How was I to know how Christians were to behave? The answer to that is simple. Just look for what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount. Emulate examples of righteous behavior from characters found in the Bible. Anything and everything that we needed in our Christian lives was to be found in Scripture, and nothing could be taken as inspired authority that was not found in Scripture. We believed that we had no need for the worldly traditions that mortal humans brought to the pristine simplicity of the Gospel. Traditions were the baggage that carnal Christians used in place of a personal relationship with Jesus. Traditions were what the deceived religious people used in their vain attempt to achieve salvation under their own feeble strength, merit and worth. In fact, I thought, tradition was simply another word for religion. I insisted that I was not religious. I did not have a religion, and I had no traditions. I just loved the Lord.
A loving heavenly Father who desired intimacy with His creation, could not feel our love if we tried to express it through silly religious traditions and rituals. We as believers were to stand boldly before His throne, and talk to Him, worship Him and love Him just as if He were our Daddy. Our loving Father had communicated to us through His inspired Word – The Bible, and this Scripture and this Scripture alone was to be loving Father's divine communication to us.
I believed in the Bible. I had no need for tradition. The whole idea of communicating to God through tradition was absurd. Sola scriptura was one of the fundamental pillars of my Christian Faith. The Bible was plumbline, my standard, the only authority that I could trust. There was nothing else. No tradition could ever replace that assurance. But then I met Rosemary.
I moved to El Paso in 2003 for employment. I had never previously visited the city, and I had no family or friends who lived there. I had spent the previous seven years in Socorro, New Mexico attending university. In those seven years devoted to education, I did not abandon my Faith, but I did let it go fallow. I had other priorities at the time that I felt were more important. Yes, education during those years was more important to me than Jesus. The fact that I placed priorities above and beyond Jesus would have been blasphemous if it had happened during my Calvary Chapel years, but I believed at the time that there are times in life when even the most devout of Christians must place Jesus on the back burner, even if only temporarily. Important concerns of life must occasionally take precedence, and in my case, I needed to remove myself from the imposed ignorance of my church, and fulfill my latent potential as a physicist. I had to do it, not just for my own future and livelihood, but also for my sanity. But as my university years ended, and I started another chapter in my life as a newly employed scientist in high tech industry, a tax paying, responsible, middle aged and responsible member of society, I realized that I was again alone. I was starting over again at the age of 39.
For the first time in my life, I had meaningful employment. I had fulfilled all of my dreams. When I left Calvary Chapel in 1993, I was ignorant, yet in my extreme religious certainty I thought I understood more than I really did. Paradoxically, seven years of education made me realize just how truly ignorant I was despite the vast amount of knowledge and skills I had acquired. Unlike my years in Calvary Chapel, this ignorance was not imposed on me by my favorite Bible teachers, but instead was a realization that I had to accept uncertainty about nearly all my presumed foundational truths. Another difference was that I graduated college and arrived in El Paso with something I had never before possessed – a fair amount, I hope a healthy amount, of self-confidence.
Once I stepped away from the university environment, I found that I missed church. I was away from Jesus for seven years, and I missed the experience and fellowship that Christianity gave to me. I was not returning as an apostate or backslider. I felt I had nothing to repent over. I knew I had to temporarily place Jesus as a lesser priority for good and legitimate reasons. I was just away for some time on an educational retreat, but I was ready to return to worship. I missed my Church, which seems strange considering how much I had come to despise my former Calvary Chapel congregation. Actually, I don’t think I missed my church so much as I missed the camaraderie that I felt with my fellow believers. I did not miss the actual hymns and worship so much as I missed the spirit of fellowship when I was engaged in worship. I missed the feeling of communal ritual, as if I was a small part of some grand, unseen, cosmic fabric that was orchestrated by our loving Creator. I missed all that, but despite the lure, I knew I could not go back to church as I had known it. I wanted no part of a church like Calvary Chapel ever again. The giant soccer complex that they met in. The charismatic Bible ‘teacher’. The rock and roll praise and worship band. The bogus and hypocritical nature of the Christians in that particular denomination. I hated it all that phony baggage. But that was practically the only Christianity that I knew. I was not about to revert to my childhood Pentecostal beliefs. Watching several episodes of Benny Hinn’s healing crusade freakshows on TBN was enough to keep me far away from Pentecostal practices. I had dabbled with the Baptists when I was in high school, but all I remembered about them was their incredible legalism. If I joined the Baptists again, I could forget about enjoying good music or meeting girls who wore pants and make-up. After meeting such diverse and interesting people from around the globe while in university, I was not about to go back to that suffocating tribe of legalists who called themselves ‘Baptists’.
