"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Becoming Catholic: Deconstruction of a Deconstruction

Anthony Bradley recently wrote a short article in World magazine titled "Church hoppin' to Rome."Anthony's intention in the article is to address some of the conditions within Evangelical Protestantism that contribute to Protestants becoming Catholic. In his article he refers to a 2002 JETS article by Scot McKnight, writing:

In the September 2002 edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Scot McKnight’s article, "From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic," offered good insight regarding the phenomenon of Protestants converting to Catholicism. The list included: (1) a desire for certainty, (2) a desire for history, (3) a desire for unity, and (4) a desire for authority.

Anthony then goes on to discuss each of these four desires. It should be pointed out that Scot's list leaves out the most important desire, the one that trumps all the others: the desire for truth. By this omission Scot implies that Protestants who become Catholic are doing so not primarily because of their desire for truth, and thus not because in their search for truth they believe they have found the true Church Christ founded, and in it the true doctrine of Christ handed down from the Apostles. In this respect Scot's deconstruction of Protestants who become Catholic implicitly treats them as persons who love something else more than truth, and are willing to sacrifice truth to attain it. That would not be a charitable assumption. In fact, it would be a subtle ad hominem, impugning the character of all those Protestants who become Catholic, and thus discrediting their decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church.

In Scot's article we see that when converts to Catholicism talk about being motivated by a desire for the truth, he construes that as a desire for certainty. It is as though, for him, they aren't sacrificing truth for certainty; what they really want is certainty. But truth and certainty are not the same. Certainty is a subjective phenomenon, and many people who are certain about a position later come to discover that they were wrong about that position. Many Muslims and Mormons, for example, are certain that they are right. But presumably Scot would agree that Muslims and Mormons are in error in many important respects. Hence, since truth and certainty are not the same thing, it follows that the desire for certainty is not the same as the desire for truth. Therefore, Scot has indeed excluded "desire for truth" from his list.

Some forms of postmodernism construe the desire for truth as a desire for certainty, as though truth reduces to certainty, or is something entirely beyond our grasp as humans, and hence entirely beyond our capacity to desire or attain. Given that Protestants who become Catholic describe their journey as motivated by a desire for truth, an attempt to deconstruct their conversions as driven fundamentally by a desire for certainty, not for truth, deconstructs itself by revealing the influence of that postmodern philosophy.


Barrett Turner said...

AB doesn't try to pull punches in article regarding Evangelical culture. I am not sure that I agree with him that folks should be staying in Protestantism and making it better just to stop their children from converting. If Catholics are right, we are obligated to go there and make that better. I love AB, though. He was a great professor.

Desire for truth is pretty tops on my list. There is the danger when desire for certainty and the desire for truth mix--we might stop short of the truth with something that has much to commend by way of motives of credibility but is flawed in some matter of history etc.

I think Protestants evaluating the matter preclude the truth of Catholicism and so focus on the desire for certainty. Or at least interpret conversions to Catholicism as maybe starting from the acknowledgement of problems in Protestantism but stopping short of the whole truth at Catholicism. That is, beginning with search for truth but ending in the shipwreck of "certainty."

Of course, even if some convert out of desire for certainty, such "sociology of conversion" explanations don't address Catholic arguments for why the Church fully subsists in the Catholic Church.

Eric Telfer said...

The list offered by AB may be incomplete as well.

Consider also, in addition to the desire for truth:

(1) a desire for Christ, i.e., Christ working through the Church, the Eucharist, etc.,

(2) a desire for obedience to Christ, as Christ started a Church and prayed for unity.

(3) a desire for a correct interpretation of Scripture.

(4) a desire for the truth about the Reformation and whether it was justified,

(5) a desire for deeper Church history, history which predates the Reformation period,

(6) a desire for a richer sacramental life,

(7) a desire to be connected to the deep influences of the Catholic Church on culture- to better understand culture by understanding the Catholic Church, not just intellectually, but by being a member,

(8) a desire to be a part of something that seems to be more in accord with natural virtue, i.e., something that still defens natural virtue,

(9) a desire to be a part of something that seems to be richer in terms of the three theological virtues,

(10) a desire to be a part of the fullest, richest, most complete and most balanced expression of Christianity,

(11) a desire to be part of the longest standing historical expression of Christianity,

(12) a desire to avoid the problems inherent in Protestantism, i.e., the blind alleys that Shea speaks of, problems with Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, problems with a lack of authority, problems with division, problems of fallibility, problems of interpretation, etc.

(13) a desire for forgiveneness, as with G.K. Chesterton,

(14) a desire for consistency between the best natural philosophy and theology, \

(15) a desire to be consistent with history, to not marginalize history, including Church history, the history of early Christians and what they thought, the first 1500 years of Church history, history of the Reformation, etc.


Speaking of desire, by itself, is a bit misleading, though. For it is not just a desire that we are talking about here. We are talking about an advance in *knowledge* here as well. It is when one comes to learn certain things that things change. AB might have it that one would only convert based on desire, but, in fact, many convert because of what they come to realize is the case or very likely the case.


Bryan Cross said...


I agree completely. The easy way to dismiss those who come to disagree with us is to chalk it up to something less than noble in them. (And putting any of those four desires above the desire for truth would be ignoble.) The more appropriate, and charitable response is to address the reasons, evidence, arguments, etc., our interlocutors give for *why* they think their position is true, and our position false. That's the essence of rational dialogue. But deconstruction is a kind of ad hominem (i.e. "you only believe that because you ..."), and hence it can be used both directions, with no progress forward toward mutual agreement. That's why it is better not to make use of deconstruction at all, and always assume (unless given good reason to believe otherwise) that our interlocutor is motivated primarily by a desire for the truth. That's not to say that the four desires McKnight lists are not important factors, but they again fall under the greater category of truth (i.e. certainty about the truth, unity based on truth, the true authority, and the true history).

Eric, I agree with your points as well. I think the other desires you mention are all implicitly contained in the desire for the truth. And I agree with your point about knowledge as well. Moving from speaking of desires (i.e. appetites) to talking about knowledge (i.e. truth) is exactly the difference between deconstruction and rational dialogue. Thanks! (I hope you and your family are well.)

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan