Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Memory of a Truth Spoken


This article recalls a time from my childhood when I challenged the faith of a young Catholic. I do not remember exactly how I went about it, and it may have left something to be desired. But he was under the impression that Mary was God, so I do not regret having told him otherwise. We shouldn't offend people just for the sake of being offensive. But sometimes, if we are being faithful to God's truth, we might wind up offending them for their own sakes. It is good to be as tactful as we can, as long as that does not keep us from offering what they need to hear.

My last article must have sent me down memory lane because I found myself thinking about another event from my childhood. From about the time that I was 10, I spent some of my time during summer vacations shadowing my father in his residential remodeling business. On one of those earliest jobs, he was working for a couple that had a son about my age. I never saw him again and I don’t even remember his name, but we had a conversation that has really stuck with me. It illustrated the importance of knowing the truth and was an early example of my desire to share it.

A funny thing about memory is that I have no idea how we got started on the concept of religion. It has slipped my mind at this point, and I certainly am curious about it now. That’s not the sort of thing young boys generally discuss when meeting for the first time. It happened, though, so something got us there.

Fill in the details however you like and see if you can find a logical path to me asking him, “Who are the members of the Trinity?” Something had to have gotten me there, something about his family’s Catholic faith, presumably. But I was still surprised to hear him say, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Mother Mary.” I immediately corrected him, but our conversation did not go much further than that.

Learning to Speak

I don’t feel like I was particularly rude in telling him that the Holy Spirit, not Mary, was the other member of the Trinity. But he must not have felt the same way, since he apparently told his parents and they, in turn, told my father. He then warned me to be careful in the way I talked to people about these things. He wasn’t stern or upset, just recommending tactfulness. Ever since then, I have been trying to strike that balance. People need to be treated respectfully, but that does not mean you should let them go on believing lies when you can tell them the truth.

I hope never to allow anything I say to be taken as anti-Catholic sentiment. I am a proud alumnus of Saint Vincent College and I owe them a great debt of gratitude for the quality education I received. My love of philosophy is rooted in the classical, Catholic approach to the subject. But I am still a Protestant because of a number of things that I consider insurmountable. If I offer a criticism, it is grounded in the love for truth that a Catholic education was one factor in fostering in me. No one should think of it as coming from a place of hatred.

Misunderstanding Mary

That said, one of those insurmountable things is Marian devotion, and my experience with that young Catholic has been a lasting part of the reason why. Obviously, I realize what his youth had to do with it. It was simply a misunderstanding. At the risk of being overly subtle, though, I do not believe it was a simple misunderstanding. A complicated tangle of ideas, going back centuries and lying far beyond his control, was what got him to that conclusion.

The Holy Spirit, to borrow Francis Chan’s famous turn of phrase, is the “Forgotten God.” That is true, broadly speaking, of Protestants as well as Catholics. Maybe that is because the idea of the spiritual, the ephemeral and immaterial, is just foreign to us. Jesus we can understand because He became one of us. Even the Father we can get to some extent because we can visualize what a father should be. But there is no visualizing the Spirit. He is difficult to personalize. And as a result, we sort of shift Him off to the side. (That is the reason, by the way, I always use personal pronouns when discussing the Spirit. We have to be reminded He is a “He,” not an “It”).

Whatever the reason, the Spirit is not the focal point of our devotions. Seeing as His ministry is to illumine the things of Christ (John 15:26), maybe that is how things are supposed to be. But we should not forget his place in the Godhead. This child had not been shown Him, and so he did not know who He was.

He did not know the Spirit, but he did know the Trinity. That concept had been part of his education already, as well as the fact that it included three persons. Since he did not know the correct answer, he filled it in with what must have seemed to him the most logical choice. For him, it felt natural to say that Mary is God.

His conclusion is understandable. Veneration, adoration, devotion, whatever word is used to describe it, there can be little doubt that for most Catholics, Mary is seen as worthy of worship. She is prayed to and considered not only the mother of Jesus, but the Mother of the Church. Most are probably unaware of the “mother goddess” cults that syncretized to the church and influenced Marian devotion. Most are also probably unaware of the psychology that caused it.

Just as we often struggle with today, many people in centuries past could not see the Father as loving. They saw Him as judgmental and uncaring, a stern disciplinarian. Nevermind the fact that we have Jesus as our mediator (1 Tim. 2:5; 1 John 2:1). Nevermind the fact that the Father’s love is the reason redemption is available (John 3:16; 1 John 3:1). God’s hardness needed to be softened by a feminine counterbalance, and so Mary was made to serve.

Offering the Truth

I sometimes wonder what she thinks of that, or if any of the departed saints are aware of what goes on here. If she is, I doubt she would be happy to be elevated to a level she does not deserve and that belongs only to God (Ex. 20:2–3; Is. 45:5; Rev. 22:8–9). Whatever she feels, we can still know it is wrong.

Nearly as important, when we know it is wrong, we have to be able to say it is wrong. Most errors spread innocently, but they have to be corrected. Consider what could have happened if my young acquaintance had never been told the truth. Who else would he have taught his version of the Trinity? How many generations could have been affected? Ok, sure, that wasn’t at all likely. But what about the initial errors that led to Mary being worshipped in the first place? What might things be like if they had been rebuked at the beginning?

I will say it more directly. Marian devotion has no basis in Scripture. It is, in fact, contradictory to Scripture and therefore heretical and idolatrous. That is harsh language, but I do not use it to be cruel. I was not trying to be mean 20 years ago when I suggested the same thing to that young boy. I suppose you could say I speak this way to be shocking, but not shocking for its own sake. If I say something that shakes someone, hopefully it will get them to question things and seek the unchanging truth rather than continuing to believe a lie. I am not trying to crush anyone by doing that. My aim is to build. That should be the goal of all Christians.

It runs a risk, of course. I have Catholic friends and family. This could be quite insulting, given Mary’s place in their tradition. But what can I do? I don’t have to harp on them, but I cannot avoid being honest, either. I couldn’t do it at 10 years old. The truth matters. Maybe it will lead to division. But it is the only thing we should be united around. The unity we should seek is not one built on the sand of platitudes and polite conversation, but one grounded in God’s revelation.

That is the only place I can stand. I just have to hope people will be honest enough with themselves to recognize the spirit in which I say these things. I have to hope for constant improvement in my own approach. And I have to hope other Christians will be willing to speak the truth, too, even when it might mean someone is offended. There is always a risk of portraying an attitude that turns someone off. Sometimes you might say it wrong. Maybe I did all those years ago. But I am not ashamed, because I at least tried. If we want to reach people for Christ, we have to say something when we know they are headed in the wrong direction.

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