describing the Mass as a re-presentation of Christ, I recognized the doctrine that I held in a diluted form. It was a doctrine that I used to call "memorial consciousness." I used to teach that at Shalom: that past saving events could be re-presented in the present. The Jews tried to do it with Passover. The same thing with the Lord's Supper. So when Fr. Peter said that, I had this rush of adrenaline while I was on the air, and I said to myself, "my God, I'm a Catholic" [understanding laughter in the room].

I was still pastoring at Shalom at the time. It was an exhilarating experience but disturbing at the same time. It was as though I had been walking in the dark for a long time and getting along pretty well, and then all of a sudden the light gets turned on, and you realize that you're perched on a tightrope about 100 feet above the ground. You were doing fine, as long as you didn't know where you were. But here you are: mid-way out, and on the one hand, you can take heart that you made it so far, but on the other hand, you're trembling because you can see how far you gotta go, and you're not quite certain you're gonna get to the other side. So I had this subjective experience, and yet I hadn't really settled the Marian dogmas, or a lot of things, and I honestly didn't like most of the Catholics I've met. Now you guys are pretty good; I like you [great laughter], . . . once I left Shalom I began going to Masses at various places. I'd read on a Saturday books on Catholicism and Orthodoxy and sacramental thinking. Then I'd go to Mass, and everytime I'd think I was ready to come back in, based on my study, all I'd have to do was go to Mass to get cold water thrown on me: thoroughly disillusioning. Part of that was that I wasn't connected to a community . . . it wasn't a happy time because I was really feeling left in the lurch; intellectually persuaded of many things, but not any community life at all.

So I kept getting these Catholics on the air and debating. I thought it was good programming, too. I had Karl Keating on once debating Harold O.J. Brown. And I remember, Karl was good, but I was much more impressed with Harold: at how non-victorious his Protestant arguments were. I really thought that he'd be able to push Karl around a little bit, but he couldn't. Karl made some great points. Then I had Fr. Pater Stravinskas on, on Reformation Day, to talk about the Reformation with this Church history professor from Dallas Seminary, and again I was impressed with Fr. Peter, but I was very impressed at how the Dallas prof really couldn't justify the Reformation. When all was said and done, that guy had no reason to be a Protestant. He agreed with Fr. Peter that the real reasons for the Reformation were not theological, they were economical and political [he chuckles] . . .

Another major turning point was when I came across Matthew 16. I knew the Protestant arguments, and I had taught them myself. To be honest with you, I really thought that the Catholic argument was a justification of the status quo. I thought it was a rationalization of the papal office. I didn't think it was exegetically sound at all. There was such unanimity. All the preachers I'd ever heard on Matthew 16 said that the rock was Peter's faith, or it was a play on words, and I just assumed that. And I figured that evangelicals are known for exegesis; Catholics aren't, so evangelicals are probably right on this. So I went and picked up two commentaries in my library, by two noted evangelical New Testament scholars: Donald [D.A.] Carson, who is among the top ten brightest people I'd ever had on the air, and another fellow, R.T. France, whom I know is an excellent exegete. And I brought them up to my bed. And both of them, the same night (before I had ever heard Scott Hahn tapes); I read Carson, and he wrote "had it not been for Protestant overreaction to exaggerated papal claims, virtually nobody would have ever thought that the rock referred to Peter's faith. It's clearly a reference to Peter." And I said, "I've never heard that before!" Then I went over to R.T. France, and I read that, and I said, "is he quoting Carson?" He said virtually the same thing! And I was stunned. And I began to make some phone calls, and I found out that in New Testament scholarship, this is becoming the consensus position! Peter is the rock, not Peter's confession. It's straightforward.