But what else was left? During my time attending university, I had occasionally visited a United Methodist church and a very tiny Baptist church, but I never felt quite comfortable in either church. The United Methodists had a female pastor, and the rest of the clergy wore elaborate robes. But I had been raised to believe that special priestly vestments were not Biblical, therefore part of some meaningless tradition, and such customs were not something that a personal God would be happy with. And ashamed to admit it as I am today, at the time I could never accept a female pastor in my church. It just seemed too defiant to be an acceptable practice, and far too distracting for me to concentrate on worship. My other option, the Baptist church, was so tiny and desperate for members that they nearly suffocated me with unwarranted displays of affection. After my first visit, the head pastor, a bulldog of a man who had worked cattle his whole life, gave me an emotionally uncomfortable bearhug as I left the church. I found myself voting with 30 other church members for a new assistant pastor, after I had only attended the church three times. It was all too much. I felt like I was being swallowed into Socorro’s tiny Baptist church far too quickly. I felt like they were too desperate for a young man like myself to join their aging ranks. I felt like an obsessive girlfriend who would not stop calling after a single, nervous first date. Much to their disappointment, I had to leave the Baptist church. I had no desire to attend another one when I moved to El Paso.
I scanned the El Paso yellow pages looking for congregations. I was skeptical about any generic sounding churches with names like Abundant Living Faith Center, Cielo Vista Church, or Destiny Family Christian Center. I had no idea what I would be getting into with a place ambiguously named Faith Bible Fellowship, and I feared that anything with a name like that was probably Calvary Chapel – lite. I was desperate to stay as far away from Calvary Chapel and its bogus non-denominational imposters as possible. El Paso Chapel of the North Hills? Forget it. But I made the search harder on myself by judging more mainline denominations as worldly and burdened with needless rituals and traditions. The traditions and practices of Lutherans and Episcopalians were unknown to me, but I viewed such churches with rich heritages and history with suspicion.
But I had no other options. After I rejected whatever meager Christian pedigree that I had, I did not know where else to turn. I was not from a mainline church tradition, and had no real idea of what they were. I did not know a Methodist from a Presbyterian. All I knew was what I had been taught – that these churches were old and stale, that they were in all likelihood carnal and worldly Christians who relied on their dead traditions to achieve salvation rather than a personal relationship with the living Jesus. But after learning that Calvary Chapel had been wrong about so many things, I decided, somewhat hesitantly, they were probably wrong about that one too. So I decided to look cross that hurdle and do what I had once loathed in noncommittal, cafeteria Christians - I started church hopping.
I picked any decent sounding church out of the phone book and went to check it out. Despite my best efforts, I almost always felt uncomfortable. I was unfamiliar with many of the practices and rituals. I could never get used to priestly vestments or female pastors. I was almost always greeted at the door with a little too much Sunday morning enthusiasm than I was accustomed to. Sometimes the pastor wanted to shake my hand and welcome me himself. I was sometimes asked to attend Bible study with them, which I only accepted once. I was once a little late for one church service and walked into the sanctuary with the sermon in progress. There in front of me was a dashing, young pastor lecturing with his entire sermon emphasized with colorful graphics on an overhead Power Point show. I had never in my life seen something like this. The congregation frantically took notes in their enormous, leather-bound study bibles. I immediately did a 180 and left the building. That church looked too much like Calvary Chapel for the 21st century. No thank you.
I found myself in a strange dilemma. The churches were either too familiar or too foreign. Either I could not relate to them, or I could relate to them all too well. I was searching for something, but I could not find it. I did not even know exactly what it was that I wanted in my Spiritual life. It was frustrating. I am not exactly sure what I believed at the time. I guess I just figured I would know it when I found it.
In late 2004, I met Rosemary in a coffee shop in El Paso. I was smitten with her friendly nature, her exotic, tropical features and her huge, vibrant smile. Me? Well, she says in hindsight that I was a nerd. When we met I had unkempt hair, too many pencils in my flannel shirt pocket, and eyeglasses far too large and outdated. How could she possibility resist me?
