It’s the Most Marian Time of the Year

It’s odd how in Protestant households, having a little figurine of Mary would be frowned upon between, say, January and November, but all of a sudden Advent comes around and it’s alright to celebrate, just a little bit, the Mother of Jesus. It seems to me that this is mostly for sentimental reasons. But it also causes a little anxiety within the Protestant imagination to have a little Mary figurine up on the mantle. Making Mary a source of serious theological reflection is still off-limits, whether you are a liberal or a conservative.

On the conservative or evangelical side of Protestantism, there’s something of a stalemate here between popular Christmas traditions, such as nativity scenes (devotional statues!), and good Reformed theology, which frowns upon both images and Marian themes. The people can have their nativity scenes, fine, but they also need to be reminded that Mary was “just an ordinary woman” once a year, just in case things get out of hand.

On the liberal or mainline side, I’ve never heard any serious theology about Mary, either. What you do find is an embrace of her Magnificat, due its natural alignment with social justice issues and raising up the poor and oppressed. All good things! But we are still not talking about Mary as much as we are agreeing with her. Mary is simply an example of what we really want to talk about, which is God’s preference for the poor. And God does prefer the poor! But there’s more to Mary—a lot more—than just her policy platform.

In all of this, I can’t help but feel like something is being avoided here: the woman herself.

Why? What are we afraid of?

I think it’s possible that at some level Protestants understand that love for Mary springs quite naturally from love for Jesus. Whoever loves the Son loves the Mother. Whoever loves the Mother loves her Son. Marian devotion was eliminated from Protestantism with great effort and violence precisely because it is so effortless. Thinking that such love is by nature idolatrous—or at least, tempts us to idolatry—the Reformers and their theological heirs worked hard to make “Christ alone” the focus of our love.

What I wish they could have understood is that it’s not in Christ’s nature to be jealous for our attention. Devotion is not a zero-sum affair. Love for Mary does not detract from our love for Jesus: rather, it enriches that love.

So it’s alright to put up a picture or a little statue of her during Advent, for goodness’ sake. You might even dare to leave it up all year round.

Catholic Guilt is Good, Actually

Yes, even Pope Francis goes to Reconciliation.

So, I’m going to cite this article as scientific proof that Catholic guilt is good for your mental health.

I was digging around yesterday after thinking more about my last RCIA entry about grace when I stumbled across this article at JSTOR, an online library of academic journals.

Titled “Guilt and Religion: The Influence of Orthodox Protestant and Orthodox Catholic Conceptions of Guilt on Guilt-Experience”, the article shares the results of the authors’ psychological research into how Catholics and Protestants experience guilt. What they found was quite interesting: while members of both groups, on the whole, report experiencing more guilt than their non-religious peers, the Catholics tended to experience more constructive guilt, while Protestants tended to experience more non-constructive guilt.

The distinction between constructive and non-constructive guilt is similar to the distinction I made in my last post between guilt and shame. From the article:

In brief: constructive guilt is characterized by both a sense of agency and responsibility: this is my fault and I have a responsibility to make things right. Non-constructive guilt, by contrast, is characterized by a sense of one’s own weakness and wickedness. Furthermore, while constructive guilt is interpersonal, experienced as something outside the self that is resolved on the outside, non-constructive guilt is intrapersonal, experienced as something inside the self that must be resolved (or not) internally.

So why do Catholics experience more of the former kind of guilt, and Protestants more the latter? The study was surprisingly clear: the two sects have very different beliefs about sin, salvation, and human nature which bore a direct correlation to their subjective experience of guilt.

To measure this, the study asked the participants to rank their level of agreement with six different theological claims. See for yourself:

The survey showed Catholics were more likely than Protestants to agree with statement 2 and 5, that a good deed counts for something and that confession brings forgiveness.

On the flip side, Protestants were more likely than Catholics to agree with statements 1, 3, 4, and 6: that human are essentially sinful, one can only rely on God’s mercy for salvation, that no good deed is perfect in God’s eyes, and that God wants to us to understand that we are sinful (I talked about the last one a lot yesterday).

What do these statements have to do with constructive or non-constructive guilt?

Simply put (and speaking as always in the aggregate), the Catholic emphasis on human goodness, active participation in the salvation process, the merit of good works, and the power of confession mean that Catholic guilt has somewhere to go for resolution. The authors of the study note how Catholicism has a lot of institutional practices and rituals (confession being the obvious example) that serve to externalize and resolve guilt. And this has a demonstrable effect on their psychology. Religious coping, the authors state, is a “controllable stress buffer”. Heightened religious practice, in other words, helps Catholics feel better.

