How Can We Know What’s True?
Because of my work with the Coming Home Network and my 15-years of interviewing converts on the Journey Home program, I’m often asked what are the most common reasons that Protestant ministers “come home” to the Catholic Church? Simply: authoritative truth.
This was the core of my own journey to the Church, from being a Protestant pastor responsible not only for my own soul, but for proclaiming the truth to my congregation and family. I won’t review my journey now, but the issue that began my journey was, “How can I be certain that what I believe, preach, and teach from Sacred Scripture is true, and not merely my Evangelical Presbyterian slant, or my personal opinion?”
For example, take the following verse:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:4-6)
So, how does one abide in Christ? What does it mean? What does it mean to bear fruit? To have Him abide in us?! Or how about another verse:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mt 13:45-46)
Russell Herman Conwell (1843-1925; Baptist Minister) was the creator of “Acres of Diamonds,” a phenomenally successful lecture based on this verse that he personally delivered over 6000 times, creating over $4,000,000 in earnings. He founded Temple University and Conwell School of Theology, which later was combined with Gordon Divinity School to become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which was where Scott Hahn and I were Calvinist classmates.
But whose interpretation of “the kingdom of heaven” is correct? Conwell’s particular Baptist interpretation, or that of other Protestants, or even that of other Baptists, or what about the interpretations of Catholics, Orthodox, or other Christians. The “Pearl of Great Price,” based on this text, has a radically different perspective than Rev. Conwell’s, and is a key book of the Mormons!
How does one determine whose opinion is authoritatively and trustingly true?
What opened my heart to the Catholic Church was discovering that my Evangelical Protestant method of determining truth did not work, leading only to a cacophony of conflicting opinions, dividing Christians from other Christians.
But once I was inside the gates of the Church, I was sadly stymied by the unexpected breadth of opinions and sad divisions amongst Catholics. To some these divisions seem no different than the divisions amongst Protestants, and for some I’ve known, this caused them to leave the Church and return to the more comfortable confusion of their past. For others, who are not happy with the bishops, this has meant defining a Catholicism on their own terms.
How are we, then, to determine what is true when we are surrounded, not just by so many other opinions in the world, but by so many seemingly faithful Christians with conflicting sometimes contradictory opinions and lifestyles?
Lessons from Life on the Farm
To answer that, let me digress a bit to talk about life on our farm.
I am, probably by the unanimous opinion of all my neighbors, the worst of farmers. If I ever write a book on farming, it will be about the twelve key things not to do!
But I have gained a tremendous amount of spiritual insight (if not just humility) from our experiences on the farm. And Jesus told us all to look to nature and to the farm for spiritual analogies. For example, He said, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:26) And when He wanted to defend His authority to heal on the sabbath, He said, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Lk 14:5)
Throughout His teachings, Jesus encouraged us to look around at the nature of God’s creation for analogies, illustrations of truth, spiritual truth. Great spiritual writers throughout the ages have done likewise. For example, St. Bonaventure, in his “Journey of the Mind to God,” gave six steps towards intimacy with God. The first step involved looking at the vestiges (or visible evidence) of God in His creation, recognizing the beauty, order, variety, etc., as signs of His creative love. Consider, for example, that every Prothonotary Warbler has the exact same colorings and the same song!
How does Darwinian evolution and natural selection explain why and how every individual species of bird around the world has the same song?! In pious and humble reflection, this leads one to gratefully appreciate the creative love of God, who from the beginning of time established His symphony of song in nature. Do you hear it? Do you stand in awe? Or do you merely jump into your car, and behind closed windows speed off to work or the soccer field?
In a reflection from his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict XVI made the following invitation to parents, encouraging them to teach their children to value nature. He said: “I would like to recommend that during this time of vacation, you revivify your spirits by contemplating the splendors of Creation. Parents, teach your children to see nature, respect and protect it as a magnificent gift that presents to us the grandeur of the Creator!” Alluding to the Gospel, in which Jesus proclaims the parable of the sower, Pope Benedict added that with parables, “Jesus used the language of nature to explain to his disciples the mysteries of the Kingdom. May the images he uses become familiar to us,” he said. “Let us remember that the divine reality is hidden in our daily lives like the seed in the soil. May it bear fruit in us!”
When I heard this from Pope Benedict, I felt like he was giving me a high five, because this was the very reason that Marilyn and I had moved our family from the city out to acreage on her family’s century old farm. Not to farm, mind you (!), but to help our boys appreciate the beauty and simplicity of God’s creation.
