"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Monday, June 11, 2012

Heads I win, Tails you lose.

So let me get this straight:

Reformed conversion story = helpful retelling of true events.
Catholic conversion story = Manipulation.

Go West, it is peaceful there. The city set on a hill awaits! [Warning, manipulation in progress]

In an article entitled CTC Conversion stories, Reformed apologist James Swan criticizes the conversion stories on the website Called to Communion, which is a Catholic website devoted to dialogue between Catholic and Reformed Chrsitians.
(Full disclosure: This website is the reason I am Catholic. Not the only reason of course, but without it, I would not have converted. It is to me what tolle lege was to Saint Augustine. It is a very successful website in achieving its goal of bringing unity to Christians. James Swan critiqued my letter explaining my family's conversion to my PCA congregation. I found the critique something like a year later by chance, which makes me think I wasnt really his intended audience.)
What I find weird is that Mr. Swan seems to view the same activity of... telling a story... as either helpful or manipulating depending on -not the way its told or the content- but on whether he agrees with what the character in the story did. It seems to me that according to Mr. Swan, if I were to recount the religious conversions in my life, that my describing becoming pentecostal would be manipulative on my part, describing my conversion to the Reformed faith was not manipulative, then describing conversion to Catholicism would, again, be obvious manipulation on my part. Isn't this the definition of Ad Hominem argumentation? Here is an excerpt from his post with my [comments in red]:

The story relates more than facts to be scrutinized for truth. It places you and the facts in the realm of emotion. [Nothing wrong with that right?] Perhaps the particular experience described also strikes a cord in your own experience. For Mr. Lim's story, did any of his questions about epistemology resonate within you? For instance, can you, my Reformed friend, recall when you were in your non-Reformed church [Yes, I can.] like Mr. Lim and came across "an anti-intellectual ethos, and the study of too much theology, which was often held in contrast to the Bible, was sometimes frowned upon"? I sure can. [So can I!] Can you, like Mr. Lim, recall coming into contact with deep Reformed systematic theology like Calvin, Berkhof and Bavinck for the first time? I sure can. [Again, me too! So far so good. No manipulation here, just a normal experience we all relate too.] Then, having such deep theological tomes at your fingertips, have you ever wondered why, as Mr. Lim recounts, "Luther felt that it was necessary to separate from the Catholic Church, Zwingli from Luther, the Anabaptists from the Magisterial Reformed, the Calvinists from Arminians, and on and on- all on the conviction that I have the correct interpretation of Scripture"? [Yes! I know what he means! I relate to Mr. Lim here. Still no manipulation right?] If you've scratched your head "yes" then the story is probably manipulating you. [Huh? So when the dice roll for the Reformed they are fair, but when they don't they must be loaded?]  These sorts of recollections of experiences are attempting to provoke you to question the validity of your own experience. [What is wrong with this? This is how I came to faith in Christ, and later, this is how I came to be Reformed. Part of it was people telling me stories that made me question my experiences. "Maybe those things I have done are really sins after all?" "Maybe I was wrong to think otherwise?" "Maybe I need a saviour after all?" "Perhaps that gnawing feeling in my heart is my yearning for a saviour!" These are all questions we want people to ask themselves... to challenge the validity of their own experience! I guess not James Swan though.] The more times you can empathize with a CTC story, the more you're being manipulated. [So the more times I empathize with a parable of Jesus am I being manipulated too? Or can a story be a way to help us relate to the truth?] If you haven't had the same experience as that being presented, why not? Is it because your experience wasn't as real as the account in front of you? Don't you want something real?
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar Mr. Swan. People like conversion stories. And yes, being able to relate to someones thinking through a true life story of their experience is a great way to communicate. Is this really news? Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This story does exactly what you criticize! In this story we find Jesus is "attempting to provoke you to question the validity of your own experience." Jesus uses a story to make us think about the question of "who is our neighbor". It is a very effective story! Was Jesus being "manipulative"? Is it true that "The more times you can empathize with [the Good Samaritan] story, the more you're being manipulated"?

If Reformed theology is true, James Swan has absolutly nothing to fear from these conversion stories. Nobody is going to convert to Catholicism because they are jealous of someones story. Have a bit of respect for peoples intelligence. Instead of accusing people at CTC of manipulation perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to help people. If, I repeat IF they are trying to help people... then they are not manipulating people. They might be wrong, and the pope might be the antichrist, but it ain't manipulation. Likewise I don't think your boss James White is being manipulative when he asks Catholics to question their beliefs about salvation or the Church. I know he does these things out of a love for the truth.
Why does Mr. Swan have to resort to ad hominems though? Well if I wanted to throw one out there myself and try to get into his head like he seems to want to get into others heads... I would say he is secretly intrigued by these stories. Perhaps a bit insecure about his theology. Perhaps he wakes up at night in a cold sweat with the smell of incense in his nostrils and Gregorian chant in his ears... pope Benedict XVI beckoning him with that humble smile he has... holding out the Eucharist. Or perhaps that little story was trying to get too much into James' head and a bit over the line.