The Marian dogmas were big problems. I still thought [around 1984] the Catholic claims on Mary were outrageous. I went back and read some essays, and concluded that the Bible alone wouldn't compel acceptance of the Marian dogmas; the Bible alone wouldn't lead you to them, yet sustained theological reflection on Jesus' relationship to His mother; if you take the humanity of Jesus with the utmost seriousness, and you take Mary as a real mother, not just a "conduit," and you begin to think about motherhood and sonship, and you think about what it means to receive a body from your mother: flesh . . . God didn't make Jesus' flesh in Mary's womb; He got Mary's flesh. If God had wanted to, He could have made Jesus as He made Adam: from the dust of the earth. But He didn't. He decided He would use a human being to give Jesus His humanity. And so what kind of flesh is Jesus gonna get? If He's gonna be perfect humanity, He'd better have perfect human flesh untainted by sin. To me the Immaculate Conception, seen in that light, made sense. The Assumption also seemed to me to make a great deal of sense. There were precedents to it: Enoch and Elijah, those who rose from the dead at the time of the rending of the veil of the Temple. And if Jesus is going to give anybodye priority; if He's going to truly honor His mother and father, wouldn't He give Mary, whose flesh He received, priority in the Resurrection? So I think that's what the doctrine of the Assumption preserves. I could go on and talk forever on the distinctive doctrines of the Church.

Artificial contraception . . . Dave wanted me to go into that [I had asked a question earlier]. I had a very difficult time seeing it as good logic. The Church insists that the multiple meanings of sexual intercourse always be exercised together. Since one of the meanings is procreation and another is intimacy or the what's called the "unitive function", those things can't be separated from one another licitly. I didn't like that, because it seemed to me that if intercourse served multiple purposes, then there's no reason why, at any particular time, one purpose ought to retain priority or even exclusivity in the exercise of that act. They were both good. I think that the change came when I finally hit upon an analogy; I had to see another human act in which multiple meanings had to be exercised together, and not separately. And I thought of eating food. Food serves multiple purposes: nutrition, secondly, pleasing our senses. God likes tastes; that's why He gave us taste buds. He wants food to taste good. What do we think of a person who says, "I really like the taste of food, so I'm going to disconnect my eating of food from nutrition, and I'm just gonna taste it." Well, we call him a glutton; we call him a "junk food junkie." What do we call a person who says, "I don't care about what food tastes like; I'm just gonna eat for nutrition's sake." We call him a prude or we have some other name for him. We think that they're lacking in their humanity. That helped me in understanding sexual intercourse. I think it's sinful just to eat for the taste, or merely for the nutrition, because you're denying the pleasure that God intended for you to receive, in eating good food. I say the same thing with sexual intercourse. You're sinful if you separate the multiple meanings of it. If you procreate simply to make babies, and you don't enjoy the other person as a person, I think that's sinful, and I think that if you merely enjoy sexual intimacy and pleasure, and are not open to sharing that with a third life: a potential child, then you're denying the meaning of sexual expression. That was a continuing realization that the Catholic Church had been there before me.

When I learned that you [me] were interested in the Catholic Church, it was kind of funny, because by that time I had been pursuing this on my own, and feeling like I was a little bit odd. So it was good for me, . . . I was their pastor for a while at Shalom, and Dave and Judy and Sally and I have known each other for many years, and I've always liked Dave and Judy. We've had some disagreements at times over the years, and a little bit of even, "combat," but I always was fond of them, because I always recognized them as people who were willing to live out their convictions, and that always means a lot to me. I like to be surrounded by people like that because it's very easy to just live in your head and not get it out onto your feet. So I knew that they were committed to living a Christian life. They were interested in simple living, and interested in alternate lifestyle. They saw themselves as being radical Christians. And I always liked that. So even when we disagreed, I was always fond of them, in that I respected what they were doing. So it was heartening to me, to find that my return to the Church was in its own way being paralleled by Dave's acceptance of Roman Catholicism. It was a queer parallelism. When we went to see Fr. John Hardon that night, I thought it was interesting and odd that you were doing it, but I told you that night: "it seems to me there are only two choices: either Orthodoxy or Catholicism." It was reassuring. I met Catholics through rescue that I actually liked, and that was heartening.