We began dating soon after we met. I had initially thought that she was Chinese, since I had many Chinese friends while in university. No, she was from the island nation of Philippines, she told me, although she did have a drop or two of Chinese blood. Filipinos have many influences on their culture, she told me. Her native culture and heritage was mixed with those of the Indonesian, Chinese and Spanish. There were very few Buddhists left in the Philippines, since that was a relic from their Chinese past. Most people in Philippines, at least the northern islands, got their religious heritage from Spain. Rosemary was of the Catholic religion. While we were dating, I had to come to grips with the fact that this woman was Catholic. I was a bit torn. Although my mother came from a Catholic heritage, she herself had never accepted that religion. I had my grandparents and several cousins who were Catholic, but I knew next to nothing about their beliefs. Actually I thought I knew all I needed to know about them to know that they were not true Christians. Catholics were heretics. They prayed to Mary and they worshiped idols. They sacrificed Jesus anew at every Mass. I had been taught my entire life, in my Pentecostal youth, in my fervent years in Calvary Chapel, that Catholics were next to the Anti-Christ in their evil, pagan beliefs. Now of course, by the time I had graduated college, I had met people from all over the globe with diverse religious beliefs. I was open-minded enough by the time I met Rosemary to not believe she was evil, a pagan or the anti-Christ. That was just silly. But being friends with people with a variety of religious beliefs was different from dating somebody of a different religion from my own. At first I was skeptical. But we were falling in love.
Rosemary worked as a school teacher in a local elementary school. Despite her extremely conservative Catholic upbringing, Rosemary was surprisingly open-minded. She was in a new country, and she wanted to experience new things that were discouraged in her own home. The school librarian was the wife of a Baptist minister in town. When Rosemary was invited to this Protestant church by the librarian, she readily accepted. She initially loved what she saw. The warm fellowship of believers seemed much more genuine and convivial than the congregation of her local Catholic church. She was encouraged to pray directly to God in any manner that she wished, which was a rare privilege in the heavenly food chain of saints and angels in her Catholic tradition. She found the directness of the Baptist church very attractive, and became fast friends with the pastor and his librarian wife. I told Rosemary of my difficulty in finding a home church in El Paso. She knew I was not Catholic so she suggested the Baptist church that she occasionally attended. I will call my new church home La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.
Wait – a Baptist church? Yes, I had vowed to stay away from those constipated Baptists of my youth, but I also fell in love with this new, independent Baptist congregation. When I asked Pastor Alvarez (more bogus names) about their Baptist affiliation, he told me that they were Baptist as a matter of history only. They were not members of the Southern Baptist Convention, were quite independent, and in fact were making plans to someday completely disassociate with the Baptist denomination. “The label 'Baptist' puts a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Pastor Alvarez told me. “They get the wrong impression about us.” It was almost like he was apologizing for the name on the church sign. Pastor Alvarez was not a legalistic, condemning pastor. Most of his sermons were not on Christian dogma, but on nurturing healthy marriages and relationships. It was a welcome break from what I had experienced from the Baptists of my youth.
In the meantime, Rosemary regularly celebrated mass at St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church (bogus bogus bogus). Her active participation in the choir gave her some visibility within the church. I felt that I needed to know a bit more about the Catholic church if I was going to be dating a woman of the Catholic religion, but I had no desire to convert to that church. In the meantime Rosemary was somewhat receptive to La Puerta del Cielo, and I secretly hoped to get her more intrigued with something closer to my own religious beliefs. We decided to alternate every other week between my La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church and her St Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.
I was already leery of her Church, but I did my best to approach it with an open mind. The Catholic Church was demonized in every church I had ever attended. I think I was mature enough at this point in my life to know that Catholics were not the anti-Christ, or following the 'wrong' religion. At least I think I was. But I also had to learn about her religious beliefs on a personal level, all with a level of skepticism and suspicion that unjustifiably used my own religious beliefs as the ideal standard.