Mr. Swan says:
"This isn't simply taking the allegedly simple rudiments of Reformed theology and sprinkling them with magic Roman dust so as to watch it flourish into a full faith."

Uhm. We use holy water for that dude. It's called a sacramental. And it isnt magic, but it does prepare the recipient to recieve grace, which is pretty cool.

Yet another update:
Mr. Swan says:
"I'm tempted to launch into the story of Athanasius as he stood alone against the church of his day."
Correction: It was Athanasius AND the pope. Don't forget Peter! Of course Jesus promised that the pope would never err, so it follows that he would be with Athanasius contra mundum.


  1. Sheesh. God bless and help those guys.

  2. Yes, it was "Athanasius and the pope." In fact, it was Athanasius and several popes. But you won't hear that from Protestant apologits--especially the Reformed.

  3. Michael,
    I have experienced this phenomena before as well. I dont think it serves the Reformed apologists purpose to twist this one though. There are too many people like me who specifically have been impressed by the fact that it was Athanasius AND the popes. Every Reformed guy worth his salt has heard of Athanasius contra mundum, and so when I was looking into proving that popes had taught error, this was one of the first places in history I looked! "Surely", thought I, "The pope was not with Athanasius, after all he was against the world."
    Needless to say I was surprised that the Catholics were consistent with their papal claims even at this dark point in history.
    What these apologists do is start with a factual, inocuous statement like "Athanasius was faithful", and it morphs into "Athanasius stood alone against the whole Church", which is just not true at all. The bishop of Rome, whatever one thinks of his role, was an important part of the Church. I am tempted to see some dishonesty from Swan here, but I guess I will chalk it up to ignorance, because it does not seem to help his cause to look silly saying such a thing.

  4. David,

    You mentioned something I'd like you to clarify:
    "Reformed conversion story = helpful retelling of true events."

    What is a "Reformed conversion story"? I've never heard of one, so either they're not too common or they simply don't happen.

  5. Here is the "Reformed conversion story" from James' post:

    "For Mr. Lim's story, did any of his questions about epistemology resonate within you? For instance, can you, my Reformed friend, recall when you were in your non-Reformed church like Mr. Lim and came across "an anti-intellectual ethos, and the study of too much theology, which was often held in contrast to the Bible, was sometimes frowned upon"? I sure can."

    Reformed people dont use the word "conversion", but they have their stories of coming out of evangelicalism and becoming Reformed/Calvinist. So my point was that James has no problem with the Reformed story, but as soon as it turns Catholic, he thinks it is manipulation.

  6. My point was that there's no such thing as an informed, reasoned conversion from Calvinism to Catholicism. There is no Called2Communion equivalent run by Protestants ;-)

  7. I got ya. I think this must make guys like Swan a bit nervous to realize that there is no Reformed CTC aimed at Catholics. And by "Reformed CTC", I mean intellectuals convincing intellectuals to convert.
    Its getting hard to count the number of intelectual Reformed pastors and seminarians who are crossing the Tiber.
    But where are all the conservative Catholic intelectuals/seminarians who are becomming Reformed? [...sound of crickets chirping...]

  8. Cleary none of us were saved in the first place and just fell for smells and bells or want lucrative careers as Catholic apologists.

    If our search were truly Biblical we would have clearly ended up in the real one true church - The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism.

  9. Dave, the reason why Der Schwann uses ad hominem is simple: it's all he has in the long run.

  10. Reformed people dont use the word "conversion", but they have their stories of coming out of evangelicalism and becoming Reformed/Calvinist.

    I have known more than one Reformed person who spoke of moving to Reformed theology from [anything else] as a "conversion." The more dramatic the change in thinking, and the more profoundly it affects the person, the more likely this is to happen, IMO.

    But I don't really think that such language is going overboard no matter who uses it, precisely for that reason: if your whole world view is being transformed, it may be perceived as such a watershed event that "conversion" is not an unreasonable term. It's surely not synonymous with the way that the term is normally used, but it seems to me that the analogy is not a forced one from the point of view of the person.

    Nice post, David.