Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 13

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)


A couple of years ago, a Christian co-worker told me that he thought that I read too much theology and not enough scripture. I brushed it off at the time, explaining that pure, uninterrupted scripture confuses me and that I rely on renowned theologians to help me understand scripture. Partly, that's true. However, a big part of the reason I read so much theology is that my personality is suited to it. For some reason, I have to constantly feel that I'm just coming to understand things. I have a need to constantly feel that I've just untangled a huge knot, only to tangle it up again and start all over.

Even that isn't the whole reason, though... and to be honest, I've only recently had the guts for the introspection necessary to get to the bottom of it. The real reason I read theology rather than scripture is my awful human pride and my deep, childish need to be taken seriously.

My Christianity should be further along than this by now. I should be living on faith more and relying less on a constant search for understanding. I suppose I have a deep rooted personal mistrust of "blind faith," and it goes back to the negative church experiences of my childhood. I grew up with Christians who didn't ask questions. It would be unfair to say that I was taught to believe it, but at some point I came to believe that my questioning was wrong.

Especially with regard to my big question. The big question for me was "Why?" It was a sprawling, all encompassing "Why" that really exposed a deep doubt about the logic of Christianity. "Why did it have to happen this way? Why didn't God just make us as he wanted us in the first place? Why did he have to make us so flawed that he'd have to come to Earth and die a human death in order to put things right? Wasn't there a better way? Why would an omnipotent God do things this way?"

That was the big knot, the one I couldn't begin to untie, and the one that nobody could help me untie. After a while, when I couldn't get answers, I just stopped asking questions.

If anything I've written were to cause a reader to think badly of the Christians who raise me, I'd regret that. My mother was the primary Christian example of my childhood, and she is a devout and honest woman. I love her dearly. It isn't her fault that she couldn't come up with satisfactory answers to my unending questions, anymore than it's my fault that I couldn't share her strong, unwavering faith. My mother's example set the foundation for how I came to believe that an adult should behave, and even if I were still agnostic, I'd rely on her example as my moral foundation.

If Christianity had been unrewarding to me as a child, agnosticism was totally barren during my teens and twenties. I'd told myself that my questions would never be answered, so there was no point in asking them... but that didn't make the questions go away. Finally, almost four years ago, when I realized that I'd driven my life into the ground, I decided that it was time to start all over. That meant finally making up my mind about God. Did I believe or not? That meant going back to church and sorting things out. Long story short, I do believe.

Christianity as an adult has been totally different for me than it was as a child, thanks to a Christian community that led me to Christian apologetics and theology. Finally, I'd found a place where questioning wasn't only allowed, but encouraged! And, what's more, theologians shared my questions and took them seriously! In the vicarious company of C.S. Lewis, Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, et al, I was no longer a kid with childish questions. I was now a "deep thinker," a "searcher," a substantial man with profound questions worth considering.

Theology has served me well.

In my recent, intensive theological "cram session," I've even found my own personal answer to that big question. I've finally untied that big knot. That's right; I think I finally know why it had to happen this way. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I've figured it out in a way that should satisfy everyone, or that I presume to have unlocked the theological riddle of the ages. Even I don't think that much of myself. What I'm saying is that my own question has been answered to my own satisfaction. I've finally reached the understanding I needed to reach.

It had to happen this way because this is the way we chose for it to happen.

Man was made in the image of God, intended by God to reflect his glory back to him. God gave us awareness much like his own, and in that awareness, mankind's position as an image of God simply wasn't enough for us. It wasn't enough to be "like" God, we had to instead be our own god. We chose to separate ourselves from that which we were made to reflect. We looked away from the source of our image and said to ourselves "We are complete as we are."

In this separation from the only source of real life, we chose death. We chose to rely on our own incomplete abilities and limited understandings. We chose pain instead of peace, fear instead of love, and mistrust instead of unity.

But God loved us so much, and wanted so badly to be reunited with us, that he was willing to do it our way. Since we'd refused to live as his image, he made himself in ours. In the image of man, God came to us and lived as we do... and yet, as he is. He lived as an imperfect and fragile man, yet also as a perfect and stainless God. By coming to us, God knew that he'd have to accept the consequences of our separation. Those consequences were pain, loss, rejection and even death. He knew that he'd have to live and die by our rules, and he was willing to do it. He was willing to accept the responsibility for our decisions, even though that responsibility was rightly ours. He was willing to pay the price for us so that we'd have a second chance.

