Testimony – Christian to Catholic

(Go to part 1 – “Agnostic to Christian”)

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.

I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.

new-testament-psalms-kjv-thomas-nelson-vest-pocket-bound-book-gideons-national-0be10e7503f62a9003c7fb6867e51e4c[1].jpgEventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.

Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:

Matthew 4:1-4RSV-CE

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

72647261dcde7ac05e8264f247adf541[1]I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.

I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.

Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.

In the Emergency Room

Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.

350ml-Thankyou_2015_450W[1].pngI remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.

Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.

Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.

cOubz.jpgThere was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.

As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.

Into the Insane Asylum

I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).

not-the-messiah-624x260[1].jpgAt this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”

I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.

maxresdefault[3].jpgEventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.

Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.

I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.

bookmark.jpgThere were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.

During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.

A Quiet Six Months

Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.

My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.

VicPark500[1].jpgDuring that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.

One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.

Cult days

I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”

Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.

600x600bb[1].jpgI checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.

The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.

I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.

It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.

Soldier-Jesus[1].gifThis entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.

Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!

They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.

dsc_1085[1].jpgI was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.

Escaping The Cult

Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.

17201170_10212531452940163_5236575150923387689_n[1].jpgIt was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.

That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.

church060[1].jpgAfter leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.

I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.

Macquarie_Group_logo[1].jpgDuring this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.

NTE 2013

NTE13-DL-Flyer-front[1].jpgIn December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.

Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.

In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.

NTE_crowd_0[1].jpgAlso in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.

I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.

12107858_10153293505873131_4755215337540405378_n[1]One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.

It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.

Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas

It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.

At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.

I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).

FB-92[1].jpgAround about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.

206631_1959400226354_3519722_n[1].jpgIt was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”

Theological Concerns Begin to Mount

SolaScriptura[1].jpgIt was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

  • Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
  • What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
  • What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
  • What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.

I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.

still-looking-imputed-righteousness[1].jpgAnother point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.

There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.

Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.

evil-popes[1].jpgI remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.

To China!

I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).

china-2[1]During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)

Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.

10568733_10152630262094813_870665020_n.jpgHowever, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.

I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!

Driven Back to Catholicism

1426731_10151981780870091_339659697_n[1]Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”

I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.

It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.

3c2a2c263fdf36662624c6db2d5fe454[1].jpgDuring my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.

I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.

I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.

One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2[1].jpgAt the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.

I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.

(Go to “Testimony: Catholic to Universalist”)

 

The Scriptures of Mormonism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

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I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Unpopular opinions: Polygamy, Premarital Sex, Women’s Ordination and Wife-Beating

Polygamy

1433335105153.cached1[1].jpgI believe that certain problems that we face today could be solved if the church re-allowed sacramental marriage between a man and many wives, and between a woman and many husbands.

I should immediately clarify that I do not think that polygamy should be encouraged by the Church, I merely think it should be permitted. The evidence – both biblical and extra-biblical – shows that monogamy is the superior form of marriage: the partners are able to give themselves to each other more fully and lovingly and dedicate themselves to the raising of a genetically tight family. However there is a precedent in the tradition for polygamy in Christianity and Judaism, and to a certain degree it survives today in the form of remarriage after the death of a spouse. I propose that this practice be permitted once again.

According to the Eastern Orthodox view of marriage, marriage is an eternal sacrament which has a permanence which survives death. In other words if you are married while you’re alive you’re still married once you’re dead. Marriage imparts an indelible mark on the souls of the partners similar to the marks received at baptism, confirmation and holy ordination. What’s more the sacrament of marriage has a retrocausal dimension, which is to say that the partners are married in the eyes of God even before they exchange vows in a temporal sense (Although logically and formally the exchange of vows is still necessary for the marriage to take place)

With this permanence of the sacrament in mind it would seem that the church already allows for a limited form of polygamy in that if someone’s spouse dies, they are free to marry again. However if marriage is something that survives death as claimed by the east, then remarriage after the death of a spouse would imply that a person has technically entered into multiple simultaneous marriages at once.

So what is my motivation for proposing a return to permitting polygamy across the board? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that allowing for sacramental polygamy would make it much much easier for people who come from polygamous cultures to convert. I vaguely recall a tale about a Native American who greatly desired to convert to Christianity, but was unable to do so because he was unable to choose only one of his wives to be his sacramental wife. It would have been most charitable, emphatic and understanding if the Church simply tolerated polygamy in special circumstances such as these and allowed for multiple simultaneous sacramental marriages. This is not an isolated incident either: there are many cultures where polygamy is the norm, such as parts of Africa and China, and the entire Islamic world. It would be much easier for families from these cultures to convert if they were given a special dispensation to continue with sacramental polygamy. Of course polygamy should be strongly discouraged, if not forbidden in general (with special exceptions, as outlined below) for future generations.

The second situation where polygamy should be permitted is when a marriage has broken down and the partners are estranged and living apart, and one or both of the partners have civilly remarried. This is obviously a terrible situation, however it does no good to deny the sacraments to the civilly remarried person and simultaneously deny them the means to rectify the situation via a new sacramental marriage. The current controversy surrounding Pope Francis document Amoris Laetita concerns this issue: some bishops are interpreting the document to mean that couples who are living together without being sacramentally married are nevertheless permitted to receive the Eucharist and other sacraments despite technically committing the mortal sin of adultery. As outlined above marriage leaves a permanent mark on the soul and therefore divorce is impossible, however in the situation described it really is nonsensical to forbid the civilly remarried couple from seeking sacramental marriage. I propose that in this situation it would be pastorally much more wise to simply allow technical polygamy which ends up working out as functional monogamy: The remarried couple are essentially living monogamous lives with each other, even though one of the partners is technically married to two people. This is a similar situation to allowing remarriage after the death of a spouse: Technically the surviving partner is married to two people; the deceased partner and the living partner; however functionally they are still living a monogamous life.

Obviously the constant prayer in this second situation should be that the original partners will find some way to come back together, even despite the new marriages. However in many relationship breakdowns this is completely infeasible and simply does not happen.

In conclusion, I think that monogamy should be strongly encouraged by the church, however I think that polygamy should be permitted in certain special circumstances, for example when someone from a polygamous culture wants to convert to Christianity, or when a marriage breaks down and the partners remarry. Polygamy, if it is introduced should be closely guarded and require special dispensations which are not handed out easily. Polygamy should not be encouraged, but it should be tolerated. It is unwise but not impossible.