I returned to the Catholic Church, because, for all its shortcomings (which are obvious to many evangelicals), both evangelicalism and Catholicism suffered from the same kind of "immoral equivalency." All the things that I once thought were uniquely bad about Catholicism, I also saw in Protestantism, so it was kind of a wash. I stopped asking myself all the so-called practical questions, and made the decision based on theology alone. That way I got to compare theology with theology. People love to compare the practice of one group with the theology of another. So you end up with the theology of a John Calvin versus the practice of some babushka'd Catholic woman. And it's just not fair. You gotta compare apples with apples. Evangelicals tolerate pentecostal superstition and fundamentalist ignorance, without breaking fellowship. So why criticize the Catholics for tolerating some superstition and ignorance? Evangelical churches are largely made up of small, dead, ineffectual fellowships. Two-, three-generation fellowships that have lost their reason for existence, and they just keep rollin' along. The vast percentage of evangelical churches are about 75 people. And they're not doin' much. So what's the problem if Catholic churches are full of dead people too? It's a wash. Evangelicals tolerate and even respond positively to papal figures like Bill Gothard, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and men whose teachings or decisions explicitly or implicitly sets the tone of the discussion and suggests and insists upon right conclusions. And these men are not just popular leaders, they are populist leaders. In other words, they often appeal to the anti-intellectual side of the uneducated. They stir up resentments between factions in the Church Politic and the Body Politic. The pope, on the other hand, is not a populist leader. You don't see the pope, in the encyclicals I've read, taking cheap shots, driving wedges between the intelligentsia and the masses; you don't see them doing cheap rhetorical tricks, like you do find among popular evangelical leaders. If the pope plays his audience, it's usually through acts of piety. He's not trying to stir up resentments.

Evangelicals are currently seeking more sense of community and international community, more accountability -- you hear more talk about confessing your sins to one another; they're looking for a way to justify the canon, visible signs of unity. Catholicism has all these things. It offers them already. And then of course evangelicals seem only to be able to preserve doctrinal purity by separating, dividing, and splitting and rupturing the unity of Christ. That's their method for maintaining the truth: divide. And that to me is the devil's tactic: "go ahead, divide 'em; it's easier to conquer them that way." Even in the area of their strength (the Bible), evangelicals are not without serious shortcomings. Matthew 16 is a great example of that. What's worse?: to omit clear biblical teaching, or to add to it? Evangelicals omit fundamental biblical teaching about Peter as the rock, about the apostolic privilege of forgiving or retaining sins. These things are not unclear. They're only unclear in the Scripture if you've adopted a certain type of theology, and then you have to dance around, doing hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the clear intention of the verse. The binding and loosing passages in Matthew 16 and 18 are as plain as the nose on your face.

So I returned to the Catholic Church because I am absolutely convinced that the Roman Catholic Church preserves and retains (for all its shortcomings) the biblical shape of reality. It retains sacramental awareness, human mediation (which is a very prominent biblical theme which has been lost in evangelical churches), a sense of the sacred, which is present in the Scripture; and recognizes typology as having not only symbolic value, or pedagogical value, but also ontological value. It retains memorial consciousness and corporate personality, the idea of federal headship, doctrinal development. All of these things are lectures in and of themselves. But these things that people always wanna talk about (purgatory, saints, Mary), all fit into those categories. The structure of biblical reality is more present in Catholicism than any other tradition that I'm familiar with. And I'm really quite convinced that I don't have extravagant expectations, either. I think these things are really there. It's not a pipe dream.

[someone asked, "why not Orthodoxy?"]

