Christianity After the Honeymoon

My wife and I have been rethinking our parenting strategy lately. Not because our previous strategy was failing or ineffective, but because we realized we had two different strategies. We weren’t on the same page. That wasn’t okay because it put us at odds with each other; our children weren’t getting the cogent message they needed to grow in virtue.

How do my wife and I solve this conundrum? The solution isn’t expressions of love and devotion to each other, or kind words and gifts. Instead, the solution is a tough conversation about who needs to change where and how. It’s a tough conversation – one with many pitfalls to be avoided. We haven’t finished it, and I doubt we ever truly can, but God willing, we will continue to make progress as long as we both have breath. This is marriage after the honeymoon. It is analogous to a difference I have noticed in the worship styles of Protestants and Catholics.

I can’t speak for all Protestants, but my experience as a Protestant was that worship was characterized by a profound longing for God. Many of the songs we sang at church resembled love songs, or at least had a clear element of longing. In the charismatic movement, that longing can be taken to the extreme, being an indication of salvation or at least a valid spirituality.

This longing was found not just in worship, but in theology as well. Particularly, at least within Evangelicalism, it was found in eschatology. Everyone was waiting so expectantly for Christ that every headline in the news was a portent of his Second Coming. To doubt that one would see Christ bodily prior to death was to exhibit a troubling lack of faith. One was either immature or naive to think Christ would be much longer.

After I became a Catholic, I stopped seeing this sort of attitude. It wasn’t obvious until I began to reflect on my past experiences with God in an exercise of spiritual growth. I wondered at once whether this was a flaw in Catholic spirituality, or just a flaw in my own walk.

But Catholic spirituality is full of the longing for God. St. Augustine, writing in his Confessions in about 400 AD, says to God, ” You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (Confessions Book 1, Chapter 1). St. Thomas Aquinas argues about 800 years later that all people naturally desire the good, God is goodness itself, and hence all people naturally desire God (Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses longing for God as well. In Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 1, Article 1 (a pretty prominent place, right?) it says, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” (It is interesting to note that this is the 27th paragraph of the Catechism, and that 27 is 3x3x3.)

Clearly Catholicism recognizes and values a natural desire and longing for God. So why does this not seem to show up in its worship? I can’t speak definitively for Catholic spirituality, but it seems to me the answer lies in this. Every day the Son of God, the object of desire of both Protestants and Catholics, is made present in bread and wine by an act of grace through the instrument of the priest. Christ is truly present in the Eucharist: body, blood, soul, and divinity. Thus, the Eucharist is truly the object of our desire. So when the Catholic receives communion, he receives in actuality what the Protestant can only long for. It’s no wonder then that our worship takes a different tone.

While the Catholic still longs for God he also has him. His worship of God is not characterized by longing, but by having. This having looks much more like marriage, whereas longing looks more like courtship. And marriage, as most couples know, is work. The apostle Paul confirms this notion of spirituality as work when he commands us to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Being the bride of Christ, while we are yet sinners, is hard work. Catholic spirituality, in my experience, is about the hard work of becoming a worthy bride of Christ. In a sense, it is Christianity after the honeymoon.

Two additional points need to be made. First, the longing of Protestants for God comes from the Holy Spirit, and is an indication of his work in their lives. But it is also an indication that there is something more to be had for them. Catholics should be inviting their Protestant friends to consider, if the Holy Spirit produces in them a real, material, even bodily desire for Christ now, if he also does not also offer a real, material, even bodily consummation of that desire now. After all, it was Christ who said that he who eats his flesh and drinks his blood will abide in him and be abided in by Christ (John 6:56).

Second, many married couples will attest that courtship should continue, in some form, after the honeymoon. Likewise, even if we have Christ, we do not see him now except through a glass darkly. And so we should still long for him. St. Ignatius, who was a disciple of the Apostle John and consecrated as the bishop of Antioch by the Apostles themselves, said in his letter to the church in Rome:

My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans, Ch. 7
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Cultural Bygonity

In reading Gaudium et Spes, it became clear to me that there is no stopping the cultural transformation we are experiencing. When man moved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society, his culture changed. When he then moved to an industrial society, it changed again. There was no possible world where neolithic culture survived to the present.