Note: It has come to my attention that the council of Trent produced an anathema against polygamy. This of course needs to be interpreted in context to work out if it rules out polygamy as it is described above (Does it take into account marriage as an eternal sacrament and remarriage after the death of a spouse?), however it appears to be a fairly damning dogma.

Premarital Sex

evangelical-sex-sessions-teaser_gsnmrm.jpgFollowing on from the idea that marriage is eternal and retrocausal, it would seem that a couple is technically already married even before they exchange vows. In this way if they engage in sexual intercourse prior to the marriage ceremony, they have not actually commit the mortal sins of fornication and adultery. Of course, it would be quite unwise to engage in sexual intercourse prior to the wedding ceremony because there is no guarantee that they will indeed end up getting married at that point, in which case it would indeed be fornication and adultery.

Perhaps in this context, sex before marriage should be seen as something which propels the couple towards the marriage ceremony and commits them to it. Again, this is unwise but not impossible.

Women’s Ordination

Women-Ordination-01[1]I believe that certain ecumenical problems the church faces today could be resolved if we recognised women’s ordinations in special circumstances. To be clear, I am not proposing that any of the churches in the Catholic communion change their practice of restricting ordination to men. I simply think that there should be special dispensations allowed for women to be ordained in certain extremely limited circumstances.

The main advantage is entirely ecumenical. The Anglicans and Lutherans and certain other denominations and churches already have female bishops, priests and pastors. If we are to come into communion with them we must find some way of accommodating this development. Technically most of these female bishops and priests lack apostolic succession and valid holy orders, as they come from communions which broke this succession at the time of the reformation. However it should be possible to receive them into communion by giving them a fresh and valid ordination, just as is done with priests who enter the Anglican Ordinariate. An ecumenical dispensation is granted to Anglican priests who are married so that they can continue their priestly ministry in the Catholic church, in a similar way an ecumenical dispensation could be granted to female priests and bishops so that they can continue their sacramental ministry.

I’m speaking on the assumption that woman can be ordained in the first place. I have not heard a single strong argument against the possibility of women’s ordination. There is the argument from tradition, which states that because it has never been done, it never can be done. This is obviously fallacious. There is the argument that priests have to be men because Jesus was a man. This can also be demonstrated to be fallacious: If all priests have to be men because Jesus was a man, then why not also make it a requirement that all priests have to be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew? Or why not make it a requirement that all priests have to be born of a virgin, because Jesus was born of a virgin? There is a similar argument that priests have to be men because all of the apostles chosen by Jesus were men. This line of argument suffers from the same limitations as the previous one: all the apostles were Jewish, does this mean that all priests have to be Jewish? All the apostles lived in the first century, does this mean that all priests have to have lived in the first century?

I see no fundamental reason why a woman cannot be a priest and perform all the sacramental functions of a priest. Christ was human; women are human: surely this is the essential point. Women share a humanity with Christ, and therefore women have it within themselves to share in his priestly service, offering the sacrifice of the mass, hearing confessions, effecting the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine. Nevertheless I am speaking of possibility here, not prudence. While I believe that it is possible for women to be priests, I don’t think it is wise. The New Testament speaks in strong terms about men being the leaders and women being submissive followers. It also forbids women from speaking in Church and generally talks them out of taking on leadership roles. If we are to take the New Testament seriously as our Christian constitution and guide, we can only conclude that female pastors are a bad idea. They may not be impossible, but they are definitely unwise. So if they are to be allowed in the Catholic church they should only be allowed ecumenically, that is, in such a way that only the communities which already allow female pastors are allowed to retain them, while communities which at the present time forbid them should continue forbidding them.

Physical Discipline of Wives

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(Disclaimer: I am merely thinking out loud. I do not necessarily hold to the opinions expressed below. I do not approve of violence)

The last controversial opinion to put forward is that I think there should be no legal consequences for a man who beats his wife with good cause. Straight up I want to make clear that I am not in favour of domestic violence and I take a dim view of a man who brutally beats up his wife. However I do believe that men should have the option to physically discipline their wives.

I would like to draw an analogy with nuclear weapons: No one would say that the detonation of a nuclear bomb against an enemy is a good thing. Similarly, no one would say that the use of physical violence by a man against his wife is ever a good thing. However, the mere possibility that a country could launch a nuclear attack serves as a deterrent against provoking that country into a war. Similarly the mere possibility that a husband could physically discipline his wife should serve as a deterrent against the wife attempting to usurp his male authority and husbandly headship. If a man is to effectively be the head of his household – as he is called to be in the bible – he needs to be in charge and an effective leader. He needs to have his wife and children in submission. If physical discipline is permitted in order to keep children well behaved, it should be permitted towards wives too.

Obviously the best husband would be one who manages to keep his household in order without resorting to violence of any sort. However the mere possibility that a husband could physically retaliate should serve as a deterrent to the wife, and thus make it easier to keep the household in proper order. I am not in favour of normalising domestic violence. If husbands are brutally and violently abusing their wives without sufficient cause this is completely unacceptable. Ironically, we could look to the Islamic world in order to learn more about the acceptable limits of physical discipline towards wives. Muslims have been pondering this question for centuries and trying to work out a theology of the most “loving” and “charitable” way to physically discipline wives. Muslims have examined the issue from many angles and come to all sorts of conclusions about the various nuances involved. Christians, and western society in general could learn something from them.

Part of the decline of western society stems from feminism and the usurpation of the husband as the head of the family. Women have attempted to dethrone men as the leaders and this has lead to utter chaos: rampant abortions, divorces, failed marriages, sexual promiscuity. Unfortunately the laws of the west have been infected with this feminist nonsense and they favour women to the point that men are effectively unable to govern their families as the head of the household. Men are the ones living in fear that their wives might have an affair, divorce them, and then take off with half their wealth and all the children. If a man attempts to physically assert his authority he is faced with legal repercussions. The ability of a western man to govern his household is completely neutered by the situation in western society. If a western man has a disobedient wife, he is unable to discipline her. A good Christian man can only pray for a good submissive Christian wife, but such women are incredibly rare in western society.

