I just read a post by Jason Stellman, a rather high-profile convert to Catholicism, writing about looking back at his time as a Protestant. I found it to be a poignant description that resonated with many things I’ve thought and said in private conversations. I’d like to repost it here:
Christianity and Protestantism
As I mentioned a couple posts ago, every now and then I hope to shift gears a bit and write from a more personal perspective about what becoming a Catholic has been like, and how Protestantism appears now that it is in my rearview mirror.
One thing I have begun to notice — especially after starting to fall in love with G.K. Chesterton about five years ago — is how practically and ecclesiologically atheistic Protestantism seems from a Catholic perspective. Now I realize that such a statement needs to be unpacked and substantiated, so bear with me.
When I was a Reformed Protestant I believed in the God-of-the-Bible’s miraculous power. I believed, for instance, that Elijah really did preserve the widow’s flour and oil, and that the shadow of Peter and hanky of Paul really were used by God to heal the sick. I don’t remember ever balking at those accounts or dismissing them as overly fanciful.
But here’s the thing: I realize now that I only believed those accounts because I sort of had to. I mean, they’re in the Bible, it’s not like I can really question them without raising suspicion and plenty of eyebrows. The reason I now believe that this is how I once thought is that if you had asked me whether I believed in, say, Josephus’s account of Jerusalem’s destruction, with all of its accompanying apocalyptic phenomena, I would probably have said, “No, I don’t really believe that stuff actually happened.” But if you had asked me why I disbelieve that account when I claim to believe that, a mere 35 years earlier in that very same city, the sun was darkened for three hours and a series of earthquakes shook the town while a bunch of tombs opened up with dead bodies walking out of them and cruising around the city, I would have said I believe these things because they are contained in the canonical description of Jesus’ crucifixion. And then I would have quickly changed the subject.
You see, there was in my own mind a kind of invisible-yet-impregnable wall that cordoned off biblical times from the eras that followed, with the miraculous and supernatural being restricted to the former. So if a supernatural set of events was recorded in Scripture I would believe it, but if a nearly identical set of events was reported by some extra-canonical source, I would almost always dismiss it out of hand. Yes, Gabriel appeared to the young teenager Mary in the year 9-months BC, but no, Mary did not appear to that young teenaged girl in France in 1858 AD. Yes, the Holy Spirit took a gaggle of sinful fishermen and protected them from teaching error so that they could pen the New Testament, but no, the Holy Spirit could not possibly have supernaturally protected their successors from teaching error when they continued their ministry of governing the Church that Jesus founded.
This is not just unique to me: the same incredulity is displayed by most Protestants whenever they seek to rebut Catholic claims about the Magisterium: “God protecting the bishops from error? Impossible! They’re sinful men, after all. Look at the sordid history of the Catholic Church and you’ll find all the refutation you need of such a fanciful and fairytale idea.” This attitude, in addition to seeming rather Donatistic, smacks of blatant unbelief to the Catholic when he hears it. For us, magic is everywhere, and miracles happen all the time, especially on our altars. We live in a sacramental economy where spiritual blessings are communicated through physical things, where grace is not destroying nature but elevating it (kind of like how Christ’s divine nature did not destroy his human nature, but elevated it), where man is being divinized, and where the entire cosmos has been infused with a supernatural homesickness and longing to be liberated, along with the children of God, from its bondage to decay. We live in an age of eschatological overlap in which the Incarnation actually happened and the old world really is passing away.
(Chesterton wrote often about the need for Christians to recover that sense of childlike wonder which humility tends to foster, insisting that fairytales are only necessary because as we have grown bored of regular tales, and that red dragons are needed to amaze us because red apples no longer do so.)
One of my former seminary profs has likened medieval Catholic Europe to the world of Harry Potter, suggesting that one of the triumphs of the Reformation was ridding the ecclesial landscape of all that blasted magical and supernatural hocus pocus. I think that is a very apt, and very sad, description of the Protestant view of the visible church and of the Christian life in general: the Spirit protects the bishops of the church from error no more than he does the shareholders of Nike, the leftover communion bread is common enough to be used for sandwiches after the service has ended, the body of the Theotokos rotted in an unmarked grave somewhere outside Ephesus, and the suspicion about ontological participation in the divine nature is so deep as to give the impression that the Incarnation, while certainly a grand gesture, was nonetheless a superfluous one whose aim was merely to bring onto the earthly scene someone who could be the earner of our extrinsic righteousness and the target of our sin’s imputation.
In a word, it’s as if the genie is locked in the bottle, the wardrobe is bolted shut and can provide no otherworldly passage, and all those miraculous displays of divine power and love are safely quarantined to a time long past when God would indulge the superstitious desires of pre-Enlightenment peasants until the printing press would finally be invented. But the problem with dismissing the childlike faith of Catholics on the grounds that their ecclesiology is too whimsical, too simple, or too good to be true, is that these are the exact same reasons for which atheists dismiss Christianity as a whole. “Sure,” they say, “it would be nice if there were a God up in heaven who made us and loves us and desires to save us, but such ideas are mere pious fiction in an age of science and sophistication.” Thus the irony is that the atheist is just a more consistent Protestant who is brave enough to dismiss as fanciful not only the assumption of the Blessed Virgin, but the resurrection and ascension of her Son as well. After all, if infallibility is hopelessly romantic when applied to the bishops who serve the Church, is it any less so when applied to the apostles who wrote the Bible?
But from where I now sit, it seems like appearing to peasants and preserving episcopal succession are precisely the kinds of things one should expect the God of the Bible to continue to do. I mean, if human nature has been raised up to participate in the divine life and worship of the Blessed Trinity (in other words, if the mysteries we celebrate at Advent and Easter reflect stuff that actually transpired), then expelling the spellbinding and marginalizing the magical should be the last thing we’d want to do.
If anything, it should be the Muggles who are sent packing.
I’ve found the same sort of intrinsic schizophrenia in my rear-view mirror as well. Brought up believing in the truthfulness of Scripture I believed some really wild stories (and still do), but never would have extended that same faith to the post-Scriptural miraculous. Such pick and choose methods I now see are so completely arbitrary as to be self-refuting. Only a sort of willful blindness could ever make that mindset seem to be sensible, and yet I found in my journey to Orthodoxy that relieving myself of skepticism was really hard. This was very surprising to say the least because I was raised as a charismatic Christian, with a deep belief in the on-going, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians. It seems though that the only miraculous work I was willing to believe was the one that happened in my own church. Anyone else with a miracle was going to need some proof, or they were just deluded or liars. Mostly I just disbelieved, and yet I really thought I believed in the miraculous.
I sometimes still struggle with my default position of skepticism, but I find that now days I am much more willing to just trust in the “magical” works of God. Every week at Liturgy I’m treated to a stream of the reports by the Church of the ongoing miraculous works of God. The stories are fantastical. The characters are sometimes over the top. And yet, is it any more over the top than the stories in the Scriptures? You either believe, or you don’t. I believe.