Today we are on the cusp of another great, technological change. AI and automation will transform our world as much or more than farming and machines did. With that change, just like neolithic man, we see our culture eroding, and many wish to maintain the old norms. Others, who see themselves as ushers of the new era, resent the clutching of the bygoing and bygone.

This is the image often painted, but this image is incorrect. We are in fact on two cusps. Or, better, a cusp and a precipice. To understand this, we must tease apart two forces causing two modes of change.

First, we must recognize that technology and the exigencies of life (like the need for food, security, etc) are causing man to eat differently, dress differently, talk differently, and so on. Those things we make, which we pour our creative energies into – in other words, the very image of ourselves imprinted on our environment – are all changing. Changing for the better? For the worse? Inasmuch as these things represent the image of man, who represents the image of God, they are already good. We have had this happen before, and we should not weep any more for the loss of our culture as we do for the neolithic culture. But there is obviously more to it than that.

The problem is that there is another force at work. Technology affects how we manipulate the world, and its cultural impact is neutral. Call this a material force. Ideologies and philosophies, on the other hand, affect how we value the world. This we may think of as a spiritual force (spiritual being used here in the older sense as referring to things of the mind).

Any society may have a group of cultural norms which have no inherent value in themselves. For instance, eating spicy food or not wearing buttons are not in themselves something to be cherished. However, what causes those cultural norms may be the ease of producing peppers or the sturdiness of button alternatives, hence being a product of the material force. Alternatively, it may be a product of the spiritual force. For instance, it may be that emphasizing pepper production maximizes life in the community, or that avoiding buttons minimizes vanity.  But the two forces, spiritual and material, combine to create the culture. Thus, two societies may have different material forces yet similar spiritual forces, resulting in two different cultures. Or, they may have similar material forces and different spiritual forces to produce to different cultures.

Or, more apropos to our conversation, one society may advance from one culture to another by advancing its technology while maintaining its values. Or, one society may change its culture by adjusting its values (for better or worse), while maintaining its technologies. It could be, and I would say it is the case now, that both can change at the same time.

The cusp and the precipice, then, is this. We are on the cusp of a cultural revolution based on our advancing technology. This will change our culture as dramatically (if not more) than any of the previous technological revolutions. There is noting here to resist, and no part of our culture which stems from the old technologies is sacred.

But we are also on the precipice of a cultural change based on our changing values. I say precipice here because the values are not being changed for the better. The philosophies under-girding the changes are flawed, and are thus producing flawed values. Hence, the change produced by the spiritual force is regression or degradation. The parts of our culture which were based on higher values are being displaced. These parts of our culture are sacred. Their removal should be resisted.

There is great confusion in the present about which parts of our culture are worth keeping and which are not. Some therefore either cling to it all or fling it all away. We must do better than this. We need to understand, first of all, what our principles are (and whether those principles are good, but that is for another discussion). We must then develop an understanding of how our principles will be expressed in a new technological era. We must imagine, develop, and then live out that new culture. In other words, the culture is changing and there is nothing to stop it. We just need to make sure it changes for the better. Otherwise, we can be assured it will change for the worse.

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Having an Eschatological Mind

When I was an evangelical Protestant, I had a very eschatological mind. Like many I saw the news as a progressive revelation that we were in, or nearing, the end-times. In fact, I rarely thought about my own death because it seemed so very likely to me that Christ would come back in my life-time. While I now think that the typical evangelical premillennialism is an untenable position, I do think that there is a particular mindset which comes along with it and which is indispensable at this time in Church history.

The mindset I’m thinking of is the tendency to view almost all things through an eschatological lens. Any time news comes from Israel, you can find people demonstrating how this is bringing us a step closer to the rapture. Any time the government passes a law that restricts Christian religious expression in the public space, count on speculation that this is leading up to the rise of the Antichrist. Though this may seem kooky to some, it would be wrong to disparage those who think this way. That’s because the eschatological mind is a mind of faith. And a mind of faith is just what is needed in the Catholic Church today.