I propose that the solution to this problem is to re-approach the possibility of husbands physically disciplining their wives without legal repercussions. We can look to the Islamic world for guidance on how to do this fairly and responsibly

(Disclaimer: On this last issue I am not committed to anything that I have said and am entirely willing to have my opinion changed. I am merely thinking out loud. Don’t come away from this post thinking that I am advocating for beating up women: I’m not)

The True Anathemas of Catholicism: Those Who Will be Damned When I’m Pope…

Note 15/11/2017: I have since come to an understanding of why protestants say “sola fide” and what Luther originally meant by it, and as such these condemnations are out of date and inaccurate (Thank God that I was not actually Pope when I drafted them!). I leave them here unedited as a historical curiosity, but let it be known that I no longer hold to many of these opinions.

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Concerning Grace and Salvation

  • If anyone claims that man is saved by faith let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is saved by works let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that man is saved by Grace alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that it is necessary for a man to freely cooperate with Grace in order to be saved let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Grace is irresistible let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Grace can be resisted forever let them be anathema

Concerning faith, works and Justification

  • If anyone denies that man is justified by works let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that man is justified by faith let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by faith alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by works alone let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that faith and works are inseparable let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that every good work is a demonstration of implicit justifying faith in Christ, regardless of whether or not the person performing the good work is Christian, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that the good works of non-Christians do not demonstrate implicit justifying faith in Christ, and do not increase justification, let them be anathema
  • If anyone says they are saved or justified “by faith alone, but faith is never alone” let them be anathema

Concerning the law

  • If anyone claims that the moral component of the law has been abrogated, and need no longer be followed, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that man is justified by following the law, whether the moral component alone, or the entire mosaic law, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that breaking the moral law leads to a damaged soul and merits temporal punishment, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that it is only necessary to follow the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, let them be anathema

Concerning non-Christian religions

  • If anyone claims that Muslims, Jews and Christians worship different Gods, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same, one true God, let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Muslims or Jews have an exhaustive and inerrant understanding of the one true God, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Calvinism is a form of Satanism, let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Calvinists attempt to worship God, but unintentionally worship Satan instead, let them be anathema

Concerning Christology

  • If anyone claims that Christ was merely human and not divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Christ was merely divine and not human let them be anathema
  • If anyone claims that Christ was partly human and partly divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ was fully divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ was fully human let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had a single nature that was both fully human and fully divine let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had both a divine nature and a human nature let them be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had only a single nature let him be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had two natures let him be anathema
  • If anyone denies that Christ had only a single nature, yet simultaneously had exactly two natures let him be anathema

Concerning Mariology

  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that both Mary and Christ possess infinite Justification
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary is “Intercessor of all Graces”: every single Grace that God sends is united to a prayer of Mary, she prays in perfect accordance with the will of God, down to the smallest detail.
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary is “Co-Redemptrix”: salvation depends on her freely given consent to God’s will that she be the mother of Christ; the gateway through which God enters creation.
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that both Mary and Christ are perfect icons of the invisible Holy Spirit, as both Mary and Christ perfectly display the fruits of the spirit
  • I solemnly and dogmatically declare that Mary possesses perfect and infinite theosis: She is fully human by nature, and fully divine by participation in Christ’s divine nature.

Attention Random Internet Reader: I Promise To Rescue You, Should You Find Yourself Damned

hell[1]Attention random internet reader: If there IS a Hell, and you end up stuck in it, I promise that I’ll come down there and rescue you, free of charge <3 Trust this promise and chill the fuck out.

I’ve already assembled a crack squad of saints to back me up in the mission. Believe me when I tell you that these glorified men and women also unconditionally promise to storm the gates of Hell and bust you out of the prison, should you find yourself there. “The gates of Hell will not prevail against the assault of the church” after all!

You’ll have to forgive most of these saints for not being Christian. More than half of them are Mahayana Buddhists, a significant number are Mormons, and many of them are gasp Sufi Muslims. But don’t worry, St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine are big dogs in the crew too 🙂

I assure you we won’t stop trying so long as there is a single lost soul wandering in the outer darkness. Hitler, Judas and Satan are proving quite difficult to rescue, but we have full confidence that this A-Team of holy men and women will eventually be able to evangelise them back into heaven where they belong.

Also, Holy Saturday is coming up soon too, so the big man himself says he’s gonna come down there and help everyone out. Fuck yeah amirite?

With Love,

-Alex Roberts

Catholic Sacrament Validity Under the Lutheran Sola Fide and According to the Gospel Promise

The Singular Divine Sacrament

promise[1].jpgIn this post I will examine what makes a Catholic sacrament “valid”, under the assumptions of the Lutheran Sola Fide.

Firstly, according to the Lutheran Sola Fide, there is in actual fact only one single sacrament: The preaching of the Gospel promise. This sacramental promise is effective ex opere operato in the sense that the promise is unconditional, and therefore God himself guarantees the fulfilment of the promise, and our response to that promise in the meantime cannot thwart his sovereign will in doing so. However in order for the promise to take effect at the present time and be successfully applied, it needs to be fully trusted by the person to whom the promise is spoken.

But what is the promise? The promise is God himself, the final glorious moment of history, the eschaton. From a Christian perspective, the promise is the resurrected Jesus Christ himself, revealed to the world as a pledge of things to come, and as the gateway through which we may access those good things right now in this present moment. When someone speaks the promise to another, they are bestowing God himself through their speaking, and it depends on the freedom of the listener as to whether or not the divine promise (God himself) will penetrate into their mind, heart and soul.

The Islamic principle of Tahwid and it’s manifestation as the classical theistic principle of divine simplicity apply to the promise just as much as they apply to God, due to this equivalence between the promise and God himself. So in a certain mystical sense, God is the promiser, God is the one to whom the promise is spoken, and God is the promise itself, and these three are all equivalent. Whenever one person proclaims the promise to another person, God is promising God to God. This is in fact a way of framing the Trinitarian relationship: The Father is the one who promises, The son is the promise itself, and the Spirit is the sacramental act of proclaiming the promise. (Notice the similarities to the classical/Nicaean “Father, Word/λογος, divine generation” Trinitarian construal). According to divine simplicity, God speaks his promise corporately to the entire creation, however he personalises this promise for individuals through the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel promise by those individuals.

But what IS the Gospel promise?

54c1321e40688_150124PreachingCAB.jpgThis is all very mystical however. So what does this singular sacrament look like in day to day preaching and evangelism? Well, it is different every time, but essentially always looks something like this:

“I am really with you, I love you, I will never leave you, I will always forgive you, I will save you, I will help you to forever escape the darkness and enter into the light, I will not be saved without you.”

