"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
Normally my attacks on the Reformed or Evangelical system is usually conducted from an objective third person point of view, reviewing the system as it were, from the “outside”. However, I thought I will do something more autobiographical in this note, tracing the development of my theological thought as it changed in interaction with my life, how I struggled to reconcile it with my experiences (and ulimately failed). This is of course a retrospective interpretation, of course there would be some after-the-fact “sewing up”, some interpolation of what I was thinking or doing, even some embellishment. But this is inevitable, and I can only depend on the witnesses of those people who were part of my life during those periods to correct me and set the record straight.
Out of the Pan of Charismatic Megachurchism into…
I think I have given an account of my conversion in JC 1 to Christianity from atheism, so I wouldn’t go through it again (or, you can always pm me). My friend who brought me to the faith belonged to one of those megachurches, and to be honest, I completely hated it. Looking at their modern songs and their antics, I can’t help wondering, are you sure this is the place to find God? And so in anger, I decided to swing to the other extreme, to go to the most “Christian” looking Church. I asked a Roman Catholic classmate to take me to her parish. If you wanted to learn about true, traditional and authentic Christianity, that’s where you go to right?
At this time of my life, I was actually in my “philosophy” phase, not really that much into theology. I was trying to master Descartes and Anselm’s Ontological Arguments for the existence of God, figuring out the source of morality and grappling with the freewill and predestination paradox. I was be in this phase for a very long time until my “Anglican” turn. By which then, I would have pretty much have mastered the major works of the Analytic Tradition of Philosophy.
Anyway, so I would go for the megachurch’s service on Saturday while attending Mass on Sunday. Of course I didn’t read purely philosophy at this point, I was trying also to understand the Christian faith and the difference between the denominations, etc. My Evangelical friend who brought me to the megachurch was better at theology and he soon became reformed and introduced me to reformed theology. Thus, right from the very beginning in my JC days, I was already ingesting the wholesome goodness of R.C. Sproul and Michael Horton and the other contemporary Reformed theologians. As Catholic minded as I may be today, I still have to say, that it is the most impressive theological system I have ever since, I have never read anything more pristine, ruthlessly consistent and rigorous as Calvinism and Reformed theology. And especially to a philosophical mind that likes system and tidiness, and being able to comprehend all things in a nice and neat framework, Reformed theology had a very great appeal.
My Catholic friend on the other hand was pretty clueless about theology, although I tried to read up a little on Catholic theology, but I had access only to popular Catholic books which were mired in scholastic terminologies which I did not like nor understand.
But I continued attending Mass for about a year and the only thing that kept me there was the liturgy of the mass. The liturgical singing, the ceremonial, the music, the environment, everywhere God and the sacred was written into everything, from the icons to the robes to the music and the ritual, God was present objectively, truly and really, in the very ground of the Church itself, transcending my uncertain musings or weak faith, calling me ever so gently, to become a part of it all, to join them, in the harmony of God’s eternal beauty…
But eventually, my head would win out over my heart’s desire and I became Presbyterian, the most sober, and rationalistic system ever devised. I remember that services were always a bore for me and as for sermons, I would either be dissecting them vigorously in my mind or merely zone out completely.
The Fires of Presbyterian Ministry
By this time, which was after NS and in my early uni days, I was already completely Reformed. The doctrines of the five points of Calvinism was at my finger tips, I was able to distinguish forensic imputation from sanctification, and I could defend the doctrine of penal substitution from the new heretics which has risen to challenge it. I was also venturing into the latest of Reformed theology, covenant (covenant of grace and works anyone?) and federal theology, intrigued by the New Perspective on Paul and all.
But it was also at this point where for the first time, I was thrown into youth ministry and asked to lead a small group. I had no prior ministry leadership experience, so naturally, I had actually absolutely no idea what was expected of me. But I loved theology, and I wanted to share all that I have learned and ingested over the years. So, well, duty calls, and there are young minds to brain wash.
However, I was certain of one thing. I am not a nice person, nor am I a “ren-ren de ren”, or a people’s people. Thus, in some vague and unconscious way, I knew that I must lead, not on the basis of my personality, or how charming I am or how “friendly” I am, but because I lead them to Christ. And so back then, I knew that it is not about me or my personality. I have been appointed by the Church, not to aggrandize my person, but to point them to God and His word.
I remember taking my appointment with such gravity, which now amuses me in a way. I remember I would email them in after church weekly, trying to get their input and involvement in the small group. I would sometimes talk to them over messenger to urge them for their input, what they think, if they want me to explain anything, how we can do things differently, etc. I was really idealistic back then. Since I took the NS group, I would ask them to pray for each other during the more difficult times, and sometimes I would ask them about their army experiences (although as an NS clerk, I had absolutely no clue, or interest, in what goes on in army, but then again, I am their leader and I am to take an interest in their lives.)
Hahaha, when I told one of my friends how I lead my small group, he said no wonder I had such “Catholic instincts”, I think and behave like a priest! 😛
But those brats unfortunately were not that susceptible to my brain washing as I imagined they would be. I remember that the youth pastor had these… less than desirable studies for them to do. I looked at it, rolled my eyes, and asked my group if they wanted to do it or if I should not instead make up my own. And thus, with their mutual consent, I started beating their heads over with the intricate doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechism in excruciating detail. And my goodness! Did they resist every step of the way the horrors of Calvinistic election and predestination! I had to literally crush them with the weight of all my theological and biblical knowledge sharpened over the years from listening and reading the contemporary reformers. (Although they have an irritating habit of bouncing right back!)
