Theology

A Baptist Minister Becomes Catholic

This is my appearance on “The Journey Home,” an EWTN program hosted by Marcus Grodi, a marvelous fellow, by the way.  The description of my appearance on the network website was as follows:

As a child, Deal attended a Presbyterian Church at his mother’s promptings. In high school, after being witnessed to by a Southern Baptist friend, he accepted Jesus and joined the Baptist Church. After attending the University of Texas, where he was president of the Baptist student union, he enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary and later received his Ph.D. from Emory. While studying at Emory, he met a Catholic friend, who led him deeper into the Catholic tradition. He started meeting with a priest every week for two years and was finally confirmed a Catholic at the Dominican House in Atlanta, where Flannery O’Connor convalesced.

How Catholic Universities Fool Their Donors

By Deal W. Hudson

During my eight years at Crisis, the conversation that most often reoccurs is the one about the fate of the Catholic university and college. It begins inevitably with an alumnus complaining about the latest anti-Catholic outbreak on the hallowed grounds of their former college campus and ends with their asking me for advice. I always respond by asking them whether or not they’ve spoken to the administration with their wallets, either threatening to end donations and/or actually pulling the trigger. Nine out of ten times they shake their heads sadly saying, “No, I can’t do that; it’s better to keep a place at the table or the problem will only get worse.”

Wrong answer.

Most college graduates are nostalgic: Carefree days filled with books, sports, and sporting around. It’s difficult to get hard-hearted toward all that, especially when you add nuns and priests who taught you the Faith and the lessons of life. When the experience becomes multigenerational, the bonding to a particular campus is almost irresistible. And Catholics are nothing if not loyal. History has shown that they’ll forgive anything—from a decade of losing football teams to a theology department full of professors eager to bash, or slyly subvert, the Church in the national media.

By staying in touch with these alums, I’ve been able to observe how their colleges try to soothe them and keep them assured of their Catholic identity. The most obvious scheme is for the development department to ask them for a targeted gift—one that goes directly to some program that seems to reinforce orthodoxy. So programs in Catholic studies, lecture series, or campus ministries are created and offered to skeptical donors as a way of sticking with the institution while—wink, wink—the tenured faculty retires or moves on and younger, more faithful professors are hired.

Such philanthropy may salve the donor’s conscience, but it does nothing for the Catholic identity of the institution except distract everyone’s attention away from its primary concern: what’s being taught in the classroom. What good does it do to pay for a tasty dessert when the main course remains undercooked? Does an occasional lecture from George Weigel change the character of a university? (Even Weigel isn’t that good!) Does taking a group of existing courses from different departments and lumping them together under “Catholic Studies” ensure the Magisterial position is being taught and defended in the classroom? No—in fact, such programs may compound the problem, since the course on feminist interpretations of the “three Marys” is no longer solely in the province of the English department.

Next in line is what I call the “Ex Corde Ecclesiae Shuffle”—quite popular among college presidents and development directors. Concerned alums ask how the implementation and mandatum are going only to be warned of “those people in the Vatican” who are afraid of an educated laity. The inside story of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the alums are told, is that mean old Cardinal Ratzinger was uncomfortable with the “academic excellence” of the U.S. Catholic colleges and universities and didn’t really understand the tradition of “academic freedom” in this country. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, they’re told, is just another attempt by the Vatican to control the U.S. Church.

Perhaps the Vatican is concerned about an uneducated laity…one that’s uneducated in the Faith. Indeed, the anti-Roman antagonism on Catholic campuses rarely shows its face directly; rather, blunt comments are limited to the ears of those cognoscenti who earnestly wish for a “progressive” successor to John Paul II. For outsiders, it’s there to be seen and heard in the body language, the silences, and emphatic focus on “peace and justice” issues.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t appear that any of the major Catholic institutions that fit this profile have any financial problems, although some smaller and mid-size schools have struggled and gone out of business. It may be that the more established schools have passed successfully through the period where donor pressure might have produced reforms: It’s unlikely that graduates from the 1970s will care enough about Catholic identity to withhold their money. Sadly, it appears that Catholic schools since the early 1970s have been producing the perfect donors: well-educated in the world of commerce and able to make enough money to give it away, but uneducated in the Faith and incapable of knowing when their beloved alma mater has drifted from its mission.

Published in Crisis Magazine, May 1, 2003

The Day a Red Bird Sang St. Thomas Aquinas

I was coming to the end of my first year as a college professor at Mercer University Atlanta. I was still a Southern Baptist though I had been wrestling with that affiliation since being introduced to St. Augustine at Princeton Theological Seminary.

