“the Catholic faith is not what I thought”

In Book V of his Confessions, St Augustine describes a period when his trust in the Manichaean religion was ebbing, and his skepticism was growing. He was not yet willing, however, to return to the catholic faith his mother had entrusted him to, the faith he had left at university. He writes,

When my mind attempted to return to the Catholic faith, it was rebuffed because the Catholic faith is not what I thought.

Confessions V.x (20)

Eventually, he would go to Milan and encounter Ambrose. Through Ambrose’s preaching, he slowly learned better what the Catholic faith really was, and then leave Manichaeism, and then, after some time amongst the Platonists, eventually fully convert to catholic, orthodox Christianity and get baptised.

How many people — even those entrusted to the church by their parents, raised in our Sunday schools and youth groups — leave in high school and university, and sometimes might feel a tug to return to the faith of their youth? But they don’t return to the faith. And sometimes, when you look at deconversion and deconstruction stories of their faith, you realise that the Christian faith they rejected is not actually true, sound orthodoxy, but a misconception and false projection.

This is why good Christian education is a component of discipleship to Jesus — simply so that we can understand our Lord and His world better, and thus more easily submit ourselves to His Lordship, His teaching, and His worship.

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

Justification by Faith Alone

Image courtesy of Mae

Every Sunday morning, I get up at the beginning of church and say a little something about where we are in the church year, highlighting an upcoming saint’s day. So far, I’ve done St Matthew the Apostle (my namesake!), St Michael the Archangel (my brother’s namesake!), St Francis of Assisi (whose feast was actually a Sunday!), St Luke the Evangelist (whose feast was also a Sunday but was used to promote the idea that Every Sunday is Easter instead), and Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is All Hallows Even, and it is the commemoration of Martin Luther pinning the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Rather than discuss the 95 Theses themselves — they are mostly about papal indulgences and ecclesiastical abuses — I talked about the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying that although there are many sorrowful things to have arisen in the tradition of the Reformation — and people like me who enjoy things pre-modern tend to focus on them — justification by faith alone is the main business of the affair, and it is worth holding on to.

Nothing you do can make you right with God. You just have to trust Him. That’s what faith is. That’s what brings us into right relationship with God.

Now, I have to admit straight out of the gate that I am about to utter a hunch that would require a deeper knowledge of Luther and the magisterial Reformation as well as of Late Mediaeval theology in order to become a thesis, but my hunch is that much of Luther’s teaching on sola fide is not actually counter to the mediaeval, catholic tradition in and of itself, although cranky old man Luther would probably have disagreed after a few pints. My hunch is that Luther’s sola fide represents a legitimate flowering of pre-existing trajectories with Latin catholic thought that, because of other things he said and did, was rejected at Trent (or was it — when Trent’s not being anti-Protestant, the Council Fathers say some beautiful things).

Certainly the whole tradition, East and West, ancient and medieval and modern, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, has its lucid moment of what sounds a lot like justification by faith alone. I’m still trying to sort this out, but I’ll close with a quotation from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, an anthology of daily readings from the Fathers by Thomas Spidlik. This quotation emerged last Saturday just after I had finished meditating on what to say about Reformation Day:

Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith. He must shake the hoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord. He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.

Don’t hesitate to declare yourselves sinners. Thereby you will put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error. And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with its Creator.

Don’t say: ‘I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offences innumerable times. Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them?’ Listen rather to the Psalmist: ‘How great is your love, O Lord.’ (Ps. 31:19)

You sins piled one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love. Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.

There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.’ (Ps 32.5) Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: ‘Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.’

St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 1.2ff.

Still thinking about catechesis and spiritual growth

Whenever (like last post) I think about the idea of reintroducing some sort of period of training or waiting for new Christians before (and even after!) getting baptised — catechesis or even the catechumenate — I start thinking about two things:

  1. What educational resources could I make? What already exists?
  2. Information is not enough. We need to make this about people entering into the school of the Lord

There is lots of stuff out there for Number 1 (would my own Anglo-Patristic catechesis be superfluous, then?), both in terms of basic introductions such as Alpha and Christianity Explored and in terms of spiritual growth like the Church of England’s Pilgrim Course (depending how you cut it, all three of those are from the C of E!). There are also readable books for topics you might want new Christians to get into, and I’m sure a lot of pastors and parishioners who read could work on getting these sorted for one’s own congregation.

What I don’t think we can really plan in any such endeavours, however, is the growth of people who take the course and their developing commitment to Jesus. And that’s really what matters. Who cares if you are well-informed about Christianity and its doctrines if you aren’t abiding deeply with its Lord Christ?

What we can plan, however, is what any committed disciples do in terms of discipling the undiscipled. Say your church is running a course for new believers either as a preparation for baptism or some other membership event. Something beyond just volunteering on a Wednesday night, right?

People first and foremost need to be deeply invested in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And then all-in in terms of seeing new disciples made. And then invested in the knowledge being imparted in the course. And then — pray!

Actually, let’s backtrack a bit.

Prayer and Scripture-reading are the two bedrock spiritual disciplines. Let’s assume these as daily practices for the people coming alongside the catechumens.

What if everyone involved in a catechetical course was also fasting as part of their intercession for the new believers? And praying for them every day. Or, even bigger, what if a congregation went through a big shift so that everyone had a rule of life and was committed to spiritual disciplines, and then catechesis of new believers grew out of that?

Well, there’s a new gap to fill in Christian educational material, then. How to help ‘mature’, committed Christians get a grip, grow spiritually, and live out spiritual disciplines. Maybe that’s where my Anglo-Patristic work can go…

The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

A (frivolous?) plan for a 10-week course

10-week introductory courses to Christianity are a thing, these days — especially Alpha and Christianity Explored. But what resources might we develop to catechise and disciple new believers who have gone through those 10-week courses? Are there fundamentals to help people negotiate that could be assessed in this way? After blogging about Cassiodorus’ program of Christian learning, I was inspired to think out the following rudimentary 10-week course for disciples who have already done Alpha or Christianity Explored:

  1. Introduction to the Course, a brief review of some of the Alpha/Christianity Explored topics as well as pressing the importance of cultivating a Christian intellect.
  2. The Bible 1: How to read it for yourself. Some sort of strategy to help people read the Scriptures themselves. Provide also a list of useful commentaries to turn to for help?
  3. The Bible 2: Overview of the story, from creation to the resurrection of the dead.
  4. The Bible 3: Overview of the books of the Bible.
  5. Theology 1: The person and work of Jesus
  6. Theology 2: The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  7. Theology 3: The Holy Trinity
  8. Theology 4: Redemption
  9. Christian history
  10. Spiritual disciplines

Maybe I’ve given too much to something? Not sure. I mean, if it were a direct sequel to Alpha, perhaps we could squish together Theology into 3 sections. I dunno.

I do think that something like this would be more of a commitment than Alpha. I think people would be expected to read something from the Bible as well as from a book before turning up each week. That way you could go deeper. Maybe it wouldn’t work at all, but this is what I thought of walking along the street yesterday.