Saturday, October 6, 2007

An Interview with HokiePundit, Part II

What led you to the Church?
Jesus. Either that, or a squirrel. (Old, old Evangelical joke.)
Okay, I've never really been a fan of math, but the idea of a vector makes sense here, with my starting point being an Episcopalian background and the direction being an interest in doctrine, theology, and denominations.

Being an Episcopalian gives you both advantages and disadvantages when going between Roman Catholics and "Protestants." Both sides see something in you they recognize...but neither really trusts you 100%. Except for some of your more free-form Bible Church-type services, an Episcopalian can pretty much navigate his way among any other type of service (probably excepting the more ethno-centric services and denominations) well enough to blend in. This works to some extent in theology, too, as he can generally get his foot in the door, whether it be the Westminster Confession, the Council of Trent, or the Prayer of Jabez. Many Episcopalians have had one other unexpected impetus: the general free-fall and suicide of the denomination has caused many of those who are more theologically conservative (Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics) to look elsewhere. The idea of Episcopalians, who tend to be as blue-blooded as you can get (my ancestors weren't, but wanted to be), being refugees is actually really funny.

For whatever reason, I was always fascinated by the differences between denominations. Part of it came from discovering that they didn't just arise ex nihilo, but formed a complicated family tree. Just as an example, Baptists arose from the old Congregationalists in New England (basically the Pilgrims and Puritans from elementary school history). These, in turn, were dissenters from the Church of England, which was itself, of course, broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Eastern churches broke off from Rome long before this. Not only that, but the Methodists later broke off from the Anglicans, eventually giving rise to groups such as the Salvation Army (an actual denomination) and Pentecostals. Sometimes there were massive differences that caused the split, as with the Calvinists and Anabaptists, while sometimes the differences were minuscule. In some cases, they've even been "resolved," although the groups still remain separated. By becoming aware of what other Christians believed I was able to consider and accept or reject different concepts and have a reason for the decision. I'm not sure why it was, as I wasn't trained in Episcopalian theology (although perhaps the culture had already claimed me), but no matter what I decided it always seemed to end up within the bounds of Episcopalianism. Maybe I should clarify.

Unlike the many denominations that have a specific creed, Episcopalianism generally only requires a belief that the Bible is the word of God, a belief in the Nicene and Apostles' creeds, and in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (I think apostolic succession is the only major point in there). This is even distinct from much of Anglicanism, which often has a very Calvinistic flavor depending on the specific Province. Episcopalianism tends to be almost more "familial" than like a political party. I may disagree with my family members, even vehemently, but that doesn't mean we're not a family. This can be a strength, but it has also proven to be a weakness, as this tolerance has been stretched to the breaking point lately. Really, "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis is a pretty good example of the best aspects of this kind of thought. Lutherans have their Martin Luther and Prebyterians have their John Calvin; conservative Episcopalians pretty much lionize C.S. Lewis. His books, especially "Mere Christianity," "The Screwtape Letters," and "The Great Divorce" provided much of my earliest reading upon becoming a Christian in high school and I'm not sure I've found anything in them with which I disagree.

Here's the thing, though: a "Lewisian" view tends to be relatively "high-church." I don't remember the source, but someone persuasively argued that if he hadn't been born in Northern Ireland, and after Vatican I, Lewis would almost certainly have been Roman Catholic. This isn't exactly self-evident from reading his more popular books; I suspect the Evangelical bookstores would be appalled if they found out. I'll bet none of them have ever actually read "The Great Divorce," as it's essentially an argument for the existence of Purgatory and I can't imagine it being sold if they knew. In any case, important concepts for this view are the quintessential English values of reasonableness and tolerance. Thus, when you see people whom you respect (including, and especially, Lewis himself) believing in things like the existence of Purgatory it makes it a lot easier to put aside what you've always heard for a moment and consider the concept itself.

