Monday, March 3, 2008

Turn About

By Carl Olson

"My fears have been confirmed-I am convinced that you are not saved and never were."

It was late afternoon on a beautiful spring day last year. I was sitting in my living room facing Richard, a retired Fundamentalist pastor whom I had known for ten years. Two weeks earlier my wife, Heather, and I had entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil service held at St. Paul's parish in Eugene, Oregon. Richard had driven two hours from Portland to talk to us about our decision and perhaps to talk us out of it. His comment brought our conversation back to its starting point. Six hours earlier he had asked me, "Are you saved?"

"I've been reborn through baptism. I am working out my salvation, and I have the hope of my salvation before me," I replied, aware of how often this question was used on Catholics by "Bible Christians" like Richard.

"So you don't know if you're saved?" he pressed further.

"I don't presume that I'm saved, but I do trust in the mercy and love of my Savior." Not surprisingly, this answer did not satisfy but only irked him. It was the start of a long afternoon that touched on soteriology, Scripture, ecclesiology, the sacraments, Marian beliefs, and eschatology. It was also a confirmation that I was in the Catholic camp and that I had left my Fundamentalist roots and beliefs behind.

I was born and raised in a small town in western Montana, and many of my first memories are of church and hearing Bible stories. The church my family attended had been formed in 1975 by my father and some other men when they decided to split off from the Missionary Alliance Church over the issue of eternal security of salvation. My childhood was uneventful and almost idyllic. From a very early age I had a strong interest in reading and learning; I also possessed some artistic talent and was drawn to visual symbols and signs. Years later, after learning I was becoming Catholic, a former professor told me, "I'm not surprised because your artwork was always full of a sacramental view of reality-even before you realized it."

I first met Richard when I was nineteen. I was home from art school for the summer, and he was visiting his son Joel, who was the pastor of our small Bible church. Richard had a combative and intense personality but also a genuine love for people. A graduate of Biola University, he enjoyed arguing with non-Christians-something I also liked to do-so we got along rather well despite our differences in age.

A year out of high school, I was approaching a crisis point in my Christian faith. While I defended the faith against non-Christians, including Catholics, I did not have the best spiritual life. I had been raised in a home that emphasized the importance of strong morality, complete trust in Christ, and a rigorous attachment to the Bible. Our church was suspicious of most other churches, especially the Catholic Church, since it didn't adhere to the "true teaching of the Word." Like many teenagers I found it difficult to live a holy life, being more interested in finding the right girl, lining up a good career, and being recognized for my artistic talents. Yet all the while I remained convinced, at least intellectually, of the truth of Christianity.

I read books by Evangelical apologists such as Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer, plus writings by C. S. Lewis, building up a list of arguments to use on atheists and "non-believers." I familiarized myself with books explaining the evils of "Romanism" and the falsehoods of the Catholic Church. During my first year of college these readings were helpful in leading my roommate away from Catholicism and into a "Bible-believing" church. It was satisfying to hear him telling his parents over the phone how he had come to "know Jesus" and no longer wanted to be Catholic. A year later, fresh from a bad relationship and increasingly convinced that my spiritual life was near ruin, I entered Briercrest Bible College, an Evangelical school in Canada. My motives were far from pure, since I wanted a chance to play on the basketball team. As I know well now, God sometimes uses even the poorest motives for good.

As I've said to some of my former classmates, "If I hadn't gone to Briercrest, I might not be a Catholic today." One reason was a greater exposure to Christianity as a whole. While much of the theology taught at Briercrest was based in premillennial dispensationalist theology, I was fortunate to take several Old Testament classes from a teacher who emphasized the centrality of "covenant" in Scripture. In my humanity courses I read T. S. Eliot (my favorite poet since junior high), Flannery O'Connor, and Graham Greene. It seemed that these writers had a good, even profound, grasp of concepts such as sin, grace, and free will. My literature professor, who leaned toward the Anglican Church, encouraged us to attend either an Anglican or Catholic Mass to experience the beauty of the liturgy. It was the first positive remark I had ever heard about the Catholic Church. My interest in apologetics grew, and I studied books about defending and explaining the faith.

