Monday, November 15, 2004

"Why I Returned to the Catholic Church" (Al Kresta), Part I

(Talk given on 4-26-92; edited and transcribed by Dave Armstrong)

Al Kresta was raised Catholic, converted to evangelical Protestantism, became a prominent talk show host and a pastor, and then reconverted to Catholicism. He is the author of Why Do Catholics Genuflect?: And Answers to Other Puzzling Questions About the Catholic Church and host of Kresta in the Afternoon, which is syndicated nationwide. His reconversion story was one of eleven conversion testimonies included in the bestseller Surprised by Truth (the last story, and right after my own). Al and I have been friends since 1982, and he was my own pastor shortly before I converted to Catholicism. This is one of the most remarkable, "meaty," thought-provoking conversion stories and extended criticisms of Protestantism (though within an overall ecumenical attitude of respect and affection), that I have ever seen. I have had the desire to transcribe this for many years. 

The following is an edited version of Al's talk, which took place at my house on 4-26-92. It lasted about 3 1/2 to 4 hours, and every minute was interesting and informative. His own title for it was "Why I Returned to the Church." I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have (many times). Rather than include lots of ellipses (. . .), breaks in the talk (where I have edited) will be indicated by new paragraphs (though not every such break means that I have edited).
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This is why I returned to the Catholic Church, not necessarily why you ought to. I'm more than happy to make a presentation some night to say why you ought to. This is my story of how I returned.

I was raised Roman Catholic, in a church-going, sacrament-receiving home. I have, really, very positive memories of my upbringing. I liked it. It was kind of mysterious. I remember going there, and there was the Eucharist, and that was Jesus, and the church was in hushed silence. There was this awe.

I had that sense of the sacred from my experience in the Church. My first confession, I still remember as one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I ever had. I remember emerging from the confessional and leaving the church on a Saturday afternoon, and finding myself floating off the ground. I felt that I was united with God, that my sins were forgiven; it was a great experience, and I remember it to this day. That has a lot to do with my early years; basically a positive experience. Once I hit my teen years, it was a different story. It was the mid-60s. I graduated from high school in 1969, and during those high school and teen years I went the way that a lot of kids did during that period.

I have one other experience from that adolescent time that I think is probably significant. In May 1969 I was doing quite a few drugs and this was a particular LSD trip that I took. It was a death trip, and I thought I was dying. I was brought to the hospital. It turns out there was nothing wrong with me. I was just going crazy. I remember that night, thinking I was dying, and calling on Mary -- being able to fall asleep after hours of struggle. I woke up the next morning like the slate had been made clean. It was great. I think I only had a few minor drug experiences after that. I don't know what to make of that, really. It was one of those odd experiences that you just have, and you forget. It didn't form any theological backdrop for me, subsequently -- trying to search, after those drug experiences for what was real, and true, and good. Catholicism wasn't on the list, so I still don't know what to make of that experience, spiritually or psychologically. I still believed there was something there. I was not an atheist by any stretch of the imagination. A pagan of some sort, but not an atheist, I would say.

Let me jump to the time I began following Jesus as an adult. That was in 1974. I was 23, almost 24 years old, I guess. When I began following Jesus, and accepted the authority of Scripture, I guess the key was that it was a conversion to the authority of Scripture, as much as it was to a person. Because of the spiritual confusion that I had had, in the New Age movement, it was imperative that I get away from a subjective, internal test for truth, and find truth independent and external to myself, and that's what the Bible provided for me. It gave me a way of testing competing truth claims. I was really happy to begin Bible study. I had a good pastor . . . I thought, naively, that if you knew the original languages [of the Bible], all these denominational things would fall by the wayside, you'll get to the real truth of it, and right at the beginning of my discipleship he [my pastor] made it clear that you could know the Hebrew and the Greek and you would still have all these denominations. The Bible is authoritative, but even knowing the original languages won't settle all these issues. You're gonna have to live with 'em.

