A sola or two

One of the reasons I’ve been sitting on my hands when it comes to blogging about all my recent…ecclesial developments is that it’s hard to do so without coming across as at least a little bit confrontational. It’s also the case that conversion is an often messy affair that works in fits and starts, and involves (if I may be so ironic as to paraphrase John Henry Newman) the whole Josh and not just his intellect, so getting my thoughts about it down in a manner which really nails it is probably impossible.

Still, we do need to reckon with the fact that the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction over this blog. I can’t just sweep all these dramatic changes under the rug. And it’ll be a little weird if I just jump right into talking about, say, Calvin or Hooker without any attempts to pave the way here. Anyhow, rather than attempt to write a huge, magisterial “Why I Am No Longer Roman Catholic” post, it seems more appropriate to the blog to handle things in a more piecemeal fashion as time goes on, and to accept that, much like how I’ve never been able to completely articulate to my satisfaction why I became Roman Catholic in the first place, I will be similarly dissatisfied with my attempts to articulate my having gone Prot.

My conversion to Roman Catholicism was an extremely bookish and solitary affair. I didn’t even set foot inside a parish until I was enrolling in RCIA. So, needless to say, there was some degree of culture shock in attending my first mass after primarily engaging with the religion by way of reading Aquinas, Chesterton and the like.

When my faith in Rome declined and I started investigating into Anglicanism, I was a little bit better in at least visiting various Anglican parishes for some time before making any commitments. Though this also went along with the homework.

In his book Anglican Identities, Rowan Williams provides a rough definition of Anglicanism as a form of decentralized reformed Christianity with a pervasive echo of the middle ages. Though, of course, the name of the book is also a gesture towards the notion that Anglicanism is a tradition which has always been fraught with internal tensions.

Anyway, that “reformed” bit has been crucial. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion found in the Book of Common Prayer wound up becoming a theological spring-board which pointed me in the direction of the continental reformers in order to understand the controversies they adjudicate. The English Reformation did not occur in a vacuum, nor was it merely a question of the Pope’s jurisdiction. Cranmer and company were operating under distinctly Protestant lines of thought. And I wanted to, far more clearly, understand what it was I thought I would find here, which meant seriously engaging with the ideas behind the Reformation. As a result, I’ve actually spent more time with Luther and Calvin than with actual Anglican divines.

It turned out that, absent a prior commitment to the Magisterium’s conclusions, my own thinking more often than not lined up with the Protestant reformers on the major controversies. They simply achieved a more forceful and consistent expression of the Gospel, and indeed a more genuine engagement with Church history than Rome.

But on a specific point, this was where I started to get out of the quagmire of sin and despondency I was sinking into. Luther wrote, in his preface to Paul’s epistle to the Romans that

God judges according to your inmost convictions; His law must be fulfilled in your very heart, and cannot be obeyed if you merely perform certain acts….If we do not choose goodness freely, we do not keep God’s law from the heart. Then sin enters in, and divine wrath is incurred even though, to outward appearance, we are doing many virtuous works and living an honourable life.

[…]

it is one thing to do what the law enjoins, and quite another to fulfil the law. All that a man does or ever can do of his own free will and strength, is to perform the works required by the law. Nevertheless, all such works are vain and useless as long as we dislike the law, and feel it as a constraint….It is obvious—Is it not?—that the sophisticators wrangling in the schools are misleading when they teach us to prepare ourselves for grace by our works. How can anyone use works to prepare himself to be good when he never does a good work without a certain reluctance or unwillingness in his heart? How is it possible for God to take pleasure in works that spring from reluctant and hostile hearts?

This begins to get to the heart of it. That with Roman Catholicism I was offered the high standard of holiness, the sacramental grace necessary to progressively attain it, and infinite do-overs if I should trip up. That this nevertheless didn’t get through to my heart, that I couldn’t even be someone who wanted to be holy. So it just becomes a scourge to my conscience and not a joy, and I get worse instead. And the first voice I heard which seemed to be taking this seriously was Martin fricking Luther, who also eloquently summed up the solution when he spoke of

alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith….This righteousness, then, is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant. Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.” Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his-for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh[.]

[….]

Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.

(Two Kinds of Righteousness)

It’s paradoxical, but it is the paradox that bridges the gap between my sinfulness and God’s holiness without dissolving the reality of either—that all the merits of Christ’s are somehow already mine. Meditating on this, and existentially appropriating it did lift me out of where I was and set me back on me feet. It was a moment of grace for me that brought the joy of the Gospel back to my heart in some manner. And this happened outside the ecclesial bounds of Roman Catholicism, without reference to it. The good old Protestant “fuck you for even thinking you could be good in the first place” did more to turn my spiritual life around than any Catholic devotional ever had. All those absolutions in the confessional seemed impossible to trust in, while the Word of God getting expounded to by some fat German guy somehow got through my thick skull.

