Just recently, part of my spiritual journey was introduced to a Catechesis class. I was honored. But there’s more to the story. You see, I became a Catholic in 2001 and the circumstances surrounding my conversion were a small miracle in the truest sense. That can’t be overemphasized. But I was a tough nut to crack and ultimately, it took a couple of whacks to bring me home to the Catholic Church.
As I reflect back on my “pagan” days, I used to wake up every morning subconsciously hungering for the four gods of Aquinas––wealth, pleasure, power and honor. In my selfish mind, a day would not be complete unless I somehow roped one of them. Would I have articulated this? Not at all. But these temptations were my engine, my raison d’être.
I’ve joked before that you’re more likely to see a Volkswagen tap dance than a saint emerge from Hollywood. Well, my miracle may not be equivalent to a Bojangling compact, my zip code was off by a digit and I’m no saint, but on one particular life-changing day, God intervened.
As a non-believing, God-apathetic, skirt-chasing hellraiser, I had just finished writing my first screenplay. It made the rounds of producers and directors and was well received. The plot dealt with racism and terrorism and the script ultimately was considered too controversial. At the time, the head literary agent of a major Hollywood talent agency represented me and said I should immediately begin to write another screenplay.
Fine. Let’s cross off another year of my life writing a spec script that will earn me zero dollars. Pouting, I reluctantly headed back to my office, put my feet up on the desk and tried to conjure up new storylines. Unexpectedly, from “nowhere,” I thought about a spiritually bankrupt astronaut who stumbles upon faith. It was a very elaborate plot but I had my hero.
I will bold the following. At this time in my life, God was NEVER part of my thought scan. Yet, in a revelatory moment, almost as if the heavens parted, He inspired me to find Him.
As I began to write the first draft, I realized my main character would think and speak differently as he evolved from a faithless man to a faith-filled one. Therefore, quite simply, I began to research religion to mold dialogue and narrative. Never could I have predicted that cold, objective research would become so personal. I not only discovered a profound emptiness in my main character but myself as well. My character’s perspective became mine, and I too discovered God.
A miraculous transformation had occurred. Or so I thought. I never realized miracles could be so fleeting. I did not instantly become the wheat in the field that Jesus talked about in Matthew’s Gospel, a good righteous man. I was a seed with shallow roots. My conversion, based on superb intentions, didn’t take. It wasn’t until 2009 that I finally surrendered my hubris and fully embraced the Catholic Church and my Lord.
I’d like now to present a portion of the thought process––my reasoning––that led me to Catholicism. Prayer accompanied every step. I’ve combined material from three earlier posts to make it more accessible to new readers.
Imagine a large circle of faith tradition possibilities; 360° of options. Standing in the center, an earnest truth seeker might be daunted because he has to somehow carve a thin slice of faith out of the whole. This faith has to fit his life, circumstances, experiences and ambitions. Where does he begin, in which direction should he head?
Is it any wonder that many people get confused and either stop their investigation or haphazardly undertake it because they’re constantly wondering about the taste of other slices? They might even speculate whether any sliver is worth the effort at all.
“I’m busy, I have a life to live. I’m a good person, does it even matter?” Or worst of all, they condemn the whole faith exercise as a fool’s folly.
Huston Smith succinctly highlighted crucial differences between the major religions. “Buddhism does not have a concept of the afterlife or God. There is only one other religion that Christianity entirely embraces as divine revelation: Judaism. Christianity views itself as superseding Judaism, Islam views itself as superseding both Judaism and Christianity.
Islam considers Moses and Jesus prophets, and Muslims even endorse the concept of Christ’s virgin birth, but they do not regard Christ as the Messiah, and they do not believe he was crucified or resurrected into heaven.”
I’ve observed that some spiritual people don’t take the time to dig into the theology of their faith, whether it’s established or an offshoot. They have basics down, which allow some level of contentment, and they enjoy being spiritually and socially connected to a community. But ecclesiastical inquiry? Some devotees would rather not.
I don’t agree with their approach but I must be respectful of their religious exercise even so. I was in that camp as a young man and ultimately it wasn’t comforting. As it happens, my ignorance of any teaching enabled an easy transition to atheism.
I’ve also been intrigued with a simple fact of logic. All religions and more specifically, all Christian denominations can’t be true––yes, there are shared beliefs but I’m referring to the totality of faith––since they teach different things that are sometimes in conflict with one another.
What’s more, there are, what, thirty-eight thousand autonomous branches, some scripturally isolated and self-interpreting that may or may not have a handle on true Christianity. To my way of thinking, this contrasting nature of religion was a fascinating invitation for inquiry.
As a start, whatever I discovered in my research needed to be juxtaposed with, at the least, two basic litmus tests: who founded the religion and do the originator’s teachings hold up to the moral compass that is inside all of us. Since I’m not a theologian, this lay approach seemed reasonable.
This compass reacts to an unchanging set of moral principles, the natural law etched on our hearts, which I view as a buttress to my faith. It also reinforces objective right or wrong and counters the relativist dribble quite aptly.
Two examples of this compass come to mind. Some Christian fundamentalists I’ve met will say that a dying baby not yet baptized will not be saved nor go to heaven. My internal compass starts doing flips when I hear this. A loving God would be that rigid and deny salvation to an innocent? Sorry. It just does not ring true. (Suffering, physical and moral evil and their effect on Creation is for another post.)
