Down below…

I mentioned that both Sts. Ignatius and Teresa noticed the difference between their shallow Catholic youth and the genuine life of conversion they embarked on as adults. Somebody asked what I was talking about.

Both saints had profound experiences of deepening conversion in their adult lives which led to them abandoning their former ways and going all out for God. Since they were Catholics, living in a Catholic culture, they recognized that this did not mean their Catholic upbringing had been a waste and now they were “born again”.

(This, by the way, is a real rather than semantic difference between Evangelical and Catholic theology. To be “born again” in common Evangelical understanding is to have a “living encounter” with Jesus–usually accompanied by emotion. For Catholics, to be born again is an ontological reality normatively given through the sacrament of baptism which is quite independent of emotions. One may or may not *feel* born again when one is baptized. But if you are baptized, you are born again. The upside of Evangelical parlance is that it stresses that relationship with Christ should be a living reality, not an abstraction. The downside is that it is often a semi-Pelagianism: you are “really a Christian” if you achieve a particular emotional state and use a particular jargon acceptable to Evangelicals. Otherwise, your salvation is suspect. The downside of the Catholic approach is that it can tend to dismiss all appeals to living discipleship as emotivism. The upside is that it directs our eyes to the objective fact of our baptism as the lynchpin of our incorporation into the life of the Blessed Trinity, rather than to an introspective hall of mirrors in which we are continually fretting about whether we really meant it when we asked Jesus to be our personal Lord and Savior. And, of course, the Catholic approach is the biblical one whereas the Evangelical method of “asking Jesus into your heart” is of extremely recent vintage and without biblical precedent.

Because baptism, not a “born again experience” as understood by Evangelical, is the biblical and Catholic gateway to union with Christ, both Ignatius and Teresa saw their profound conversion experience as God revealing what the grace of their baptism had given them. Often, today, cradle Catholics will have similar experiences, but assume that they mean their Catholic upbringing was mere empty religion. The experience of deepening conversion is quite real (and Catholics sneer at it to their peril), but the “born again” Catholic often pits the experience of deepening conversion *against* their baptism and upbringing, often because this experience happens through contact with lively Evangelicalism. For this reason, many leave the Church. Sometimes, they find their way back to the Catholic faith. Perhaps the best book I know which describes this process of both leaving and returning is Jeff Cavins’ powerful and moving My Life on the Rock. It is honest, direct, powerful, funny and intensely painful and joyful as it recounts how he left the Church at 18 after a “born again” experience set him at odds with his Catholic family, and how he eventually returned after 12 years as an Assembly of God pastor. Catholics trying to get a sense of the powerful dynamics that drive such conversions can scarcely do better than to read this book. It’s a story that millions of Catholic families have lived and it provide real hope that reconciliation and healing is possible by the grace of God.


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