But I have to say that that was probably one of my “happiest” time of my life in being a Christian. I really enjoyed interacting with resistent minds and all. And I am very proud to say, that by the grace of God, not a single member of my group was lost to that sinkhole called National Service.
The Cracks of Presbyterian Ministry
But even then, I’ve already sensed that something was very wrong with the whole picture, there was something lacking. I guess it was here that I had my second Catholic awakening again. This time it had to do with the nature of Christian fellowship. I remembered that I was very involved in the Young Adult ministry of the Church, I was even on the committee. But I realise that there was a “tribalism” which was very hard to break in the Church. The people there had cliques and groupings in accordance to relationships based on past histories and friendship. I noticed this behaviour even within my small group when the next batch of NS people would sit separately from the current batch. I was dismayed and irritated at the same time. Really, should such things like who went with who to which Sunday school matter? And to the credit of the group who was under me, they heard my plea to integerate and made some effort todays reaching out to the next batch of people.
But the malaise was much deeper than I thought. Being a first generation Christian I belonged to the “outer fringe” as opposed to the “inner circle” (those who were there since goodness knows when), no matter what my official position in the church was. I made a couple of friends here who attended to same university as I did, but we all belonged to the “outer fringe” as opposed to the “inner circle”. By virtue of my active participation in the official organs of the Church, I had a link to both sides. I tried my best to incorporate the outer fringe into the inner circle, but it was virtually impossible. My uni friends started to fall away from church and that got me thinking why.
I realise then, that the only thing that makes us “Christians” is the sheer fact of an abstract theological confession. We lack a sense of the Church, of being part of the same “Body of Christ”. The only thing that made us a “church”, is simply our Christian talk, that fact of a mere theoretical confession. But it doesn’t extend beyond that. And so, slowly but surely, I began to feel the futility of my theology, my teachings and all my work. The Faith is supposed to have a public concrete meaning, and we can all “talk” about being part of the Body of Christ, but when push comes to shove, “Christian fellowship”, really means who are friends with who and who has the ability to social network, not because we are part of the same Body. No wonder youth programmes are infested with movie outings, bowling activites and other secular nonsense. Because Christian fellowship simply means being good secular friends!
I guess my turn towards the sacraments can be summed up by this verse,
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17
What makes us One Body of Christ? Christian “fellowship”? The ability to social network and make friends? What makes us the Church? It has to be the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, we who are many are one bread, one Body, because we all partake of the same bread. Thus, it doesn’t matter who are friends with who, or who can social network with who, or whether you’re nice or funny, dull and an asshole, but we will stick by each other and support each other, by the sheer fact of partaking of the same Holy Communion. I guess, in a way, I realised that people, especially my friends, absence from the Church and Christian fellowship is valid and understandable. If the only reason we can give them to come to church is friendliness, I’m surprised that they still bother to come at all!
It was when I realise this truth, the truth that the sacraments are what constitutes the Church and the foundation of Christian fellowship, not one’s ability to make friends or social network, I guess from that moment, my Reformed Evangelicalism started to corrode, and I turned more and more towards the Anglican and Catholic faith.
From an Internal Faith to an Objective Faith
I guess when one begins to substitute the internal, subjective and ambigious things like Christian “fellowship” for external objective entities like the sacraments, there starts to be a fundamental shift in one’s theology. I guess it was here that the beginnings of my abandonment, not just of the Reformed understanding of the Church and the Sacraments, but of Reformed theology itself, underwent a change. It is no longer faith, or just faith, as a subjective thing, but what matters now, is what we have faith in, the external object of our faith. The relationship between internal subjective faith to external object of faith began to take shape in my mind. Luther expressed it most admirably as he argues why we are saved and born again by baptism,
…faith must have something which it believes, that is, of which it takes hold, and upon which it stands and rests. Thus faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life; not through the water (as we have sufficiently stated), but through the fact that it is embodied in the Word and institution of God, and the name of God inheres in it. Now, if I believe this, what else is it than believing in God as in Him who has given and planted His Word into this ordinance, and proposes to us this external thing wherein we may apprehend such a treasure?
Now, they are so mad as to separate faith, and that to which faith clings and is bound, though it be something external. Yea, it shall and must be something external, that it may be apprehended by the senses, and understood and thereby be brought into the heart, as indeed the entire Gospel is an external, verbal preaching. In short, what God does and works in us He proposes to work through such external ordinances. Wherever, therefore, He speaks, yea, in whichever direction or by whatever means He speaks, thither faith must look, and to that it must hold. Now here we have the words: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. To what else do they refer than to Baptism, that is, to the water comprehended in God’s ordinance? Hence it follows that whoever rejects Baptism rejects the Word of God, faith, and Christ, who directs us thither and binds us to Baptism.
I guess here, emerged my “Catholic” turn again. Church fellowship must have an objective external basis, by which we put our faith. It cannot be an internal subjective thing, nor can it be a faith in some generalised proposition such as “God loves everyone” because that doesn’t imply anything about you, (cue Linus infamous, “I love mankind, its people I can’t stand”) the Word of God as embodied in the sacraments must be externally, objectively and truly applied to you, and it is on that which you put your faith in.
I guess this account has gone a little too long. There is of course still much to tell, about my “liturgical turn”, my corrosion of Reformed Evangelical theoloy, my interesting skepticism of public reason and philosophy, my theological turn in understanding society, reason and ethics, etc. But I write this, merely to point out that my theology was not forged from the armchairs of a ivory tower muser, but from the very fires of practical experience in trying to serve in the Church as well.