A believer has the power to speak this fundamental sacramental promise with authority and conviction, on behalf of God, to someone who remains wandering in the outer darkness. As already mentioned, the promise is unconditional, guaranteed, and ex opere operato. However in order for the promise to actually bear fruit in the life of the person who hears it, that person must respond in faith. And so we come to the “Requirements for validity” with respect to the sacrament.

In order for the sacrament to be administered with validity, all that is required is

  1. The minister must actively intend to proclaim the divine promise to a sinner.
  2. The sinner must understand the promise and it’s full implications with their mind and intellect.
  3. The recipient must freely trust the promise with their heart and will.

These three points together are the absolute minimum that is required for the sacrament to be valid and efficacious.

Relevant questions may be raised at this point: Who is a valid minister of the sacrament? The minimum answer is “Anyone”. Literally anyone can proclaim the promise to anyone else. However it is “more perfect” (Or sunnah, as Muslims would say) firstly for the minister himself to be a believer in the promise (although this is not strictly necessary), and also for the sacrament to be administered by whoever possesses the highest degree of ordination in any given situation. So for example, in an emergency where a Hindu and Muslim are stuck in a desert and by some miracle both of them come to believe the promise, they have permission and power to speak the promise to each other with divine authority. In another situation, where there are many bishops available, the bishops should perform the sacrament. If there are no bishops, priests will suffice, and so on.

Roughly speaking, the preferential hierarchy which should be followed in the administration of the sacrament is

  1. Pope
  2. Archbishop
  3. Bishop
  4. Priest
  5. Deacon
  6. Subdeacon
  7. One who is confirmed
  8. One who is baptised
  9. One who himself believes the promise
  10. Anyone else

A Gospel Fiqr

keep-calm-and-follow-the-sunnah-2[1].pngIn Islamic terminology, what has been described so far falls under the category of Fard (ie. Obligatory). However there is also the category of Sunnah (ie. Preferred but not essential), which represents conditions which make the sacrament “more perfect”. Sunnah requirements should always be followed if possible. They are not optional, in the sense that you cannot just dispense with them at your whim and pleasure, however they are not strictly necessary, in the sense that during an emergency they may be dispensed with.

This is the point where the traditional seven sacraments come into play, as well as other unique sacramental economies such as the Later Day Saint system of ordinances. Each of these “traditional” sacraments and ordinances are in actual fact merely concrete manifestations of the one single sacrament already described. I will elaborate on how this is the case shortly.

The Sunnah requirements for all of these sacraments and ordinances are described in the various apostolic Christian traditions that are to be found throughout the world: Coptic, Byzantine, Latin, West Syrian, East Syrian, Armenian, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican etc. And even within these apostolic traditions there are variations in the rulings and laws that are followed, for example in the Byzantine churches there are many major and minor variations in how the sacraments are performed. A broad example would be how Western Christians consider it Sunnah to use unleavened bread during the Eucharist, whereas Eastern Christians consider it Sunnah to use leavened bread. Another example would be how Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Christians consider it to be Sunnah to baptise by merely sprinkling water on the head of the catechumen or baby in the shape of a cross, whereas many other Christians consider it to be Sunnah and essential to baptise by full immersion. The Latter Day Saints, in their interpretation of Christian law, take this particular requirement so seriously that they actually consider a baptism to be invalid if even a single hair remains above the water.

Let’s examine how the singular sacramental promise manifests under the form of the traditional seven sacraments

The Catholic Sacraments

The Catholic Sacrament of Baptism

502016177_univ_lsr_xl[1].jpgBaptism manifests the promise and intends to convey “Spiritual cleanliness”, “Justification”, “Forgiveness”, “Entry into the New Creation (Eschaton)”. The symbolism is that of dying as one goes under the water, and resurrecting as they come out of the water. (Clearly the symbolism gets a bit muddied in the Christian traditions which don’t practice baptism by immersion)

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to convey the promise (ie, to forgive, clean and justify), it doesn’t actually matter whether you use water or the Trinitarian formula (“I baptise you in the name of the father and the son and the Holy Spirit”). So baptisms which don’t involve water and don’t use the correct formula are in actual fact still valid. However remember the Sunnah requirements. If you want to perform the sacrament in accord with the rules of sacramental perfection, you should follow an apostolic tradition, and use water and the Trinitarian formula. However in a pinch, any liquid or substance that can be sprinkled will do; the exact words used don’t matter, and the only requirements for validity are those that were spelt out earlier in this article for the singular sacrament of promise.

The Catholic Sacrament of Confession

Confession3-258x258[1].jpgConfession is a sacramental reminder of the promise that was spoken during baptism. It is referred to as the promise of absolution, because in this sacrament the promise is applied specifically to wash away guilt. When we confess our sins and receive the promise of absolution, it is a reminder of the one, single promise that we are loved by God, and he will never abandon us, and generally speaking trusting in this promise leads to an absolution of guilt. After confession, you simply don’t feel guilty any more, you feel free, because you trust the promise that was spoken. Unfortunately many scrupulous Catholics don’t realise that this promise is eternal, and they end up sinning the moment they leave the confessional, forgetting the promise, and thus returning to the state of feeling horrible, soul crushing guilt.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

Traditionally, Catholics and Orthodox have understood this sacrament to require a validly ordained priest. However according to the generic rules of validity outlined earlier, this is not strictly necessary, and anyone can validly absolve anyone else in an emergency. However, when striving to follow the Christian tradition perfectly and observe the Sunnah, it is important to leave the administration of this sacrament up to the highest ranked ordained ministers who are present. So if there are priests available, leave this sacrament to them.

As long as the minister intends to speak the promise of absolution and forgiveness, it doesn’t actually matter what formula is used. But if striving to follow Sunnah, it is appropriate to use the Trinitarian formula (“I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”)

The Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation

index.jpegConfirmation is the sacrament where election and predestination are promised, via the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Someone who is confirmed has received the promise that God will never abandon them until they successfully arrive in the eschaton.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As with Confession, as long as the minister intends to promise election and predestination, the sacrament is valid; and so long as the one being confirmed trusts the promise, the sacrament is efficacious. There is no specified minimum form and matter. So it doesn’t matter what substance is used (traditionally holy chrism) and it doesn’t matter what sacramental words are spoken, so long as the promise is conveyed and understood correctly. However again, it is more appropriate to use an apostolic verbal formula and holy oil during the administration of this sacrament. In accordance with the apostolic Christian Sunnah.

