Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My evening with some Protestants

I walked into the coffee shop at 6:30 sharp, Bible in hand, and greeted my two companions: one, a non-denominational Protestant I have known since middle school, the other a Calvinist student of divinity from a baptist college in Virginia I had never met before. I had been invited to this gathering because, in the words of my non-denominational friend, the Calvinist had "never met an educated Catholic before" and simply wanted to see what talking to one was like - he had heard of this mysterious species known as "educated Catholic" and wanted to see it in person.

I was not sure what to expect, and after some niceties the conversation shortly drifted to the question, put to me by the Calvinist of why, given all the other forms of Christianity out there, would I choose to be Catholic?

There are many ways this could have been answered, but I answered based on the argument that had first led me back to the Church a decade ago: If the Catholic Church was not the true Church, but a corruption of the true Faith that had perverted the teachings of Christ, then it bothered me intensely that God would abandon the Church to perversion and superstition for over 1,200 years between Constantine and Luther, especially after promising to be with it forever and lead it into all Truth. Thus, it was a problem of reconciling actual history with Christ's promises.

After that I was somewhat disappointed with the direction of the discussion - they wanted to talk about the typical Protestant issues. I was expecting something other than the typical Protestant canards. The Immaculate Conception came first, then a discussion on the Deuterocanonicals, then Justification, finally Purgatory (which I did rather well on and got one of them to basically admit was a reality and a necessity). But overall, when debating these things with Protestants the discussion is rather fruitless because all questions hinge on other, broader questions - understanding the Immaculate Conception necessitates a discussion about the concept of grace and how it interacts with nature; Purgatory presupposes a discussion on the concept of sin, its effects and consequences. In most cases, it is hard to have a real meaningful discussion with a Protestant about these "hot button" issues like the Immaculate Conception without backing up and settling broader questions first.

I think they sensed this as we went round and round on various issues. Eventually the kid working the coffee shop came up and told us we had to leave because they were closing. But we weren't ready, so we took our things out into the night and went and sat on the steps of our historic courthouse underneath the harsh white glow of the buzzing lights and continued our discussion. Here we came to the crux of the issue - what was it that really separated Catholics and Protestants?

I stated that the issue was one of authority. If the Church has the authority that it claims, then every other objections to Catholicism melts away. We talked a lot about the question of the Unity of the Church, and I asked them whether 22,000 denominations, all in disagreement on everything, was God's will. The response was interesting. They stated that there was a general agreement on essentials, and that with regards to the things that were disagreed upon, it was possible for there to be a "disunity in unity," to use a quote from the Calvinist.

This Unity point is worth discussing, because like the issue of authority, the whole edifice of Protestantism is bound up with it. First, the concept of agreeing on "essentials" is a fable. I have written about this before; it is not as if Protestants are united on some core fundamentals and disagree only on ephemeral issues; they disagree on everything. Every conceivable doctrine has served as an occasion for division: justification, baptism, communion, marriage and divorce, women in ministry, gay marriage, the nature of the Holy Spirit, the divinity of Christ, the reality of hell, the permissibility of drinking and dancing, speaking in tongues and miracles, ecshatological considerations, what day to worship on, predestination and much more. There is no core essentials that are agreed upon; the only "essential" that Protestants really agree on is that the Catholic Church is not the true Church of Christ.

When a dispute does come up that shakes the Protestant world, they have no real way to counter it, because everybody already is in disagreement about everything and all they can do is point at each other and say, "You are taking the Bible out of context...no YOU are taking the Bible out of context."

Second, this quote about "disunity in unity" was very interesting. Certainly nobody will agree on everything, and even within the Catholic Church there is room for discussion on many issues. Many Catholics disagree on accidental or prudential matters and still remain in the unity of the Church, because as long as we can all agree on the dogmas of the faith and remain in communion with Rome, then it can be said that we have unity.

But it must be recalled - and I recalled it to these Protestants - that the Unity that the Church is supposed to have is not just some sort of incidental human unity, but a metaphysical, spiritual unity that is nothing other than a participation of the Unity the Father shares with the Son. Let us recall the sacred words our Our Lord:

"And for them do I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. And not for them only do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in me. That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them: that, they may be one, as we also are one. I in them, and thou in me: that they may be made perfect in one: and the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them, as thou hast also loved me. Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me: that they may see my glory which thou hast given me, because thou hast loved me before the creation of the world" (John 17:19-24).

This is a Unity that is much more substantial than a vague "disunity in unity." The oneness that Christ prays for His Church is nothing other than the oneness of the Trinity itself. It is the oneness of the Father with the Son in the Spirit, a oneness that the world cannot give and that cannot be found in any sort of vague consensus on non-existing "essentials." Our Lord also says that this oneness is the ground upon which the world will believe in Him. The Calvinist, when I brought this up, said, "Yes, but your argument against there being 22,000 denominations is the same argument atheists bring up to deny the truth of Christianity." I said that the atheist had a great point. It is in fact a scandal that, when our Lord prayed that the Church should be one, that there are over 22,000 denominations. And it proves Jesus' point - the credibility of the message is bound up with the oneness of the Church. Atheism only cropped up in the west after the Protestant revolt.