The more extreme example is the father who sexually abuses his ten-year old daughter. This is objectively wrong, universally wicked and a reasonable person in tune to his moral compass would have to agree.
The relativist, denying that moral compass and existing in a world that is never absolute, might say that depending on the culture, societal or historical context, this abuse could be condoned. The absurdity of this statement, its brazen opposition to natural law, is evidence to me that relativism in regards to morality is false.
One last comment on relativism. It is somewhat influential in our society and that is troubling. “You’re imposing your beliefs on me? Who is to say what’s right or wrong?” Such questions might come from a relativist or a secular liberal, which helps to explain why abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception and other issues are such contentious battlefields.
In time, I came to the realization that God, as Jesus, founded the first Church. And God, as Creator, is the author of the natural law.
I was initially a skeptic when I began my foray into Catholicism. My preconceived opinions, notable for their inaccuracies and their reliance on both secular sources and uncharitable Christians, were nevertheless rectified. I found Catholic teaching nothing short of awe-inspiring.
As for other religions, it was important to me that I give them due consideration.
Judaism, the monotheistic religion of the Jews created by the biblical covenant between God and Abraham, is unwilling to recognize the new covenant as established by Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. That limits its appeal for me. I say this with some sadness but that doesn’t diminish in the slightest the extraordinary amount of respect I have for their religious lineage.
I will always acknowledge the special relationship that Christianity shares with Judaism with great affection. It should never be lost on anyone that Christ was a devout Jew but most importantly, that He was the fulfillment of the old covenant. Christianity was borne out of Judaism.
As for other religions, philosophies, cultural traditions and Christian splinter groups that have attracted legions of followers, men and women, not God, founded them. Some of these people have been characterized as prophets, revolutionaries or visionaries and their ambitions may have been laudable. But God was not the originator. That in itself is hugely problematic. I am not interested in man-created creeds regardless of the charisma of the founder or well-articulated teachings. I do not want to stake my soul on human invention.
Over the ages the list is endless, but a small sampling of these man-made religions and their prime architect would include: Islam/Muhammad; Buddhism/Siddhārtha Gautama; Hinduism developed from the Vedic religion and the early Aryans; Lutheran/Luther; Presbyterian/Calvin; Anglican/King Henry VIII; Quaker/Fox; Baptist/Smythe; Mennonite/Simons; Methodist/Wesley; Seventh Day Adventist/White; Jehovah’s Witness/Russell; Calvary/Smith; Christian Science/Eddy; Mormon/Smith; Scientology/Hubbard; and so on.
The differences and sometimes divisiveness of these faith and belief systems––and yes, Catholicism is fairly turbulent at the moment––is a hallmark of the human condition and at times, has spurred trouble on the world stage, especially when religion is co-opted by intolerance. That simple statement has been the impetus for books that fill libraries.
However, to my point on spiritual discovery, when I read some of the doctrines and interpretations attributable to these various religions or the like, and I emphasize some, at times I find them insular, problematic, sometimes cultish and occasionally nonsensical. Additionally, it could be said that many of the Christian schisms were attributable to pride and not charity, so the motivations for their dissent have to be seriously questioned.
I need to be clear on a couple of things. I’m imbued with a spirit of tolerance for all religions primarily because I respect the freedom we all have to pursue the spirituality of our hearts and minds. The circumstances of our lives are different so it shouldn’t be surprising we have diverse faiths. When I’m in the midst of religious people engaged in worship, my heart is warmed knowing that even though we have differences of belief, we are committed searchers of divine truth. We are all the same; we are children of God.
With respect to Christianity, yes, there are disparities. Yes, I have chosen Catholicism. That said, I would never denigrate the faith of other Christian brothers and sisters––our differences should never be divisive.
If there’s a wellspring of Truth, I want to be as close to this source as possible; in my humble view, the headwater of Christianity is the Roman Catholic Church. One point needs to be emphasized. I’ve talked about my search for God but there are as many varied and extraordinary paths to Him as there are people on this planet. To the extent people embark on such a journey of discovery––God never ceases to draw man to Himself––and elect to not believe, their decision has to be respected. It’s unfortunate but God gave them that freedom.
My patron saint is St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a remarkable scholar, unprecedented thinker and a dominant linchpin of western theology. I don’t think it was a coincidence I selected St. Augustine, a tradition of conversion, when I entered the Catholic Church although the significance of such is now becoming crystalline. For a notable time, my life in so many ways mirrored the lascivious and immodest early life of Augustine.
His Confessions, eerily similar to many of my experiences, at some mysterious level may have inspired me to seek Truth. Like Augustine, I wholeheartedly succumbed to the sins of the world and rejected God; He was barely an afterthought. I lived as the creator, the manipulator, the hedonist. God? Does anybody believe I cared one scintilla about God?
“Too late have I loved you.” This famous utterance by Augustine encompasses the classic truth about his life and relationship with God. I would like to appropriate it. Its succinctness captures my situation as well. My youthful promise has long faded and my worldly possessions are few, but I now understand. God is my treasure, He loves me and hope beckons.
I know it in the part of my soul that has been touched by Him, where doubts don’t exist. I know it as a function of faith and spiritual apprehension. I know it because although God is everywhere, my heart’s compass is pointing to heaven.