Again, it does not ultimately matter who performs this sacrament. A Hindu can confirm a Muslim. However it is more appropriate for the highest ranking cleric present to do it. So in the absence of a bishop, leave it to a priest. In the absence of a priest, leave it to a deacon, and so on.

The Catholic Sacrament of Last Rites and Extreme Unction

index (1).jpegLast rites serves as a reminder of the promise at the most crucial moment of a persons life: right before they are about to die. The process of dying is a final battle, where Satan and all his demons swoop in and do battle with Michael and all his angels. The Devil accuses the person who is dying of all of their sins, and so it is helpful for a person to have the gospel promise fresh in their memory as armour and a weapon against this onslaught of evil and temptation.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

So long as the minister intends to remind the dying sinner of the gospel promise, the general rules of validity outlined earlier are all that matter: There must be intent, understanding, and faith. And anyone is a valid minister. But to perform the sacrament perfectly it should be done according to the rubrics of a valid apostolic tradition.

The Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass

eucharist[1].jpgThe Eucharist manifests the promise for the purpose of giving us a tangible direction of worship, and symbolising our unity with the divine via eating. The particular aspect of the promise that is emphasised is “I am truly with you. And I am uniting myself to you”.

Whenever a consecrated host is eaten by a believer, the heavenly sacrifice and heavenly liturgy are made present. However this sacrifice and liturgy is made more perfectly present by the observation of a rich and symbolic liturgical rite. Such liturgical rites can indeed be invented out of thin air (As Vatican II demonstrated), but respect for tradition is key, and it is preferable to observe a traditional liturgy.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

As long as the minister intends to really, truly, tangibly make God present under a manifest/mundane form, this sacrament is valid. Importantly, there is no necessary prescription for form and matter: so it is possible to consecrate literally any object. Rice, wine, bread, whiskey, icecream. Even a rock or a painting could be validly consecrated. However if the consecration is occurring in the context of the mass, the matter should be something edible. Of course there are prudential considerations, such as choosing a substance that doesn’t crumble and won’t be abused. So even though it is possible to consecrate icecream, this is a bad idea as it will lead to Eucharistic desecration as the icecream melts. As before, the exact minister of the sacrament does not matter: it could be a priest or a lay person. Ordination is not necessary. And the words of institution are not necessary either, just so long as the promise and message is accurately conveyed. (There is actually already an apostolic precedent for this view in the Assyrian Church of the East. They do not include the words of institution in their liturgy, and yet it is still recognised as valid by the Catholic magisterium)

These flexible requirements allow a more permanent object to be consecrated for the purpose of extended adoration, such as a crystal or golden statue. At the same time they allow for a wide variety of edible substances to be consecrated, to cater to different allergies and dietary restrictions that recipients of the sacrament may be subject to.

Of course, to follow the requirements of Sunnah, the classical sacramental words of institution should be employed (“This is my body, this is my blood”), and bread and wine should be chosen for the elements. And as per usual, the highest ranking ordained minister should perform the rite. Furthermore, the rubrics of the liturgical rite should be followed as closely as possible, with the correct vestments, hymns, readings and so on chosen. But none of this is necessary, merely preferred.

The Catholic Sacrament of Marriage

married-by-mom-and-dad-arranged-marriage.jpegMarriage is when two spouses speak the promise to each other as individuals. Firstly the groom acts as God in promising salvation and fidelity to his wife, and then the bride acts as God in doing the same back to her new husband. Mystically speaking, this sacrament is the most perfect manifestation of the fact that “God promises salvation to God”.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The husband must intend to promise “I love you and will never leave you until you are saved” to his wife, and vice versa. Gay marriage becomes possible, as well as polygamy and polyamory. No special words are mandated, just so long as the promise is accurately conveyed and trusted by both partners.

Of course to perform the sacrament according to the Sunnah of apostolic Christianity, the groom and bride should both use the “I marry you” sacramental formula and follow whatever other rules are specified by the Christian tradition in question. For example, according to most traditional strands of Christianity, marriage is Sunnah when it is between a man and a woman, but not when it is between two people of the same sex.

Note that under these flexible requirements, it is technically possible for children to validly get married. But obviously there are Sunnah restrictions on this practice, as there are lots of ethical concerns and issues.

The Catholic Sacrament of Holy orders

ordination[1].jpgHoly Orders is actually very similar to the Eucharist, however instead of an inanimate object being consecrated and transubstantiated, a human person becomes consecrated and transubstantiated, in such a way that they manifest God and divine authority for the benefit of some community.

Requirements for this Catholic Sacrament to be valid:

The minister performing the ordination must intend to promise to some third party that they possess the divine authority, and the community must trust that promise. This bestowal of authority more perfectly makes present God to a community. The promise in this case is similar to the Eucharistic promise: “This is (or represents) God; trust him!”

Again, it doesn’t matter who ordains who for validity. So an isolated community can validly raise up an ordained leader from amongst themselves in an emergency. However to follow the Sunnah of the apostolic traditions, the person performing the ordination should be in the line of apostolic succession and higher in authority than the person being ordained.

Interestingly, the validity of the ordination depends on the recognition of that authority by a community. If a priest were to travel to a foreign country and try to exercise his priestly authority in a community other than the one in which he was ordained, he may very well be laughed at. Authority demands recognition, or it is no authority at all.

Interestingly, it becomes possible for someone to be ordained directly by God, apart from apostolic succession. Allegedly this happened in the case of Saint Paul and Joseph Smith. And it becomes possible for an isolated community to raise up a bishop (or perhaps even a pope) ex nihilo.

