I need to make two introductory comments to this post. They concern things that happened about the time I returned to making (fairly) regular entries here at The 7 Habitus.
The first is that, as a self-imposed rule, I decided to limit entries here to no more than 750 words, and never, ever, exceed 1,000 words. I only mention this by way of saying that this may be one of the few times I break my own rule – apologies in advance; I’ll try to do better in the future.
Second, some time around the beginning of March this year was when I first discovered Touchstone Magazine’s blog, Mere Comments. This, along with Flos Carmeli and TSO’s blog, has become regular fare in my brief daily sessions of web surfing. On Mere Comments I nearly always find something interesting and certainly thought provoking, especially the posts written by Dr. SM Hutchins or Dr. Anthony Esolen. I greatly admire the work they are doing at Touchstone and, if you have not discovered their blog, I highly recommend it. The link is here.
Anyway, just before my vacation, Dr. Hutchins had a post on Mere Comments, titled “A Biographical Note,” and that post stuck with me all through the trip and is still with me. I intended to try to write about it either before or during the trip, but was too busy having fun. The thing is, I agree with most of what he has to say but I thought his concluding paragraph struck a discordant note that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It just didn’t seem consistent with most of what I read in both the magazine and the blog. I guess that’s one reason why it has stuck with me so doggedly. I recognized that one reason may be that he addressed so well issues that were key in my own conversion.
For example, he writes:
In my youth the problem of the Church presented itself to me in the form of the question, “Why do we hardly consider it possible for members of other churches to be Christians?” Our denominational theology, despite the pastors’ attempts to trace it to the New Testament, seemed to be relatively new on the scene. Why were there places in the Bible where in his sermons, and in the Sunday school classes, we had to “get fancy,” that is, all of a sudden switch into a mode where we didn’t treat the Bible as true unless we first added to or subtracted from it? Why, when preaching in this mode, did the pastor inform us in an oblique way that we were not qualified to question his authorities because we did not know Greek or Hebrew? Something was fishy here. Might others be different than us because they didn't get tricky with certain parts of the Bible? Are Catholics—or Presbyterians, for that matter—as stupid, or as abandoned by God, as our church’s beliefs would lead us to think? It would be silly to imagine that Catholic experts don’t know Greek and Hebrew. I knew a good many people (I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood) who were not in our communion who seem to believe the same basic things we do, and were just as devout as any of us. What was going on here?
This is precisely the question presented to me that lead to my coming home to Rome. In my Presbyterian church the teaching went from soundly Biblical based, almost evangelical, truth to the kind of “getting fancy” that Hutchins talks about. The constant refrain in preaching and teaching became “What this text really means is . . .” You can substitute your own version of any secular heresy that comes to mind in place of the ellipsis. Although I couldn’t exactly explain it, I knew something was very wrong, and I knew there had to be a place where the wrong could be righted. That began the search.
To me the Vincentian Canon ("what has been believed everywhere, in all places, by all Christians") is no theoretical construct, rendered delicate because of major disagreements among Christians, but has real, almost palpable meaning. Ninety-nine percent of the preaching of a preacher who gives careful and respectful treatment to the scriptures (which is to say, doing none of the adding or subtracting that defines the sect) is non-controversial among believers. Nor does one need to prove to me J. Gresham Machen’s theses that (1) there is a discrete spiritual phenomenon and doctrinal identity that is denominated “liberalism,” and (2) it is not Christianity, but another religion altogether, fully describable as such according to its doctrines--fundamentally mendacious, fundamentally deceptive, fundamentally demonic, hostile to the Christian faith. I have watched it up close for years, know what it believes and denies, understand its particular appeal to intellectual pride (not intellect--but pride), have seen what it does to the churches that decide to accommodate it, and watched them one by one wither and die as Christian churches. It is exactly as H. Richard Niebuhr said: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
This may be a bit strongly put, yet the key points about liberalism are that it is not Christian and is, at it’s heart “fundamentally mendacious, . . . hostile to the Christian faith.” I believe this is absolutely true, otherwise there is no need to say of any Bible passage, “What this really means is . . .” If you can’t take the Bible at is word, if you try to say that one part or another is not true, especially where it makes a statement of fact, then you must conclude that no part of it can be trusted. The Bible, in this circumstance is no different from any other book; it ceases to be God’s revelation of Himself.
