Growing up in an Evangelical home, I recall my parents occasionally lamenting the defection of a recent convert. In some cases they had spent months, even years, evangelizing and teaching new Christians only to have some of them return their old ways of life.
This puzzled me. How could they leave the truth? Why? As a child so much seemed clear to me: the existence of God, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the reality of sin, and the need for salvation. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I find that I am more sympathetic and, yet, just as puzzled.
The seemingly clear vision of youth, inevitably tested, either dims or deepens. The way and the why of how faith comes, goes, withers, or grows is a mystery. But that doesnt make for easy excuses. Rather, by Gods grace, the lessons of life can provide reason for greater faith and hope. But the theological virtues of faith and hope can be fragile, just as the desires and secrets of the human heart can be elusive.
In Bible College I became friends with Ben, a brilliant student with a passion for learning and for truth. We talked, prayed, laughed, and cried together, sharing our passion for Jesus Christ. We discussed our common love for art and literature, and Ben introduced me to the work of great authors, including Walker Percy, the Catholic novelist.
Today, Ben is not a Christian. Following Bible College he moved to London, earning a doctorate in philosophy. Out of touch for a while, we reconnected through the Internet and e-mail. Both of us were walking away from Evangelicalism: I was on the path to Rome and he was on the road to doubt. He began to openly scoff at the doctrine of the Trinity and the historical validity of much of the Bible.
Distance and sporadic correspondence made it difficult to gauge what was transpiring in Bens life. Then, after another long silence, he e-mailed, his bitterness obvious: he was getting divorced. Soon thereafter, he flatly stated: "I am no longer a Christian." He added: "While no longer holding to the dogma of Christianity, this is not because I wish to deny its claims, but merely because I am not swayed by them."
What had happened? How could Ben leave the truth? His faith, so vibrant years before, had died.
Two years ago I met Bob and Susan, a young couple who had walked a long, tortured path in a short amount of time. They attended an Evangelical Bible college together, married, then inexplicably, in the midst of personal crisis, embraced Wiccan. After two years they returned to Protestantism, but flirted with Judaism and Eastern religions.
Then, dramatically, they decided upon Catholicism. But on the cusp of entering the Church they began doubting the validity of Vatican II and Churchs ecumenical endeavors. At the last moment they changed their minds and became Catholic. But six months later they began attending a Society of St. Piux X parish, explaining to bewildered friends that had found the "true Church." For whatever reason Bob and Susan cannot fully embrace and hold onto the gift of faith.
As an apologist its easy to think of an endless list of reasons to be Christian. As a convert I know arguments why the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. But while faith and reason are not enemies, faith is ultimately a gift, a grace. And the cares of the world, fear, bitterness, and pride eat away at that precious gift.
Pride is often the strongest enemy of faith. Once humility and gratitude are trampled down, the temptation to rely on our natural abilities begins to swell. But the human mind and heart are dark without the supernatural light of faith. "We walk by faith, not by sight," writes Saint Paul. That doesnt mean life is easy, but it makes eternal life possible.
(This column originally appeared as "Only Words" in October 2004 in National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.)
Carl Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California.
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