In the fall of 1991, after two years at Briercrest, I moved to Oregon, looking for work in the graphic design field. In Portland I met Heather, a student at Multnomah Bible College. After we started dating we attended different Evangelical churches and finally settled into one we deemed to be biblically sound. I became reacquainted with Richard, who lived in the Portland area. I spent time with him discussing passages of Scripture and concepts about church authority and doctrine. He believed that "true" churches had no structure or organization but were meant to be small home meetings led by the Holy Spirit and based on the final authority of Scripture. While I enjoyed our conversations, I was occasionally put off by his strong judgments of anyone and everyone who didn't agree with his interpretation of Scripture.

That same year two things happened which didn't seem, at the time, of life-changing consequence. One day, while visiting with my cousin's wife, I asked her why she attended an Episcopalian church. "Well, I really enjoy the service there," she said.

"Is that the best reason to attend a church?" I asked.

She seemed puzzled and asked in return, "Why do you attend the church you do?"

"Because it teaches the Bible."

"How do you know it teaches the Bible correctly?"

"Because there are certain hermeneutical and exegetical methods you can use to interpret the Bible correctly," I said, thinking this point should be obvious to "true believers." Then she took me by surprise.

"But how do you know those methods are correct?"

Part of me thought it was a needless question, and I tried to explain to her how the true meaning of the Bible is obvious to true Christians. But the logical progression of her questions and their implication stuck with me. How could I be sure that what my church taught was more correct than what was taught by other churches? How could true Christians differ so widely over the interpretations of so many passages of Scripture?

This especially bothered me because there were sections of the Bible that had puzzled me while I attended Briercrest; they never had been explained to my satisfaction. One was John 3:5 and the meaning of being born of "the water and the Spirit." But foremost in my mind was the sixth chapter of John. I read and re-read it, the words haunting me: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves" (John 6:53). I was well aware of the metaphorical interpretation common among most Protestants, but I thought it was weak, especially in light of 1 Corinthians 11. I had been fortunate to grow up in a church that observed weekly communion (albeit a short and tacked-on variety), and I was seeing that there was a disparity between the emphasis of Scripture and the reality of the practice as I experienced it.

A few months after moving to Portland I developed a strong interest in politics, especially the history of political thought in Western culture. This was the start of an unusual detour into Catholic social thought and teaching. In addition to some popular authors, I began reading the works of Russell Kirk, an American scholar noted for his brilliant observations of political philosophy and the place of religion in society. Kirk's emphasis on what he called the "permanent things" and his understanding of the place of Christianity in the history of political thought were fascinating to me. Although I always had enjoyed history, I realized how spotty my historical knowledge was.

Through Kirk I was exposed to the crystalline logic of Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman, the dazzling intelligence of G. K. Chesterton, and the brilliant fervor of Augustine. I began to wonder why it was the Catholics and Anglicans, down through history, who had so much to say about the relationship of the Christian faith to politics and society, especially in the profound and serious manner of these men Reading G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy was the opening of a door I would not have found on my own. This stunning apologetic for Christianity against the errors of modern philosophies made me realize how central "paradox" is to the Christian faith. True Christianity is a radical balance of "both/and" instead of just "either/or." This understanding later became the key to understanding certain Catholic teachings. Soon afterward I read Dorothy Sayer's Creed or Chaos, an excellent explanation of the need for creeds and formal statements of belief in maintaining and continuing doctrinal purity. Then I read Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, his study of the Incarnation and its effect on human history.

Suddenly I was seeing how large, how breathtaking, how absolutely incarnational the Catholic view of reality was compared to the often pitiful perspectives I held. I was getting glimpses into the larger world of Catholic thought, a world so large it was frightening and so intimate it was exhilarating. As I considered the reality of the Incarnation, I saw the logic and beauty of a sacramental faith that saw God's work being achieved through physical matter, not just through spiritual impulse. While I was not ready to give the Catholic Church too much credit, I knew it was certainly not the "Whore of Babylon." If the Catholic Church propagated false teachings, it also had a handle on some important truths.