One of the greatest Protestant theologians, Soren Kierkegaard, had provided the base motif of my dissertation, a critique of Romanticism. But after dismantling the Romantic pretenses to spirituality, as I thought then, Kierkegaard had not offered me the tools to put my worldview back together. (The target of my dissertation had actually been my own pretensions.) Nothing much was left after seeing through the limitations of aestheticism and ethical earnestness.

Kierkegaard

What was left of the Romantic in me, however, still yearned to view the totality of things, the truth behind the appearances. This desire comported with my fledgling knowledge of the Catholic faith which had been acquired through the agency of two friends at Emory University where I spent three years getting my Ph.D. Like a Gothic cathedral, the Catholic faith appeared to teach the fundamental connectedness of things. Faith, rather than being a leap into the abyss, could be assisted by reason both before and after conversion.

That spring day I put a chair in the back yard under a bird feeder and went inside to find a suitable for book to read and relax. I noticed the red spine of a paperback by St. Thomas Aquinas on the top shelf. It contained the Question 2, the Treatise on God, from the Summa Theologiae (Gilby trans.), which I had been assigned to read at Princeton but had failed to do. Feeling pangs of guilt, I took it down and decided to settle my debt with that class on Medieval Theology at Princeton.

It look me a while to realize that St. Thomas always started out stating positions he did not agree with, but once I got a handle on reading the article form I found him easier to read than I had anticipated. Then I got to the section in God’s goodness (ST 1a.2) and, specifically, to the question, “Whether all things are good by the divine goodness?”

I’ll be honest and say that this led me to think about myself and ask whether I was good. The tradition of Christianity I knew best did not have a very positive view of human nature. The propensity to sin — human fallenness — took St. Paul’s notion of carnality, in thinking and behavior, to its extreme. In practical terms that creates a negative attitude towards oneself, especially towards one’s sinful practices.

thomas-2-sized

St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)

As I read through St. Thomas’s reply to his own question, I came to the final paragraph, “Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness, as from the first exemplary effective and final principle of all goodness.” And as I read a red bird started to sing standing on the bird feeder overhead — it seemed as if the words of the Saint and the song of the bird merged into one. That day not only did I discover the source of my own goodness but I experienced a heaven-sent joy mediated by the beauty of this bird and the song.

What had stunned me was this: the goodness I possessed, and all creation possesses, could not be taken away from me, or destroyed by my own agency, even my sins and vices. It was goodness, St. Thomas says, added to my being by the Creator. Even the fallen angel, Lucifer, could be said to possessing goodness through he lives eternally separated from God. The connectedness of things was grounded in God’s own goodness which He chose to share with His creation.

Some might smile and think that the moment I describe was imagined, or was the product of young man struggling with his own penchant toward Romanticism, finally merging it with the teaching of a medieval doctor of the Church. I’m not given to mystical experiences, per se, but I’ll never doubt what was given me that day, a moment of sensual beauty and intellectual clarity that led me into the Church and rerouted my life completely.

I couldn’t let my Saint’s day pass without paying him tribute and expressing my gratitude.

Published at The Christian Review, January 28, 2016

On Beauty – A Message to Its Religious Despisers

Deal W. Hudson

What did Fyodor Dostoevsky mean in The Idiot when one of his characters asserts, “Beauty will save the world”? Taken at face value, it’s a claim that beauty plays a role in the salvation of us all.

There are quite a few Christians, of all denominations, who would respond to that claim with suspicion, if not outright denial. Beauty, they would say, is more like the road to ruin than the path to God.

I think these “religious despisers” of beauty are mistaken. They are not only missing the deepest significance of our desire for beauty, but they are also putting unnecessary limits on their witness to faith in Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin the argument by acknowledging that beauty is part of everything we do, not just our enjoyment of the arts. Each of us has known moments of overwhelming beauty that caused a reorientation of our lives; it elicits such a sense of aspiration in us that we resolve to live in a better way.

Such moments come to many of us from works of art as well: a film, a novel, a poem, a play, a painting or sculpture, a ballet or musical, a building, or – as it did for me – an architecturally arranged place like the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, where it is said the Mother of God laid down her cloak to mark its boundaries.

Remember that aspiration you feel as you are lifted up and out of yourself, when you experience the ecstasy of beauty. You aspire to live in accord with something you glimpse at that moment – something you sense is real and within your grasp.

Certain great works of art, of course, have been transforming people for centuries. Another of the great Russian novelists, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, argues that works of art have an advantage over unadorned concepts (as in philosophy and theology) in changing lives.

Concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one.

He contrasts bare concepts to works of art that, “steeped in truth and presenting it [the truth] to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power – and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them.”

The force behind the power of art, Solzhenitsyn claims, is “that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty.” Indeed, it is precisely the unity of these transcendental properties of being – truth, beauty, and goodness – that makes possible the notion that beauty can be an agent of salvation.

