When the deeds that you do don’t add up to zeroIt’s what’s inside that counts, ask any war heroYou think you can hide but you’re never aloneAsk Lot what he thought when his wife turned to stoneTrouble in mind, Lord, trouble in mindLord, take away this trouble in mind
Seven years ago this Monday, April 28, I was received back into the Catholic Church after spending nearly three decades as an Evangelical Protestant. As I have noted in several places, including my memoir Return to Rome and my contribution to the anthology Journeys of Faith, there were certain theological questions for which I needed plausible answers before I could be reconciled with the Church. At least that’s the way I initially understood my own pilgrimage.
But now, looking back, with the benefit of both hindsight and seven years as a practicing Catholic, I am convinced that finding answers to those theological questions, though certainly instrumental to my return, were shepherded by a deeper yearning about which I was not conspicuously aware in 2007.
My Christian faith had become, for the most part, an extension of my academic projects as a professional philosopher. There is, of course, nothing wrong with thinking of one’s faith as subsisting in an intellectual tradition that can be rationally understood, explained, and defended. After all, some of our most admired predecessors, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention one of the men who will be canonized on Sunday, St. Pope John Paul II, were Christian philosophers of the highest order.
But in my case, nearly everything about my beliefs had become a matter of making arguments and critiquing adversaries. My faith, or whatever was left of it, had become an intellectual research program, that now, in retrospect, seemed more like a perpetual exercise in convincing myself rather than trying to persuade others. I was like a man who, upon getting married, spent all his waking hours trying to be a good husband by reading books about matrimony, while neglecting his wife.
I had embraced an over-intellectualized vision of the Christian faith that provided me with an endless treasure of critics to defeat and arguments to be won, but left me with an impoverished spirituality, sustained only by the cascading of anxiety and euphoria that accompanies philosophical pugilism. For this reason, I often measured another’s commitment to Christ, not so much on whether they were Christ-like, but rather on whether they can without mental reservation agree to a list of “essential doctrines,” as if the first event in the afterlife is going to be a theology test. I studied, defended, and protected Jesus, as if he needed my help. I didn’t love him.
Recently, I saw a bit of that old self in some comments by a well-known Reformed Protestant apologist, writer, and blogger. In an entry in which he declares that Pope Francis a “false teacher,” this author asserts: “Even while Francis washes the feet of prisoners and kisses the faces of the deformed, he does so out of and toward this false gospel that leads not toward Christ, but directly away from him.”
This “false gospel,” according to this author, is the Catholic view of justification, which, as I noted in a post, he clearly does not understand. But setting that confusion aside, ponder the message his judgment sends to his fellow Evangelicals as well as unbelievers who are reading him: Following Jesus by obeying his commandments is no way to lead people to our Lord. What you need to do is to convince people that your arguments are better than their arguments.
That was me while I stood at the far shore of the Tiber. What I failed to grasp for many decades, and what the Catholic Church in fact teaches, is that the life of faith, like the state of matrimony, requires total devotion of body, soul, and mind. Being in communion with the Church is not reducible to a list of “essential doctrines” for which one can marshal a collection of apologetic arguments to match the challenges of unbelief. Although the Catholic intellectual tradition indeed offers to the world a reservoir of authors, insights, saints, and sages to satisfy one’s philosophical thirst, its accumulated wisdom pours out of the Church’s rich liturgical life
It is that life to which my deeper yearning had aimed. The sacraments and the sacramentals, the devotions and the prayer books, the Bible and the Breviary, are so much a part of my Christian life, that I cannot imagine myself without them. But it is not a piety of mere solitude. It is one tightly tethered to an understanding of the Gospel as lived out in the practice of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. It is the gentle grace expressed in the out-stretched hands of the foot-washing pope. And that is good news.