Every Day Is Reformation Day

It’s naturally difficult for Catholics who are former Protestants to talk about the Protestant system without doing ideological violence to it. To shift from one ideological system to another necessitates that the former was incomplete, insufficient, or outright dangerous (and this goes both ways—for also the Catholic who becomes Protestant). One can only talk about the fullness of one’s new ideology by comparing it to the system he knew in the past, and that perspective is violent, dangerous, and, well, revolutionary. The Catholic convert has revolted against the revolters. For the Catholic convert in America, every day is Reformation Day.

I’ve never actually told the story of how I was called into the Catholic Church. I find it difficult to discuss the Protestant system (as if there is merely one) without unintentional disrespect, because it’s all I know in comparison with the Catholic system. If I had converted from agnosticism or from Orthodox Judaism or from Buddhism, such a perspective would frame my story, and I would necessarily do violence by speaking of those systems in the past-tense. To make matters worse, we Christians love our conversion stories because they emphasize the hope that is in Christ. We speak in past-tense because it makes Jesus look good, and it brings hope (and hopefully, more conversion) to the world: I once was lost, but now am found, etc.

But truth be told, my whole life has been a conversion story. Today, I am still striving to be Catholic. I am still striving to be holy, and to be true and authentic to my God and my fellow man (Philippians 3:12), and my Catholicism isn’t solely a matter of intellectual assent, but a matter of the will and body. Even many Protestants would agree that we are not saved on an intellectual basis (though some details of what you believe, a result of what you know [a strictly intellectual matter], appear to be important for some Protestants).

I don’t want to disparage the Protestant system, least of all on this day. In light of Reformation Day, I want to speak of the Christ I see in Protestant systems, and how individual reform can convert us ultimately to Christ—the most important conversion one can have, especially Catholics.

Wesleyanism was my introduction to Christianity, and I can hardly think of a better entry-point, or a system for which I have more gratitude. I came in through the United Methodist Church as a teenager and already had a love for history and thought that contemporary Christian issues should be handled within the context of how the historical church would have handled such issues. As a 15-year-old, I studied the life of Wesley and the history of the United Methodist Church, doing my final report for my Sophomore world history class on the history of Methodism. At the time, I was largely unaware of the liturgy around me, but I loved the way we spoke of the Holy Spirit. I read the whole Bible within a few months and fell in love with it—a deep, almost romantic love that still excites my heart today.

Within a few years I’d come to be friends with a pastor’s kid (who lived up to the stereotype) who was Lutheran. Not merely Lutheran, but of the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod. We were inseparable buddies, and he introduced me to everything that would shape my world for the next five years, from sports to music to popular entertainment and video games and literature, but perhaps most importantly, he introduced me to scriptural exegesis and conservative, traditional theology. And, most significantly, the practice of antinomianism. Jesus literally says that this is his body and blood, not that it’s like his body and blood—and we know from his parables that he knows how to speak in metaphor, but here it’s clearly not a metaphor, nor has the church ever understood it to be metaphorical, they taught me. I read Luther’s Small Catechism in no time and took notes in the margins, and, following the deep theological advice of teenagers, I deadened my conscience because my conscience didn’t matter to my salvation.

And then I went to college. I was introduced to nondenominational evangelicalism and thought it was just the best—that God should save everyone from each Christian denomination because each denomination reaches different people in their own way (a simple cop-out for the conflict of relativism and religion). Little did I know that this was a slope towards Universalism, but it revealed a desire that’s in everyone’s heart (and the fundamental conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism)—that God, in his loving generosity, has a plan and an intention to save every human being. However, it wasn’t long before the sacraments of Lutheranism and the holiness of Wesleyanism fell to the back, while a new order of relativistic interpret-the-Bible-for-yourselfism took its place. Having just turned 20, I had already mastered scriptural exegesis, had an appreciation for history, and knew that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t steer me wrong. What I didn’t know was that the Holy Spirit can’t supplant the human will.

Year after year for the next five years, the deadness of my conscience would drive me further away from Scripture, from God, and even from my friends. At last, after much conflict, confusion, and distress, when I had hit rock-bottom and abandoned hope in God, a friend saw my turmoil and said to me, “Don’t worry. The Catholic Church is still admitting sinners.”

Within six months, I read the Vatican II documents, the Catechism, and re-read in a new light Galatians, James, and Matthew (my guiding lights of Scripture). In the Catholic Church, I found the personal holiness that Wesley spoke of, the sacraments that Luther couldn’t give up, an answer for relativism that doesn’t undermine principles of eternity and infinity, and the promise that God’s plan for salvation is not foiled by man’s lack of knowledge or limited by our understanding. The Holy Spirit works with our will, but doesn’t replace it (see Romans 7:15–8:18). And that’s the beautiful thing. Nearly four years since that call, I, like St. Paul, still wrestle with the almost Platonic dichotomy between mind and flesh. But I know that grace comes from God, and the Holy Spirit is engaged in recreating me, preparing me for infinity, while this world tries to catch me and hold me in the temporal and the corporal. I know that many Protestants are earnestly seeking this personal conversion, too. Because, in the end, what are Protestant systems except a seeking after the infinite? Seek first the Kingdom of God.

