This is one of the best (probably the best) series of lectures on Vatican II that I have come across.
In confronting the “new atheists,” Dr. Edward Feser offers Scholasticism (or “new scholasticism”) as the proper answer. I like his ideas. I have my own ideas of the role and place of apologetics, and often I struggle with its importance in comparison to other forms of witness, but it’s still important.
Most personal religious belief is based on hearsay. This includes Christianity — what he said, what the pastor said, what parents say, what tradition says, what the Bible says, we understand our faith because of what others have said. This is a good thing. The Church teaches that the essential beliefs of the faith have been handed down from the beginning orally through teaching and testimony. Most of the early Christians, including that incredible first generation, did not have direct, first-hand experience of Christ. The Gospel spread throughout the known world by way of witness, and reports of witness.
In the gospel of St. John we read: ‘Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”‘ (John 20: 28-29)
Of course I am using the word “hearsay” as a rhetorical device. We normally use the word to mean a rumor, or something heard that cannot be verified.
And yet, for all of us (except, perhaps, a few mystics) we know the basic tenets of our faith because we have been told about it or read about it. This fact does not make Christianity less true, but it does highlight a couple of things. First, we are indebted to those who have gone before us and have taken the time to teach us. This is especially true of the Apostles, disciples, and writers of the New Testament, but it is also true of parents, pastors, fiends, and many others. Second, belief by way of hearsay is not the same thing as belief because of encounter. Encounter is one’s own experience of God. At various times in history individuals have had powerful encounters with God — Moses, Christ’s disciples, St. Paul, and numerous saints down the ages. These are the more obvious encounters, but most Christians have also had encounters with God. It is arguable that one cannot be a Christian without having an encounter with God.
This is why a person can grow up in a Christian family, go to church regularly, and be a Christian in one sense, but then have a profound conversion experience later in life and become “born again” as it were. In other words, without “encounter” Christianity remains for the individual, essentially hearsay.
When the Holy Spirit moves within the heart of a person a profound experience occurs. God has reached out, presented Himself in some mysterious way, has penetrated the hard heart, and established a level of faith within the individual. For many this encounter comes as a surprise. For some it comes from searching, seeking out God, asking that He enter in as it were. Regardless, surprise or answer to prayer, when we have an encounter with God we are never the same.
Encounter is also something that can happen invisibly until, perhaps much later, the individual realizes what has happened. Encounter can occur frequently, perhaps even regularly. But it may happen rarely in a given person’s life as well. It is a mystery. Like the wind, it comes and goes, and we only see the effects.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Finally, there is no competition between hearing and encounter. Our faith is not based on one or the other, but on both. But we should recognize that mere knowledge, or being able to repeat what we’ve been told, does not constitute a full knowledge of Christ. And our encounters should be tested against the words of truth.
Pilate might have been the first evangelist. We read in the Gospel of Saint John:
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Gol′gotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:17-22)
It is certainly unlikely Pilate actually believed Jesus was King of the Jews, but here he is declaring that truth in the three primary languages of that time, as though it is being proclaimed to the whole world — for everyone then and there, though that number was relatively small, and then for the world down through the ages, and against the objections of those who thought they were only putting to death a troublemaker, Pilate officially stated: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. He was, unintentionally so, an evangelist proclaiming Christ the King.
He was the first to publicly do so. Strange, ironic, but beautiful in a way. God is always surprising.
There are others who unintentionally proclaim the truth of God’s offer of salvation.
I live in Oregon, just an hour north of Roseburg where the terrible shootings recently took place at Umpqua Community College. The murder of nine people and the wounding nine others shocked the world. In one of those ghastly and ironic twists of fate, the shooter also became an evangelist of sorts.
How can this be?!
While holding the gun to each person’s head, the murderer asked one specific question: “Are you a Christian?” If the victim answered “yes,” he replied “Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.” And then he killed them. One after another. Are you a Christian? Yes.
If you are a Christian you are going to see God. This profound and powerful truth does not diminish the nearly unspeakable tragedy and massive waves of sorrow the killer has caused. And yet, consider this: In our age of global social and mass media, news of this event has gone around the world countless times. The entire world has beheld, even if only through description, the martyrdom of these brave witnesses to the unchanging truth of Christ.
Millions upon millions of people read the words: “Good, because you’re a Christian, you are going to see God in just about one second.”
Millions upon millions of people heard that in an ordinary, small town community, regular people said yes. They said yes with a gun to their heads. Tears come my eyes while typing this.
That angry, religion hating, God hating, lonely, self-pitying, gun fetishizing, nazi infatuated young man got his name in the news, but he also unintentionally declared the beauty of the Gospel — if you are a Christian then you will see God. Oh that it had never happened. Lord help us to understand. But God be praised for His love. They carried their crosses all the way. Not dead, but eternally alive. May their souls flourish forever in the loving embrace of their Heavenly Father.
The 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We owe so much to so many.
Each of us who try to follow Christ will often associate ourselves with a particular church. Broadly speaking we have three big choices: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. For the Protestant the choices further multiply exponentially. But why do we make the choices we make? Why does one choose Protestant over Catholic, or Orthodox over Protestant? And, if Protestant, why choose Methodist over Presbyterian, or Baptist over Episcopalian? Or why not just choose not to care at all, as many do?
