The Sovereignty of God, or, My Brush with Calvinism, Part 2: A Crisis of Faith

The next post in my spiritual autobiography, and the conclusion(?) to my account of my struggle with Calvinism. I don’t know; maybe there will be more. I thought I would nudge a couple of Reformed friends in case they might be interested in my thoughts.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

I grew a lot as a person and as a Christian over the next few years — though still in short spurts, leaps, and sometimes stumbles. Over the last couple of years of my undergraduate career, I continued to have occasional flirtations with Calvinism. I hung out a few times with the fledgling RUF group on our campus, and attended the nondenominational Campus Crusade from time to time. But I struggled to feel that I fit in in any meaningful way. I visited the churches of several friends, but for reasons I don’t entirely understand looking back, I never settled down. I remained restless, insecure, and lonely.

In the spring of 2009, thanks be to God, I finally graduated. Over the next summer I flailed around uselessly looking for a job — and then, in one of the clearest manifestations of God’s providence that I’ve experienced, one came to me. One day my friend Gloria, who had been one of my dearest Christian friends in school and always an example to me of how to live one’s faith on campus, wrote on my Facebook wall. “Hey, Joseph, would you like to teach Greek at a Christian school?”

The Trivium

The Trivium.

Would I! I don’t think there could have been a more perfect job for me at that time if it had been custom-tailored. All through my undergraduate degree majoring in history, I had never given any serious thought to teaching or pursued teaching credentials — but to my great surprise and joy, I loved teaching more than anything I’d ever done. My year at Veritas Classical School, teaching history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary to grades seven through twelve, was a monumental landmark in my journey as a student, teacher, and Christian.

But more on that later. In coming to Veritas, my road brought me face to face with Calvinism.

That year also — not coincidentally — brought my walk with God closer than it had been in many years. Becoming a teacher, I felt an obligation to be a model and example spiritually, a mentor and tutor and protector as well. I prayed for my students before I even met them, and for myself that I would be worthy to stand before them. For the first time I read the whole New Testament with an eye to serious Bible study. For my thirtieth birthday I bought myself a new Bible — the Reformed-friendly ESV Study Bible. It was a time of great growth, and I felt that that — towards the Reformed — was the direction my faith was moving in.

Calvin with books

As it turned out, the teacher I was replacing at Veritas was Megan, whom I had known years earlier as a member of the Society. (The pool of students in North Alabama trained in classical languages being small, this was not as big a coincidence as one might think.) She had recently had a baby and was leaving the school to be a mother. In my preparation that summer, I visited Megan’s home a couple of times to discuss curricula and planning. I was immediately impressed with the bookshelves of Megan and her husband: tome upon tome of Christian literature, particularly Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and other works of the Protestant Reformers. Could this be the intellectual foundation for my faith I’d been looking for? In talking with Megan, I was struck with a major emphasis of her teaching: history as a product of God’s sovereign will.

Veritas met in the building of a small Presbyterian church, and though at the forefront I’d been told that its reach was ecumenical — that I would have students of all different Christian traditions, and that no particular doctrinal position was expected of me — I learned very quickly that in its wider affiliations, Veritas was by and large Reformed. Toward the end of that summer, I attended a few days of workshops with the founders and leaders of the Veritas organization, at a large Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area.

The Apostle Paul

(This is the Protestant Paul.)

It must have been the will of God that I would be reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that week, that specifically I would have arrived at Romans 8, 9, and 10. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’d read a passage of Scripture and had the nagging thought, What if the Calvinists are right? But the morning of the first day of workshops, I remember sitting in the beautiful garden of the home that had so graciously hosted us, reading those chapters. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the rising panic, as the words seemed to confirm what I feared: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:21–23). As I review my notes from that day (I kept a journal of my studies), I see that I made a surprisingly sharp exegesis then — which I can only credit to the Holy Spirit — as my mind reeled, clawing for an understanding of the passage that didn’t entail what it appeared to entail.

