Ulf Ekman, the pastor of a prominent megachurch in Sweden, recently announced his conversion to Catholicism. Some Protestants responded to the news with the kind of intrigue and betrayal we might expect when a man defects from his country. Others of us were left standing on the shore, wondering, Should I go, too? What's my religious heritage and where do I belong?
I sympathize with Ekman's urge to convert, although in my story, I had to leave the church entirely before I could appreciate either Protestantism or Catholicism. Fueled by a faith crisis in my early 20s, I shot myself out into a void of vague theism, floated in dark space for a while, and then eventually got tired of living without gravity, ritual, or community.
When I came back to the church, I ducked through the doorway not in triumph but in defeat, finally understanding what Peter meant when he said to Jesus, "To whom else shall we go?" I felt like a closet Jew—better at waiting for the Messiah than at receiving him. I envied the Catholics for their appearance of unity, even though my Catholic theologian friend assured me that his church is just as fractured as mine. And I called Protestantism my home even as I struggled with aspects of its culture and theology.
In the end, I split the difference by marrying a Protestant who values Catholicism and teaches philosophy at a Holy Cross university. By way of my husband and my Anglican church, I was introduced to parts of the Catholic tradition that helped guide my re-entry and re-assimilation into the Christian faith.
These years later, I'm still not a Catholic. I'm a high church evangelical Protestant. However, I borrow gratefully from the Mother Church. Insofar as the weaknesses of Catholicism were "corrected" by the Protestant Reformation, here's how Catholicism corrects the weaknesses of my Protestant faith:
I attend an evangelical church in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Every Sunday, I process to the front of the sanctuary for the sacrament of communion. A priest offers a torn piece of bread, which I dip in a chalice of red wine, and then he lays a hand on each of my children and says a blessing. If it were possible to cheat and go through the line a second time, I would. Strangely, communion means the most to me on Sundays when I sit in church and struggle to understand what the atonement even means. At precisely the moment when I can't make sense of it intellectually, I am called forward to physically receive God's redemption from the hands of a priest.
In a liturgical service like ours, the sacrament of communion is the central focus—more important than the sermon, more important than praise songs. This kind of sacramental worship comes from the Catholic tradition. "We have experienced the richness of sacramental life," said Ekman in his public announcement. Much to my relief, sacramental worship means I don't have to rely on my unreliable cognition—what I understand—or my unreliable affections—how I feel—to meet God in the sanctuary. Grace comes to me in the simplicity of an outstretched hand.
After a friend lost his wife in a car accident, he stood in church and couldn't bring himself to sing the hymns. "I let others sing for me," he said. His faith in that moment wasn't individual. It was communal and corporate. In the midst of doubt, he allowed himself to be carried by the body of Christ. The church, too, has carried me. Like any evangelical, I'm indebted to the Protestant Reformation for proclaiming "the priesthood of all believers" and giving me direct access to Scripture, but I'm also indebted to the Catholic tradition for reminding me that my faith needs a family, a context, a building with a historical base. Faith is institutional.
Even now, years after my spiritual crisis, I take solace knowing that when I'm sitting in church feeling a resurgence of doubt, I don't need to panic. My lament is part of a larger liturgy, my skepticism part of a 2,000-year-long conversation, and my journey part of the enduring journey of the church.
The nature of grace
When my husband and I were first married, we took walks in the evenings and often talked about faith. In between lasagna dinners and late-night comedy, I was trying to make sense of my relationship with the church. I struggled with the spirit of worship. Why, I asked, did we sing so many songs, not about God, but about ourselves and our unworthiness? Why did worship often feel like an exercise in self-flagellation?
In response, my husband introduced me to the Catholic idea of "grace perfecting nature." Whereas some Protestants (especially Calvinists) tend to believe that human sin is so pervasive that God's grace has to entirely replace our fallen nature, even the will itself, Catholics traditionally view God's grace as something that completes a stunted, half-formed nature. ("Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it," Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologica.) In other words, I'm not total garbage. I'm made in the imago Dei, the image of God, and even at my most wicked still carry a rich remnant of that image.
I'm compelled by this view for two reasons. First, it makes greater sense of the gospel. If, according to standard Sunday School analogy, my sin puts me on one side of a chasm and God on the other, then God through Christ reaches across that chasm to save me because of his great goodness, yes, but also because I'm intrinsically valuable and made in his likeness. I'm his kid. I'm worth grabbing.
Second, it impacts the public square. If our rational and moral faculties are completely compromised without Christ, then Christians can't have meaningful dialogue with non-Christians. If, however, we all carry the imago Dei and have deep moral intuitions that persist even in our state of fallenness, then we have a common language. Using that language, we can participate in culture formation, influence public dialogue, and even share the gospel.
For those of you wondering, why aren't you Catholic? I'll save the answer for another conversation. Yes, we have our differences. Without diminishing the theological and ecclesial significance of those differences, I think it's fair to say we're not countries facing off but rather separate states inside a union. Ulf Ekman is still an ally. We share the same spiritual geography, the same ancestry, and the same life to come.
Every Sunday when I recite the Nicene Creed, I affirm both our unity in Christ and our shared future when I say,
I believe in one catholic and Apostolic church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of the memoir Faith and Other Flat Tires: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt, which tells the story of her crisis of faith. She lives with her husband and their three kids in Austin, Texas. To connect with Andrea, visit her on Facebook.
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