Competing jurisdictions, which basically told me, "you need a pope." If the point is that you need a visible display of unity for the work of evangelism to have lasting success, how can you have the Russians and the Greeks fighting with one another all the time? I know conservatives and liberals fight in the Catholic Church, but it's structured in such a way as to be able to end the debate at some point. God acts infallibly through the papacy. The discussion can be settled. It can't be settled in Orthodoxy at this point. They're always fighting over jurisdictions. The laxity on divorce . . . I heard a saying recently that "your doctrine of ecclesiology will affect your doctrine of marriage, or vice versa." If you believe in divorce, then you believe in the Reformation, because you believe that Christ will divorce part of His Body. If you believe that the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church, is indivisible, then you will believe that (among Christians, anyway) marriage is indivisible. There should be no divorce. And I think that the Orthodox are lax in that area. I think that they're too ethnic -- that's probably due to a type of caesaropapism, and that their views of culture don't seem to work out very well. Those are some of the reasons. Also, it just wasn't around. Where do you go? You have to work too hard to find a place, and then you have to worry about whether they'll do it in English. I went to St. Suzanne's first of all because it was around the corner, and I believe that geography has a lot to do with community.

[I asked, "what was the very last thing that put you over the edge?"]

It was very incremental. Instead of their being one moment of decisive realization, there were moments of little pinpricks of light along the way. In one sense I crossed the line when I heard Fr. Stravinskas describing the Mass as a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice, and I realized that the worldview that he was presenting was the worldview that I had believed for a long time, but had not been able to articulate. But I didn't know where to go from there. I think it was the same day that that happened, the one man who had been most influential on my thinking on the relationship between religion and culture during the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus, announced that he had become a Catholic. I said, "oh my God!" His book, The Naked Public Square, really shaped my thinking on the relationship between religion and public life.

And another one would be the Scott Hahn tapes on Mary. What Scott did for me was, he managed to draw enough suggestive biblical material, that my ideas of development now could be fed from the Scripture. You have to understand that the Marian dogmas just seemed excessive. It's not that I had any intrinsic hostility to them. I thought they were kind of nice in their own way. But I didn't see the biblical precedent to it. He gave me enough biblical material to ignite a spark of hope about them, and then when I began reading the theology on them, I said, "I can receive this now." We're talking months.

I remember now: I needed reassurance. I'd forgotten all about this. What was on my mind was the work of the kingdom, and whether I could be as effective within the Catholic Church, as I could be in the Protestant church. I hadn't nailed down everything about Catholicism, but I recognized that the shape of Catholicism was a lot closer to the Bible, than a lot of what I was seeing in Protestantism. But practically speaking, you don't see Catholic evangelists out there very much. It came down to this: what justified staying apart? "What reason do I have for not being there?"

Monday, November 15, 2004

"Why I Returned to the Catholic Church" (Al Kresta), Part I

(Talk given on 4-26-92; edited and transcribed by Dave Armstrong)

Al Kresta was raised Catholic, converted to evangelical Protestantism, became a prominent talk show host and a pastor, and then reconverted to Catholicism. He is the author of Why Do Catholics Genuflect?: And Answers to Other Puzzling Questions About the Catholic Church and host of Kresta in the Afternoon, which is syndicated nationwide. His reconversion story was one of eleven conversion testimonies included in the bestseller Surprised by Truth (the last story, and right after my own). Al and I have been friends since 1982, and he was my own pastor shortly before I converted to Catholicism. This is one of the most remarkable, "meaty," thought-provoking conversion stories and extended criticisms of Protestantism (though within an overall ecumenical attitude of respect and affection), that I have ever seen. I have had the desire to transcribe this for many years. 

The following is an edited version of Al's talk, which took place at my house on 4-26-92. It lasted about 3 1/2 to 4 hours, and every minute was interesting and informative. His own title for it was "Why I Returned to the Church." I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have (many times). Rather than include lots of ellipses (. . .), breaks in the talk (where I have edited) will be indicated by new paragraphs (though not every such break means that I have edited).
* * * * * 

This is why I returned to the Catholic Church, not necessarily why you ought to. I'm more than happy to make a presentation some night to say why you ought to. This is my story of how I returned.