And by God’s mercy, I have learned many lessons from our life on the farm. Here’s a few:
(1) As far as we can tell, until the early 1800s, no human being had ever lived on our land. Up until then, it had been nothing more than a dense Forrest of enormous virgin trees (Note: read Conrad Richter’s “The Trees”). Then around 1825 a young pioneer by the name of Morgan bought the land for $5 from the new state of Ohio, and without any modern machinery, he cleared the land to farm and raise sheep to support his family. For the past 200 years, the Morgans and then the Shaws, my wife’s family, kept that land. They were faithful stewards of this land, keeping it cleared and useful for farming, and when we moved onto 25-acres of it, we accepted that responsibility of stewardship.
What I have found amazing is how quickly this land will return to its native state if not cared for. One section of our land, which had not been managed for 30 years, had completely returned to scrub forest. We hired a man to clear the acreage down to bare dirt, pushing all the junk trees and brambles into a pile for burning. I had hoped to replant with pasture grass, but my busyness got in the way, and within a year that bare land had completely grown back with over the shoulder high grasses and weeds.
This natural example of Entropy (the natural movement in nature of order to disorder) is, also, an example of Spiritual Entropy.
There’s an old joke about some tourists passing a beautifully tended Scottish garden. They say to the Scottish gardener, “My has God blessed you with an abundant crop!” And the gardener responds, “You should have seen it when He had it all alone!”
Without the willful input of energy and effort, our spiritual lives will quickly move from order to disorder!.
(2) After becoming situated on our land, I studied it, and with an eye for being a good steward—without any farming background, mind you—the question arose: What is the best use of this particular land? It isn’t flat, like the farm land around my childhood home in northwest Ohio; rather, it’s mostly rolling hills and woods. I asked others and read shelves of books, and got lots of opinions. Many had their own set solutions, without even a glance at our land.
The key point here: each of us is different, with a unique purpose, and we are each called to be a good steward of our lives by prayerfully discerning our specific purpose.
Our personal vocations involve three layers: First, our vocation as a Christian witness due to our baptism; second, our state of life, whether single or married, priest, religious, or lay; and finally, our individual personal vocation to service within the Body of Christ.
When I was trying to sift through all the opinions of what I needed to do with our land, I needed to carefully listen to an authoritative voice, someone I could trust, whom I was confident understood the unique characteristics of our land and also knew what he was talking about! Same is true with our personal vocational discernment: we need to listen to the advice of a trustworthy spiritual advisor.
(3) It turns out the best use of our land, besides maybe lumber and the grazing of a riding lawn mower, is the grazing of sheep or cattle. For this the fields needed good perimeter fences, which were present but in desperate need of repair. In fact the southern fence line was a sieve. Nearly a quarter mile consisted of hilly terrain and a meandering creek, fallen or rotten trees, briars, poison ivy, and a deteriorating woven fence that had been patched dozens of times with strands of rusted barb wire. But after several years of hand clearing, brush hogging, bulldozing, and a completely new high tensile electric fence, the field was reclaimed and ready to bounce back any wandering livestock or hungry predators. After adding a dozen sheep, the rejuvenated pasture was a beautiful sight.
But as I said, I’m the worst farmer ever, so after a season and a host of reasons, our flock had dwindled down to six, and in the end these went to the auction barn. For a year the field sat, until this spring when we were ready to add six feeder calves. The fence lines, however, had become so overgrown that we couldn’t turn on the electric—they could not be used for their intended purpose.
So, my sons and I spent a weekend clearing and string trimming, repairing one section where a tree full of bees had fallen and temporarily knocked down the wires. When evening came, once again I saw a clear fence line, which actually was better than it had ever been.
Boundaries are important, and must be constantly tended. By grace we generally do not regress all the way back to our original state, that is, if we regularly experience contrition, repentance, and utilize the sacramental graces of the confessional. However, we can digress, and lose it all (cf. Heb 6:4f), so we must never presume upon our past or present relationship with God. “Abiding in Him” at least means a continuing daily relationship with Him, in prayer, in self-denial, and in active love.
(4) In examining closely the land upon which the Lord has called us to live, we have discovered gems, diamonds if you will, that others might call nothing more than pesky brambles. Every year so far, our greatest crop—our most precious natural resource—has been hundreds of wild black raspberry and blackberry bushes. Last year we picked dozens of quarts, and even then we could not keep up with the “crop” as it ripened. Remember the section of land I said we had stripped bare? It grew back infested with wild berries!
