Friday, July 30, 2010

GuestPost: The Hidden Option

By Jeremy Heuslein*

I am on my way back.

I still have questions. I still have concerns. I still, frankly, have qualms. But I see now there is a way.

Like many evangelicals, the Catholic Church was a mystery to me growing up, and I remember asking the question, “Are Catholics saved?” My parents gave an answer--if they happen to have faith in Jesus. But that was the extent of my exploration as a child into Mother Church. I had friends that were Catholic, but in my heart, I didn’t really believe they were Christians, that they knew God. Their lives were shrouded in mystery, in the unknown, and the unknown was bad.

Jump ahead to three years ago. I left home and went off to college - a nice, Midwest, evangelical one. There I encountered other theologies, outside my denomination’s self-named and appointed theology. My answers exploded. Was everyone’s opinion right? About everything? I swung into relativism--everybody had access to truth, even Truth, and whatever they drew from it was justified. In fact, why even go to church? Who needs a church? Isn’t there Life after Church?

My story is a singular happening, but there is a trend, a movement of an “emerging Christianity”. In the emerging Christianity, authority is cast off -- some go so far not even to have pastors or teachers -- and all beliefs are suspect. Feelings and whims are embraced, but this is not done to reject God, but live a life “of the Spirit”. Unfortunately, without grounding. There are many people attempting to find and live for God, find life and purpose and answers (albeit, troublesome philosophically, not to mention theologically--but then, whose theology?). Unfortunately, the choice to them is either this new, emerging way -- seeking truth outside a community, outside of a grounding tradition -- or a rejection of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Growing up, I drove past St. Stephen’s Catholic church everyday on my way to school. Never did it appear to me to be an option (or the option) of a community to which to belong. It was just there, mysteriously present with its high roof, big lawn, and complex annexes behind it. I’ve still never been inside. But I have been inside St. Michael’s, a Catholic church near my college. Most of it is still a mystery to me.  Like light passing through stained glass, there are bright and dark patches of illumination. But the fact is, where there had been none, there is now some illumination. As I begin to listen to the authorities speaking to me (which have always been speaking), as I find roots in the history, in the liturgy, and in the succession of the Church, my world is not darkened, I am not brainwashed -- I have been given new eyes to see and new ears to ears.

The Church, the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, has been hidden in plain sight. I have learned that I do not need A New Kind of Christianity to fulfill what my heart has been longing for; I do not need a relevant, hip, cool, appealing to my consumer tastes “church experience”, but what I do need is Truth, a place of rest where I can receive instruction from authority and follow Jesus and live in the Spirit with grounding.

For all of us who are out there, wayward and outside the warmth of the Church, desperately trying to cling to something: there are old stones and Rock of the Church, strong throughout time, and an old home where we can rest. This is the hidden option, the option of Return.

*Jeremy Heuslein is beginning his senior year as a Philosophy and Ancient Languages major at Wheaton College (IL). He enjoys laughing, and consequently Improvisation Comedy, as well as dialoguing over Ethics, Theology, and Post-modernity. He comes from a family of six, with three brothers and a mother and father.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Disembodied Gospel: Ordinances vs. Sacraments

Here's another way that evangelicals have disembodied the gospel.

Jesus left us various rituals, like baptism and the Lord's supper, that have a relationship to the gospel.

Most evangelicals, though not all, believe that these rituals are ordinances - that these are memorials, human celebrations that God has commanded us to observe to remember the gospel. God affects our salvation spiritually only; the physical acts are just ways of remembering it, and are not themselves a part of the process.

The Catholic Church holds the historically Christian view and teaches that these rituals, along with 5 others*, are actually sacraments. sacrament is a sign and instrument of God's grace. When a person receives the physical action of a sacrament with the proper interior disposition, the sacrament actually does somethingGod effects salvation for us in a manner that is both spiritual and physical.

Let us use baptism as an example.
For most evangelicals, baptism is merely an outward sign of something that has already happened, in this case, the forgiveness of sins. Baptism doesn't wash your sins away, they're already gone with the mental act of belief. In the physical act of baptism, nothing happens. The main event of having your sins washed away occurs in the believer's mind when they believe. The physical action is separate from the spiritual, and, for most evangelicals, is not necessary for salvation (though they believe it should be observed out of obedience).

The Catholic Church teaches that when a person with interior faith is baptized, the act of baptizing them actually communicates the grace of forgivenessNot only is there the outward symbol of the person's sins being washed away with the water; the person's sins are actually washed away. The physical and the spiritual match up.

So why does this matter? Because humans are spiritual and physical beings. The sacramental understanding takes this fully into account. At best, the ordinance understanding believes that the spiritual is what's important, and that the physical, while being non-essential, is a nice thing to acknowledge after the fact.

The 13th century Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way in his Summa Theologica:
"[I]t belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments." (ST III.61.1)

Sacraments treat us humans as what we are, spiritual and physical beings. Ordinances do not adequately account for the physical dimension of humans, and thus further disembody the gospel.

*Note: The seven sacraments left to us by our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Catholic Church are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), Reconciliation (Confession/Penance), Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders (Priesthood). The first three are the sacraments of initation into the Church, the next two are sacraments of healing, and the last two are sacraments of vocation.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Change in Future Plans

Hello everyone!