I was raised Roman Catholic, in a church-going, sacrament-receiving home. I have, really, very positive memories of my upbringing. I liked it. It was kind of mysterious. I remember going there, and there was the Eucharist, and that was Jesus, and the church was in hushed silence. There was this awe.

I had that sense of the sacred from my experience in the Church. My first confession, I still remember as one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I ever had. I remember emerging from the confessional and leaving the church on a Saturday afternoon, and finding myself floating off the ground. I felt that I was united with God, that my sins were forgiven; it was a great experience, and I remember it to this day. That has a lot to do with my early years; basically a positive experience. Once I hit my teen years, it was a different story. It was the mid-60s. I graduated from high school in 1969, and during those high school and teen years I went the way that a lot of kids did during that period.

I have one other experience from that adolescent time that I think is probably significant. In May 1969 I was doing quite a few drugs and this was a particular LSD trip that I took. It was a death trip, and I thought I was dying. I was brought to the hospital. It turns out there was nothing wrong with me. I was just going crazy. I remember that night, thinking I was dying, and calling on Mary -- being able to fall asleep after hours of struggle. I woke up the next morning like the slate had been made clean. It was great. I think I only had a few minor drug experiences after that. I don't know what to make of that, really. It was one of those odd experiences that you just have, and you forget. It didn't form any theological backdrop for me, subsequently -- trying to search, after those drug experiences for what was real, and true, and good. Catholicism wasn't on the list, so I still don't know what to make of that experience, spiritually or psychologically. I still believed there was something there. I was not an atheist by any stretch of the imagination. A pagan of some sort, but not an atheist, I would say.

Let me jump to the time I began following Jesus as an adult. That was in 1974. I was 23, almost 24 years old, I guess. When I began following Jesus, and accepted the authority of Scripture, I guess the key was that it was a conversion to the authority of Scripture, as much as it was to a person. Because of the spiritual confusion that I had had, in the New Age movement, it was imperative that I get away from a subjective, internal test for truth, and find truth independent and external to myself, and that's what the Bible provided for me. It gave me a way of testing competing truth claims. I was really happy to begin Bible study. I had a good pastor . . . I thought, naively, that if you knew the original languages [of the Bible], all these denominational things would fall by the wayside, you'll get to the real truth of it, and right at the beginning of my discipleship he [my pastor] made it clear that you could know the Hebrew and the Greek and you would still have all these denominations. The Bible is authoritative, but even knowing the original languages won't settle all these issues. You're gonna have to live with 'em.

I pretty much adopted the Bible Alone as my authority. Baptists were in. Lutherans were kind of out, because they had robes and believed in baptismal regeneration. Reformed people and Presbyterians were pretty good, but you couldn't figure out why they baptized infants and they didn't believe in the Millennium. They were good for a lot of things, but not for everything. And pentecostals were puzzling, too, because they believed the Bible a lot but they seemed to get too much into this experiential thing, and you couldn't make out what they were saying, half the time -- this tongues-speaking. Reformed and Presbyterian people provided the best scholars for the Bible-believing movement, but they baptized infants and they didn't believe in the Millennium. So I guess I was a fundamentalist in the early years because it was a narrow focus. But my pastor had a great heart and embraced many many people. That was a good spirit.

The people who influenced me in my reading, then, were Francis Schaeffer -- probably no greater single influence in my life at that point, than him; C.S Lewis, Josh McDowell. I was very influenced by the campus movements, like Campus Crusade for Christ, Inter-Varsity . . . I spent time with friends of mine, convincing them to leave the Catholic Church, and I spent time with priests. I wasn't hostile to Catholicism; I want to make that clear, but the priests I met were dumb. I had just been reading the Bible for about a year, and I could turn them into doctrinal pretzels. They really didn't know their stuff. Most of the priests I met were really nice guys, and that's about all that I could say for them. Their mentality was sort of an "all you need is love" mentality. But at least you better define "love" a bit. What does that mean? It drives you back to the cross. Now, I might think very differently if I met them now, but at the time it seemed like they were not doctrinally-oriented, and they always kept stressing, too, how much the Church was changing, when for me at the time, that was really a negative. I wanted something that was firm, and unyielding, and for me that was the Scripture.