Anyway, despite more recent attempts to attain ecumenical agreement on how we understand justification, it really is the case that sola fide has some radical consequences if taken seriously. Inasmuch as there is nothing more that the Church can give the believer but all the merits of Christ, and that this is already accomplished in baptism, and that this is entirely God’s action upon the believer, there is no room for the system of merits and temporal satisfactions that developed in Roman doctrine and practice (everything from indulgences to Mass intentions), even in their more sober, post Counter-Reformation existence. There’s no room to view works, even within the matrix of faith, as gaining for us or for others more than what has already been given to us in its totality, without the risk of setting our own righteousness against Christ’s.

But Rome’s ecclesial self-understanding prevents the necessary reforms here. Luther, Calvin, etc. arrived at the more coherent understanding of the relation between faith and works, and this happened because they were able to critically turn to the sources of Christian faith unhampered by commitments to ecclesial infallibility.

So this was kinda the moment where the dying, nice Catholic Josh finally kicked the bucket and was replaced by Protestant garbage. Because, I think up to this point, I think I was still implicitly operating on Roman terms, still viewing Protestant forms of Christianity as being lesser and vitiated, perhaps representing a necessary disillusionment for truth’s sake, but still disillusionment. And there was still part of me that could easily see the whole scenario in terms of a progressive hardening of heart that had finally entered into unbelief and apostasy, my inability to have faith in Rome just being God withdrawing His grace from me.

But I had found something real here. The story was not one of loss but of a necessary Copernican shift in my grasp of the truth. Bring on the Total Depravity, etc.

It’s also part of the reason why, despite my High Church proclivities, I haven’t had much use for the Anglo-Catholic label, nor for via media mediocrity, and not in spite of, but rather because of my Catholic background. I don’t think I could have appropriated sola fide without having lived the tension out myself. I know the gay drama tends to overshadow things here, but there’s more at stake here than a desire to sequentially marry and then behead a series of men who fail to produce a male heir.

But, more seriously on that note, it also does seem to be the case that my years spent wrestling with Roman Catholic sexual anthropology has also seemingly succeeded only in making me into the sort of asshole who would say something like “heteronormativity is probably a consequence of the Fall.”

Pre-Catholicism, I hadn’t really encountered a compelling vision of human sexuality which could make the gay stuff problematic. So it was bound to win by default. It’s sort of like how someone young who has political opinions, but doesn’t think too systematically about them can be dazzled in the initial encounter with a systematic thinker like Plato or Hegel who sets up an entire language and world for talking about politics. And then you poke holes in them. In critically wrestling with that, you come to a deeper articulation of your own convictions, and with the language you use more enriched as a result. The difference being that you don’t usually spend several years actually attempting to live in Socrates’ Philosopher-King state.

Anyway, when we talk about stuff about patriarchy or heteronormativity, or whathaveyou, we’re not just talking about church discipline or how Christians should privately conduct themselves, but of questions relating to human nature which have immediate sociopolitical consequences. And I have ultimately been unable to morally comport myself with the notion that a society structured along the traditional views here would be just in that regard, that it matches up to the true good of the human person. It isn’t just the case that trying to live that out was hard and painful for me, but that that suffering was in the service of something that stung my conscience only more painfully as time went on. There’s no way suffering can be salutary in that situation, and there’s something tremendously sad about suffering because you lack the courage to stick to your principles. That way ends in resentment and wrath.

It does at times give me pause that my LGBTQ-affirming schtick is where the weight of Christian tradition is most against me. But at this point it’s more credible to me that tradition has been in error here than that it accurately reflects the will of God. It does hearten me that there seem to be an increasing amount of vocal folk who are roughly walking the same path as me, not traditional on this stuff, but who cling to the old creeds and don’t want a glib liberal Christianity that shrugs in the face of difficult theological questions either (indeed it seems to me that the really big fault-line in mainline Protestantism right now is less the culture war stuff than it is the divide between the “demythologized” Christianity which saw its biggest heyday in the previous century, and those who still can profess the Nicene/Apostle’s Creeds).

Though really, my own thought here likely require at least their own blog post to be properly articulated.

I’m getting a bit off-topic. My main point here, to the extent that there is one, was to zero in on a particular episode that seems to have reoriented my intellectual and spiritual struggles in a radical way, and in a mysterious manner which I can only understand as faith. It’s all a bit Kierkegaardian – by virtue of the absurd I regained in a new fashion what was seemingly lost.

Which can be a bit irksome to me; I do like nice, pat intellectual systems, and I like to think that everything about my beliefs is perfectly explicable. When something theologically troubles me, I have a tendency to bash my head against it until I get an answer that satisfies me, and I still do this a lot – sometimes to a pathological point where if I don’t seem to be struggling with something, my kneejerk reaction is that I must be being intellectually or morally complacent. One of the dangers here, of course, being that of getting lost in an endless intellectual labyrinth where the actual life of faith becomes endlessly deferred (something, again, Kierkegaard wrote about).

I’m rambling again. And there are other Reformation-y issues worth talking about: the Papacy, the nature and number of the sacraments, etc. Suffice it to say that it is somewhat mysterious to me that I am still Christian, and also deeply consoling that my faith came back stronger even after the explosion of many of the intellectual props that seemed to be holding it up.

(Incidentally, that I’m back to penning unwieldy blog posts is a sign that, yes, the fiction writing has stalled a bit)

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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