Over the next several days, as I was pondering these words, I found myself cast into an increasingly alien and uncomfortable situation: Veritas seemed to be an overwhelmingly Reformed phenomenon; every teacher whom I met was motivated by a Calvinistic outlook on faith, on education, and on history. Not only that — but I’d had up till that point only marginal contact with homeschooling and its mechanics and philosophy and culture; here I was thrown into the thick of a stirred pot in which everyone around me was a native and veteran and I was a lost foreigner, not knowing the terminology or concepts or attitudes. I heard lecture after lecture on incorporating a Christian worldview into education, and on that worldview’s inherent opposition to my whole, secular, academic educational background; how the whole world I had known, everything I’d been taught, was opposed to God and the Christian formation of young people. I wrote in my journal, amid my lecture notes and observations, God, I’m scared. God, I’m so terrified. A page or so later: More and more horrified. I can’t do this. I have absolutely nothing in common with these people. By the second day of this, I had all but resolved that I would resign my position at the first opportunity.

Van Gogh, Man with His Head in His Hands

Man with His Head in His Hands (1882), by Vincent Van Gogh (WikiPaintings).

As these ideas worked through my head, and my reflections on Romans 9 continued to mushroom, I felt more and more alienated and alone: and this brewing storm soon blossomed into a full-brown crisis of faith. I began to seriously question whether I was even a Christian, if I even knew God at all. I remember sitting at a table there at that Presbyterian church, feeling more alone than I ever had, as the thoughts I’d been collecting finally coalesced: How could a loving God, a God who is love, create some flesh with no other purpose but to be damned? That rather than loving every creature, He only “endures with much patience” those “prepared for destruction” whom He doesn’t love at all, they existing only to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,” those predestined for glory? How could a loving God deliberately and arbitrarily consign some on His creations to hell and save others, based on no merit or fault or choice or action of either? How could it be that many of the people around me, those whom I knew and loved — the very neighbors whom Jesus commanded us to love and serve, for whom he called us to give ourselves wholly — were “objects of wrath,” of mere tolerance in God’s eyes, and not of love? were hopelessly damned from the beginning of the universe? were bereft of any hope at all of salvation? The notions I had understood seemed to undermine the whole gospel of Christ as I knew it, to reject the essential dignity of all men and women, to call into question my entire moral fabric: if some men are not worthy even of the love of God, then why love the hurting or seek the lost? why feed the hungry or clothe the poor or bind up the brokenhearted? I began to understand, I thought, so much of what I saw in the world around me, why so few Christians in America seemed to care about the plight of the least of these: they are not “of us,” so they must be “vessels prepared for destruction.” As my horror reached it peak, I came to a conclusion: If this is the God I’m being asked to serve, then I want no part of that god.

Of course, so much of this was overreaction, and the fruit of everything else I was feeling at that time. These thoughts are not fair representations of the ideas or formulations of well-minded people of the Reformed faith. But I still feel truthfully that these are the logical implications and consequences of Reformed propositions.

Crossroads

As I went home after three days in Atlanta, I had come to a sense of peace. I don’t remember even acknowledging it consciously, but my conclusion had reduced to an absurdity: That couldn’t be the God I love and serve, therefore the premises from which I was proceeding must be false. The Calvinist understanding of Romans 9 must be mistaken: for it otherwise contradicts all the rest of Scripture and revelation. Over the coming weeks, I devoted myself more and more to Scripture study and prayer. I delved into Paul’s meaning and context, and at last came to understand; looking back, my notes upon my reading that first day were pretty dead on. It was an epoch in my journey: I never again seriously considered Calvinism as a valid theological option or the Reformed faith as a destination for my pilgrimage.

In the end, I stuck with Veritas. The director of our school was so very reassuring and so supportive. He restored my faith in my own calling and gifts, and in the promise of Veritas. He never asked me to teach in a way with which I wasn’t comfortable, and stood behind me through my entire year there. And the students and the parents and the environment made the most loving, nurturing, enriching educational experience I’d ever been a part of. I loved teaching more than I ever could have known, and loved my students with all my heart. I left convinced of the merits of classical education and homeschooling — but more on that next time.

I shot the Albatross.

Gustave Dore, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Gustave Dore, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

I guess I owe the blog, and my readers, a few words, lest they languish.

