On a Saturday in mid-September of last year, the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, I was received into the Catholic Church. I pledged to believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. The priest anointed me with the oil of confirmation. I exchanged the sign of peace with gathered friends and, after long months of preparation, I received the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Martyrs' Chapel of St. John's Church on the
Creighton University campus was not where I had expected to be on that day. Three years before, I had written In the Ruins of the Church, which was a kind of manifesto against such a move from Canterbury to Rome. That book diagnosed the pathologies of my former denomination, acknowledging that it had become a smugly self-satisfied member of the liberal Protestant club. Yet I argued with equal vigor that Episcopalians should stay put and endure the diminishments of Christianity in our time. I claimed that the disordered state of the Episcopal Church had not led me to despair. I criticized the habits of evasion and strategies of escape that seemed to promise refuge in some other church, and I proposed instead the vocation of dwelling amidst the ruins.
Publication creates accountability. Hearing of my departure from the Episcopal Church, a close friend wrote a strongly worded letter reminding me of my arguments for staying put. He cited my own words against me. "I reject our desire for a liberating distance," I had written. "Our vocation is to dwell within the ruins of the Church," I had said. And again, "We need to see that in Christ we are not called to love strength and power and beauty. Ruins are not unfit for human habitation."
These words, my friend reminded me, had been read and remembered; they had led people to accept ordination or undertake new responsibilities in the Episcopal Church and in other decaying mainline denominations. Moreover, these ordination vows and new responsibilities naturally created bonds of obligation that now stood in the way of precisely the move I had made. What, my friend wanted to know, had changed since I wrote In the Ruins of the Church? Why did I opt for departure rather than staying put? Do I now think that those who continue to fight for orthodoxy in mainline Protestantism are on a fool's errand?
His questions were difficult. What had changed? A few days after my reception into the Catholic Church, a colleague at Creighton who knows my attraction to dogmatic hyperbole took particular pleasure in observing, "My, my, you look ontologically different." Kidding aside, he was certainly right on one level. I have changed. I once tried to forge a vocation of faithfulness as a loyal member of a liberal Protestant denomination. Now I am a member of the Catholic Church. I changed--I made a change. I do not think I changed my mind about theology or ecclesiology or the fate of Christianity in the modern world. I suppose that, in the end, I changed my mind about myself. All the major premises of my argument stayed the same, but the minor premises changed, and with them the conclusion.
To a great extent, I would like to think my arguments for staying put were Augustinian. In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells the tale of his search for God. As a young man he went to Carthage much as young men and women go off to college in our time. He tells of his lustful desires, his "filth of concupiscence" and "excessive vanity," but he seems to have been the kind of student most professors would love to have. In what we might call his freshman year, he read Cicero's celebration of philosophy, and the effect was immediate. "I longed," he recalls, "for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardor in my heart."
When I read the Confessions in my own freshman year, I assumed that this great awakening marked the beginning of St. Augustine's spiritual journey. Of course, there were many byways and dead-ends. He fell in with the Manicheans. Worldly ambition and sexual desire deflected him from the true path. Nonetheless, I was convinced that the journey began with a conversion to the love of wisdom; for me, the Confessions was about how Augustine had patiently followed the difficult path toward the true answer to the perennial religious question.
We tend to see what we want to see in the books we read. Our culture is one of leave-taking and it champions the seeker as the hero of the spiritual life. We think that we must brave arid deserts and snowy mountain passes on our quest for God. Recall Kierkegaard's leap of faith, William James' will to believe, and Paul Tillich's courage to be. Having read Sartre's hot rhetoric of existential choice and Heidegger's cooler image of the heroic modern man patiently walking the meadows of our disenchanted culture as a shepherd of Being, I came to believe that truth and holiness, like elves and unicorns, had been veiled and hidden in distant realms and secret forests. It was our vocation to energize our souls and get on with the search. Or so I imagined.
After many rereadings of the Confessions, I have been mortified to discover that St. Augustine does not commend the great preoccupation of modern Christianity, the quest for faith. For him, the journey of his young adulthood was a futile circular movement. Imagining himself to be a seeker after God, he was in fact ever returning to himself. What began as a projected heroic journey ended in exhausted despair. Ten years after Cicero had ignited in him a love of wisdom, St. Augustine reports, "I had lost all hope of discovering the truth." What seemed like a journey was nothing more than the huffing and puffing of a presumptuous soul that thought it could storm the citadel of God with earnest longing and good intentions. The upshot was paralysis, and as his story unfolds, St...