For those denominational apologists among us the reasons are clear, and each church, each camp, has its ardent (sometimes foaming at the mouth) defenders. But we live in a culture that, for the most part, believes it does not really matter which church one attends or which denomination one adheres to, as long as one goes to church somewhere and meets some vague, minimum requirements of “christiany” belief. Some take this further and say that any kind of organized Christianity is only likely to get in the way, that being a Christian is really and only about faith, which is really and only existential belief. I am inclined to view each of these positions as wrongheaded, though I have tended to be less “religious” and more in the “faith” camp.
Sometimes it seems that we, and I mean most Christians (at least in the U.S.), have lost somewhere in the recesses of history and memory what it means to be Christian. Naturally we will seek out other Christians in order to emotionally and psychologically bolster our desire to believe ourselves Christian, but does this cut it? Sadly, how one looks, what one wears, the lingo one speaks, the food one eats, and where one shops, probably has more to do with being accepted by other Christians these days than right doctrine. We gravitate to those like us, give them slack in their “Christianity” because they are like us, and seek churches filled with people like us. We look for a comfortable Christianity where we are welcome and where we feel good. From my observations, this tends to be true more in Protestant churches than Catholic or Orthodox, but I’m sure it is everywhere. Fortunately, genuine faith still exists even in the midst of our many follies. In fact, I think we tend to live with this tension all the time—our tendency for a comfortably social Christianity and the pull of the Holy Spirit towards authentic religion.
As I wonder about my next steps on the path of faith, I do not want to give into a vague, mushy sentimentality (though I have many times before, and will certainly do so again), for it smacks too much of a kind of consumerism where churches become something more like brands than representations of particular doctrines and practices. On the other hand, I do not want to fall into a kind of apologist swamp where being a Christian is all about manning the barricades and where winning arguments effectively function as a kind of perverted beatific vision. In short, I want to pursue what is best. I want to pursue Christ. This may mean clinging to a particular expression/version of Christianity while simultaneously holding it loosely. In other words, seeking Truth while obeying Love.
One should have good reasons for being who and what one is. If one is a Catholic one should know why. Same for the Protestant. It seems one should have reasons better than, “I was just born a Baptist and I guess I never questioned it.” or “A friend invited me to their church and I just liked it, made some friends, my family is ‘plugged in’, why change?”, or “I’m on the ministry team and it would be too big a deal to change.” or “I just don’t want to deal with all the questions if I do change.” or “My father and my grandfather before him were Presbyterian ministers and there’s just no way I could change.” or “Once baptized a Catholic, always a Catholic. So I can’t change.” But these are exactly the kinds of excuses by which we tend to live. And often we don’t even get to the excuses. We frequently put up barriers that prevent true challenges from ever penetrating our minds; the questions aren’t even allowed in the room.
And perhaps most of us do not consciously choose which “version” of Christian we are. Much of the time, so it seems, we just are what we are, and don’t think much about it. But then that puts us in the same camp as anyone in the world who uncritically accepts the religion of their culture or their family. In other words, one can be a Christian in one sense, and yet be no more a part of the Body of Christ than is any Muslim, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. If we are not careful our Christianity may be nothing more than the Dutch church critiqued by Kierkegaard. He argued that if everyone’s a Christian then no one is a Christian, and I fear that holds true for many today.
If one does not consciously choose, freely and intellectually and existentially choose, then is one’s choice truly valid? Of course we can all too easily fall into the whirlpool of constant self-doubt, wondering if we are truly saved. Nor should we assume or presume too quickly upon our salvation. The solution, as always and from the beginning, is God’s grace, in which our hope resides.
It is important for a Protestant like me (someone whom God has made a questioner and self-analyzer) to truly and honestly ask why am I Protestant. I know one thing at least: Through the “accident” of birth, at that particular time and place, into the particular family I have, within that particular social world, I was raised a Baptist. I was taught basic Protestant theology from my youth. I was taught to love the Bible, and genuine faith, and gong to church, and piety. And I was trained to be anti-Catholic (and anti-nonBaptist really) from my youth. I later found a version of Reformed theology appealing and dove in, leaving some of that Baptist world behind, but not all. I know my presuppositions played a big part in why Reformed theology made sense to me. But at some point it is important to ask, “Why these presuppositions? Why this church, why these doctrines, why these practices?”
I know that God is sovereign and thus He is the author of my life, but I also know that some will call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and He will say, “I never knew you.” Thus I have freedom, and I must use it wisely. While I know it is God who wills and works, I must also work in fear and trembling; I must also seek God, imitate Christ, listen to His apostles, and be a member of the Body of Christ. And part of this is to ask, “Why am I Protestant?” If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I lack integrity. If I do not honestly consider my reasons, then I might also lack faith.
Of course, I have asked myself that question. I have asked why I am Protestant. My conclusion is that, though I am still deeply committed to Christ, still passionately a Christian, I am no longer Protestant.