The night wore on and we grew tired. I think I left for home at 10:30 after four hours of discussion. All in all I represented the Church pretty decently...at some points I felt like I absolutely schooled them. They asked me once if God could create Mary Immaculate why He didn't just do that for everybody - I said why doesn't He appear in person and convert everybody like He did to Paul on the road to Damascus, or take everybody alive into heaven like He did to Elijah, or heal all the blind like our Lord did to the man outside Jericho, to which they had no answer. There were many other times when they had no answer as well. I think the climax of the evening, for me, was when my non-denominational friend was saying that he valued the testimony of the Fathers because he wanted to find that essential, primitive core of Early Church belief. Being a disciple of Newman, I was able to respond, "They are ever hunting for a fabulous primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fullness."

We hugged and parted ways. The dialogue was cordial, charitable an never got heated, but it was a true argument in the Scholastic manner, two sides disputing. It was very fruitful - and I might add, fruitful because we actually had a real argument and did not just focus on what we share in common. It was dialogue the way dialogue was meant to be: a search for the truth that does not seek to minimize difference but to draw them out and throw them into relief.

Special thanks to my bro St. Robert Bellarmine, whom I prayed to yesterday on his feast day before engaging in the discussion.

7 comments:

Michael Taylor said...

It sounds like it was a night to remember! I really enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of so many conversations that I have had with others. I'm also glad that it was a fruitful and controlled conversation. Too many times things can go so far off course that it becomes unproductive. It's great to hear that that wasn't the case last night. Your efforts and accomplishments are worthily stated as the synthesized exemplification of Mortalium Animos and Ut Unum Sint.

Your paragraph written about the oneness of the Trinity and Church was fantastic. I love this description. I feel that there are many Christians (Catholic and Protestant alike) who fail to understand much about the Trinity and the loving reciprocal relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most seem to resort to a form of modalistic tendency to avoid what they seem to see as a polytheistic understanding. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is, I think anyways, the fundamental framework for understanding God's character.

Next time bring either a) me, or b) a tape recorder. lol. Thanks for the timely post.

Michael Taylor said...

It sounds like it was a night to remember! I really enjoyed reading your post. It reminded me of so many conversations that I have had with others. I'm also glad that it was a fruitful and controlled conversation. Too many times things can go so far off course that it becomes unproductive. It's great to hear that that wasn't the case last night. Your efforts and accomplishments are worthily stated as the synthesized exemplification of Mortalium Animos and Ut Unum Sint.

Your paragraph written about the oneness of the Trinity and Church was fantastic. I love this description. I feel that there are many Christians (Catholic and Protestant alike) who fail to understand much about the Trinity and the loving reciprocal relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most seem to resort to a form of modalistic tendency to avoid what they seem to see as a polytheistic understanding. However, the doctrine of the Trinity is, I think anyways, the fundamental framework for understanding God's character.

Next time bring either a) me, or b) a tape recorder. lol. Thanks for the timely post.

Anonymous said...

Boniface,

My appologies for waxing mystical, but in my own conversion experience (from a dual background of evangelical Anglicanism of the GAFCON/www.sydneyanglicans.org and 21 years as a Seventh-Day Adventist of the 'Historic/Herritage/last Generation Theology George Burnside, Austin Cook and Brothers Standish variety, I firmly believe only the intervention of the Holy Spirit over years (in retrospect) enabled this shift. From a teenagehood in which I was fascinated by medieval and Renaissance music, culture, history, costume etc (that opened me up to a tradition of sacred music from St. Hildegard of Bingen onwards), culminating in attending a Catholic university to study theology where I learnt of the sacriments, Church history, the Scriptural foundation at the heart of Catholic Christian teaching e.g. the CCC, a passionate Tue and Thu chaplain who is fearless in the face of liberalism, plus the work of dedicated Catholic bloggers, the stage was set for 8th October last year and my conformation service as seven of us entered the Marounite Rite from all walks and backgrounds, another three over subsequent weeks or in other Marounite parishes. Additionally, the work of groups such as 'former Adventist' and others like it helped in the de-briefing process and detox from destructive forms of Protestantism. Born Catholics, especially those who have spent many years in orthodox Catholic circles, give thanks every moment of the day that you haven't had to traverse the pain and heartache of learning everything you believed in was actually a lie, and the cost of disengaging from cultic structures along with the tapes that can take a decade to stop playing, plus the tole many who make this journey face re family, spouces, employement (and in some instances, even their lives - in the Marounite homelands). Most who escape SDA'ism don't get out with any type of faith life intact.

Pray for us converts who are not even a year old in our Catholic Christian walk...

Blessings,

Sarah,
Australia.

HPA said...

Beautiful post. Thank you.

Lynne said...

Even if you decide to stop blogging, please don't take this blog down...

BONIFACE said...

Bless you Lynne. That is a touching compliment.

Anonymous said...

Boniface,

Have you or anyone else here heard of St Paul's (Catholic) Street Evangelization?

The link sends you to the Facebook page. There are various 'chapters' starting up in various cities around the world and the mission is dedicated to having the same type of discussions that you had with your Protestant friends. Not only that, this Street Evangelization also reaches out to fallen away Catholics and pagans.