Converts And The Dangers Of Abstraction

Though I loathe autobiography (as the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted, when asked about why he didn’t talk more about his own life, autobiography is a uniquely treacherous genre, and unless, he said, one has the genius of an Augustine, it is best avoided), and though even as a small child I wanted to defenestrate any teacher who made us get into groups and share our thoughts and (dread word!) feelings, and though I believe (as Evelyn Waugh puts it about the dowager empress Helena, in his hilarious historical novel of that name) that “a post of honour is a private station,” perhaps I might break all my own taboos in order to venture a few thoughts here to further the necessary and healthful discussion Fr. Oliver and many others have been having about the problems of converts and their practices in the Orthodox Church. Less windily, let me link back to the first post I wrote on here and talk about the dangers of abstraction and the importance of face-to-face encounters.

By the middle 1990s, it was clear to me that the beloved Anglican Church of my upbringing was in rapid and bewildering decline, with bishops plainly unfamiliar with the law of non-contradiction openly teaching contradictory things (cf. John Spong vs. George Carey on, say, the resurrection of Christ, the virginity of the Theotokos, and a thousand other things) and in general making a hash out of orthodox Christianity. With a real sense of sorrow I began to realize that such incoherence as I was finding was intellectually intolerable to me and so, following the logic Anglican bishops had themselves laid out in such documents as The Gift of Authority, I began to look around for doctrinal coherence and clear teaching, and found it in the bishop and Church of Rome: “The only see which makes any claim to universal primacy and which has exercised and still exercises such episcope is the see of Rome, the city where Peter and Paul died” as Anglicans and Catholics agreed as far back as 1976 .(I was aware of Orthodoxy, but never considered it a viable option because every Orthodox parish had an ethnic label stuck in front of the word “Orthodox,” thus rendering me, I figured, more or less ineligible or at least incapable of comprehending the liturgy as I did not then know Greek and do not now know Slavonic.)

I had two wonderful Anglican parishes in my childhood and early adulthood, and it pained me greatly to leave either of them: both were composed of warm, colourful, tremendously supportive people who had seen me through my own near-death as well as other terrible sorrows in the life of my family. Both, too, had given me a wonderful experience of liturgy with all the splendor and dignity for which Cranmer’s prose and the English choral tradition are justly celebrated. To trade all this for status as one faceless individual in some massive Roman Catholic parish, with hideously banal liturgy of the most unspeakable kind, was–almost–a bridge too far for me. But after making the fatal mistake of reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I knew there was no choice but to swim the Tiber (and then, as it were, the Dnieper), which I did.

I think I was rather obnoxious after that (from the peanut gallery: when are you ever not obnoxious?). It took me several years to realize but one summer I felt myself and my conduct severely convicted by reading a story the Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas tells of himself: after he went off to Yale in the early 60s, he returned home one summer to his working-class family and his brick-laying father and mother in Texas, who, for his birthday one year, gave him a gun. The sophomoric Hauerwas was aghast and instead of responding gratefully to a gracious gift given with love, subjected his parents to a lecture about the evils of violence. While he believed what he said was true, he hurt his parents because his speech lacked love, and thus, for a Christian, he failed St. Paul’s simple test: to speak the truth in love. Too much of what Christians read and write on-line fails this test, alas.

In looking back, I recall a distinct sense, for perhaps close to a decade, that any interactions with my former Anglican Church would somehow “contaminate” me and the “purity” of my safe, secure harbor (to use Newman’s term) in the Catholic Church, and so I stenuously avoided every Anglican Church and Anglican friend I could. (As Flannery O’Connor has put it, “snobbery is the Catholic sin”!) More than that, like Hauerwas, I indulged my fondness for polemics and rarely missed an opportunity in conversation and in print to slag my former home often in lurid terms bordering on the grotesque. At one point about a decade ago, it got back to me that some things I had written had caused real hurt to a number of people who found my attitude bewildering and did not know how to approach me to talk to me. I was taken aback and provoked to re-think an approach that seems very much to be in common with the kind of “sectarian” mindset that has been discussed on here previously.

I have moved away from that mentality not only because I think it is unworthy of a scholar and, perforce, a Christian to hurt others. It is, moreover, profoundly unhelpful and off-putting to others–counter-productive to one’s ultimate goal of trying to show everyone why they should become Catholic (or Orthodox). If this is the face I give to others–smug, self-righteous, gleefully indulging in Schadenfreude at every new revelation of Anglican craziness–then who is going to be attracted by that or persuaded thereby to embrace the faith and the Church? To put it in the most nakedly self-interested way: you are shooting yourself in the foot if your defense and promotion of Catholicism or Orthodoxy consists largely in running others down while also preening about with your head-scarves, prayer ropes/rosaries, icons/statues, fasting schedules, etc. (As Fr. Oliver has said, none of those practices in themselves are bad, but too often they fail to do what they should do because of our misuse of them.)

Rather than this sectarian-puritan mindset, which I would suggest is unhelpfully common among converts of all types, whose Pharisaical nature serves nobody well (and likely sets you up for stiff treatment before the “awesome tribunal of Christ” as we say in the Byzantine liturgy), I came to realize, as the late Lutheran-cum-Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus put it, that one can and must see what good remains in one’s previous ecclesial home and not condemn it tout court. In other words, as Fr. Oliver recently put it, we must recognize and accept “honest historical continuity,” something Neuhaus winsomely described thus on his reception into the Catholic Church in 1990:

To those of you with whom I have traveled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. If, as I am persuaded, my communion with Christ’s Church is now the fuller, then it follows that my unity with all who are in Christ is now the stronger. We travel together still.

For a time I didn’t want to “travel together still” with Anglicans, but I came to realize, not least in face-to-face encounters with my somewhat upset and anxious maternal grandmother who thought I was rejecting the Anglican Church she loved and served deeply her whole life, that I was not rejecting her, or it, or anything that was good in our shared past. Indeed, it became apparent to me that to reject that past would make it almost impossible to have arrived where I did: without the Anglican upbringing, I would very likely have no faith at all today, and no membership in any Church. It is the honest, humble recognition of what we owe to others, and of how we have been shaped, that too often seems missing in convert narratives, whose strong bluster and zealously unbending defense of the truth belies a desperate insecurity.

In some cases (as in mine), I think patience and the passage of years allows one to mature and grow out of this attitude. In others, people need to be called directly to account by those skilled in the practice of an appropriate, healthy, mature, non-vengeful, non-sanctimonious “fraternal correction” that seeks only the good of the person and the Church, reminding the former that the good of the latter is not served by an uncharitable slandering of other Christians or an uncritical embrace of one’s new home.

2 Responses

  1. Dear Mr. DeVille,

    Thank you for your illuminating post. While I would agree with you generally that confessional literature should largely be left to and at the confessional (or, in both our cases, before the icon of Christ), a story of a conversion and progression in faith which leads to such generosity of spirit as yours deserves a wider audience.

    As a self-described Uniate (or, if you would prefer my not dropping the U-bomb, Russian Catholic), I have gone through a similar curriculum vitae as yours, though apparently not quite as far. I would be most interested to read any further observations you might have as to your progress from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy.

    Very truly yours,

    Bernard Brandt

  2. Michael Bauman

    I have a hard time here precisely because all the complaints about Orthodoxy I read here are abstractions to me. Yes, I know they exist but I have never experienced them. I have experienced sin within the Church–mostly my own but what I have experienced the most is the presence, grace and mercy of our Lord.

    He is there in every parish I have ever visited–real, palpable and not abstract. That includes parishes that are ethnically oriented in ways that make me uncomfortable.

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