But God certainly did not make these luscious berries easy to pick! These acres of diamonds are also acres of thorns! And likewise, the gifts that God has given each of us to enjoy, develop, and use for His glory require discipline and sacrifice, and often involve suffering, for as Scripture teaches, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17).
Trustworthy Lessons from the Farm?
Now, I’ve just used examples from nature and our life on the farm to illustrate spiritual lessons: but how can you or I know whether these interpretive lessons are true and trustworthy? The bookstores and internet are overflowing with books and blogs by authors that use examples from nature to prove all kinds of things, from Christian truth, to Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, even to atheism; from investments strategies to leadership principles to political platforms to dietary assumptions to parenting ideals to new moral codes. Nature has been used to justify some of the most radically contradictory ideals, from extreme isolationist pacifism to radical social Darwinism; even to denying the viability of the family and marriage and monogamous relationships.
So, yes, there is truth to be found and lessons to be learned by studying nature, but how can we be certain that what we’ve gleaned is trustworthy, and ought to be passed down to our children? How can we be certain that someone isn’t just using examples from nature to justify some hidden personal agenda?
Once again, how can we determine authoritative, trustworthy truth?
As a Protestant, I would have answered the Bible alone: read the Bible, everyday, pray it, memorize it, know it, and with the help of the Holy Spirit you will know what is true and necessary for salvation. The problem is, this does not necessarily work, nor is there any evidence that this was the reason the bishops who gathered in council at Rome in AD 392 first established the Canon of Scripture. Reliance on the Bible alone does not eliminate confusion; it leads to thousands of conflicting opinions, as I illustrated earlier.
As an Evangelical Presbyterian, I might have added that the answer was Theology, the Queen of Sciences: one must read Scripture correctly, through a proper lens of theology. But which theology? Luther’s? Calvin’s? Zwingli’s? Wesley’s? Menno Simon’s? Joseph Smith’s? Joseph Campbell’s? The founders of Pentecostal or the Health and Wealth gospel? All of these, and their followers, read the Bible through their own unique lenses of theology, leading to division and confusion.
Then I discovered Saint Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” The Church is the foundation of truth, and my wife Marilyn and I have never doubted our decision to come home to this Church established by Christ in his apostles, centered around the authority of Peter.
Yet, as I mentioned earlier, within the Church there is great variety of opinion and practice, and a myriad of Catholic leaders, speakers, talk-show hosts (!), media, resources, websites, and even blogs!! Where can we turn to make sure we can know which are authoritatively true? Are we again left to ourselves to order our thinking and our consciences?
It is here that I more fully and humbly came to realize and appreciate the truth that every good Catholic knows, or at least should know, and in fact which draws nearly every convert to make his or her journey home. At first mention of this, many non-Catholic Christians will cringe back in horror and disgust, disclaiming, “Wait, how does that help? Isn’t that just as subjective and intangible as the Bible alone, or theology, or a Church full of many opinions?” And my answer to that is no, not at all—if one trust’s that Jesus established the Church, established her Magisterium upon the rock of Peter, and then guided and protected them by the promised Holy Spirit.
What is that one trustworthy foundation upon which we can sift through the myriad of opinions, confidently build our lives, correctly order our thinking, and form our consciences? Well, consider the trajectory of the following quotes from Jesus, the NT Scriptures, as well as the writings of the Early Church Fathers:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2)
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1-3)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:1-2)
The Church, having, received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1, 10, 2, c. AD 190)
If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches? (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3,4,1 c. A.D. 190)
What is that one trustworthy foundation?
That one trustworthy foundation is that identified by Saint Paul in his quote above: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15) In other words, that divinely inspired combination of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church (i.e., “us” in the quote), commonly called the “Three Legged Stool of the Church”.
“But how does this help us? How can we know this? Do we need to read all the Early Church Fathers, all the Magisterial writings and conciliar documents beginning with Nicea, all papal pronouncements, etc., etc.?!”
No, trusting the Church’s Magisterium, believing in humility that she knows better than we do what is essentially true for us to believe and upon which to form our consciences, we need to accept the gift that she has given us for this purpose at this time in the life of the Church, and this gift is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This is crucial and important. This is how we can know how to interpret Scripture; to know which theology, philosophy, or morality is trustworthy; to know how to understand, and interpret, and to enjoy nature; and this is how we can know what it means to abide in Christ.
This great gift of the Catechism helps us discover how to fight against spiritual entropy, to set correct boundaries to our lives, to discover our true purpose in life, and to hone the gifts and accept with joy whatever sufferings come our way.
For the stewardship of the spiritual fields of our lives, the Church has given us the Catechism. Read it, know it, pray it, live it.