I pretty much adopted the Bible Alone as my authority. Baptists were in. Lutherans were kind of out, because they had robes and believed in baptismal regeneration. Reformed people and Presbyterians were pretty good, but you couldn't figure out why they baptized infants and they didn't believe in the Millennium. They were good for a lot of things, but not for everything. And pentecostals were puzzling, too, because they believed the Bible a lot but they seemed to get too much into this experiential thing, and you couldn't make out what they were saying, half the time -- this tongues-speaking. Reformed and Presbyterian people provided the best scholars for the Bible-believing movement, but they baptized infants and they didn't believe in the Millennium. So I guess I was a fundamentalist in the early years because it was a narrow focus. But my pastor had a great heart and embraced many many people. That was a good spirit.

The people who influenced me in my reading, then, were Francis Schaeffer -- probably no greater single influence in my life at that point, than him; C.S Lewis, Josh McDowell. I was very influenced by the campus movements, like Campus Crusade for Christ, Inter-Varsity . . . I spent time with friends of mine, convincing them to leave the Catholic Church, and I spent time with priests. I wasn't hostile to Catholicism; I want to make that clear, but the priests I met were dumb. I had just been reading the Bible for about a year, and I could turn them into doctrinal pretzels. They really didn't know their stuff. Most of the priests I met were really nice guys, and that's about all that I could say for them. Their mentality was sort of an "all you need is love" mentality. But at least you better define "love" a bit. What does that mean? It drives you back to the cross. Now, I might think very differently if I met them now, but at the time it seemed like they were not doctrinally-oriented, and they always kept stressing, too, how much the Church was changing, when for me at the time, that was really a negative. I wanted something that was firm, and unyielding, and for me that was the Scripture.

There were people who came out of the Catholic Church as a result of my work. I was suspicious of Roman Catholicism for all the traditions that it had. I got tired of meeting Catholics who kept complaining about being Catholics; about birth conrtrol, this, that, and the other thing, or divorce. My answer always was, "get out! Why do you want to be there, then? Just get out!" I couldn't figure it out. I still have similar feelings about that. It's one thing to have respectful disagreements, conscientious objections, and things like that, but don't go around moaning about it; it stirs up trouble.

I was still real young, not knowing much about Church history. I was like most Protestants: you think the Church began with Jesus and Paul, skipped over to Martin Luther, and then you hit Billy Graham. So my roommate [who owned a complete set of the Fathers' writings] started telling me about Polycarp, and Ignatius and I thought, "this is very interesting stuff." He stressed that the early Church believed in the Real Presence. Well, I couldn't deal with all this. I was interested in evangelism, and Real Presence was not really important. I continued the work of evangelism, and a number of people came into relationship with Christ, and I noticed right away that the community I was a part of, was in some ways a lot less spiritually motivated than the New Age group that I had come out of, and that was very disturbing to me. The people who I began worshiping with were generous and kind, and they helped me out, but their lives were not oriented to living out their convictions to the same degree as the New Age group I was with before I began following Jesus.

I also saw tremendous disunity among Christians. They were always fighting about things that, in my naivete, I thought were non-essentials. I saw a lot of superstition, very odd pastoral practices: large numbers of arranged marriages, . . . I was also becoming very uncomfortable with evangelicalism's a-historicism. It had no sense of history!

There was no way of writing off the Catholic tradition. It had to be received as legitimate, at least to a certain extent. It was a matter of now having to say, "the Tradition itself does preserve the objective value of Jesus' atonement." So I could no longer write the Catholic tradition off as somehow sub-Christian. But still, Catholicism was not an option, for many many reasons: superstition, doctrinal laxity, so many things.

I began using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. That was very helpful: the elegance of the language, the loftiness of the sentiments, the clarity of the prayerful intention, convinced me that the problem with form prayers were not the forms themselves, but with people who were incapable of filling the forms with genuine piety and conviction.

Because of all these various influences upon me, I never chose a theological tradition. I really couldn't sum myself up as a Lutheran, or a reformed, even a Baptist. I never found a systematic theology that I was comfortable with. I was more practically and evangelistically oriented. I didn't have time to work through all this. In fact, it's only been since I got out of the pastorate, that I began thinking systematically; theologically. Most of my theology has always been task-oriented. I went to churches, but I was never a member of a church until I pastored one.