Heather and I were married in June, 1994. We had been helping to lead a small Bible study for the church we attended. Through a series of unfortunate events we found ourselves to be the outsiders in a matter of church politics. We had been studying the Bible directly, and it was decided that a new leader was needed who would bring more "zeal" to the group, including an increase in activities and socializing. It was a fortuitous event, for, although I struggled with bitterness, I felt freed to study Catholicism more carefully. In addition to reading more Chesterton, I had stumbled upon the writings of Walker Percy, an acerbic and brilliant Catholic author. In his collection of essays, SignPosts in a Strange Land, he explained he became Catholic because there are three things the mind and a materialistic philosophy cannot account for: the existence of self, the survival of the Jews, and the uniqueness of the Catholic Church. This remark paralleled Chesterton, who wrote about the "deaths" of the Church and her continual "resurrection," coming back stronger than ever, contrary to all human logic.

I decided it was time to let the Catholicism speak for itself. What did the Catholic Church actually claim and teach and adhere to? I went to my favorite bookstore and started going through the religion section. While I was looking at a copy of the Catechism, another book caught my eye: Catholicism and Fundamentalism. I picked it up and read the back, but wasn't sure if I should buy it. A young man standing next to me saw me sticking it back on the shelf. "I would really recommend that book," he said.

"Which side of this do you fall on?" I asked, referring to the title.

"I used to be a Fundamentalist," he replied, "but I became a Catholic, partially due to that book."

"Really?" My curiosity was heightened.

"Yes, in fact I'm here looking for information on the Trappists. I'm thinking of becoming a monk." We talked for a while longer, and I took his advice and bought the book. I finished reading Catholicism and Fundamentalism by the next evening. At times it was like reading about my childhood and the beliefs I had been taught, especially regarding false ideas about the Catholic Church. But I was most impressed with how well the author understood and accurately presented Fundamentalist teachings and showed the inherent flaws of the assumptions behind them. It was as if several years of stored up questions, implications, inferences, and frustrations were flushed out into the open, asking to be fully dealt with and solved.

I also read sections of the Catechism on salvation, the sacraments, and the place of Mary. I was surprised and frightened to see how biblical, Christocentric, and Trinitarian the teachings were. A part of me wanted to reject the possibility that the Catholic Church was the true Church, while another dared me to continue on in my search for the truth. I still had many questions, especially about salvation and Mary, but I knew I was beginning to find answers. Although Heather was uncertain about this direction, she patiently endured my deepening interest in Catholicism and began to read some of the same books. Nearly every evening we talked about how what we were reading compared with what we had been taught while growing up and attending Bible college.

When a subject interests me, I rarely go halfway in trying to understand or master it. In the months that followed I began an erratic, but fruitful, journey of study and consideration of the Catholic Church. I read Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic histories of the early Church and the Reformation. At Briercrest the only thing I ever heard about Christianity prior to the twentieth century was Luther's heroic freeing of Christianity from Rome. This was simplistic at best and false at worst. I found a couple volumes of the Church Fathers and read those. When I read Ignatius, writing only eighty years after Christ's death about the reality of Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist, it was a knife in my heart. Instead of finding an early Church that was Protestant, I was discovering a Church that believed in the Real Presence, baptismal regeneration, liturgical worship, and apostolic succession.

I read conversion stories by those entering the Church as well as the testimonies of anti-Catholics who had left the Church. I bought a copy of the Vatican II documents and read some writings of John Paul II. I immersed myself in the works of theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Karl Adams, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Deitrich von Hildebrand, Ronald Knox, and Fulton Sheen. I had thought I knew Christianity, but I was being blown out of the water by these amazing authors and their penetrating insights into Scripture, human nature, and history. Like so many other people who have examined Catholicism, I read John Henry Newman's The Development of Christian Doctrine. His famous words burned into my mind: "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." Since history is not important to most Fundamentalists, it could be said that "to be deep in Scripture is to cease to be Fundamentalist." This strikes them as ludicrous, but, like so many before me, I was seeing verses I didn't even know existed, and I was discovering, through Catholic doctrine, a richness and profundity in the whole of Scripture that had never been there for me before.