My longsuffering thesis is still suffering. I am agonizing over it. I need to just push through and do it. I think, at least, some pieces are coming together, and I am ready for another valiant push.

I’ve been struggling. Please pray for me.

Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe?

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur. (WikiPaintings.org)

For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”

As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.

Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (WikiPaintings.org)

So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.

The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera. (WikiPaintings.org)

This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing somethingany work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.

So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).

Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”

Laid low and lifted high: On Reconciliation, and awards too!

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings.org).

It’s been a pretty brutal couple of weeks. I am pretty beaten up and beaten down. I haven’t had the energy or the motivation to write. I’m forcing myself even now. Because I don’t want to abandon this thing.

There is a lot of negative I could be focusing on right now; but this blog is meant to be about the positive, the beauty and the majesty and the glory of Christ and His Church. So all I will say is that I am hurting too much on my own right now to engage in the kind of knock-down, drag-out apologetic debate that I was courting before. I am tired, very tired, of spilling my breath and my words for Christians who are still living the battles of 500 years ago, still cultivating those ancient, festering wounds; who are more about division and separation in self than union and communion in Christ; who would rather reject their fellow believer in rancor and hate than love and forgive their neighbor in charity. I am tired of liberal friends and acquaintances misunderstanding and misrepresenting and deriding my faith; I am tired of a secular culture determined to call the black white and the twisted path straight; I am tired of politics in which even the lesser of two evils still looks pretty evil to me. I am really weary of this world.

But I am thankful for a Lord whose grace is sufficient for my every need, Whose strength is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); Who even when I am most broken down abounds in the power to forgive and heal and save; Who is faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). I am thankful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where His grace will always meet me at my lowest; for His Penance which guides me to restoration. I am thankful for His Eucharist, His daily, most intimate Presence; His blessed Bread of Life to nourish my soul. I am thankful for a pastor and confessor who will hear me, who is unsparing in his discipline but overflowing with Christ’s mercy.

I am thankful for my dear blog-friends, who have presented me with another award: the Reader Appreciation Award, to mark the appreciation of my readers:

Reader Appreciation Award

Both Foraging Squirrel and Jessica of All Along the Watchtower nominated me for this award; and for both of them I am very honored and grateful.

The rules for accepting this thing are that I thank and link back to those who nominated me (done), and pass it along to some other fine people. I have been detached from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, but I will try to determine who hasn’t already received these; maybe even introduce someone new to our circle of blog-friends.

These blogs and bloggers are some that I genuinely appreciate and recommend:

  • The Reluctant Road – Somebody has probably already given him this, and I don’t think he posts these things anyway, but I always enjoy his blog. Before my conversion, evangelicalism was increasingly foreign to me; Anthony, as a fellow evangelical convert, tries to make sense of it and gently demonstrate some of the misguided paths it has taken. He’s a man after my own heart, in that he still loves the people and places he’s left behind and isn’t lashing out in anger.
  • Thoughts from a Catholic – Chris has many insightful things to say from the rational perspective of an engineer (God love the engineers; they keep us liberal artists from floating away). If you haven’t read his blog, you ought to check it out.
  • SatelliteSaint – A fellow pilgrim on the road to God, Tucker has deep and valuable and sometimes piercing insights into Christianity. He is a Protestant with affinities for history and tradition and the wider Church. I still haven’t quite figured out where he’s going, but that’s part of the enjoyment in reading.

I’m not supposed to say something else interesting about myself, am I? Good, because I’m afraid that tank is running a little dry right now.

Please pray for me, my dear friends.

A burden for Christian unity

Giotto di Bondone. The Lamentations Over Our Lord Christ. Cappella Scrovegni a Padova.1305

I am really deeply troubled.

I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but this is the same burden that has been dogging me all weekend.

It seems very wrong, very contrary to the will of God, that even in the decadence of modern secular society — a decadence that threatens even the Church — the Church of Christ remains deeply divided against itself. We are fighting among ourselves when we should be fighting for Christ.

This was the sentiment behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document drafted by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus in 1994. A number of prominent leaders in both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church agreed to it and signed it. More troubling, though, is the not insignificant number of leaders on both sides who attacked the document and refused to have anything to do with it.

