Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Conversion Story

My conversion to Roman Catholicism has been, to date anyway, the most unexpected and unlikely event in my life. It is also something I get asked about a lot, and so I've decided to write a post detailing the long and slow process that led to my eventual conversion. Throughout this post I will sprinkle links to blogs and videos that were helpful to me, perhaps they'll be helpful to you.

It starts at Grove City College where I met many incredibly smart people who were, for the most part, not Baptist. They were mostly Presbyterian, and we spent many a study party getting distracted by tangents on theology. What I learned from this was that... though the fundamental Baptist church I had grown up in had done a pretty good job teaching me about the Bible, they hadn't really taught me much in the way of formal theology. It also taught me that sincere disagreement could exist over the interpretation of scripture, and that these disagreements were not born of ignorance or unfaithfulness. Over time that realization would eat away at my belief in Sola Scriptura.




After I graduated and moved to Texas I found the time to catch up on my religious studies. I began reading as much as I could find on theology, going so far as to buy a theology text book a mentor of mine taught out of. The first several chapters were a brief summary of Church history, and there I found a gap in my knowledge that spanned a millennium! I was decently knowledgeable of the historical period covered by the New Testament, and I was aware of Church history from the modern period back to the reformation, but I was entirely ignorant of the 1500 years from the end of Acts to October 31st, 1517 when Luther wrote his 95 thesis.

So I shifted gears and started reading about Church history, and what I found looked very much like Catholicism. This left me with a few options, either immediately after the deaths of the Apostles the Church fell into apostasy, where it stayed for 1500 years until Luther came along, or there was a secret group of protestant-like Christians who kept the true faith alive, or the Apostles taught something very similar to Catholicism. The apostasy option doesn't jive well with Christ's promise that "behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age." The secret proto-protestant option is very problematic as there is literally no evidence such a group ever existed. What I was left with was Catholicism.

Of course, it didn't end there. Perhaps Catholicism or something like it was what was passed down by the Apostles and survived more or less unified for the first millennium of its existence, but the reformation happened for a reason right? Clearly somewhere along the way the Ancient Catholic Christians had strayed and perhaps Luther and the other reformers had realized that.

That idea was problematic as well. The Catholic Church had had its own counter reformation, after realizing it did have problems. The council of Trent saw many of Luther's original complaints addressed, and the rest shown to be inconsistent with the faith. The nail in the coffin of this idea of "ancient, good, Catholics" versus "modern, bad, Catholics" was when I picked up a book on the early "Church Fathers" (men who led the Church in her first 300 years). They all, overwhelmingly, sounded more or less like modern Catholics. Going so far as to describe a mass that sounded incredibly similar to the modern one.

This opened my mind to the consideration that, perhaps, the Catholic faith is the oldest form of Christianity, and that its been remarkably preserved, and as such it is not Catholicism that must justify its doctrines, but anyone who deviates from them.

I considered this idea around the same time I was having a harder and harder time defending Sola Scriptura. If scripture alone is all we need for the formation of sound doctrine, then why are there so many intelligent, well studied, and sincere Christians with such wildly differing beliefs? I had previously thought that if two people of similar ability interpreted a passage of Scripture differently, then one of them had to have an ulterior motive, or lacked the Holy Spirit, or had some other problem... because Scripture's meaning was supposed to be clear.

Around the same time, to add some urgency to all this, the Baptist church I was attending down here split. This made me think about all the other church splits I had been in and how with Sola Scriptura there's no referee. We're all just players organized into teams of our choosing arguing over the rules. There's no one with the authority to definitively say "that is right" or "that is wrong." One might say, as some Catholic apologists do, that under Sola Scriptura every man is a pope unto himself!

Another influencing factor was that my best friend from college had recently reverted to Catholicism. I couldn't believe he'd done that at first, but it turned out he had made an exhaustive list of all his questions and problems with Catholicism, gone to a priest, and discussed all of them to his satisfaction. We had many discussions on theology, and more often than I cared to admit his arguments were stronger and backed by more evidence than mine.