After I got out of college, I began managing Christian bookstores, and that was an important influence. It looked to me like there were sheep and goats everywhere. It became increasingly difficult to decide who was in and who was out. You couldn't use the old shibboleths anymore: "are you born again?," because, first of all, anybody could say they were, and secondly, the Bible doesn't make a big issue out of being born again. It really doesn't. It uses a lot of different images: a half a dozen to a dozen different images to represent salvation. The reason why [they use the terminology] "born again" is because it's part of their tradition! [laughter] And they're comfortable with it. I had to broaden more and more to embrace more and more people who I understood as my brothers and sisters.

I was also influenced a lot by this notion that C.S. Lewis popularized, called "mere Christianity." It was very very helpful to me in the early years. Later on, when I became a pastor, I found that it wasn't very helpful at all. But in evangelism it was great, because you were able to cut through all the theological debates and the various traditions and try to bring a person to make a decision about Jesus. You didn't have to defend baptism, or the Eucharist. You didn't have to defend anything but the deity of Christ, and the fact of His atonement, and the need that you have to trust Him. And that was what I tried to live off, for a long long time.

Friends of mine started asking me to teach about cults. My wife's cousin got involved with the Way International (Jesus is a created being; classic Arianism). I offered to write a response to the Way International for Sally's cousin. I was disturbed, because the answers that I hoped I would find in the Scriptures were not as self-evident as I thought they would be. The doctrine of the Trinity is not as self-evident in the Scripture as most cult researchers would like you to believe. It takes a good deal of reflection, collating various verses, logical analysis, and prayer, to come to the conclusion that God is Triune. And I could see why Jehovah's Witnesses and the Way International, relying on the Bible alone, might come to the conclusion they did. I thought they were wrong; I didn't think they offered the best explanation of the biblical material, but I could see a good faith effort with some intellectual error mixed in, could lead them to the conclusion that they had. On what basis could I exclude them from the faith? I learned the value of creeds and councils. The ones who were arguing that Jesus was not God, were arguing that they were the ones who reached their conclusions on the Bible alone. It was the heretics who said they were relying on the Bible alone, and it was the orthodox, the Catholics, who were appealing to a living Tradition. That was disturbing to me. I thought what was interesting was that the Church didn't argue on the basis of the Bible alone. The Church argued on the basis of the Bible and the history of teaching. That was one big thing that hit me.

I also read the apostolic Fathers [around this time], and I couldn't figure out how they got to be Catholic so quickly after the apostles left. I was amazed at how Catholic Ignatius was. He calls the Eucharist the "medicine of immortality." Nothing symbolic about it; there's actually something good for his soul. He has bishops all over, who are supposed to be obeyed. What happened in ten years?! You've got sacramentalism coming in, ecclesiasticism coming in . . . I couldn't figure out how the Church could have been so corrupted and filled with false tradition. But they keep appealing to what's gone on before. This was troubling to me, because some of the distinctive doctrines of Catholicism were already believed by the apostolic Fathers. I was also troubled because on the basis of the Bible alone, you could just as well end up with the heretics, as the orthodox. I didn't know what to do with this.

Another big thing hit me at that time, and that was the idea of development. I could see in reading the Bible, that various doctrines which appear full flower in the New Testament, are mere seeds in the Old Testament. I asked myself that if God was interested in developing doctrine in the canon of Scripture, why isn't He interested in it after the closing of the canon? The doctrine of the afterlife [for example] was vague in the Old Testament. It isn't until one of the last books in the Old Testament, that you end up with clear teaching on the resurrection (Daniel). You can find the doctrine of the atonement developed similarly. I began reading Newman, for a variety of reasons. I was impressed with him as a stylist and as a devout man of God, but for whatever reason, I was unpersuaded. I was still afraid of the idea of doctrinal development outside of the New Testament.

Sally (around 1980 or 1981) bought me a two-volume biography of the evangelist / revivalist George Whitefield. I found a great man, who was great friends with John Wesley, and both of them practiced forms of superstition. I was amazed. They were characters. This was not a debunking kind of biography at all. If anything it was a Protestant piece of hagiography. Wesley made some major life decisions by casting lots. He was not the "man in control" that he is often presented as being. Wesley and Whitefield are two of the great figures of evangelicalism. They were revivalists. And they were marvelous people. I was inspired a great deal by the biography. But at the same time I had to deal with the fact that these guys practiced forms of superstition in the conduct of their lives, that if I saw today, I would say "How foolish; how silly." I was living upstairs from a Mexican couple, who were Roman Catholic, and they were involved in all kinds of unusual devotional practices, none of which I paid much attention to, but wrote them off as superstitious. Then I find out that Wesley and Whitefield practiced some forms of superstition as well. So you come up with this "immoral equivalency."