No new blog post this week. Just too much going on. But! There is a personal update:

We no longer plan on moving to Rome this Fall. Instead, we plan on moving up to the St Paul/Minneapolis area. I've been accepted to the MAT (Masters of Arts of Theology) program at the St Paul Seminary School of Divinity (part of the University of St Thomas). It's a two year program. We chose that area because my wife's mother lives up there.

We made this change for many reasons, ranging from unexpected medical costs related to the blood clot that was discovered in my wife's leg after giving birth, to just really feeling the benefits to being closer to family now that we have a child.

So now, Lord willing (James 4.13-16), we're looking forward to moving up to the Twin Cities!

Thank you all for any prayers!

P.S. In addition to studying, I'll also need a job - maybe part-time, maybe full-time, we're not sure right now. But if anyone out there has any connections or anything in the Twin Cities area, I'm interested!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Disembodied Gospel: Screens in Church

I’ve often heard it said that the central piece of the Catholic Mass is the Eucharist, while the central piece of evangelical services is the sermon. Granted, evangelicals sometimes celebrate the Lord’s Supper (whether it’s once a week or, more often the case, a few times a year), and the Mass has preaching. But there is a different focus between the two.

Think about this: If you’re late for church, what is the one part for which you want to make sure you get there? If you’re Catholic, it’s receiving the Eucharist. If you’re an evangelical, it’s hearing the sermon. When one talks about ‘being fed’ at church, a Catholic is usually talking about the Eucharist. An evangelical is usually talking about the sermon.

Now, the thing about sermons is that you don’t have to be present when they’re given to benefit from them. And evangelicals know this. For example, if an evangelical misses church, what do they usually do to try to ‘make up for it’? Listen to a sermon online (at least tech savvy ones do!).

Some recent visits to Willow Creek Community Church offered some other poignant examples. A few weeks ago, I attended a Sunday service at one of their satellite campuses. The service was just what one would expect at an evangelical church. A really good band led the congregation in worship songs. There was an offering and some announcements. But when it came time for the sermon, a video was played of the sermon given at the main church.

A week later, I attended the Sunday service at Willow Creek’s main campus’ +7000 seat auditorium. The pastor was there preaching in the middle of the stage, but I kept looking at the big screens that were beside and above him. For one, you could see him better on the screens, and two, it’s hard not to look at screens when they are all around you. So even when I was present, I watched most of the sermon on screens.

(I might add, even during music worship, where is the evangelical gaze directed these days? Toward screens. Such use of screens is so prevalent today that when an evangelical friend of mine attended a Catholic Mass for the first time, he said he felt something was different and eventually realized that it was the first time he’d ever been in a church that didn’t have a screen.)

This is taken to it's highest extreme with so-called internet churches. Type 'internet church' into Google and you will find the sites of several churches that are either partially or entirely based on the internet.

Now, it’s not problematic to think that one can benefit from watching a video of a sermon. Obviously a person can. But it is problematic that the central piece of these services can be, and now is, disembodied.

The central piece of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, is necessarily embodied. One cannot receive the Eucharist via the internet or over the radio. One must be physically present at a Mass to receive it (or have someone physically bring you a host if e.g. you’re in the hospital).

So why is this important? Because at the center of Christianity is the Incarnation - Jesus, the God-man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1.14a) At the climax of salvation history, God himself came to us in a physical form. And why did He do that? Because we are physical creatures.
Evangelicals implicitly communicate the opposite as their worship life becomes more and more disembodied. They're trying to be the disembodied body of Christ.

As the body of Christ, we are supposed to manifest Christ to the world. And it ultimately can only be done in the manner Christ did it – in the flesh, physically, embodied.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What Evangelicals Teach Us: Personal Relationship

I once knew someone who had been raised Catholic their whole life, then in high school attended an evangelical youth group a few times with a friend. It was there, they told me, that they first heard that they should, or even could, have a personal relationship with God. This realization greatly invigorated their Catholic faith.

Let's not react against this term 'personal relationship'. I admit that it gets thrown around a lot these days, especially with how it's different from 'religion'. (See my first post ever, It's Religion AND Relationship.)

Scripture does call us to a personal relationship with God: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." (Jn 15.15) The Psalms are people's honest feelings towards God.

God is indeed God and should be respected as such. But God is both transcendent and personal. That's the mystery of the Incarnation.

Now, Evangelicals do a very good job of communicating the more personal aspect. It's in their sermons, it's in their conversation, and it's in their lives. The songs they sing are personal. The prayers they pray are personal. Jesus is a real person to them. When they keep each other accountable, the question they ask is, "How is your relationship with God?"

Of course, as some evangelicals will freely admit, evangelicals often miss the transcendent aspect. At its worst, the personal emphasis in evangelicalism can be downright sacriligious (see left). But most evangelicals do not embrace such attitudes.

The Catholic Church seems to do a very good job of communicating the transcendent part, particularly in the old Tridentine Mass. But do we also communicate God's personal nature? It seems there's been an attempt at it in the Novus Ordo, whatever your ultimate assessment of it might be.

Is our religion something we simply do? Or does it really mean something to us? When we pray, are we really praying to God? Or, in the words of Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, who I heard preach recently), are we just lobbing up formulas hoping that some of them work?

Evangelicals reveal to us our tendancy toward missing this. But they are not our only examples to whom we have to look for inspiration. The lives of the saints offer us a myriad of examples of Christians who have had personal relationships with God. Pope Benedict XVI recently taught on the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus, noting particularly the personal faith of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Jesus called us his friends. In awe and reverence, let us be his friends.