The eschatological mind is especially useful when applied to one’s ecclesiology, or ideas about the Church. When one hears of evil infecting the Church, the correct response is not despair or fear for the fall of the Church, but a calm assurance that God is going to get his way. God’s Church will never fall, and it will be presented to his Son as a pure and spotless bride at the end of days. We know this. The eschatological mind doesn’t speculate about the future of the Church based on current events. It starts at the end predicted by Scripture and then speculates on how we will get there from here.

So what does this look like? It means having faith that God is not done with his Bride. Maintain the belief that the Vicar of Christ will not lead the Church into error, that the Church will continue to prevail against the gates of hell, and that the Church is still the only refuge for sinners. It means having hope that God will bring the best out of all this and then discerning how one might get in on the action. Assume first that the end was figured out a long time ago. Expect God to do great things. It means growing in love for all those affected by the scandal (which is everyone). Become familiar with what the Church says about herself and why she says it, and share that with others. Lastly, remembering that these light and momentary afflictions prepare us for an eternal weight of glory, abandon oneself all the more to the cause of Christ. He wins in the end, after all.

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A Brief Explanation of Why I Became Catholic

It’s hard to say what was the biggest factor which led to my conversion. There were really a few factors which worked together. I think it is important to keep in mind that we don’t tend to change our minds based on a single argument or even arguments alone. This is necessarily true because the nature of faith requires it. While arguments show that the faith is reasonable, not contradictory, and at least compatible with what we already know, at some point we must choose to believe what we cannot see. Rational demonstrations, or arguments, do not require choice. Hence, it cannot be by argumentation alone that we come to faith in something. That being said, here is what brought me to Catholicism.

First, I noticed that Protestant theologians and apologists almost never dealt with Catholic theology as taught by the Church, but that Catholic theologians and apologists were well versed in Protestant teachings. It became clear to me that Protestant apologetics were arguing against strawmen.

Second, I read a significant amount of protestant theology in seminary. Particularly informative was how the different denominations argued against each other. You can find this in the ”Four Views” books. What I realized was two-fold. First, that the denominational differences came down to the varied interpretations of scripture. Second, that each side was not able to demonstrate that the other side was necessarily wrong. Instead, they would say something like ”it seems more likely that this verse means this…” or ”this word is used this way x number of times or only one time, so we shouldn’t (or should) expect it to mean that here” or ”surely Paul isn’t saying such and such.” In other words, Protestant interpreters of Scripture were using subjective criteria to determine their interpretations. This criteria did not come from scripture (as you would expect given Sola Scriptura). However, scripture says clearly that the Church is the foundation and pillar of truth (1 Tim 3:15). In other words, I have no reason to accept one denomination’s interpretation over another’s except on the authority of a particular interpreter or a denominational tradition. This is opposed to the authority of the Church.

Third, I looked at historical theology. The Reformers claimed their reformation was a movement back to the original Christianity. If that were true, then looking backward through history, one would see the Church becoming more and more protestant (or more and more Catholic looking forward). However, what one sees when reading the earliest Christian writers is that they are all very clearly Catholic. They continued to be very Catholic up until the Reformation. Then, at the Reformation, the reformers introduced theologies that were completely new. Prior to the Reformation, all Christians believed in the real presence, baptismal regeneration, and a sacerdotal priesthood. To say the reformers’ theology was the original teachings of the Church, one would have to argue, as some have, that the men who sat at the feet of the Apostles completely perverted the teachings of the Apostles, and that the entire Church throughout the world simultaneously did the same. This is beyond credulity.

Furthermore, I read how St. Athanasius argued for Nicene orthodoxy. His argument for the consubstantiality of Christ with the Father did not come from scripture alone. It was actually the Arians who seemed to use scripture alone. Instead, St. Athanasius’s argument hinged on the fact that, when we are made Christians, at baptism, it is done in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The use of the name Son is what denoted Christ as consubstantial.

Protestants say that their differences are the little things, but that scripture makes clear the big things (like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity). However, the truth is that, using their own methods, as I argue are similar to the Arians’, one can question the major Christian doctrines. Protestants choose not to because they adhere to Nicene orthodoxy. However, their own methods would contradict Nicene orthodoxy. Hence, the whole enterprise is self-contradictory.