This principle lends validity to religious hierarchies that naturally develop all around the world. Muslims tend to raise up imams and sheiks from amongst their own ranks, and this is a form of sacramental ordination apart from the Christian traditions. It is the same with Hinduism and Buddhism. Wherever strong, religious leadership emerges, there is usually a valid expression of sacramental ordination in play. Mormon Apostles and Prophets are therefore just as validly ordained as Catholic bishops and priests, and there can technically be more than one Pope, as the authority of the Pope depends on the recognition of the people. However at the top of every hierarchy, whether religious or secular, there is only one God. So above the Pope, and above the Ayatollah, and above the Queen, and above the American President, there is God. Democracy is a form of secular ordination that may or may not have a certain sacramental character, as leaders are chosen by the people and raised up from the people.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Adoptionism: “Jesus was not born God, he ‘became’ God”

20091210_thisissue_600-kindle-cover_w[1]The Muslims are right: Jesus was just a man. He wasn’t God. He was just a dude. He had a single nature and that nature was human. In fact, Jesus was peccable, which is to say he was able to sin. Adds a whole new dimension to the temptation in the wilderness story doesn’t it? Our saviour really could have failed, he really could have given in to the temptations!

However, at no point did he actually sin. If we conceive of sins as the bricks in a wall that stands between us and God and separate us from him, then consider what it means for Jesus to not have to contend with such a barrier. At all times, Jesus the man had full and direct access to God. There was no sin that stood in his way. In other words, from the moment of his conception all the way through his life and ministry, and even up to his death; Jesus experienced a profound unity with God and a full theosis.

Now, Jesus was fully man, which means that he inherited a fallen, imperfect human nature just like the rest of us. And this was why he needed to be baptised! Baptism removes the curse of original sin, which Jesus suffered from just like all of us, even if he never commit any actual moral fault.

But Jesus experienced full theosis, which is to say that even though he was merely a man by nature, it would be accurate to call him “fully God” by participation. And this would hold true for the duration of his entire life. So there is a sort of dyophysis at play: Jesus is fully man by nature, and fully God by participation, and there is a strict separation between the two natures. If at any time he had slipped up and sinned, he would have lost his full participation in divinity, as the bricks in the wall between him and God would have begun to stack up.

But no, Jesus was fully united to the divine λογος for his entire life. Never did he slip up. There have been many saints, Christian and otherwise who have also achieved a full unity with the λογος, for example Muhammad and Buddha, but what separates these saints and mystics from Jesus is that they begun their journey behind the wall of sin, and had to dismantle it brick by brick, whereas Jesus experienced theosis for the entire duration of his life.

Now, Jesus died. For the purposes of this discussion the details are not relevant, whether it was by murder or by old age does not matter. The crucial point is that this innocent man died; the only man who had ever lived his entire life without sinning once. But the wages of sin is death, so how could a man who had never sinned be subject to the penalty of death? And so the Justice of God becomes manifest as God raises Jesus from death to new life; a new life from which he will never die again.

But something funny happened as Jesus passed from death to new life. His nature changed. He took on an eschatalogical existence. No longer was he a dyophysis of created nature and divine participation. Instead he takes on the divine simplicity of a miaphysis; he becomes God! My thesis is therefore that the full incarnation did not occur at Christmas, but at Easter. Jesus was not born as God, he became God. Yes there was a sense in which he was fully God for his entire life and ministry, but this was merely by “participation”, not by “nature”. However the game changed after the resurrection. Jesus truly could be referred to as fully God in every respect. In fact, all of the imperfections and limitations of his human nature were swallowed up in the divine nature, like a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless he retained his created attributes.

This is why it is now appropriate to worship Jesus as the one true God. He has attained the divine perfections and exists already at the end of history, in the eschaton. This is why he says “no one comes to the father except through me”. God is eternally hidden, unmanifest, and there is valid no way to worship him, despite his being the only valid object of worship. But Jesus changes all that. He has broken the curtain that separates us from God in half and taken on a tangible form. Now we direct our worship towards this man Jesus, in the Eucharist, in the flesh. He became God, but by being God, he always was God. And so it will be with us. All of us will achieve theosis, and then all of us will achieve resurrection, and finally all of us will become the λογος incarnate. But while we are pilgrims here, on this side of the eschaton, waiting for that glorious resurrection, only Jesus is God, and only him do we worship.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Ecumenism: “The Complete and Entire Doctrine of God”

God

I recently came to a syncretic and synthetic understanding of how all the various disparate religious doctrines concerning God can be reconciled. With the aid of two diagrams lets walk through them.

Heresy: To the Nestorian controversy

Nestorianism is correct
All of us (including Jesus) are distinct from the divine logos by identity.
Orthodoxy is correct
However Jesus IS the logos “via incarnation” and all of us BECOME the logos via sacramental theosis.

Heresy: To the Christological controversy

Dyophysitism is correct
The created attributes (nature) of the logos are distinct from it’s divine attributes (nature) by identity.
Miaphysitism is correct
However the created attributes/nature of the logos are inseparable from the divine attributes/nature by hypostatic union.
Monophysitism is correct
Furthermore the negative/evil/imperfect created attributes are swallowed up by the positive/good/perfect attributes by substitutionary atonement.

Heresy: To the Arian crisis

Arianism is correct
Formally prior to being generated by the essence, the logos has the attribute of “non existence”, but formally subsequent to generation it has the attribute of “existence”. Therefore “There was a time when the word was not” on account of the distinctions of formal priority.
Catholicism is correct
However the logos transcends existence and non-existence, and in it’s unity with the ineffable essence it is both and neither simultaneously by divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the Filioque

Orthodoxy is correct
The spirit proceeds from the father alone according to the strict distinctions between the hypostases.
Catholicism is correct
However the spirit also proceeds from all of the hypostases simultaneously as God begets God and God proceeds from God according to divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the essence-energies/created Grace controversy

Orthodoxy is correct
The essence is distinct from the energies according to the strict distinctions between the hypostases.
Catholicism is correct
However the essence and energies are also identical by divine simplicity and perichoresis.

Heresy: To the Controversy over the identity of the one God

Islam and Judaism are correct
Jesus is the one “Lord” and the Father is the one “God”. The son is not the father, therefore the the Lord is not God, therefore Jesus is not God and only the father can be referred to as the one God by strict identity.
Christianity is correct
However Jesus can also be correctly referred to as God due to the divine simplicity and miaphysis

Heresy: To the Muʿtazila and Ash’ari dispute over the essence and attributes of Allah

Ash’ari is correct
The Essence of God is distinct from the attributes of God according to strict distinction.
Muʿtazila is correct
However the essence of God is also identical with the attributes of God and the attributes are identical to each other by the Tawhid of divine simplicity.