My education in "covenant" was coming in good stead, for the Catholic Church had an appreciation of covenant that even Protestant "covenant theologians" couldn't match. This was especially true in a matter of great importance to me: the Eucharist. The relationship between the Eucharist as the New Covenant and the Catholic Church as a universal family became much clearer through study and the additional help of Scott Hahn's tapes.

Amidst this whirlwind of learning, I wrote a letter to Joel, my former pastor. Although I was afraid of what he might think and say, he was the only person, outside of Heather, whom I thought I could talk to concerning what I was reading. Thankfully, he was not upset, even though he expressed serious reservations and concern. But he was also very encouraging, saying, "I believe that you'll only be a better Christian through this study, if you do it carefully."

But when my parents found out I was studying Catholicism, the response was much different. They immediately sent us a video by the anti-Catholic James McCarthy, plus a couple of anti-Catholic articles. I watched the video, read the articles, and then wrote a long letter back, going over each point and accusation. All of the criticisms were the result of twisting and misunderstanding Catholic teaching. One of the articles claimed Catholics weren't allowed to read Scripture, while the other claimed that Catholics should be ashamed for not knowing the truth since popes encouraged them to read the Bible. "Which is it?" I wrote to my parents. "Both cannot be true, yet both are used to damn the Catholic Church. How fair is that?"

Meanwhile I was having conversations with former classmates and teachers, and I was getting two reactions: either complete shock and revulsion or puzzled concern. One friend wrote and told me that her husband had "come out of" the Catholic Church and that I should beware of what problems I would find within it. Another told me I was "over-intellectualizing" my faith and losing sight of the truth. He was convinced Catholics believed in works-righteousness and taught a false salvation.

Almost all of them questioned me about the distinctively Catholic matters of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and the papacy. Marian doctrine had been troublesome for me, and it took time and study to see her in the proper context of her Son, the Church, and the communion of saints. The papacy was not as difficult to comprehend once a solid grounding in early Church history was in place. Von Balthasar's The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church was a profound elucidation of the theological and biblical roots of the papacy. Of course, explaining all of these things was never easy, and I rarely felt I succeeded in doing much more than upsetting people.

We still had not attended a Catholic Mass, but we were living directly across the street from St. Paul's parish. After considering it for several weeks, I called the priest and set up an appointment. On a cold evening in November, 1995, we met with Father Tim in his office. I had read stories of priests trying to talk Protestants out of entering the Catholic Church and had no idea of what to expect. I felt better when I saw he had several books by C. S. Lewis in his bookcase. We told him our story and said we were interested in getting to know the Church from the "inside."

"My biggest concern is that what I'll actually experience and see will be much different from what I've read and studied," I said as we ended our talk.

"You're welcome to attend Mass anytime," Fr. Tim said, "although you cannot take part in Eucharist." I was glad to hear him say this since it assured me he had a good understanding of what the Eucharist was.

After we left we felt relief, but we also had a growing realization that we were in a no-man's land. We wouldn't go back to the churches we had left, but we still had concerns and fears about the Catholic Church. So it wasn't until Easter of 1996 that we attended our first Mass. During the months in between we had been reading about liturgy and Mass and so understood most of what was happening. We liked the profound sense of quietness and sacredness. We started going to Mass two or three times a month. While I was reading a great deal of Catholic theology, there were areas of the Church's life that were foreign to me, such as the calendar, feasts, and some of the gestures and actions of the liturgy. We believed it was important to move slowly, even though some of our friends and family thought we were rushing in. That fall we entered the RCIA program at St. Paul's. It turned out to be a great blessing. The program was orthodox and loyal to the magisterium, and the leaders were mature Catholics who understood and lived their faith. We met our sponsors, Jack and Lorene Luz, and became close friends.

One evening that winter, completely on impulse, I called Richard. I hadn't talked to him for over a year, and I didn't know what he had heard about our situation. Our conversation began quietly enough. I gave him a little background and told him we were going to enter the Catholic Church in the spring. Slowly his intensity level grew, and finally he began to attack the "Romanist" Church, with its needless "ritual and pomp" and its "unbiblical traditions and false teachings." He railed against the "organization" and "hierarchy" of the Church. "You think the Church is an organization, and it is not. It is spiritual and has no physical organization. Early Christianity was simple. It didn't have organization and was never meant to have it."