The first few times I attended mass with Rosemary, I simply observed the rituals and proceedings, and reserved judgment for later. The first thing that I noticed was the joy and exuberance of Rosemary's singing. The choral songs of St Michael the Archangel were much simpler than the overblown productions of the Calvary Chapel 'praise band'. I enjoyed the music much more this way. The simplicity of the musical arrangement added to its devout sincerity. Rosemary constantly smiled as she sang, and I loved how she was able to derive that much joy out of her worship. Rosemary had introduced me to the elderly priest, and he had a remarkable charisma about him. However, I found his homilies to be pointless. I was used to lengthy sermons with Biblical exposition, interlaced with history, science and other subjects that, even if bogus, were meant to serve an apologetic aim. I was used to scribbling notes, marking my Bible and checking out the recording from the tape library for further study at home. In contrast, St Michael the Archangel seemed to have a rotating schedule of four stock homilies, each one being a mere fifteen minute recycle of inane platitudes that would have made Hallmark Cards proud. Be charitable towards your neighbor. Live selflessly. Be true Catholics in Deed rather than just in Word. More facile life-lessons that were, frankly, more simplistic than the moral lessons I learned from a TV afterschool special. But, as I was used to paying close attention to my sermons, I did the same with the Catholic homilies. When I questioned Rosemary about certain things the priest had said, she shocked me by saying she was not really paying attention to the homily. In fact, she did not think anybody actually paid attention to the priest's homily. This really disturbed me. How was I to get instruction on the beliefs of the Catholic church, their interpretations of the Bible, or their instructions for Salvation if I could not get it from their homilies? Rosemary told me that this was what Catechism was for. If I was to be Catholic, I would have to attend these extra-curricular sessions of dogmatic instruction. So without learning much of anything about the Catholic religion, I at least learned that Salvation was much more complicated than simply reading my Bible and accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. The ritual of the Catholic service fascinated me, and I paid very close attention to the details. I tried my best to understand what each action and gesture in the ritual represented. I pumped Rosemary with questions and she patiently answered.
Me: Why do you bow at the pew before you sit down?
Rosemary: We are showing our respect and adoration to the elements and the Bible.
Why does the priest hold the Bible up and kiss it?
The same reason. He reveres the Bible as a revelation from God.
Do Catholics pray to Mary and the Saints?
Yes. The Saints are people that we can relate to better than we can relate to God. I don't understand God, and even though I want to talk to Him and pray to Him, it is hard. Nobody can fully understand God. So it is difficult to pray to him. But the Saints have lived their lives on Earth. If a farmer needs help with his fields and crops, he prays to the Patron Saint of Farmers, because he once lived his life as a farmer. He understands what it is like to be a farmer, so the farmer on Earth can relate to the Saint better. The saint is an advocate who has a more direct seat to God than I have. At least, that is the belief.
Why do you pray to statues?
We do not. They are just representations of Mary, Jesus and Saints. We revere them, so we gaze at their statues in expectation of seeing them someday in Heaven. If you travel, would you miss me? Would you take out a photo of me and gaze at it because you love me, and cannot wait to see me again? You do not love the photo, but you direct your love towards it, because you want to see me again. That can give you an idea why Catholics gaze and meditate upon statues.
And on it went. Rosemary's explanations of Catholic beliefs and rituals were, on the one hand, completely alien to anything that I had previously experienced as a Christian. On the other hand, I found that my former Churches had engaged in yet another bit of exaggeration. They did not fairly represent Catholics or their beliefs. I felt that much of the condemnation that I remembered was more gross oversimplification of very subtle and contextual issues. Catholic gestures, genuflections and rituals were not simply means to an end, as I had thought. They were the perpetuation of traditions and symbols that Catholic believers could grasp hold of as a means of contact with the intangible Divine. It dawned on me that it was no different from what us Protestants called 'a point of contact' for our Faith. The statue was a 'point of contact' for the Faith of Rosemary's Catholic belief. The laying on of hands was a 'point of contact' for the Faith of my Protestant belief. Catholics had their chanting and ceremony in their worship. I had my raising of hands and swaying in my worship. I had my water baptism and anointing of oil as means of placing a physical anchor to direct my Faith towards. Rosemary had her genuflections, incense and ritual as a means of placing a physical anchor to direct her Faith towards. I did my best to criticize the Catholic rituals, but only came to believe that in many cases Rosemary was doing the same thing that I was. The worship was the same, only the mechanism was different.
I eventually realized that my particular mechanism of worship was simply part of my own religious tradition. I could no longer be so arrogant as to think I was not following an invented religious tradition just like Rosemary. That seems so obvious to me now, but at the time, the fact that I, as a refugee of Calvary Chapel, a denomination that stressed that we followed no tradition, no ritual, nothing but the sole authority of the Bible; the fact that I followed my own tradition in worship was a major revelation. I began to question all the assumptions that I had placed my religious authority of sola scriptura, the sole authority of the Bible that was the plumbline of Christian truth. I believed that I based all my Christian beliefs on the sole authority of Scripture, and that every belief and dogma of my Faith needed a Chapter and Verse foundation in the Canon. Pastor Skip of Calvary Chapel could claim all day that The Bible never endorses the alien, artificial Catholic practices, like the prayers directed toward saints. Rosemary told me that these practices were not in the Bible, but who says that they had to be? They were a product of revered Church Tradition. But why did my beliefs have to derive exclusively from the Bible? Since when did the Bible itself claim that its own contents were the sole authority of Faith? Wasn't the assumption of sola scriptura itself a Church Tradition that needed to be followed? True, such Catholic beliefs that Calvary Chapel ridiculed such as Purgatory, the intercession of Saints, and the Immaculate Conception, had no foundation in the pages of the Bible, and relied exclusively in trust on Church Tradition for their existence.