500 years after the Reformation, there are still a large number of evangelicals who will offer no quarter to a Catholic, who will not even sit down at the table with one lest there be any appearance of compromise. They would separate themselves from all fellowship with Catholics, even deny them a place in the kingdom of God. These are not just fringe elements; these include major leaders and theologians such as R. C. Sproul. People like James White write whole books attacking Catholicism and denying that Catholics are Christian. I have run into quite a few of these people in just my short time in the blogosphere. Even my own best friends would rather fight me when it comes to discussing doctrine than seek common ground. And every time it happens I feel a burden of rejection and frustration and despair.

And I don’t understand it. There is a wide diversity of doctrine in Protestantism — yet not the same kind of unfathomable chasm. Calvinists and Arminians disagree sharply, but are willing to have conversations with each other. Baptists and Methodists can agree to disagree about infant baptism versus believer’s baptism. These are issues that go just as deeply into soteriology, the theology of salvation, as the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and yet many Protestants wouldn’t even consider a similar truce with a Catholic.

James White argues that Catholics and Protestants disagree fundamentally about what the Gospel even is. Having been both a Protestant and a Catholic, that argument is incomprehensible to me. Of course it’s the same Gospel. How can anyone deny that? I follow the same Christ I’ve followed all my life. I hope in the same salvation, the same forgiveness of sins, the same resurrection. My Protestant Baptism was acceptable to the Catholic Church; why can’t my Catholic justification be valid in the eyes of a Protestant?

Catholics and Protestants have deep disagreements about doctrine. I don’t deny that, and I don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. If we believe what we teach, then it necessarily means believing that the other side of the argument is wrong. But look at it this way: Regardless of which side is right, the other is not excluded from salvation. If it is true, as Catholics believe, that we are justified by the outpouring of God’s grace through faith, and sanctified over the course of our lives as we walk in that grace, then certainly many Protestants, who faithfully believe in Christ and from that faith follow Him and walk with Him, will be saved. Or if it is true, as Protestants believe, that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through His grace, then certainly many Catholics who have a genuine faith in Christ will be saved. The only way to exclude Catholics from salvation, as some Protestants are wont to do, is to believe that salvation is by faith in the five solas alone — that by confessing the Reformation we are saved.

I have no interest in attacking the Protestant faith. I will defend the Catholic faith, but it is deeply unpleasant to me to be forced to return polemic for polemic, as I’ve had to do in White’s case. I am glad to help any pilgrim who wishes to cross the Tiber, but even more deeply than that, I want to build a bridge, on which both sides might meet and resolve some of these rancorous disputes. I long for Christendom to be at peace.

A Breather

Marc Chagall - David, climbing Mount of Olives

Chassé de Jérusalem par Absalon de nouveau révolté, David, pieds nus, gravit la colline des Oliviers (Driven from Jerusalem by Absalom having revolted again, David, on foot, climbed the Mount of Olives), by Marc Chagall (1956).

Whew. That last post wore me out.

I am feeling very troubled and worn at the polemic tone my blog has taken the last week or two. It has never been my aim to attack Protestants or evangelicals. I was one for so long, and still share in that heritage, and most of the Christians I know are evangelicals. And I love them as my brothers and sisters in the Lord.

I just, in the fast few weeks, have encountered so much rejection and misunderstanding and prejudice of Protestants toward Catholics — denials that we are even Christians. I knew there was such sentiment out there in the world, but I thought it only existed at the extreme fringes. I had no idea such thoughts were so prevalent among Christians of Reformed stripes. I feel very tired.

My aim was to challenge these people, gently, to present a straightforward case that we are Christians, too. It comes down to grace — we believe in God’s salvation by grace alone, too. We love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. We do not teach “works’ salvation” or “Pelagianism.” We do not “worship” Mary. But my gentle suggestions have only been met with violent response. And I have reacted violently and defensively in turn. I am very sorry.

I would not have chosen this path if I thought for a moment I was leaving behind the Gospel of Christ. I only made this decision after years of searching and praying and studying. I am not an idiot or a rube or a mindless sheep who does not understand the teachings of my own Church. Yet I am insulted again and again by people who think they know better than I do, who regurgitate lies they have been fed and are not open to any challenge.