Yet, there is a problem that all Christians, no matter the denomination in which we find ourselves, must face up to. That problem is that the Church is human. Many Protestants, find themselves cut adrift by the take over of the mainline denominations by the radical leftists who only wish to pursue a strictly secularist-materialist agenda. This was my own situation. The question became urgent: where does one go to find the truth? Having been baptized a Lutheran, then growing up a Presbyterian, I could not bring myself to attend a Baptist church, nor one of the “non-denominationals”. The Lutherans were in just the same mess as the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians were way off the chart. I think many Protestants are having this same experience and find themselves trying one church after another in an effort to find a true home. Dr. Hutchens has certainly had this experience, going from Baptist all the way to Episcopal, and perhaps back again. He writes:
The illusion of movement is created by the fact that in my lifetime the western churches, Catholic and Protestant, have undergone upheaval as violent and concentrated as they have any time since the Reformation. (The blue-collar Conservative Baptist Church in which I was raised with a serious, traditional Protestant order of service, now has a gaudy, foot-stompin’ religious floor show with Jeezus as its special, invisible guest star. The pastor, once master of an orderly house which spoke softly of the catholic faith, is now led about by an impertinent jester with the title “worship leader.” Analogous things have happened in most churches. There have been, in the wake of feminism, substantive, doctrinal changes that are deviations from--or, if one takes the standard line, improvements upon--traditional beliefs and practices of the whole Church. This time the Catholics haven't needed Protestants to break their altars; they are doing the job quite well by themselves by allowing Catholic vandals do the work unhindered.)
The same thing seems to be happening everywhere and this has lead Dr. Hutchens to conclude:
And to anticipate comments I know I will receive: The calls of certain of my brethren to join them in other shell craters they have mistaken for Mount Zion does not tempt me; it only makes me wonder what they are drinking, and how long it will be before the casing upon which they have spread their crystal and fine old china finds its own live fuse. Those of you who have "come home" are in as great a danger of being de-Christianized by your own communion's follies as I am by mine.
There is no doubt that Christians of all stripes have had their share of, shall we say, “embarrassments”. Catholics have certainly felt the pain of a clergy too steeped in the modern secularist agenda and too out of touch with Christian truth. Yet, in my heart, I knew there had to be such a Church where the Truth was taught without fear; when I discovered it in the Church, to be honest, my first reaction was one of terror. My first thought was, “Oh no!” But there it was.
I had to admit, the Church has had its problems over the centuries, yet I was able to see a core of truth in her teaching, and that the other things were not central to what the Church was. As Richard John Neuhaus has so admirably pointed out in his new book, Catholic Matters, the Church has experienced such things in the past; failure, sin, is regrettably inevitable in any organization composed of human beings. The Church itself is divine, its members are definitely not. Still, Jesus himself promised that the Church is built upon the rock of Peter and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The remarkable thing is that, despite all the sin, ignorance, and general cussedness that has been a part of the Church from the beginning, she is still around, and still strong.
So, while at first, I didn’t know what it was that bothered me so much about this ost, I realized that it was exactly contrary to my own experience. I was able to see that, if there is such a thing as objective Truth, then there must be a place where that Truth can be found, otherwise, our understanding of God could never be sufficient to allow us to know Him, much less worship Him. The existence of objective Truth is a central part of the Christian world view, that and the fact that Truth can be known, however imperfectly. What bothered me about this post is that it seems Dr Hutchens has given up on the possibility that Truth resides anywhere within the Church.
I’m not a scholar; I’m a layman, a layman who faced a real dilemma concerning my faith. It became obvious to me that truth could not be fiddled with, subject to the interpretation of those who had to fudge the clear meaning of a text. I found a fundamental inconsistency with that approach and the bed rock, long standing principle of sola scriptura. It was clear to me that a church that taught one of these ideas, could not abide the other. It was also clear, that if I could not resolve the situation, I would have to have serious questions about Christianity itself. That dilemma, in my case, began the search for truth, and that, as I have so often said, lead me to Rome.
Yes, I know the Church isn’t perfect, but neither am I. I simply saw that we are both searching for the same thing; I only hope we deserve each other.