Heresy: To the Bhaktic and Vedantic divide over the relationship between Atman and Brahman

Bhakti is correct
The Atman is distinct from Brahman according to strict distinction.
Vedanta is correct
However the Atman is identical with Brahman by divine simplicity.
God2

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Plurality For Non-Trinitarians (Specifically Muslims and Jews)

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Jews and Muslims stand united in their rejection of the Trinity. To them, the doctrine seems to compromise the divine unity; it seems to directly violate the Shema and the Shahada, which clearly state that there is only one God:

Deuteronomy 6:4, The Shema Yisrael

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord

The Shahada

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

However – as we shall see in this post – it is possible to come to a doctrine of “Divine plurality”, even if not a full doctrine of the Trinity, merely by depending upon reason, logic and the common “classical theistic” grounding that is shared equally by the more sophisticated strands of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim intellectual traditions.

God as Pure Actuality – The First Way

220px-Carlo_Crivelli_007[1].jpgTo get the ball rolling, it is helpful to rehash one of the classic proofs of God that has traditionally been put forward in some form or other by big name thinkers from all three Abrahamic traditions. In point form:

  1. We invariably observe change in our everyday experience of life.
    • Change is defined as the actualisation of a potential, or a “movement” from potential to actual.
      • For example a match has the potential to be lit, but this potential is not actualised until the match is struck, at which point the match becomes actually lit.
      • Another example would be a ball placed on top of a desk. The ball has the potential to roll off the edge of the desk, but this potential is not actualised until something bumps the ball and causes it to actually roll off the table and therefore actually be on the ground. Prior to this bump, the ball is only potentially on the ground.
  2. It seems to be a fair assumption that no change can bring itself about, which is to say no potential can actualise itself. An implication of this principle is that in order for some given potential to be actualised, something which is already actualised has to operate upon the potential.
    • An example would again be the match. The match cannot just randomly and spontaneously combust (abstracting away quantum theory for the sake of argument). Instead, a human agent – who is already in some combination of various potential and actual states – has to come along, pick up the match and strike it. This picking up of the match and striking it is an example of actuality working upon potential to bring about further actuality.
  3. We observe chains of causality between agents. One thing actualises potential in another, this thing too actualises potential in some further thing, and this further thing goes on to actualise potential in something else.
    • It is helpful to draw a distinction between two types of causal series: Causal series ordered per esse and causal series ordered per accidens.
      • A causal series ordered per accidens in one which stretches backwards and forwards in time. This sort of causal series is the sort that most people think of when debating the beginnings of the universe and the existence of God. “What was before the big bang?” the apologist asks; “What caused the big bang?”. “God” responds the Christian. “Nothing” responds the Atheist. A biblical example of this sort of series is “Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac begets Jacob”. There is no intrinsic necessity tying the two actions together: Abraham need not continue to be around and exercise his causal power in order for Jacob to get about the business of begetting Jacob. Similarly, arguments for the existence of God that proceed from a “What was before the big bang?” platform inevitably are going to come up short: God may have created the universe and then immediately ceased to exist on this account, which would make him all but irrelevant to our lives today.
      • A casual series ordered per esse is a different sort of beast. It is a causal series in which the relationship between the agent doing the actualising and the potential being actualised is simultaneous. That is, in an essentially ordered series, time has been abstracted out of the equation. It’s not that the brick first hits the window, and subsequently the window shatters; instead the brick hitting the window and the window shattering are conceived of as simultaneous events. A classic example of a per esse series, is that of a hand holding a long stick and using this long stick to push a rock into a loaf of bread. In this case the actuality flows through the chain of potentiality like electricity through a wire: the stick has the potential to move the rock, the rock has the potential to sink into the bread, the bread has the potential to mould itself around the shape of the rock. However until the hand actually applies itself to the stick, the entire chain is devoid of movement. The question becomes, “What is acting upon the bread?” is it the rock, or is it the hand? The answer is “both, but in different senses”. The rock is the next link in the causal chain, but it is the hand which is the source of power and actuality for the entire chain. If not for the hand, nothing would happen.
  4. It is a reasonable principle that such causal chains must necessarily have either a first actualised element, or some external agent which can bestow actuality upon the entire chain.
    • Consider an infinite chain of potentials. Unless there is some first element of the chain which itself is in a state of actuality, then by point two this infinite chain of potential interactions must remain inert and immobile.
    • Alternatively, consider an infinite chain of potential interactions with no “first element”. In this case, the source of actuality must come from somewhere outside of the chain.
  5. It is this “First element of the chain” or “External agent which bestows actuality upon the chain” which everyone refers to by the word “God”.
  6. A variety of properties of God are immediately implied. To name a few: Pure Actuality, Immutability, Omnipotence.
    • One of the properties of God which immediately falls out is that God cannot itself have any potential, because if it did then some explanation would be required for how that potential is being actualised, and as established by point 2, no potential can actualise itself. In this way, God is actus purus – pure Act. He could also be referred to as an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer, for it is the principle which actualises all potential while it itself requires no such actualiser.
    • Seeing as God is infinite actuality and completely devoid of potentiality, he is immutable. God cannot change, because the ability to change implies some sort of unactualised potential.
    • If power is defined as the ability to bring about actuality from potentiality, and if God is the ultimate source of all observed actualisation, and is himself pure actuality, then this implies that he is omnipotent. All things that actually are actualised are actualised by the power of God.

And so in 6 precisely defined steps, we logically move from the observation of change to the existence of an immutable, omnipotent, purely actual God.

Divine Simplicity

shutterstock_313063250-jpgoriginal[1].jpegIt is helpful here to quickly import the concept of divine simplicity, which is one that can be proven by a variety of methods but for the sake of brevity we are just going to take it on faith. Divine simplicity – simply stated – is the idea that God is not composite; that God has no components or parts. Combining this with Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is essential to have any hope of comprehending it. In God, love, mercy, grace, existence, being, justice, willing, action, freedom and all other attributes; are in reality one and the same thing – God himself. However we cannot understand all these words in a univocal sense (ie, in exactly the same way that we understand them normally) because otherwise we run into absurdity: for example in our everyday experience of life wrath is totally different to love, justice is totally opposed to mercy. The key point is that when we apply these terms to God and say that in him, they are all one and the same thing, we are speaking analogically. It is important to remember that Analogy does not mean Equivocity; when we apply these words to God we are saying something intelligible and meaningful. However we do not know precisely what we mean when we call God these things, and instead have to rely on the ineffable movements of divinity within our intellects and intuitions to bring us to a wordless apprehension of the Truth of the analogical situation.

