Interview on February 20, 2021 with Christian, who entered the Church in 2016 at age 20.
En espanol – translated into Spanish and posted on Apr. 23 by ReligionenLibertad (Madrid).
What was your faith background?
Christian: I was raised in an Evangelical household. My parents were newish Christians. My mom started taking religion seriously when she was listening to Christian talk radio in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. She wanted to homeschool me to transmit the faith and give me a good religious background. When I was about 9 my dad graduated from the law school and we moved from Berkeley to Minnesota and started going to Bethlehem Baptist Church. It’s pastored by John Piper, who’s a big figure in both the Evangelical and New Calvinist worlds. My dad really enjoyed the intellectual heft that Piper – and Calvinism generally – brought to the faith and started getting very interested in theology.
Did you question your faith? Did you enjoy it?
Christian: I enjoyed it. I loved arguing. I was a strong apologist for what I believed, supporting basically what my parents believed, but doing additional research, learning a little bit more. That continued until 8th or 9th grade when I started to deviate from what my parents believed.
What first attracted you to Catholicism?
Christian: I had always considered Catholicism this half-Pagan, half-Christian thing, that back in the medieval ages people got confused and made up this bastardized form of Christianity and then Martin Luther fixed it all up and now we are where we should be. I hadn’t interacted with many Catholics so I didn’t have anything to counter that narrative, but when I moved back to California I started hanging out with a couple of converts to Catholicism. That was the first time I had interacted with someone who was a Catholic and knew what they were talking about.
I wouldn’t have been too interested if it hadn’t been that around the same time I was reading someone who my parents loved, another figure in the New Calvinist movement, a man named R.C. Sproul. I was watching some lecture that he had, I was maybe 8th grade, 9th grade at the time, and he was talking about the early church fathers and about Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He was making the argument that these figures supported Calvinism, more or less, and I had never considered that that was something one could learn about. Church history was not something that was discussed much growing up, but he made me interested. And talking to Catholics who had a very different view of church history made me curious and made me want to start reading some of the early church fathers and learning more about what they actually said, because it seemed like there was some disagreement. I was eager to argue with my Catholic friends – that was the initial motivation.
I thought that if these Catholics really knew church history, they would know that the church fathers were Calvinists, because that’s what Dr. Sproul told me. To be fair to him, there’s some passages where the church fathers discuss predestination, particularly in Augustine, that I think are not immediately contradictory to Calvinism, specifically within its teaching on predestination. Obviously there’s a whole world of theology outside of predestination, but I had limited exposure to theology and the theology of predestination was one of the few things that I had thought a fair amount about at that point in my life.
What happened between the beginning of high school and your sophomore year of college?
Christian: It was a sliding scale. The longer I looked into the church fathers, the more confused I got because it didn’t jive with what I had been taught with evangelical Christianity. At the same time, my parents had done a very good job teaching me the Bible. When you are raised as an Evangelical, you read the Bible in a very certain way and there were passages that to me were just conclusive proof of doctrines like “salvation by faith alone.” It was hard for me to reconcile what I felt like the Bible was telling me versus what the early church seemed to think about the Bible. On the one hand I had the instinct, “These people were living a lot closer to when the Bible was written so maybe they understood it better than I do. But on the other hand, I can’t force myself to accept something that I can’t comprehend how anyone could not interpret this to essentially mean Protestantism.”
At first I played down the early church fathers. Then I started shifting little beliefs here and there. I started to think that there was a way you could say that Baptism was normally the point at which someone was justified, but that that was somehow still reconcilable with “faith alone” as a doctrine. It wasn’t all at once, but I had to modify what I believed ever so slightly in order to make sense of all the data. It was confusing enough that I did start to doubt religion entirely. That was mostly during senior year of high school where I started to look more into the evidence for evolution and to think to myself, “Well, this is fairly compelling and maybe that means the book of Genesis isn’t true. And if that’s the case then I shouldn’t be a Catholic or Protestant, I should be an agnostic or an atheist or something.” I reached a point where, during the latter half of senior year, I told a friend, “I feel like I may be 30% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and like 40% atheist. And I don’t know what to make of that.”
I decided to make this question of “is there a God, and is that the Christian God” front and center and then try to resolve within that what I should do next. I came to the position that I couldn’t interpret Genesis literally – which was a big deal to me because all through my childhood, it was emphasized as a really important thing to believe. But I didn’t see that as undermining the credibility of the narrative of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection or the more philosophical arguments for God. All of those things were still really compelling to me. I eventually decided that I could be a Christian and interpret the creation narrative a little bit less literally. There were a couple of other things too, other pieces of the Old Testament that I felt like I had to take a slightly more metaphorical approach to.