"That's not what we find in the book of Acts and in the Church Fathers," I replied.

He laughed. "Much of the early Church was in apostasy. Most of the Church Fathers were apostates. Besides, their writings are not inspired and infallible."

"That's true," I said, "but if I have to choose between fallible Church Fathers and fallible Reformers, I choose the Fathers."

"The Roman Church has no authority," he said sharply, "The Bible is our authority. Scripture is absolutely authoritative, and to not believe it is heresy."

"Can I read you something and get your thoughts on it?" I asked. He agreed. I read 1 Timothy 3:15: "But in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth."

There was a brief silence. "You're taking that out of context!" he exclaimed.

"How could I have taken it out of context? All I did was read a verse. I didn't even say what I thought it meant."

The conversation went downhill from there. Richard called me "heretical" and told me I was "only doing this for attention."

"Why would I do it for this sort of attention?" I asked. "I can think of better types of attention."

"Well, you have always had a problem with your father and are using this to get at him," he claimed. Apparently he was referring back to when I first met him and my father and I were having strong disagreements about the direction of my artwork.

"Suddenly you're a psychologist?" I asked. "Becoming a Catholic is not a way to get back at anyone. The only reason I'm entering the Catholic Church is because it is true." This angered him even more.

"I'm surprised at how little you really know about the Evangelical faith," he said. "You've never really grasped the truths of Evangelicalism."

After three hours, the phone call was over. I had taken notes of what Richard had said. A couple days later I wrote him a letter. "I do not want you to think that by questioning my motivation and sincerity you have somehow proven the falsehood of Catholicism," I wrote. "Anyone who argues by attacking my motivation only convinces me of his own inability to answer the most difficult questions." The six-page letter I received back from him was everything I expected it to be-harsh, condemning, polemical, and full of every anti-Catholic claim in the book: Catholics worship Mary, transubstantiation is "stupid," Catholics aren't saved, the Church is in apostasy, the pope is the Antichrist. It was packed full of Scripture references, many of which were badly taken out of context, even for a Fundamentalist. In concluding his letter, Richard urged Heather and me to return from our "spiritual defection" to the "truth."

Replying to the letter was a challenge I couldn't resist, even though I knew the chances of him conceding anything, however obvious, were almost nonexistent. When my reply was finished it was nearly forty pages long and contained nearly 150 quotations from Scripture, the Catechism, and Catholic theologians.

Heather and I continued to prepare for entering the Catholic Church. At the Easter Vigil of 1997 we entered into full communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and received our Lord and Savior in the Eucharist. We had arrived home, by the grace of God. Two weekends later Richard came to visit. He had called a few days before, and we had a guarded but uneventful talk. He complimented me on the letter while taking pains to say I was as misguided as ever. Since I was convinced that my letter satisfactorily answered at least the most obvious errors in his letter, I asked him if he had changed his mind about anything at all. "No, I stand by everything I've said and wrote," he said. "I want to come talk to you face to face." I agreed, knowing it would be unpleasant but feeling compelled to meet with him.

If there was anything I learned from our long talk that day, it was that intelligence is worthless unless it is based in honesty. Richard is an intelligent and learned man, but his dislike of the Catholic Church is simply illogical. He was disagreeing with my statements just to spite me. When I asked him questions about sola scriptura, the canon of the New Testament, or other difficult matters, he just changed the subject.

At the end of our talk, when he announced his judgment on the state of my soul, I laughed. He stared at me. "You are incredibly arrogant. This is serious stuff, and you're laughing?"

"I'm only laughing because I'm thankful you aren't God. Besides, how can you sit here and self-righteously condemn me when you can't even answer my honest questions? That is arrogant!"

"Well, I hope you come back to the true faith." he said.

"I never left it," I replied. "I fulfilled it."

1 comment:

Sanctus Belle said...

I read every word of that post, thank you for posting it. What a beautiful faith we have in the Catholic church. May many more souls come to find the truth through this story.