In summary, in God all attributes are univocally equal, whereas with us, they are all equivocally unequal. The relationship between these attributes as they apply to us and the attributes as they apply to God is one of analogy: In us, justice and mercy are different but in God, they are the same. The relationship of our justice to Gods justice, and our mercy to Gods mercy, is the relationship of analogy.

Implications of Pure Actuality and Divine Simplicity

heider[1].jpgSo, we have a God who is simple, and purely actual, devoid of potential. Certain classical theists (Most notably, Edward Feser), argue that because God has these properties, there can only be one God. The reason why is easy to see: If there were two Gods, there would have to be some way to tell them apart, but this would imply some potential which is actualised in one God and not the other, or some component in one God which the other God lacks. But this is absurd, because as we have already established, God has no potential and God has no parts. Therefore, there can only be one God.

The logic is sound but the conclusion is faulty. What such classical theists have discovered is not some sort of logically necessary “numerical monotheism”. Instead, what they have discovered is God’s divine and uncountable infinity. As Aquinas says, “There is no number in God”. It does not make sense to count God, for divinity is uncountable. Lets for the sake of argument say that we had three purely actual, completely simple Gods: How on earth would we even begin to count them? There would be no way to tell them apart! You would point your finger at one of them in order to start audibly counting “one, two, three”, but the moment you point your finger at one of them, you have pointed your finger at all of them! And this is the crucial point: it makes no more sense to say that there is one God than to say that there are three Gods. In fact, we may as well say that there are an infinitude of Gods! Once you start trying to count the uncountable, you find yourself counting up to infinity!

These reflections might sound familiar to those who are well versed in deeper Trinitarian thought such as the doctrine of perichoresis and the apophatic doctrine of “stupid arithmetic”. We could easily imagine three purely actual beings and arbitrarily call them the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It would be immediately noted that these three beings could not be separated one from the other, and it would not be possible to even clearly distinguish between them or count them. Combine this with a couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the churcha couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the church, and we would be well on our way to developing a robust doctrine of the Trinity.

This is the point where we can extend an ecumenical bridge to our Jewish and Muslim brethren. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally humbled before the mystery of an uncountable divine infinity, which subsists as a purely simple and actual plurality in unity. It makes just as much sense to say “one”, “none”, “three” and “infinity”, because in God there is no way of distinguishing between these numerical designations.

Divine Plurality

6dd734196c30266fdf6fdf422fb3b4c1[1].jpgWhat are some further implications of divine infinity?

Well, for one thing, it becomes possible for God to relate to God as one relates to another. Thoughtful readers will have the Trinitarian dogma hovering at the back of their minds:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Spirit.
  6. The Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

The Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father in return; this is simply God loving God. However the crucial point is that due to the divine infinity, God loving God does not take on a schizophrenic, selfish character, as if it were one person “loving himself”. Instead, due to the divine infinity, Divinity is able to relate to divinity “as one relates to another”. To put it bluntly, when Jesus prays to the Father, this is not an example of divine schizophrenia; Jesus is not talking to himself. There is indeed a conversation going on within God, but God is not confusedly muttering to himself. Jesus is not the father, and yet they are both the same infinite reality that we call “God”.

maxresdefault[1].jpgLet us conceive of God as an infinite ocean of pure bliss, unspeakable love, ineffable consciousness. In this case, God relating to God takes on the character of this infinite ocean folding back upon itself, and simultaneously taking on the roles of the lover, the loved and the love itself. A Plurality spontaneously arises from this wonderful infinitude of unity. A true relationship, “as one to another” naturally emerges from this boundless ocean of bliss and love.

Points 4-6 of the Trinitarian dogma as stated above serve to secure the “as one to another” aspect of this divine love. If the father were the son, then we would indeed have a case of divine schizophrenia, as the father/son would be talking to himself. However by pinning down the fact that the father is not the son, and the son is not the spirit, we lay hold of this beautiful doctrine of a God who is both the love between distinct individuals and the individuals themselves.

God is love, but love demands both a subject and an object. And of course due to divine simplicity God is both the Subject, the Object, and the love itself. Some readers may find this sort of talk familiar to traditional Trinitarian presentations of divinity. The Father begets the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is just that love that exists between them, and all terms of the equation are divine.

It is interesting to note that Christians often hurl an accusation at Muslims and Jews, that their God is not “love by nature” because he is a single numerical personality and therefore requires his creation in order to have an object to love. However an astute Jew or Muslim, after reading this post should be able to articulate why this is not the case, even if they don’t go as far as the full Trinitarian dogma. God does not require his creation in order to be loving, because within the infinitude of God and flowing from his perfect simplicity, there is a divine plurality in which God loves God as one loves another. Whether you call the one “Son”, the another “Father”, and the act of love that exists between them “Spirit” is by-the-by. The fact of the matter is that just as one loves another, God loves God, and God is love. I guess that’s a Trinity of sorts.

The Divine Dance of Love

image_291[1].jpegA question comes to me as I reflect on these things: If the son is not the father, what is it that distinguishes one from the other? If there is something that distinguishes one from the other, then doesn’t this violate divine simplicity and pure actuality? Doesn’t it imply some sort of actualised potential which the son possesses and the father lacks? How else could we identify them as father and son? The doctrine of perichoresis states that all that the father has and is, the son also has and is, such that if you were to take the son, you would get the father too, and vice versa. And yet in theological discourse, we say that the son became incarnate, and not the father. What do we mean by this? Surely we can’t mean that only part of God became incarnate? God has no parts; if the son became incarnate then surely this implies that the entirety of God became incarnate, father and spirit too?

Perhaps the Son is different to the Father only in the act of loving – there is no actual difference between them besides the roles they assume in the Subject Verb Object formula, and as such they are completely interchangeable. The one doing the loving could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, the one being loved could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, and the love itself could equally well be the father, the son or the spirit. The crucial point is that so long as it is the father who is doing the loving, it is necessarily either the Son or the Spirit who is being loved. Similarly so long as it is the Son doing the loving, it is either the Father or the Spirit being loved. In this way the differences between the hypostases of the Trinity only arise in the context of their assuming different roles in the relationship of love. And yet due to divine simplicity and pure actuality, in a sort of divine dance the hypostases of the trinity assume all of the roles all at once.

But these are ponderings for another time.

(Go to “Simplicity and Trinitarianism”)