Then I was like, “Okay, I’m pretty confident that the basic tenets of Christianity are true and it’s really this Protestant vs. Catholic question that I need to sort out.” The church fathers were big, they kept pushing me. The other thing was realizing that Catholics and Protestants have a very different vocabulary when it comes to things like what does the word “justification” mean? Or “sanctification.” Or “predestination” or “faith” or “works.” It wasn’t going to make sense the way I was reading the Bible, trying to get Catholic theology while still having Protestant assumptions about what these words meant. I needed to find a way to adopt the Catholic understanding of the words and then read the Bible and see if that made any sense, or if it was just self-contradictory. That was a hard process. It took me a while, especially Paul. It was not easy for me to substitute out some of these assumptions I made about what a given passage in Paul had to mean. But once I did, I started realizing there was a lot of evidence that Paul didn’t mean what I had always interpreted him to mean. There was a book called Not by Faith Alone that was extremely helpful in deconstructing some of my previous beliefs and reconstructing something that I eventually concluded made more sense with the text of the Bible.
Catholic miracles were a really big deal, Eucharistic miracles in particular. There were a few that my friends pointed me to because I was obviously such a tortured soul at this point that just needed some evidence. It was amazing, the amount of scientific evidence there is, for example, for the Eucharistic miracle at Lanciano, or Our Lady of Zeitoun in Egypt, all of these things that I had never heard of before that seemed really hard to argue with. I eventually came to the conclusion that either Catholicism is true or the devil has a really vested interest in making it seem like it’s true. I started looking at other religions just to make sure that this didn’t happen in every religion. I started looking at alleged Muslim miracles or alleged Protestant miracles. To be clear, I believe that God may do miraculous things for people who are not Catholic, but there’s a difference between what I would call miracles of good will, healings, things like that, versus doctrinal miracles, miracles that seem to point in the direction of a particular teaching’s truth. It’s hard to understand, for example, why God would allow Mary to appear in Lourdes and say “I am the Immaculate Conception” unless that was actually a true doctrine that should be taught. Versus, I can totally understand why God might heal some Protestant in a miraculous way if he prayed for it.
Then I started taking philosophy and history of Western Civilization classes in college, and seeing more and more clearly the sweep of history and the forces that were ongoing at the time of Martin Luther and the comparison between that and other ancient heresies. I wasn’t even Catholic at this point, I was still allegedly Protestant, going to a Baptist church, but as I walked to my dorm from class one day, I thought to myself, “Protestantism is the humanist heresy. That’s all that it is.” All of that on an intellectual level was going on and I was pretty tortured up until the second half of freshman year of College. That’s when I came to the conclusion that Catholicism seemed true, inescapably so.
Did you have any off-putting experiences with Catholics or church scandals?
Christian: No, I didn’t care too much about any of that. I knew that there were cultural Catholics out there, people making ambiguous statements. It’s a stumbling block for many of my friends, but for me, I was just, “If I can prove that the sacraments exist and the papacy and apostolic succession is valid in theory, then I don’t really care about the internal politics of the Church.”
What was it like to transition from evangelical worship to attending Mass?
Christian: It was beautiful. The first time I went to Mass was on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, well before I was converting. I was scandalized by the Marian hymns and everything but even that was intriguing. I wanted to go back. I would ask my Catholic friends sometimes, “Hey, can I go to Mass with you?” at very inopportune times – not on Sunday, on a Tuesday afternoon. They were very kind and wanted me to have as much experience as I could, so they would often take me up on it.
It was so much more reverent and so much more real than my Evangelical upbringing had been. Much of Evangelical worship is very exuberant and focuses squarely on the redemption from total depravity, at least in Calvinist circles. Total depravity to complete sanctification and that one moment of salvation is so important and you’re supposed to be really, really happy about that all the time. I was forcing myself to be exuberant at times, especially near the end. It felt insincere. Catholicism is so different. It’s solemn. It’s so much clearer that the glory of God is manifest at the Mass. I wasn’t even going to a particularly reverent Catholic church, but in comparison to the Evangelical churches I had gone to, it was completely different. I never found it emotionally difficult. It was always exciting to me.
How can Catholics better evangelize?
Christian: For someone like me who was already interested in religion and a Protestant, one of the most comforting things was Catholics who knew the Bible. I think that’s a weakness in many Catholics today, that the Evangelicals know the Bible better than they do. It’s hard for Protestants to get past: “If I know the Bible better than you do, then how could your theology possibly be better than mine?”
Another important thing is living by example, being intellectually interested but also charitable. I remember being embarrassed with my Catholic friends because I felt like, “These people are better people than I am. God is so clearly an integral part of their lives and I want that to be true for me but I don’t have that.” It was a really powerful witness to have so many holy Catholics around me.