On Becoming Catholic

The worst thing I could do would be to lie to you, to myself, about where this all began. I could spin a yarn about my conversion, but that would be either an exercise in historical ressentiment or a tepid cataloging of events and complaints. Yet, should I deign to speak of a “reflective-narrative assessment,” or some such thing, I no longer fall under the yoke of burdensome historicity; and at the same time, I do not ask myself to retroactively justify having made any one decision in particular. With the sort of assessment I have in mind, the expression of my journey towards Roman Catholicism becomes a playful and indulgent exercise somewhere halfway between vanity and facticity. In fact, I would rather not mention a singular journey, but the fractal and unstable bricolage comprising multiple journeys or pathways: fundamentally inconsistent, unreliable, and beautiful.

Having delved very deeply (as deep as a teenager can accomplish this) into the waters of Calvin and Calvin scholarship (sacred and secular), I happened upon the work of Karl Barth during the summer before I began my undergraduate education. Needless to say, my world was turned upside down. A second fateful engagement was with Hans Urs von Balthasar as a senior at UCLA. Beginning with his 1952 monograph The Christian and Anxiety (originally Der Christ und die Angst), I was subsequently exposed to his profound revision and interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth. What follows is the briefest possible excursus detailing my conversion from one of a few perspectives I’d like to publish over time.

No matter what anyone tells you, there is no semiotic system shared between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. Here I do not intend the basic phenomenology of Christian existence, rather the language games employed by representative theologians from either tradition and their affective implications. Christians experience divinity in profoundly different ways; one can only hope there is a Bourdieusian doxa giving sense to our shared narrative praxis of koinonia, for example, or whatever theological concept one has in view.

To say the same thing with a different hue: consider what the Catholic liturgy signifies. The liturgy of the mass invites one into a trans-(extra-?)discursive theater that is immanently caught up into the divinity of the Godhead. Words can only attempt to express what they signify; the gesture in the direction of the ineffable. The cosmic reversal attacks our sensibilities in its radical materialist idealism—the consecrated new creation, the new humanity, meets together as the Church to speak impossible words, to consume the impossible Word incarnated for us, and now, within us. Calvary is not so much reduplicated as we are temporally unified with the eternal death, the cosmic sacrifice, of the Son of God. The mass is inextricably tied to the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of the universe. There is no Protestant langue, even incidentally, and certainly no formal/structural langage, to make head or tail of this extra-discursive theater.

Scott Hahn, in his 1999 book, The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, highlights what is conceivably an overlooked dimension of an otherwise well-known verse in the Binding of Isaac (Akedah) pericope. Recall Genesis 22:8, wherein Abraham tells Isaac, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (RSV2CE). Hahn reminds us that “there was no punctuation in the Hebrew original,” so we could “consider an alternate reading of verse 8: ‘God will provide Himself, the Lamb, for a burnt offering’” (18). The identification of God himself by Abraham with God’s own overflowing self-sacrificial nature as lamb highlights the uniqueness of the Catholic understanding of reconciliation proper.

God really gives himself to us. God, in Jesus Christ, does not give himself to us in a vague, non-conditioned, or romantic sense of givenness. Rather, in the dialectic of the economic trinity, the impossibility of embodied (immanent) transcendence offers itself, namely Himself, to us substantially. We speak in terms of covenants, in terms of salvation history. The overused narration of salvation-as-redemption can sometimes miss the substantiality of forgiveness—and the cosmic reach of its power. While it may excel at narrating the gruesome cost of atonement, how often does one hear talk of forgiveness itself as a gracious transaction? A substantial view of forgiveness is linked to Jewish salvation history. This is inasmuch as Jesus Christ’s own reported self-understanding is a reframing of the Passover sacrifice. Jesus is first and foremost the sacrificial victim, yet he is also the celebrant priest, wearing the Levitical priestly garments in his humiliation. His sovereignty over his own givenness does not by any means reduce the import of forgiveness for its beneficiaries.

If Jesus is the slain Lamb of God, the content of reconciliation is substantial rather than conceptual, or even primarily juridical. Forgiveness is freely given by God, but rather than bestowed, it is—like a substance—dealt with. It is held, beheld, and shared. I am speaking, of course, of understanding reconciliation as a sacramental event rather than as (primarily) juridical proclamation. The removal of our guilt is a free gift of the gracious God, yet it is not as a word, spoken in a booming voice. It is the material, densely textured experience of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Lamb of God, as he dies on Calvary, by the Church community, in the reception of the sacraments, wherein we receive God. The Psalmist implores, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8, RSV2CE). We taste and see, we behold, the forgiveness of God.

But pictures say more than words ever can. The Catholic artistic paradigm overflows with meaning. It is effusive, dynamic, and embodied. It is densely textured, thickly self-describing, multi-dimensional, and frankly excessive. But it is precisely in these Rabelaisian excesses that Catholic aesthetics gesture, even more powerfully, towards the ineffable, over and above the words themselves that are used in the liturgy. Sacramentally, we can truly say “Ecce homo.” Artistically, we are reminded that things are really happening outside of us, that we aren’t automata aimlessly generating profit for managers and selling our productivity to survive. We are more than the sum of our extrinsically imposed reductive component parts. The liturgy revels in its (in Cartesian terms) obscene uselessness. The defiance of the mass is its strongest selling point, as it were.

A final observation about which I hope to expand upon in subsequent essays revolves around the Protestant scholastic commitment to cognizing reconciliation in legal, contractual, even logocentric terms and the intellectual problems that follow from this. As scholars such as David Campbell and Michael Gorman—important to say, both revisionist Protestants—have noted, there is a immense lacuna in Lutheran justification language. The very syntax of the Lutheran schema betrays a give-and-take mentality with the divinity. The rational human agent is left with the paralyzing dilemma, the double conundrum (you will forgive my bastardization of Campbell’s argument in the first chapter of his immense contribution, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul): on the one hand, it is entirely rational for humanity to believe in God, and only irrational people refuse to do so, at their own peril. On the other hand, the Fall and the subsequent noetic effects of sin render the vast majority of people incapable of cognizing their own need for reconciliation, and therefore require a movement of the Spirit (directly, as in Calvinistic terms or preveniently, in Arminian terms). I came to the conclusion that this sort of narrative confusion is easily resolved with an appeal to Catholic liturgy and a sacramental system of reconciliation. The individual is not the locus of salvation, rather the entire fabric of the universe is caught up in the redemptive love of the forward movement of the Holy Spirit.

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