It’s a tide I can’t turn back. I was naïve to think I could. People’s prejudices are too entrenched. If I could change just one person’s mind, I said, my efforts would not be in vain. But I feel I’m only ranting at deaf statues. They label me the enemy, just for speaking out, and they shut out my words. I guess this is what Jesus was talking about when He said some would not receive us. But it shouldn’t be this hard to speak to fellow Christians.

I’m not sure I’m going to finish this book. Not right now, anyway. I need a breather. I will try to post some light, happy, hopeful things, to you, my beloved friends. Thank you for sticking with me.

Against a Charge of Pelagianism

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), by Philippe de Champaigne.

(I was accused of heresy today. I’m sure it won’t be the last time, but since it’s the first time, I’m rather upset, and was interrupted from writing your regularly scheduled post. Rather than leave this as a lengthy comment on an innocent bystander’s blog, I thought I would post it here.)

Oh, so you want to appeal to the historic Church? I hope you are prepared to support your arguments.

First, the Pelagian heresy espoused that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature, and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. Which the Catholic Church explicitly denies, and always has. You should remember that it was the Catholic Church that branded Pelagianism a heresy in the first place and rejected it at the Council of Carthage in 419 — which affirmed that without God’s grace, it was impossible to do good works (Canon 113). The Council of Trent again affirmed in 1547:

If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Canon I “On Justification”).

So if you’ve going to charge anyone with Pelagianism, you should (1) know what Pelagius actually taught; (2) remember who it was who condemned Pelagius; and (3) understand what the party you’re charging actually teaches.

The Catholic Church in every way affirms that salvation is from God and by God; that God does the saving, by His grace alone, not man, by anything that he does or could do. Believing that God offers His grace freely, but allows man the free will to choose or reject it, is a far different proposition than claiming “man saves himself.” You are charging the Church with an opinion that it does not hold, does not assert, and has never asserted.

Second — you claim your view is that of the “historic Church” and St. Augustine. Would you agree with these statements?

[L]est the will itself should be deemed capable of doing any good thing without the grace of God, after saying, “His grace within me was not in vain, but I have laboured more abundantly than they all,” he immediately added the qualifying clause, “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” In other words, Not I alone, but the grace of God with me. And thus, neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it he himself alone, but it was the grace of God with him. For his call, however, from heaven and his conversion by that great and most effectual call, God’s grace was alone, because his merits, though great, were yet evil. (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, 5:12) (A.D. 427)

Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle’s statement: We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law (Romans 3:28), have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works. Impossible is it that such a character should be deemed a vessel of election by the apostle, who, after declaring that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, Galatians 5:6 adds at once, but faith which works by love. (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will VI.18)

… This love the Apostle Peter did not yet possess, when he for fear thrice denied the Lord (Matthew 26:69-75). There is no fear in love, says the Evangelist John in his first Epistle, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). But yet, however small and imperfect his love was, it was not wholly wanting when he said to the Lord, I will lay down my life for Your sake (John 13:37); for he supposed himself able to effect what he felt himself willing to do. And who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will, and perfects by His co-operation what He initiates by His operation? Forasmuch as in beginning He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will. On which account the apostle says, I am confident of this very thing, that He which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act, He co-operates with us. We can, however, ourselves do nothing to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will. Now, concerning His working that we may will, it is said: It is God which works in you, even to will (Philippians 2:13). (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will XVII.33)

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing. (St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace 31)

But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying …” (St. Augustine, Sermon 169.13) (PL 38, 923)

“No man can come to me, except the Father who hath sent me draw him”! For He does not say, “except He lead him,” so that we can thus in any way understand that his will precedes. For who is “drawn,” if he was already willing? And yet no man comes unless he is willing. Therefore he is drawn in wondrous ways to will, by Him who knows how to work within the very hearts of men. Not that men who are unwilling should believe, which cannot be, but that they should be made willing from being unwilling. (St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, I:19) (A.D. 420).