This blog post isn’t merely a pat on the shoulder for Methodists, Lutherans, etc. In the end, regardless of what you believe (or what you think you believe), seeking the Kingdom of God isn’t an intellectual pursuit. In the same Gospel, Christ doesn’t speak of the Kingdom being a belief system or creed. His parables speak of serving the poor, the widows, and the orphans (it would be interesting to read Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew in the Brazos series on this). Seeking the Kingdom isn’t agreement to a creed, catechism, or confession. It’s an activity. The activity of doing what Christ speaks of in his parables in the same Gospel. We Christians should be others-focused before we can be theological. We need to be engaged in behaving like Christ before we can be ecumenical. And we all know, by nature of our birth, we won’t naturally be like Christ unless we commit violence to our sinful nature—and seek to cause reform within ourselves. Protestants speak of this personal conversion all the time—and know how drastic it can be. Francis Chan’s Crazy Love is an insane example of this, which many Catholics could benefit from reading. But ultimately, it’s not what we read that saves us, that unites us, or that makes us like Christ. It’s conversion to the will of Christ.

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
-Dorothy Day


On “Psalms and Silence”

In lieu of a couple longer posts I’ve been ruminating over, I’m collecting my thoughts on a little piece of microhistory relevant to some of my liturgical interests:

Psalms and Silence: The Soundtrack of John Williams’s Captivity (by Glenda Goodman; the Appendix.)

Williams was a Puritan minister captured by a war band of French and Indian Catholics in the early 1700s. The record of his captivity in the Babylon of French Catholic Canada provides a little cutaway view of the yawning liturgical gap separating early 18th century Christians.

Not even two hundred years before, French and English Christians lived in the same world — one bristling with various local and particular traditions, but centered around the same Mass, the same prayers, the same calendar, the same music, and, more than that, the same experience of sacramental and ritual worship embedded in the same religious imagination. By Williams’ time, European (and by extension, American) Christianity was such that, for a Puritan, witnessing the Mass was a profoundly disturbing and incomprehensible experience:

“The third day at Fort Francis Williams was no longer able to avoid the church; his Indian captor dragged him there by force, just as the priests had warned. Williams sat as close to the door as possible, fascinated and repulsed by what he witnessed. He had never heard a Catholic Mass before, and what he “saw [was] a great confusion, instead of Gospel Order.” The elaborate liturgy, the polyphonic music, and the overabundance of priestly noises paired with the ungodly passivity of the silent congregation, were indeed far from a Gospel Order that privileges congregational comprehension and participation. One priest delivered the “Mass in a Tongue Unknown to the Savages”—what use was such a performance, Williams wondered, if those who listened couldn’t understand the words? What’s more, another priest was “singing Prayers among the Indians at the same time”—cacophony and nonsense! Williams grimly noted the ceaseless chanting as “many others were at the same time saying over their Pater Nosters, and Ave Mary, by tale from their … Beads on a String.” Compared to the simplicity and clarity of Puritan worship, the Catholic Mass was incomprehensible idolatry, the music aimed at seducing rather than inspiring sincere conversion. Williams was appalled.”

Of course, Williams’ account was born from and feeds into the history of deliberate exotification of the Mass by the Protestant world. There is much written on the shift from sacramental to nonsacramental worship and the ideological battle it took to accomplish it; by 1704, the status of word and song as “Protestant sacrament” had been firmly established in Williams’ world and even his parents’ world (if they were also nonconformists).

What strikes me on reading this article is not just the gap that separated Williams from pre-Reformation Christianity, but the gap that separates Williams from us.

Formed in a word-and-song tradition, I began learning the ropes of contemporary sacramental Catholicism during my first year in college, only to attend a Tridentine Mass and experience a confusion and detachment not unlike Williams’. Changes in the Mass over the past centuries, and particularly in the mid 20 century — including material changes to the language, gestures, and architecture of ritual compounded by coincidental shifts in the basic ritual understanding of many worshippers — move our typical Catholic worship experience a step away from the medieval and the modern Catholic experience. And, in fact, the word-and-song tradition is by no means immune to change: a Puritan service in 1704 would be easily as foreign and uncomfortable for most contemporary evangelicals, due to a deliberate change in form and content intended to overcome many of the same characteristics of “Gospel Order” cherished by Williams.

That said, there is more than just a family resemblance to distinguish the Catholic from the Nonconforming Protestant understanding of worship. How that continuity exists and is felt and lived is a bigger question that I will have to work to keep answering.