Conversely, the relative Protestant emphasis on the essential sinfulness of man, the inefficacy and worthlessness of good works, and salvation as something God does alone means that the Protestant is pretty well “stuck” with his guilt. Protestants, of course, don’t have the confessional, but they also have fewer liturgical rituals that deal with guilt generally.

All of this has a demonstrable effect on Protestant psychology. The authors note three core doctrines of Protestant belief—the instruction to feel dejected, one’s helplessness before God, and the worthlessness of good works—are ‘depressogenic’, meaning they can lead to depression.

Which, in hindsight, of course it does. What could be more depressing than believing that you are essentially bad, that you can’t help yourself become better, and that nothing you do matters anyway?

In fact, whereas religious coping acts as a stress buffer for Catholics, for Protestants, religious forms of coping tend to exacerbate stress. Here, more religion tends to make Protestants feel worse!

The authors note that no study has been done on the relationship between Catholicism and depression, likely because “the combination of guilt-related pathology and orthodox Catholicism is not that often found in clinical practice. If this is indeed the case, Catholics may have a healthier way of coping with guilt than Protestants.”

So, there you have it: scientifically speaking, Catholic guilt is actually a good thing.

Who’s In Charge Here? Part 2, Myself Alone

In part one, I wrote about how the great Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone”, acts as a disintegrating force. What we’ve witnessed throughout the 500 year history of Protestantism is a continual fracturing, as schisms and separations multiply and new denominations are formed.

Let’s continue with the second part of my argument.

I think that we’ve reached the logical endpoint of this process of fragmentation, and now everyone is free to interpret the Bible for themselves. Sola scriptura has devolved into solus ego, “myself alone”.

Now at first, that can sound like good news. Those of us who have experienced abuse of power under the guise of biblical interpretation often end up here. Shouldn’t we be free, as best we can, to interpret the Bible as we see fit, and to seek out other like-minded people who read the Bible the same way we do (more or less)?

It seems like an attractive option; I took it myself for many years after college. But I got tired of it eventually, for reasons I’ll outline below. I’d like to suggest here that such a hyper-individualistic approach comes with some hidden costs, and pretty steep ones at that.

The first cost is anxiety.

When it comes down to it, am I sure that I’m correct, that I have the right interpretation, that I’m making the right call? This question might manifest in some personalities as an obsession with study and research, the scholarly quest to uncover or know the truth. The responsibility of authority drags us into neuroticism.

In other personalities, this anxiety might manifest in the opposite direction, where the person becomes reckless and gross, claiming the authority to make their own decisions about their life regardless of their impact on those around them. And hey, as long as they can justify their views or choices with the Bible, well, who are we to disagree?

The second cost is vulnerability.

Isolated individuals are vulnerable to predators, and the uncertainty that’s inherent in this kind of self-ownership leads many people to look for strong personalities who will tell them what to believe and how to act. Of course, many of these strong personalities tend to be predatory as well. So a dynamic is created whereby vulnerable and insecure individuals attach themselves to narcissistic personalities who have no interest in actual leadership, only in getting high off of others’ attention and submission. This happens all the time; I’m sure each of us can think of a ready example.

The third cost is despair.

Not feeling ourselves united to any particular community or tradition, not being able to find the answers or guidance that we seek in the Bible, the whole thing can start to feel like a pointless exercise. It’s difficult to understand, it’s a chore to read, it doesn’t speak to my situation . . . why read the Bible at all?

So yes, you can go it alone if you like, trusting in your own best understanding of things, but that’s a hard road, and rarely do people get to the end of it with their faith intact. Is there another way forward?

Yes, I’ve found that there is. In the next post I’ll argue that authority properly resides not solely in the text itself, nor in each individual reader, but rather with a living interpreter.

Click here for part three.

(Photo credit: Luis Quintero)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

I always find myself in a Catholic church on Good Friday, and here in Santa Cruz I made no exception.

At the very center of town is a Catholic parish called Holy Cross, and it’s hard to miss. Whenever I’m nearby, I keep an eye out for the cross atop its steeple, which needles the heavens like the point of a compass. A white cross against a bright blue sky. I can see it headed west on the main highway through town as we head out toward the beach, or headed back east on Mission Street, rising above the street signs and advertisements that line Highway 1. Santa Cruz gets its name from this parish, which began nearby as the original mission: La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz. “The Adoration of the Holy Cross.”

The Good Friday liturgy is the same in every parish, brutal, gutting: the crucifixion story from the Gospel of John is sung in choir, the priest offers a brief homily, the cross is unveiled before the altar. Then we line up in the aisle to kneel and adore it, one by one. This particular year, however, nestled between the reading and the kneeling, it was the homily that arrested me.