As strong as we could, we urged on them, as on your and our brothers, to preserve in the catholic faith, which neither denies free will whether for a bad life or a good one, nor allows it so much effect that it can do anything without the grace of God, whether to convert the soul from evil to good, or to preserve and advance in good, or to attain eternal good, where there is no more fear of falling away. (St. Augustine, Epistle 215:4) (A.D. 423).

Augustine was writing in many of these cases against the Pelagians — who argued that they could do good works and be justified apart from God’s grace. Their argument never was that they didn’t need works to be justified — and so Augustine never argued specifically against that; all of his arguments go to the fact that God’s grace was necessary to do good works, which the Catholic Church affirms. As for the teachings of the other Church Fathers:

Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. “For God,” saith [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words.” (Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, 30) (A.D. 98).

But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, falsewitness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”; and once more, “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Polycarp, To the Philippians, 2) (A.D. 135).

All creation fears the Lord, but all creation does not keep His commandments. They only who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God; but as to those who keep not His commandments, there is no life in them. (The Shepherd of Hermas, II Commandment Seventh)

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power…But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 6) (A.D. 155)

If men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received — of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering. For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that, in like manner, those who choose what is pleasing to Him are, on account of their choice, deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him. For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 10) (c. 150)

Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him, and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James. (Origen, Commentary on John, 19:6 (A.D. 232).

All indeed depends on God, but not so that our free-will is hindered. “If then it depend on God,” (one says), “why does He blame us?” On this account I said, “so that our free-will is not hindered.” It depends then on us, and on Him. For we must first choose the good; and then He leads us to His own. He does not anticipate our choice, lest our free-will should be outraged. But when we have chosen, then great is the assistance he brings to us … For it is ours to choose and to wish; but God’s to complete and to bring to an end. Since therefore the greater part is of Him, he says all is of Him, speaking according to the custom of men. For so we ourselves also do. I mean for instance: we see a house well built, and we say the whole is the Architect’s [doing], and yet certainly it is not all his, but the workmen’s also, and the owner’s, who supplies the materials, and many others’, but nevertheless since he contributed the greatest share, we call the whole his. So then [it is] in this case also. (John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews, 12:3) (A.D. 403).

There is a whole lot more where this came from.

Third, regarding “Mary worship”: That’s a very ignorant thing to say. Catholics do not “worship” Mary, or the saints, or anyone but God. Regarding the Eucharist (I presume you are referring to the Real Presence): I encourage you to read the Church Fathers, every one of whom affirmed the Real Presence.

Regarding “liberal theology”: Our theology is older than yours by about 1,500 years, and has remained consistent. That’s nothing if not conservative. Regarding ecumenical efforts: Certainly there can be no reconcilation if you’re not willing to listen to what anyone else has to say. Don’t let biases and prejudices cloud your judgment.

Regarding “the majority of the Christian Church [viewing] the Catholic church as a cult [whose] followers are going to Hell”: the last time I checked, we are the majority of the Christian Church, by about two to one. And I can speak from having been a Protestant most of my life that very few Protestants think the Catholic Church is going to Hell.

Fourth, you call me “brother,” yet in the same breath call me a heretic and an “unbeliever.” That’s not very generous or charitable of you. I can see very well your view of the Catholic Church today. I propose that you should do a little studying of your own about what the Catholic Church actually teaches, rather than simply accepting what you’re told — especially before you accuse a “brother” of heresy or consign a fellow Christian to Hell. We have a fundamental difference — but it is not what you are accusing me of. We both agree that salvation is only by God, through grace, and that man can do nothing to save himself apart from grace. We both agree that true Christians produce good works, that good works are necessary, and that man can only do those works by God’s grace. The only difference appears to be whether man has free will to accept or reject God — and I do not think an affirmation of free will amounts to Pelagianism or any other historical heresy. What do you say to those who walk away from the faith after years of living in grace?

Nearing the Altar

Tomorrow begins the Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter: Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And then, the Easter Vigil — at which I will be initiated into the Church through Confirmation and receive my first Holy Communion.