There were people who came out of the Catholic Church as a result of my work. I was suspicious of Roman Catholicism for all the traditions that it had. I got tired of meeting Catholics who kept complaining about being Catholics; about birth conrtrol, this, that, and the other thing, or divorce. My answer always was, "get out! Why do you want to be there, then? Just get out!" I couldn't figure it out. I still have similar feelings about that. It's one thing to have respectful disagreements, conscientious objections, and things like that, but don't go around moaning about it; it stirs up trouble.

I was still real young, not knowing much about Church history. I was like most Protestants: you think the Church began with Jesus and Paul, skipped over to Martin Luther, and then you hit Billy Graham. So my roommate [who owned a complete set of the Fathers' writings] started telling me about Polycarp, and Ignatius and I thought, "this is very interesting stuff." He stressed that the early Church believed in the Real Presence. Well, I couldn't deal with all this. I was interested in evangelism, and Real Presence was not really important. I continued the work of evangelism, and a number of people came into relationship with Christ, and I noticed right away that the community I was a part of, was in some ways a lot less spiritually motivated than the New Age group that I had come out of, and that was very disturbing to me. The people who I began worshiping with were generous and kind, and they helped me out, but their lives were not oriented to living out their convictions to the same degree as the New Age group I was with before I began following Jesus.

I also saw tremendous disunity among Christians. They were always fighting about things that, in my naivete, I thought were non-essentials. I saw a lot of superstition, very odd pastoral practices: large numbers of arranged marriages, . . . I was also becoming very uncomfortable with evangelicalism's a-historicism. It had no sense of history!

There was no way of writing off the Catholic tradition. It had to be received as legitimate, at least to a certain extent. It was a matter of now having to say, "the Tradition itself does preserve the objective value of Jesus' atonement." So I could no longer write the Catholic tradition off as somehow sub-Christian. But still, Catholicism was not an option, for many many reasons: superstition, doctrinal laxity, so many things.

I began using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. That was very helpful: the elegance of the language, the loftiness of the sentiments, the clarity of the prayerful intention, convinced me that the problem with form prayers were not the forms themselves, but with people who were incapable of filling the forms with genuine piety and conviction.

Because of all these various influences upon me, I never chose a theological tradition. I really couldn't sum myself up as a Lutheran, or a reformed, even a Baptist. I never found a systematic theology that I was comfortable with. I was more practically and evangelistically oriented. I didn't have time to work through all this. In fact, it's only been since I got out of the pastorate, that I began thinking systematically; theologically. Most of my theology has always been task-oriented. I went to churches, but I was never a member of a church until I pastored one.

After I got out of college, I began managing Christian bookstores, and that was an important influence. It looked to me like there were sheep and goats everywhere. It became increasingly difficult to decide who was in and who was out. You couldn't use the old shibboleths anymore: "are you born again?," because, first of all, anybody could say they were, and secondly, the Bible doesn't make a big issue out of being born again. It really doesn't. It uses a lot of different images: a half a dozen to a dozen different images to represent salvation. The reason why [they use the terminology] "born again" is because it's part of their tradition! [laughter] And they're comfortable with it. I had to broaden more and more to embrace more and more people who I understood as my brothers and sisters.