Because of this I started to get a clearer picture of what exactly Catholicism was. Honest study dispelled a lot of the myths I had heard in the Baptist church I grew up in, stuff like Catholics have to pray through a priest (they don't), or that they worship Mary (they don't), or that they pray to saints (not in the way I thought), etc. A lot of the doctrines I thought were heretical, like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, once explained and backed by Scripture seemed like the most straight forward way you could interpret their supporting passages.

Still, it would take about a year of struggling with both Catholicism and the Protestant doctrines I was having a harder and harder time defending before I gave in and signed up for RCIA. RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, is the months long program you go through when joining the Roman Catholic Church. It is a sort of crash course in Catholicism. In RCIA I would often encounter teachings I found repugnant (the Marian doctrines for one), but in every single case, when I heard out the arguments for them I found them to be well supported.

Eventually, on Easter Sunday 2013, I converted. And I was very happy to do so!

Of course, I've been focusing on the intellectual side of things, as it was the primary driving force behind my conversion. However, It would be remiss of me to leave out two important spiritual experiences I had during this time. I once, somewhat skeptically, went to spend some time in adoration before the blessed sacrament. If you aren't sure what that means, I sat in a pew in front of a piece of bread in a fancy display stand. The bread being a consecrated host and thus, according to Catholic beliefs, the Real Presence of Christ. I'm not sure what I was expecting that day, and the idea seemed ridiculous at the time, but... there was something about it. I can't really describe it. All I can say with certainty is that God was there, and He eased my doubts about converting to Catholicism. To this day adoration is one of my favorite ways to spend time with God.

The second was, after really struggling to accept the Marian doctrines (by this point I had accepted arguments for the authority of the Magisterium, which teaches the Marian doctrines, and thus I knew them to be true. Frankly though, I was deeply offended by them) I asked God for a fleece. The details are a bit too personal to share, but suffice to say my fleece was every bit as impossible as Gideon's. And it happened. After that, I had no doubt that my slow and steady move towards Catholicism was God's doing.

So that's how I got here. If you want to hear another conversion story, of particular interest if you are a grover, then I suggest Dr. Scott Hahn's. He details how he went from Presbyterian minister to Roman Catholic here: http://youtu.be/XyFuaXlYo8Q

4 comments:

  1. Interesting account - thanks! Unusually for me, only a brief response:

    1) I'm glad that you were free to pursue the branch of Christianity that you were persuaded to hew most closely to the truth. I'm glad, as well, that I have the freedom to do likewise. It seems to me, though, that at a certain level we're both ultimately following our consciences: we're both, ultimately, submitting to what we understand the truth of Christianity to be, at a personal level. I don't think that contradicts anything you've said, but I think it's interesting that, at the end of the day, our individual understanding of the evidence determines which other authorities we honor.

    This may be an irrelevant aside, again, but it strikes me as interesting.

    2) The apostasy option doesn't jive well with Christ's promise that "behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

    From the New Testament, heresy seems almost to be the natural state of affairs of the church; Corinth needed, what, a year or two to fall into tremendous sin? We see that pattern repeated over and over again, right up through the letters to several of the churches of Revelation; I think it's safe to say that the majority of the New Testament exists, in large part, because the church as a whole has such an alarming tendency to drift rapidly into heresy.

    This always makes it seem a bit peculiar to me when Catholics argue that sources from, say, the 300s are necessarily on the right theological track - "they couldn't have apostasized so quickly!" Well, sure they could have. That doesn't mean they did, or that they drifted so far from the truth that salvation became impossible - but that the particular form of Christianity they practiced could have developed some fairly-colossal blind spots? Yeah, sure, I buy that. I'm willing to bet we'd even agree that the early church had some significant departures from the truth, even if we differed as to what they were.

    3) as such it is not Catholicism that must justify its doctrines, but anyone who deviates from them.

    Surely both of these are wrong-headed, and any interpretation of Christianity needs to be able to justify its doctrines.

    4), and somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

    One might say, as some Catholic apologists do, that under Sola Scriptura every man is a pope unto himself!

    It is almost as though Protestants believed that being filled with the Spirit of God Almighty (Undeserving! Holding this treasure in jars of clay!) - that we believed that made us some sort of... I don't know, [i]royal priesthood[/i] or something.

    What peculiar people.

