A Confession

A friend recently asked me about my itinerary from where I was when we met over twenty years ago to divinity school and ministry, in connection with his own discernment about whether to enter RCIA. Here’s a lightly edited version of what I wrote to him:

My route from where I was to where I am, for whatever it’s worth, mostly goes through reading Augustine at Deep Springs. I was pretty much a standard secular liberal, with clichéd post-Enlightenment ideas about politics and anthropology. The microcosm of Deep Springs put those habits of mind (convictions would be too strong a word, though I certainly felt very full of convictions) to the test, and Augustine gave me another way of looking at all of it: the intellectual ambition, the striving for status and regard, the frustrations of ordering common life, the desires of all kinds. Augustine was always trying to understand himself and his motives, transcending his understanding, and then facing new problems. “I am a problem to myself,” he says a couple of times in Confessions, and I felt like I understood what he was saying.

Of course becoming a problem and having a solution are two different things, and I’ve always found the latter harder to articulate. I could grok Augustine’s Platonic monotheism but not his Christology, and it took me another two or three years to start coming around. Mostly that was a matter of experience, I suppose. On one hand it was reading and hearing the Gospels (and Romans and 1 Corinthians primarily), along with a few theologians who could frame their claims in the kind of existential terms I needed (Pascal’s Pensées, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Luther’s On Christian Liberty/The Freedom of a Christian were useful here). It was so drastic and all-encompassing, which is I guess what people say about cults they’ve left. All-encompassing but not closed off, not provincial or hysterical. It was, as we’d have said about a band or a labor project at Deep Springs, “hardcore,” but in a way that expanded rather than contracted my idea of humanity and human sympathy. I guess I wanted it to be true, to the point of not minding the risk that it would prove not to be. 

On the other hand, I was going to church, and the worship of the church helped make it all real for me. Candles and incense and chanting and hymns and all that crap, plus especially receiving the Sacrament (my band of Lutherans is very lax about this). Making friendships, and even bonds that were not as fond as friendship but that formed over something more serious than most of my friendships, was part of it too. 

I could pinpoint a few decisive moments–two or three experiences that I could call “mystical,” or arguments I found persuasive at the time (Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God, which I now consider basically meaningless)–but in retrospect it was much more gradual and cumulative. Which I guess means that it’s never really over, even if it is in a sense “accomplished” (here is where Lutheran theology diverges from Catholic, but that’s a topic for another time). I can imagine drifting into functional atheism or even some kind of vaporous post-Christian spirituality (that’s a popular move for people), or becoming Orthodox or Catholic or something too. You can never cover your bets in this life, whether you’re at the “church” table or the “figuring it out for myself” table. I would never recommend that you do something you do not believe in, or at least earnestly want to believe in. It’s a serious thing to bind yourself in this way, and all the authorities warn against turning away once you do. But the simple truth is that we’re always accumulating and becoming accountable to previous versions of ourselves, in good ways or bad, and the thing about Jesus, and being part of His Body, is that we make ourselves accountable to a better (and more gracious) self than we’ll ever be on our own. 

I hope that is helpful. I will pray for you.

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