I was also influenced a lot by this notion that C.S. Lewis popularized, called "mere Christianity." It was very very helpful to me in the early years. Later on, when I became a pastor, I found that it wasn't very helpful at all. But in evangelism it was great, because you were able to cut through all the theological debates and the various traditions and try to bring a person to make a decision about Jesus. You didn't have to defend baptism, or the Eucharist. You didn't have to defend anything but the deity of Christ, and the fact of His atonement, and the need that you have to trust Him. And that was what I tried to live off, for a long long time.

Friends of mine started asking me to teach about cults. My wife's cousin got involved with the Way International (Jesus is a created being; classic Arianism). I offered to write a response to the Way International for Sally's cousin. I was disturbed, because the answers that I hoped I would find in the Scriptures were not as self-evident as I thought they would be. The doctrine of the Trinity is not as self-evident in the Scripture as most cult researchers would like you to believe. It takes a good deal of reflection, collating various verses, logical analysis, and prayer, to come to the conclusion that God is Triune. And I could see why Jehovah's Witnesses and the Way International, relying on the Bible alone, might come to the conclusion they did. I thought they were wrong; I didn't think they offered the best explanation of the biblical material, but I could see a good faith effort with some intellectual error mixed in, could lead them to the conclusion that they had. On what basis could I exclude them from the faith? I learned the value of creeds and councils. The ones who were arguing that Jesus was not God, were arguing that they were the ones who reached their conclusions on the Bible alone. It was the heretics who said they were relying on the Bible alone, and it was the orthodox, the Catholics, who were appealing to a living Tradition. That was disturbing to me. I thought what was interesting was that the Church didn't argue on the basis of the Bible alone. The Church argued on the basis of the Bible and the history of teaching. That was one big thing that hit me.

I also read the apostolic Fathers [around this time], and I couldn't figure out how they got to be Catholic so quickly after the apostles left. I was amazed at how Catholic Ignatius was. He calls the Eucharist the "medicine of immortality." Nothing symbolic about it; there's actually something good for his soul. He has bishops all over, who are supposed to be obeyed. What happened in ten years?! You've got sacramentalism coming in, ecclesiasticism coming in . . . I couldn't figure out how the Church could have been so corrupted and filled with false tradition. But they keep appealing to what's gone on before. This was troubling to me, because some of the distinctive doctrines of Catholicism were already believed by the apostolic Fathers. I was also troubled because on the basis of the Bible alone, you could just as well end up with the heretics, as the orthodox. I didn't know what to do with this.

Another big thing hit me at that time, and that was the idea of development. I could see in reading the Bible, that various doctrines which appear full flower in the New Testament, are mere seeds in the Old Testament. I asked myself that if God was interested in developing doctrine in the canon of Scripture, why isn't He interested in it after the closing of the canon? The doctrine of the afterlife [for example] was vague in the Old Testament. It isn't until one of the last books in the Old Testament, that you end up with clear teaching on the resurrection (Daniel). You can find the doctrine of the atonement developed similarly. I began reading Newman, for a variety of reasons. I was impressed with him as a stylist and as a devout man of God, but for whatever reason, I was unpersuaded. I was still afraid of the idea of doctrinal development outside of the New Testament.

Sally (around 1980 or 1981) bought me a two-volume biography of the evangelist / revivalist George Whitefield. I found a great man, who was great friends with John Wesley, and both of them practiced forms of superstition. I was amazed. They were characters. This was not a debunking kind of biography at all. If anything it was a Protestant piece of hagiography. Wesley made some major life decisions by casting lots. He was not the "man in control" that he is often presented as being. Wesley and Whitefield are two of the great figures of evangelicalism. They were revivalists. And they were marvelous people. I was inspired a great deal by the biography. But at the same time I had to deal with the fact that these guys practiced forms of superstition in the conduct of their lives, that if I saw today, I would say "How foolish; how silly." I was living upstairs from a Mexican couple, who were Roman Catholic, and they were involved in all kinds of unusual devotional practices, none of which I paid much attention to, but wrote them off as superstitious. Then I find out that Wesley and Whitefield practiced some forms of superstition as well. So you come up with this "immoral equivalency."