But couldn't I, as a sola scriptura Protestant, say the same thing about things that I took granted in my own Faith? Where was the Trinity, as explicitly defined by my old Calvary Chapel pastors, be found in the Bible? Nowhere that I could tell, if I was honest with myself. Yet the Trinity was one of the fundamental Dogmas that one must believe if they were to be saved. Or was it? Where was that particular article defined in Scripture? Was that also a mere tradition? What about the contents of the Bible itself? The very foundation of my Christian beliefs were contained, so I thought, within the covers of that most sacred canon. Yet, how was this canon, this foundation, this absolute standard defined?
This led me to a question that in all my years of belief, in all my years of devout service, and backsliding, and repenting again, in all my years of unquestioned acceptance of the Canon of 66 books of Christian Scripture, I had never even thought to ask myself. How was the Canon formed? How were its contents defined? How was this decided? And by who?
And even if I knew the answer to that thorny question, wasn't the acceptance of that answer just the acceptance of another Church Tradition?
In all my years in Calvary Chapel, in Baptist church, in my Pentecostal youth, I do not remember hearing a single sermon or lesson explaining how our most revered Scriptures were actually formed. Compiled? Assembled? I did not even know the right words. For all I knew, it was just as if they appeared one day in antiquity, lowered from Heaven by a fiery chariot, and bound between golden covers. I looked for an answer in the only resource that I knew of at the time - an appendix of my trusty Thompson Chain Study Bible. Among the many articles in that resource, there was nothing dealing with the formation of the canon. There were only a few short sentences explaining how certain books, the Apocrypha, were left out. I will include here the entirety of that explanation:
It is commonly agreed that some of these books contain material of literary merit, and historical value. But their canonicity has been rejected, and they have been gradually omitted from the modern editions of the Protestant Bibles for the following reasons:
1) They are never quoted by Jesus, and it is doubtful if they were ever alluded to by the apostles.
2) Most of the early Fathers regarded them as uninspired.
3) They did not appear in the Ancient Hebrew canon.
4) The inferior quality of most of the writings as compared with the canonical books, stamps them as unworthy of a place in the sacred Scriptures.
That is it. That was the only explanation I was given I did not know how particular books got in the canon, but books were left out on seemingly contrived, artificial and ad-hoc criteria. Canonicity is to be rejected if Jesus does not quote from it? Says who? Calvary Chapel taught me to view the early church Fathers with suspicion in regards to Church dogma, yet I was to listen to them regarding the inspiration of scriptures? If we are basing our canon on what is included in a Hebrew canon, what is that canon based on? And just who is judging, and by what objected standard are we basing the quality of writings? What superior quality of a writing gives that writing away as “worthy in a place in the sacred Scriptures”?
Dare I say it? Were the very foundations of my Christian Faith, the canon of the Bible itself, based on artificial, man-made traditions? It had to be. I could see no other alternative.
This was a major turning point in my religious Faith and my eventual de-conversion. I was not a Catholic Christian, and I was still suspicious of many of their practices and beliefs. I was still a Protestant, and I still believed in the inspiration and infallibility of my own Scriptures. Beliefs like that, beliefs that were cemented into my brain since childhood, cannot be let go of overnight. But the problem I was having differentiating between the authority of the Bible, and the authority of Church tradition led me to abandon any notion I had that the Bible was the sole and exclusive authority of belief. I was not about to accept the authority of a Church government located in Rome. I did not know if there was another valid authority out there. I suspected not. But if I was to be consistent, I had to at least allow for the fact that the Bible was not the sole arbiter of my Faith. Quite what that meant, I did not yet know. At the time it meant simply that I could no longer accept the dogma, rather the assumption, the tradition, of sola scriptura. It meant that I had to open up for the possibility that there was another source of Faith that could influence my own Christian Faith. I had to be more accepting of Rosemary's Catholic traditions, and any other peculiar traditions held by the diverse beliefs held within the Christian religion. I had to confess that I came from my own religious tradition, with an artificial baggage and history, and that my practices and beliefs could not be traced back to the lips of God. Realizing that I followed many man-made traditions rattled my senses, and I felt like a major foundation stone of my Faith was kicked out from under me. Could I be Catholic after all?