It seems surreal that this moment has come. All of the long years that have brought me to this point have been a blessed romance, in which God has slowly shown me more and more pieces of the puzzle. These months that I have actively been seeking have been a long engagement, as the picture finally began to come into focus. And now, I am nearing the altar. This week has felt so much like the long-awaited arrival of a wedding — my wedding, at which I’ll be introduced into the most holy mysteries of Christ; at which I’ll partake most intimately in the Body and Blood of my Lord, my Creator, my Savior.

And yes, like any blushing bride, I have cold feet. I’ve had nagging thoughts over the last few days that I’m not ready, that I’m not feeling it, that I need to back out, put this off another year. All of the things that I’ve had a difficult time grasping — Mary, the saints, Purgatory — I realize that I still haven’t fully embraced; I still haven’t warmed up to them.

My feelings haven’t warmed up. But this journey has been about more than feeling; it’s been about conviction, intellectual and spiritual. A faith based on and bound by emotion is what I’m leaving. And I am here. I have arrived. The Communion I have been longing for so long is a few breaths away.

My Lord Jesus, guide me into Your Church; make me ready to receive You. Holy Mother, pray for me; embrace me; guide me.

Hey oh mary

The Hail Mary, as interpreted by my phone’s voice-to-text transcription feature. Alternate readings of the same phrase are in parentheses (after I tried several times, enunciating more clearly):

hell mary (hey oh mary) full of grace the lord is with me
blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of the loom jesus
Holy mary mother of god, pray for a center snow in a few orders.
(Pray for us sinners now if your order.)
(... No and a happy hour or dinner.)
(... Now I get the hours for gas.)
(... Now and at the hour of lard ass.)

Apparently it refuses to recognize the word “death” in this context; no matter how clearly I enunciate the word, it always gets “gas” or “ass” or “dick”. It does, however, know “sola scriptura”, and understands “death” in other contexts. Is Android anti-Catholic much?

Motion and Emotion

My posts here, after starting so strong and frequent last semester, have slowed to a trickle now, it seems. I regret that. The troubles and stresses and demands of school have dogpiled on. And, more significantly, I am grappling with serious depression.

Growing up, I always heard that “Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow” — with the understanding that Jesus is the same, living, victorious Savior, no matter what we’re going through; that we should remain hopeful and thankful and trusting. But in the emotion-centric Christianity I grew up in, this usually amounted to, “Be happy anyway! What, you’re not happy? You don’t have the Joy of the Lord?” If I wasn’t visibly happy, rejoicing, dancing — if I didn’t feel the joy, the excitement, the high emotion — then there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t getting through to God.

It’s true that St. Paul writes, in one of my favorite chapters of the Bible, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4 ESV). But I don’t think Paul is writing about emotion here. The rest of the passage is key: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” He’s not talking about joy and peace and anxiety as emotions: he’s talking about an attitude of hope and trust in God toward suffering. Even when desperation is facing, we know that our Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Or, as we Catholics would say, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.”

One of the things I love most about the Catholic Church, especially in these times, is something that as a Protestant I never thought I’d say: I love that I can go through the motions. I love that even in the days and weeks when I’m not feeling it, there are motions laid out through which I can approach God anyway, without the engagement of my emotions — prayers and actions laid out by holy men through the ages that are a time-proven formula for worship. Participating in the liturgy is itself an act of worship — even if I’m feeling like crap, my being there and taking part honor God and bring me into his presence, through doing and not feeling. And the liturgy, through leading and guiding me through those actions, keeps me on a proper track through the wilderness; it gives me a framework for raising myself to God, for pulling myself up off the bottom. It makes it easy to worship God, to do the things I’m supposed to do; the things that ultimately bring me back to peace.

In an evangelical church, my worship felt empty if it wasn’t heartfelt; in the Catholic Church, my worship is efficacious because I’m there doing it. I always used to deride “just going through the motions” as “empty religion” — and certainly, if there’s no true conviction behind them, if they become habitual and routine and insincere, that is a problem — but it’s just as equally empty if there’s all emotion and no conviction. And sometimes “going through the motions” is all I can do; and in those times, at last, I am assured that it is enough; that God meets me where I am.

Catholicism is a faith of motion, not emotion; of doing, not feeling. Certainly often I feel, and feel deeply; but even when I don’t, I know that my worship is moving me toward God.