Shortly after this I ended up hospitalized for depression, twice. From '82 to '85, I was having to take medication, and to live a life in which I was pretty much a practical atheist. The universe seemed utterly meaningless and without coherence and there seemed to be no God, no purpose, and no meaning. I came out of that in May of 1985. I said to God, "you know, it's been three years now, and you know I want to serve You, but I'm not convinced You're even there anymore, and this is becoming a futile effort. I've got to get along with my life. I've got a wife and daughter here." I went down to Thomas Merton's Abbey Gethsemane. I'd read Merton's Seven Storey Mountain and thought it was a great story. When I went down there it was sort of a do or die effort. I was saddened; I wasn't angered about God. I was saddened that He apparently treated His friends so badly. And He probably didn't exist, and this is just life. It's pointless, but we have to pretend that there is a point to it.

Lo and behold, after three years of darkness -- light. During my stay down there I had three visions, or images, if you will, which were the only rays of light that had given me any sense of meaning or purpose through that terrible period of darkness. I could go off and speak on this for days, because it was so remarkable. I did the Liturgy of the Hours down there, and talked to a priest, and when I came out, my life began to reassemble itself. I still had some difficulties, but overall, I was back on track again. It was a great experience. I started reading theology and Scripture again, and began to pray again.

Luther is really the father of the way evangelicals preach on justification. The apostle Paul was not concerned with the same things Luther was concerned with. If you analyze Luther's experience: the questions he was asking God: they're not the same things the apostle Paul was asking of God. Luther has been like a lens that Protestants have put on to read the New Testament. Luther was preoccupied with how he could gain acceptance by a gracious God. This was his question. But the apostle Paul doesn't seem too concerned about that at all. He has a rather robust conscience before God. He knew that God was gracious. He never pleads with either Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience, and then release that anguish in a message of forgiveness through Christ. He never urges that kind of revivalistic experience upon his readers. When Paul does speak of himself as a serious sinner at all, it's not because of his existential anguish under the righteousness of God in general, but very specifically, because not having recognized that Messiah had come in Christ, he had persecuted the Church, and fought the opening of God's covenant to the Gentiles. That was Paul's issue. It wasn't personal acceptance before God. Luther was asking questions the apostle Paul really wasn't concerned about.

The Jews understood that salvation was granted by God's electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. Most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God's covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works. Wrong! That's not what they did. That was Luther's problem, not Paul's problem. The Jews weren't boasting that they could attain righteousness by doing works. They were boasting that they were God's chosen -- by grace. Paul agonized over the social nature of the Church. Luther, on the other hand, agonized over the personal assurance of God's acceptance. In other words, Luther, by having misunderstood Paul, developed a whole new approach to religion. The irony of it is, he probably developed it out of Catholic corruptions in the Middle Ages. [laughter] Paul wasn't that concerned about individual salvation. That wasn't his issue. The issue was the nature of the body: the community. This [realization] allowed me to establish even more distance from the evangelical tradition (around 1985).

[recounts how bookstore customers wanted Jack Chick materials, which his stores refused to sell] I was hit again with how anti-Catholic fundamentalism and evangelicalism is. There is a deep streak of bigotry that runs through it. I wasn't that worried about it, though, because in my own mind I could write that off.

The question of the canon of Scripture had always bothered me, almost from the beginning. Where'd it come from? It seemed like such an obvious question that I figured there's gotta be lots of good answers to it and that everybody must know why we have a canon of Scripture. Jesus left us with a community before He left us with a book. I found the appeal to an authoritative Church far more honest and consistent than an appeal to an authoritative Bible. So I ceased to defend the canon of Scripture with any enthusiasm -- except by an appeal to an authoritative Church. The problem was I didn't know where this Church was. It couldn't be the Roman Catholic Church. It just couldn't be. There's too many problems there.