Shortly after this I ended up hospitalized for depression, twice. From '82 to '85, I was having to take medication, and to live a life in which I was pretty much a practical atheist. The universe seemed utterly meaningless and without coherence and there seemed to be no God, no purpose, and no meaning. I came out of that in May of 1985. I said to God, "you know, it's been three years now, and you know I want to serve You, but I'm not convinced You're even there anymore, and this is becoming a futile effort. I've got to get along with my life. I've got a wife and daughter here." I went down to Thomas Merton's Abbey Gethsemane. I'd read Merton's Seven Storey Mountain and thought it was a great story. When I went down there it was sort of a do or die effort. I was saddened; I wasn't angered about God. I was saddened that He apparently treated His friends so badly. And He probably didn't exist, and this is just life. It's pointless, but we have to pretend that there is a point to it.

Lo and behold, after three years of darkness -- light. During my stay down there I had three visions, or images, if you will, which were the only rays of light that had given me any sense of meaning or purpose through that terrible period of darkness. I could go off and speak on this for days, because it was so remarkable. I did the Liturgy of the Hours down there, and talked to a priest, and when I came out, my life began to reassemble itself. I still had some difficulties, but overall, I was back on track again. It was a great experience. I started reading theology and Scripture again, and began to pray again.

Luther is really the father of the way evangelicals preach on justification. The apostle Paul was not concerned with the same things Luther was concerned with. If you analyze Luther's experience: the questions he was asking God: they're not the same things the apostle Paul was asking of God. Luther has been like a lens that Protestants have put on to read the New Testament. Luther was preoccupied with how he could gain acceptance by a gracious God. This was his question. But the apostle Paul doesn't seem too concerned about that at all. He has a rather robust conscience before God. He knew that God was gracious. He never pleads with either Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience, and then release that anguish in a message of forgiveness through Christ. He never urges that kind of revivalistic experience upon his readers. When Paul does speak of himself as a serious sinner at all, it's not because of his existential anguish under the righteousness of God in general, but very specifically, because not having recognized that Messiah had come in Christ, he had persecuted the Church, and fought the opening of God's covenant to the Gentiles. That was Paul's issue. It wasn't personal acceptance before God. Luther was asking questions the apostle Paul really wasn't concerned about.

The Jews understood that salvation was granted by God's electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. Most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God's covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works. Wrong! That's not what they did. That was Luther's problem, not Paul's problem. The Jews weren't boasting that they could attain righteousness by doing works. They were boasting that they were God's chosen -- by grace. Paul agonized over the social nature of the Church. Luther, on the other hand, agonized over the personal assurance of God's acceptance. In other words, Luther, by having misunderstood Paul, developed a whole new approach to religion. The irony of it is, he probably developed it out of Catholic corruptions in the Middle Ages. [laughter] Paul wasn't that concerned about individual salvation. That wasn't his issue. The issue was the nature of the body: the community. This [realization] allowed me to establish even more distance from the evangelical tradition (around 1985).

[recounts how bookstore customers wanted Jack Chick materials, which his stores refused to sell] I was hit again with how anti-Catholic fundamentalism and evangelicalism is. There is a deep streak of bigotry that runs through it. I wasn't that worried about it, though, because in my own mind I could write that off.

The question of the canon of Scripture had always bothered me, almost from the beginning. Where'd it come from? It seemed like such an obvious question that I figured there's gotta be lots of good answers to it and that everybody must know why we have a canon of Scripture. Jesus left us with a community before He left us with a book. I found the appeal to an authoritative Church far more honest and consistent than an appeal to an authoritative Bible. So I ceased to defend the canon of Scripture with any enthusiasm -- except by an appeal to an authoritative Church. The problem was I didn't know where this Church was. It couldn't be the Roman Catholic Church. It just couldn't be. There's too many problems there.


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