The ancient and medieval philosophers considered this oneness a demonstrable fact of metaphysics, unaided by faith. Theology, however, provided the ultimate cause for the unity: the doctrine of creation. When God creates, He shares His being, His existence – an existence that is perfectly true, good, and beautiful. It’s their status as properties across all beings that make them “controvertible,” meaning wherever you meet one you encounter the other.

Those “religious despisers” of beauty would welcome someone they meet who is searching for the good or the true. So why not also welcome those who search for the beautiful? The despisers do not understand that underlying the hunger for beauty is the search for God.

It is God’s beauty that will be seen in the Beatific Vision, the state of eternal happiness where our infinite desire meets the only infinite object: God. As Dante says, at the end of the Paradiso, it is impossible to turn away:

And as I gaz’d, I kindled at the sight;
No Mortal from the glorious view could turn,
Paradiso. (Canto XXXIII)

Our unending delight is found in the beauty of God, in His presence to our souls. Yet beauty is also part of the journey, not just the destination. Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted his life’s work to showing how God’s revelation to us has an aesthetic character that cannot be ignored. Through revelation, God made Himself known to us in His Son and in His Church.

Von Balthasar writes,

If God wishes to reveal the love that he harbors for the world, this love has to be something that the world can recognize, in spite of, or in fact in, its being wholly other.

In other words, God had to make His beauty visible to the material eye in order to draw that eye back to the spiritual. God literally lured us back to Himself with the beauty of Christ – a beauty unlike any of the ancient world; a beauty whose chief symbol is the cross. Von Balthasar wrote volume after volume tracing this “Christ-form” of beauty through history, culture, Scripture, and the spiritual life.

Solzhenitsyn claimed there were times when beauty did the work of its transcendental counterparts:

If the crests of these three trees [the true, good, and beautiful] join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

Perhaps beauty will “perform the work of all three.” That’s a line that might make many Christians choke, but if they understood the desire for beauty, they would also understand these things: If someone comes asking about beauty, don’t turn him away. If you meet someone looking for beauty, don’t tell him you only know where to find Christ.

If a friend weeps at what is beautiful, don’t tell them they are wasting their tears. If you deny a person beauty, in the name of God, he may reject Him, He who is beauty itself. If you say beauty belongs to the Evil One, you are aiding in Satan’s most devious ploy.

Instead, Christians should tell these pilgrims that their desire for beauty is as natural to the creature as the hunger for goodness and truth. Tell them that beauty can be the way, and then tell them about the beauty of Christ and His cross.

Even better, Christians should show them the art that Christians have produced to glorify Him – art so great and lasting that it is gazed upon every day by millions who don’t even share the faith that inspired it.

Show them that before there was Hollywood, there were poets, composers, painters, architects, novelists, and sculptors that dwarf all but a few who have created films over the past one hundred years.

This is not meant as a dispensable addendum to faith or to the evangelical witness; the fullness of our Christian witness demands it.

As von Balthasar wrote at the beginning of his incomparable To the Glory of the Lord:

Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Why God Became Man

Deal W. Hudson

It began with a simple fact: When God created man and woman He did not give them the mind of an angel. If humans were angels, God could have delivered His Word directly into their minds by illumination. Though created in His image and likeness, men and women derive all that they know through the senses.

Nothing is known to the human mind that does not have its beginning in the person’s sensible encounter with the world. What is seen, heard, smelled, and touched is the beginning of all knowledge, from the color of a flower to the meaning of pi. The first principles governing our grasping the truth about things are themselves intuited, downloaded as it were, from our encounter with the world. If we look inside our minds we will see nothing that did not pass through our senses on its way.

God desired from His eternity that the men and women He created find their way back to Him after the Fall. God is love, after all. But sin lacerated human nature, obscuring but not destroying the mind’s capacity to know, whether through science or faith. The damage to the mind is this: Knowing becomes the grist for our idolatry, making our desire to know itself a source of temptation.

Thus God spoke His Word by sending that Word into the human world, His Son, the Word, incarnated in a human body. The Word lived as a sensible being among those who learn and know by their senses, for whom sensation had become the occasion of sin.

With the Incarnation, the good news of deliverance and redemption entered the human field of vision, made available to even the most depraved of minds. The Word becoming present to the senses and through the senses to the mind transfigured human existence. The way of knowing called Faith could “see through the glass darkly” the gift of God’s presence in the world, all that need be known and loved to receive eternal life.

That our Christmas revels are bedecked with bright colors, the sound of voices singing, the aroma of candles burning, the touch of a package given or received is celebration that “God came down” to find us, so we might find Him.

Published December 4, 2013