Finally, a couple of miscellaneous thoughts:

– I loved learning that Puritan congregational singing in North America was pretty awful due to a decline in musical literacy and formal musical training. Fascinating! And not the familiar image of a robust, preternaturally competent Protestant choral tradition.

– I wanted to draw out Williams’ refusal to enter or pray in a Catholic church — Nonconformist tradition of course rejected the idea of sacred space and the spiritual import of a church building based on sacramental use and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but he still considers it not quite neutral ground and has to be physically forced inside, as if the idolatry of the devil has more power to contaminate a place than God has to sanctify it.

– The author writes as if the Indians literally asked the captives to “Sing us one of Zion’s songs” — while this is possible, I suppose, it seems much more likely that Williams is reinterpreting this request (his audience fully in the know) in order to quote Psalm 137.

Fabricating Ecstasy

On my drive up to Bellingham today, I was nostalgically listening to David Crowder. Listening to his song “You are my joy,” I was struck by the line,

            Love’s taken over me / and so I propose letting myself go / I am letting myself go

I looked at my console with the same irritated look I would give if my CD was skipping and asked out loud, “Why?”

In that moment my mind was instantly flooded with all of the anxiety and psychological tension that existed in the evangelical framework I was raised in.

Growing up, I spent most of my spiritual and intellectual energy attempting to have an encounter with God. The idea was never very concrete—I was taught from a young age the way we know God loves us (or, more precisely, that we are saved) was through “experiencing God.”

This kind of logic flows naturally from the Protestant idea of Sola Fide, and Max Weber even wrote an entire book about it. The only difference between the Weberian thesis of the Protestant work ethic and the modern evangelical idea of salvation by experience is that our spiritual currency has changed.

In the 16th century, after the structure of an outward, sacramental salvation came crumbling to the ground, people needed to look elsewhere for confirmation of their salvation. If not through baptism, if not through confession, how would one know that one is really saved? One easy way to know one’s eternal destiny was to simply look at one’s pocket book.

It’s not that the rich were the elect, but rather that the elect naturally became rich. The logic here is so simple as to easily miss it: If God had chosen you, wouldn’t He provide for you? If you were Elect, wouldn’t you be favored? In light of this idea, early Protestants, especially the English Puritans and French Huguenots worked very hard.

They worked hard because they wanted security, and they wanted security because they wanted proof of their salvation. The question of course wasn’t weather or not Faith alone saved you, but whether or not you really had Faith. Because there was no more structure to determine what concrete actions were Holy or not, the sacramental chasm left by Catholicism was filled with secular work.

So much for Weber’s thesis. These days, there’s an acute awareness and skepticism of any kind of “false gospel” that preaches health and wealth (though these kinds of movements are still very much alive.) But it’s not that the early Protestants were into a Prosperity Gospel. In fact, just the opposite: They didn’t want God to give them health and wealth, they wanted God to give them salvation. What was lacking, as we’ve seen, was a means to know whether or not salvation was granted. Fast-forward to the present in an industrialized, wealthy global economy, and we can begin to see how the signs and symbols of salvation have shifted: The modern Christian no longer tends to his outward-secular work, (for even the non-believers do this!) but instead looks to his inward-spiritual state.

There’s a lot of theology that leads up to this shift, but the shift can be traced very easily. Look at the American revivalist movements, the first and second Great Awakening—something new was happening. Tent revivals were filled with “Holy Rollers,” the fire of tongues began to catch and spread like wildfire (in America, anyway.) People rejected the “old Puritanical ways” and took up a new mode of soteriological gnosis: experiencing God. 

Crowder’s refrain of “letting go” is a rally call. It is a call to awaken the lazy spiritual worker and get him to start working towards an experience with God. Instead of working hard to secure a prosperous business life, the evangelical works hard to secure the elusive (and amorphous) encounter with God. 

I’m reminded of similar refrains from worship songs when I was younger: Lines like, “And I’ll become even more undignified than this” (meaning I’ll “let myself go” or “get wild” in the presence of God) and an endless repertoire of lyrics begging for God to “fill us up” so we could simply “catch a glimpse” because all we really needed was “one moment” in order to be “satisfied”.

We truly were hungry, desperate for God, but not in any measurable or rational way. We were at pains to know that God really loved us, and, unfortunately, we had been taught that the only way to really know for sure was if we felt something.

And so we took the work of salvation into our own hands; we were fabricating ecstasy. From altar calls to all-night worship sessions, we squinted our eyes and, like one in pain, lifted our arms up to the heavens in hopes of the elusive encounter

The great mystics of the Counter-Reformation, while holding moments of spiritual ecstasy dear, never attempted to create or contain them. St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola—all understood that God was still present—if not more present—in the seasons of absence and dryness. We cannot let ourselves go, because we cannot free ourselves.