For me, it was a series of things like this. Reading up on the idea, I couldn't find any basis for actually denying the idea of Purgatory, and could even see some reasons why it might make sense. The question of the canon of the Bible and sola scriptura also came up, as the Table of Contents isn't actually part of the Bible itself. Eventually, one thing led to another and I found myself knocked up with the willingness to consider that perhaps the Roman Catholic Church's claims about itself were true.

The biggest barrier for me was cultural. It would seem that every time I attended some kind of Roman Catholic event I would be appalled by something. I went to an RCIA class and the first thing they did was to enquire as to whether anyone was divorced and remarried and needed annulment. While I don't think they meant exactly what it seemed to me at the time, you can see how this would dismay an Evangelical and be downright insulting to an Anglican (see above). Even now, I feel as though I'm having to trade a huge number of good practices in exchange for doctrinal authority; to my mind it should be an upgrade (insert your own reference to the Pearl of Great Price here). It was also the kind of thing that was much more Petrine than Pauline. While I did have to prod myself to some extent, too much of it, or anything but the gentlest of nudges from others, provoked a digging in of heels and a swing back towards Reformed notions. Something that helped was to see ordinary Roman Catholics who took their faith seriously. While folks like Mark Shea and Jimmy Akin were useful in terms of understanding doctrine, people like TS O'Rama and Louder Fenn (whose has tragically dropped off the face of the Internet) provided a glimpse of everyday life. The conversions of prominent people such as Francis Beckwith, J. Budziszewski, and Dean Esmay also played a role.


Catholic Mom said...

If your experience with Catholicism has been mostly in the Diocese of Richmond and you still crossed the Tiber, then you are truly a man of great faith. Do find your way up north to the Diocese of Arlington and you will find that you are not having to pay quite such a big price in terms of liturgical compromises.(read abuses) In any case, welcome home.

HokiePundit said...

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves...I haven't swum the Tiber so much as dipped my foot in and said "it's not so bad." I'm still waiting for certain rumors to be fleshed out...

Peter said...

Glad to see someone else coming to their senses about leaving TEC. I left 15 years ago with the rest of my parish, but when we were looking at where to go, the Great Schism was important for us to examine. You wrote, "the Eastern churches broke off from Rome long before this," but that's not the case. Old Rome unilaterally insisted on inserting the filioque into the Creed, a change that New Rome and the rest of the Church refused to make. Sadly, the Latin Church continued to make more innovative changes while the rest of the Church, under heavy persecution from both Islam and the West, maintained the Faith. For that reason, many of us have returned home not to Rome, but to Antioch and the other Orthodox Churches.

Mike Bradley said...

Regarding "It would seem that every time I attended some kind of Roman Catholic event I would be appalled by something" I apologize on behalf of the Church and the Diocese. And welcome to my personal hell. You might not believe it, but it used to be worse. With the poor quality of Religious Ed in the Diocese of Richmond when I was growing up, it's a miracle that I'm still Catholic. I credit it to Religious Ed in a different diocese before moving to VA when I was in 6th grade, and the resources I was able to find on the internet over the last decade. I don't know how the holdovers from the 60's who taught Religious Ed at my parish thought we would be mature responsible adult Catholics by making collages and felt banners. Sometimes though, knowledge can have it's drawbacks. I often find myself playing liturgy police at mass. Good advice I was given is to remember that I'm at mass to encounter Christ, not to be entertained; and as long as it's a valid mass, I can do that. Sometimes sitting through liturgical abuse, poor homilies, and tacky environment, is another cross we have to bear. That being said, the diocese of Richmond is moving back to orthodoxy and orthopraxy (even if at a snail's pace). There are parishes that have a reputation for this: Thomas Aquinas in C'ville, St. Benedict in Richmond, and my parish, Christ The King in Norfolk. I'm sure there are others.
A great source for conversion stories of everyday people is to check out the back issues of This Rock magazine on They run a conversion story every month in the feature, Damascus Road.
Another group of young Catholics in the area you might want to investigate is the Missioners of Christ
I've met some of their members and can vouch for their orthodoxy and love of Christ.