The priest came down from his chair behind the altar and stood in the center aisle, preaching from memory. He is a young priest, unassuming and robed in purple for the season. His free cadence arrives as a welcome counterpoint to the exalted language of the Gospel reading. He opens his arms to deliver his homily.

“Scholars, whose Greek is certainly much better than mine, say that St. John’s telling of the crucifixion has a chiastic structure. The word comes from the shape of the Greek letter chi, which on the page looks like an ‘x‘. Like the letter, the structure of the story is symmetrical, expanding outward on each side of a central scene.”

He had my attention. I still miss studying Greek.

“St. John, using this structure, is pointing us to the story’s focal point, which is the famous words of Pilate: ecce homo, which in English means, ‘behold the man’.”

Then he spoke the following phrase with a sort of happy confidence, a phrase on which everything in my own story would now center:

“The cross,” he said, “reveals that the nature of God is suffering love.”

“My God,” I thought. “That’s the most beautiful and true thing I’ve ever heard. Why don’t I become a Catholic?

It was as if someone had opened a hidden door before me, and I who had been groping about in the dark for years finally stood in the light.

My next thought was bit more crass—“Oh, shit!”—because I knew right away: this was one of life’s central moments, the center of that ‘x‘, around which the rest of my story as a Christian would now find its place.

Driving home through the redwoods that night, I felt so many of my heart’s core experiences begin to align around something essential which had previously eluded me. My life story, my family history, my favorite prayers and practices and theologies. Radiating outward from that center—I could almost hear the clicking sound inside me—everything began to reorganize itself. Questions I had never asked now had a glaring, obvious answer.

Why was it, for example, that for nine years running, I had insisted on spending every Friday night in Lent attending the Stations of the Cross service at the nearest Catholic parish?

Why was it that late every night in Advent I found myself on Google searching for lost and forgotten Christian traditions and holidays?

Why was it that after college the first thing I did was take an “educational trip”—it had always been a pilgrimage, I realized now—to Jerusalem?

Why was it that, after I lost my job at the mission and needed a place to heal, I had found myself at daily Mass for six weeks at St. Anne’s?

Why was it that I insisted on dragging Rebekah through the underbelly of Mexico City to visit Tepeyac, and, upon seeing with my own eyes Our Lady of Guadalupe, had knelt down and begged her to be my mother?

I had to laugh at my own blindness. Wasn’t it obvious? This was what I wanted.

The truth was, I had never really felt at home in any branch of Protestantism. Not really. A couple months prior to all this, I sat down to apply to seminary, and I realized something disorienting: that, even after all of my varied experiences, I still didn’t know which church I even wanted to belong to, let alone which one I thought was, well, true. Each of them had pieces of something I recognized, in an almost primordial or ancestral way, but also something that kept me from committing.

I valued the evangelicals’ social conservatism, how they gave primacy to faith and family, but I couldn’t abide their politics.

I was nourished by silence among the Quakers, but I couldn’t understand why they rejected the sacraments.

I studied Scripture under mainline professors in college, digging deeply into every chapter and book, but I grew exhausted when I realized that we would never reach the bottom, and that everything was always up for debate.

I felt secured by the Presbyterian commitment to order, but I loathed Reformed theology.

I was overawed by the power of Episcopal liturgy, but I found their communion too wealthy, too white, and too permissive.

I loved to pray for miracles with the charismatics, but found their spirituality to be, at bottom, terrifyingly chaotic.

I had thought I was running out of options; I was really being pointed in a new direction.

The reason I couldn’t choose among them was that I wanted a place of worship that held together all of these good things, which, until that Good Friday, I had failed to recognize for what they were: scattered pieces of what, in Catholicism, formed part of a larger, coherent whole. In Catholicism I could sit in silence as I did with the Quakers, I could celebrate a liturgy just as high as the Anglicans’, I could even count on a commitment to process longer than the Presbyterians’. But I could also be held, bounded, disciplined by a structure and an authority which was better than my own clever arguments. I could live in a communion that includes and celebrates the dead, our ancestors who walked on this earth before us and who live on, just beyond the veil. And I could take joy in a sensate spirituality, one which does not look away from the stuff of everyday life—the turning of the seasons, food and drink, birthing and breathing and dying—but rather raises it all to the altar, incorporating it into the Divine.

Which is why, on that night of adoration, I knew that the time had come to stop wandering on the peripheries and head home for good.

Which leads me to today, friend, where I confess to you my secret, which is that I have committed myself to something called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where after a time of prayer and discernment it is my intention to enter full communion with the Catholic Church.