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    1. ... So, "brief response" was a lie, it turns out. Sorry!

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    2. 2) You are conflating local error with universal error. The church in Corinth can be wrong. The church in America can be wrong. What cannot be wrong is the Church as a whole. As applied to The Fathers, they are in remarkable doctrinal agreement with very few, if any, dissenting voices. This implies either Christ broke his promise, or the things they taught were correct.

      3) This is perhaps poor phrasing on my part. I do not mean that Catholicism can make up doctrines willy-nilly and everyone else must prove them wrong. I mean that, as the oldest church, as the only church that can plausibly trace her roots directly to Christ himself, as the Church that all Protestant churches are protesting against, if she has a doctrine that has been espoused and defended for two millennium, then the burden of proof clearly falls on the new comer to justify his departure from such a belief.

      4) CCC 1268: “The baptized have become "living stones" to be "built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." By Baptism they share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission. They are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that [they] may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light." Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers.”

      So yeah, we believe that too actually. That’s not the critique. The critique is that Protestants have no source of authority. It’s an accusation of anarchy, the results of which are clear. Protestantism is fractured, scattered, and generally at odds with each other. This hardly seems like what Christ had in mind when he says:

      “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. "The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one”

      Protestantism has never had a satisfactory answer to the unity problem. Attempts to do so almost always turn into the no true Scotsman fallacy, as seen here: http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2014/08/can-all-christians-agree-to-mere_26.html

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    3. You are conflating local error with universal error. The church in Corinth can be wrong. The church in America can be wrong. What cannot be wrong is the Church as a whole.

      No? Why not?

      It seems to me that presuming that "the church as a whole" will even have a singular theological viewpoint is not a necessary assumption here. I can believe that all the many churches in Christendom have their own respective errors, with a tendency to propagate through whatever authority structures are established.

      So one church thinks the poor are 2nd-class citizens, another knows that's wrong but thinks secret knowledge is necessary, and another rejects both these struggles with anti-Gentile bigotry; some follow Paul, and some Apollos. Proto-denominational splits - and differing denominational errors - are already evident.

      Again, Revelation: 7 churches, 7 different (and at least partially wrong) ways of living out Christianity.

      As applied to The Fathers, they are in remarkable doctrinal agreement with very few, if any, dissenting voices.

      If you had an influential early Christian with a wildly dissenting view, would you still count him as a father? (Is Arius a church father? More plausibly, is Origen?)

      This implies either Christ broke his promise, or the things they taught were correct.

      Or that Christ's promise doesn't mean that anyone (or any group) is going to have error-free theology. (Why would we assume that this promise means someone will?)

      I mean that... the burden of proof clearly falls on the new comer to justify his departure from such a belief.

      I think Protestant churches have, as a group, largely moved on from Catholicism - to at least some degree. Luther's followers may have defined themselves as "the Christians who aren't Catholics," but that's not really the self-identity of, say, Baptists (who are much more "the Christians who aren't child-baptizers like the rest of you nuts"). Even the label "Protestant" isn't particularly helpful or clear these days, as you've noted in other posts.

      So you guys aren't really a "default" anymore; there isn't really a default. The burden of proof falls where it's always fallen: on everyone who wants to espouse any position as the truth.

      So yeah, we believe that too actually.

      What does it mean, though? A priest is, among other things, one who communes with God and interprets his word to the people. A king is one with authority. What does it mean to say Christians are a royal priesthood, for you?

      That’s not the critique. The critique is that Protestants have no source of authority.

      Sure we do: Christ (our great high priest!), Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. All of which we hear imperfectly, and interpret imperfectly, and obey imperfectly.

      Then, and also imperfectly: our elders, our churches, our brothers and sisters.

      This hardly seems like what Christ had in mind when he says:

      That Christ wants all Christians to hold to the mind of God isn't really at issue. Yes, it's bad that there are divisions in Christianity. There have been pretty bad mistakes made on all sides fomenting bad blood between people who should be brothers. This is tragic, as it is at every point where we the church fall short of Christ's desires for us.

      But it's not clear that it's a problem in the sense of "Explain why we aren't unified." We aren't unified because we're sinful beings; we aren't all one with each other because we aren't any of us one with the will of God.

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