All these things, though, do not prove necessarily that Catholicism is true and Protestantism is false, though I think it comes close. The moment I made up my mind was while reading a passage of John Henry Newman. He says that if you were an early Christian and moved from one city to the next, you would want to find an orthodox church. You didn’t ask for “the church” because there were many churches. You didn’t ask for “the Christian church,” because many churches claimed the name of Christ and contradicted each other. Instead, you had to ask for the Catholic Church. All other churches had separated themselves from that Church, changed their name, turned around, and attacked the Catholic Church. For me, that was too plain to ignore.

That is essentially the intellectual journey I made. However, the beauty of the Church and the Christlike nature of the priest hood were important too. I realized that I was missing out on tremendous gifts from God which Protestantism rejects. Willa Cather’s book ”Death Comes for the Archbishop” shed light on that for me.

Some will find these arguments unconvincing. Even so, I’ve found the responses to these arguments are even less convincing. I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave a message in the combox.

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Johnny Cash, the Piano, and the Soul

Late in his career Johnny Cash recorded the American series in partnership with producer Rick Rubin. The recordings offered a new generation of listeners acquaintance with the Man in Black in part by reproducing some of their very own favorite songs. The sounds are at moments haunting, oftentimes hopeful, but always acid-washed by the gritty baritone of Cash. They come echoing out of a cavernous soul, more patinated than polished. One song in particular sticks out as a picture of a life lived through road rash and redemption.

“Sea of Heartbreak” was written by Paul Hampton and Hal David and originally performed by Don Gibson in 1961. The song laments of “lost love and loneliness” and it longs for a love he describes as “divine.” In the original, Gibson is backed up by a doo-wap choir and the bass line is delivered by a male voice. The voice bumps down the line and then rebounds. In Cash’s remake, the leading base notes are provided by a piano. They descend, but they do not ascend in a similar run, instead only meeting Cash from time to time as he himself ascends with the melody. The notes are struck hard and give a brassy ring.

Those brassy base piano notes are found throughout the American series and are a unique characteristic of the lower register of pianos. The quality of the sound comes from the nature of piano wires, and amounts to a defect – or at least an unintended effect.

A string resonates most perfectly if it can bend completely under its own weight. Metal strings have a tendency to resist the pull of gravity, but the thinner they are, the more they comply. In a piano, this makes for clear, pure tones in the upper register. But, for a given thickness of wire, lower tones come from longer strings. If the same thickness of wire were used throughout the piano, then to achieve the seven octave registry of the standard 88 keys, the lowest note would be played on a wire over thirty feet long. To make the piano a practical instrument, the lower strings are made thicker. The greater density of the wire allows for lower notes in shorter strings.

To maintain flexibility and a clear tone, the string is wound with copper instead of being made from a solid piece. Yet, the compromise is not perfect and the lower notes are left with a tone of lesser quality. If only those strings which had to be were wound, there would be a jarring shift in quality while going from the pure, unwound tones to the clangy bass notes. Piano manufacturers make this shift less obvious by fudging some notes in the middle; notes which could have been more pure are rendered less pure for the sake of consistency. Therefore, as one ascends up the keys of the piano, the timbre passes smoothly from heavy base strings through an admixture of lightness and heaviness, finally ending on tones of clarity unmixed.

In “Sea of Heartbreak,” those leading base notes, which replace the voice heard in the original, remind us of the loneliness of lost love. They clang like the burdened soul who clangs yet wishes to ring. They ascend spasmodically like the soul of Cash did and like the souls of many of us still do. But the song offers us hope. In the bridge, Cash cries out:

O! What I’d give just to sail back to shore – back to your arms once more!
Come to my rescue, O, come here to me.
Take me and keep me away from the sea.

And this time, the base line is struck on higher strings. They are still the wound strings of an imperfect register, but they possess, not a greater clarity, but the hope of perfect clarity – the hope of every soul which has cried out Come to my rescue, O, come here to me! And we who sing these words with lips of faith shall hear, as did John the Revelator, “Surely, I come quickly.” Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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