In Jesus, we see both God as he is and man as we are. In the image he assumed on Earth, we see our fragility. In his death, we see our downfall. In his resurrection, we see our second chance. In the way he lived, we see what we might have been, had we not turned away from God. We now have the option to remake ourselves, to return to that original image as a reflection of God, and to be reunited to him in a stronger way than ever, having experienced and understood the price of separation. God did it our way so that we could have another chance to do it his way.

That's my answer. The big knot is untied, and I can't tangle it back up even if I want to.

So now what? Do I keep reading theology? I still want to. It's fun and it's comforting, and I enjoy it. But is it time to move on?

I think it is. And here's where being totally honest in my introspection is painful. If I'm totally honest, I realize that a big reason I read theology is because it provides me a chance to be taken seriously by those around me. When I carry C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer books to work, I tell myself that my co-workers must think that I'm one smart guy. When I blog about what I've read, I tell myself that I come off like such a deep, profound thinker. Aren't I cool? I don't read John Saul or Dr. Phil, I read CLASSIC THEOLOGY!

And, since I read theology and that makes me look smart, I don't have to worry that my friends and co-workers think I'm turning into one of those "Jesus Freaks," right? I don't have to worry that they think of me the way I think of "born agains," as some creepy, pushy, shallow religious obsessive. After all, I'm not carrying a BIBLE around, I'm carrying THEOLOGY around. So I'm still cool, right??

God help me, that's what's been in the back of my mind all along. I've been proud, telling myself that I'm too enlightened and too cool to actually be seen reading something as pedestrian and common-place as the Bible. No scripture for me, thanks... I'll stick to the serious stuff.

What a hypocrite I've been. What an absolute ass. I want to claim this faith as my own, but I don't want to be associated with my Christian brothers and sisters, many of whom I actually look down my nose at. I don't want to lose any critical "coolness points" by taking the risk that someone might see me actually reading the book that I consider to be the inspired word of God. Oh, no... not me... I'm Mr. Serious Questions. No blind faith for me, thanks.

I've been calling myself a Christian, but I've been trying to be a Christian on my terms, not on Christ's terms. I've not accepted a Savior; I've simply endorsed an academic hypothesis. I've turned the living Savior into my own false idol.

It's bad enough that I've done this, it would be beyond the pale for me to continue to do it. I have to put theology aside for a while and actually start reading the Holy Bible. And I have to get over this childish notion that if I am seen reading the Bible, people won't think I'm cool. What do I care? And who ever said anyone actually thought I was cool to begin with? My, what a convoluted mess I've found inside my head. I've been seeking guidance and insight into the scripture INSTEAD of the scripture itself. I've had the cart before the horse, and the real reason comes down to stupid pride.

I also have to closely examine my motives for becoming Catholic. When I look back over what I've written about it, much of it reflects that same level of academic BS. I talk about "studying Catholicism," but not practicing it. I've treated it like one more knot to untie. I have to be sure that I'm doing this for the right reasons. I'm still sure that the Catholic church is the best fit for the person that I am, and that the spiritual practice and discipline it offers is what I need... but it's not enough for me to examine it. I have to experience it. I have to try as close as I can to live like the Catholic I want to be from now until next Easter... then, if I have even the slightest doubt about my real motives for converting, I must not convert. I'd be a shabby Catholic and a terrible Christian if I converted for academic reasons.

I'm going to keep blogging about this experience, because I'm sure it's OK for me to do it as long as I glorify Jesus and not myself. I'll rely mostly on Wendy to keep my feet on the ground. She can smell me BSing a mile away. However, if anyone reads something I've written here and detects even the slightest note of pride or hubris, please call me on it. Post a comment or send me an e-mail whenever I need my butt ripped off and handed to me.

Of all my toys, my two favorites are my hopelessly affected writing style and my pointlessly ornate vocabulary. That's probably OK when I'm posting something goofy or something political (or, as is often the case, something goofy AND political), but it's not OK for me to use them as points of pride when I'm writing about Jesus Christ. I can't use Him to make myself feel smart and cool anymore.

It's rather unfortunate that so few "christians" do read the Bible. It's good that you have discovered that, if you are to follow a theology, it's a good idea to actually no something bout that particular theology. I'm not a christian (nor a theist, nor an athiest), but I have read the Bible cover to cover on three seperate occasions. Though it's far more common than the alternative, it's still always shocking to me when I come across a "christian," someone who claims to whole-heartedly believe in every word inside this book, who has never even read more than random and scattered passages. It always surprises me when I can more accurately discuss Biblical texts (including specific citations) than those who claim to hold that book as a cornerstone fo their lives. Perhaps most disturbing is how many of those "christians" THINK they know what the Bible says despite never reading it, and just how often they are wrong.
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