“Muffler? – Exhaust? – what’s the difference? The point is, someone has modified the tailpipe of that car so that it’s ridiculously loud!”
Can you tell I’m not into cars? I made a comment like the one above to my son one day, my son who lives and breathes cars. He replied with a comment about me being a genuine embarrassment. He’s 19; he’ll get over it. I just don’t know anything about cars – don’t know, don’t want to know. Will the car get me from here to there? Great! I know all I need to know! Why would I need to know the oil pump from the radiator? That’s not on the driving test, so why should I care?
I’ve been thinking a lot about tests and testing lately. In my line of work, we spend a considerable amount of time inputting data into electronic data capture (EDC) systems. Unfortunately, there’s no standard, government-issue EDC – there are many of them out there, and they are all constantly updating, meaning that at least once a month I am being asked to train on some new system or new version of an old system. Training is a real timesucker; you are asked to sit through a “dynamic” presentation on how to devise a password, how to change your password, how to set up your preferences, things people really should have known before being legally allowed to even sit down in front of the keyboard. The system encourages you with peppy announcements like “Congratulations! You now know how to perform an Advanced Search!!” while you ask yourself why in the world you would ever want to perform an advanced search under normal circumstances….
It dawned on me today that in this endless training we can find hidden a pretty darn good explanation for why your apologetics efforts seem to be getting you nowhere.
No, really. Bear with me.
Keep in mind that I, the victim, already know the basics of the computer training I must take before I ever get started. I don’t want to take the blooming training; all I want to do is to be able to use the system. It’s not rocket science; it’s not even computer science. I feel fairly confident that I already know whatever the training is going to try to teach me, or that I can easily figure it out on my own when I need to input my data. Just give me my certificate so I can get to work!
Doesn’t that sound like your next-door neighbor? She’s a lifelong Evangelical. She knows the Bible backwards and forwards. She has heard all her life about those unbiblical Catholic practices like worshipping Mary and obeying the sinless pope. There really isn’t anything you, you silly Catholic, can teach her. She couldn’t possibly care any less that you think that you have discovered in Catholicism the fullness of the truth. She’s just waiting for you to pause for breath so she can interrupt your explanation of plenary indulgences with her presentation of the Four Spiritual Laws. Just shut up, would ya, so she can get to work!
What actually happens when I finish the training and begin inputting data is generally something rather different than what I had envisioned. Even when I’m using version 4.0 (meaning I’ve trained on the previous versions as well as on this one), I always seem to run into a roadblock when I want to do something I’ve never had to do before. Gee, there are a lot of options on this page… which tab do I click on?… is this option the one I need?… Leaping lizards! I erased the whole page!!!… hmm… I wonder if any of my coworkers were paying attention during training….
And it’s the same with your neighbor. She’s confident that she knows everything she needs to know about theology. Her Evangelical Protestant beliefs are working great for her – till they aren’t. Till her church is in the throes of a nasty split, and she realizes that the scriptural injunction to “take it to the church” has no real meaning in a Protestant context. Till her brother becomes a Jehovah’s Witness because they get all their doctrine “straight from Scripture,” and he’s never really believed that mumbo-jumbo about “three Persons, one God,” anyway – where does the Bible teach that? Till the medical bills force her to contemplate bankruptcy, and she’s confronted with the shallowness of her “health-and-wealth” approach to life. It could be one of a number of things, but people tend not to take much interest in your explanation of Catholic beliefs till they realize that they can’t figure things out by themselves. Whatever they’ve tried isn’t working, and now a timely explanation from a Catholic perspective begins to look a tad more appealing….
I first took an interest in Catholic theology when a six-grader asked me, a lifelong Evangelical, what Catholics believe. I realized that I really had no clue. It irked me that I couldn’t really answer the question. I bought a copy of Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism just to familiarize myself with the topic. It was as I was reading through John 6:35-69 to refute the Catholic arguments for the Real Presence that I was converted nearly instantaneously – I was overcome by the realization that my Evangelical interpretation of the sixth chapter of John was a pathetic attempt to explain away what Jesus was actually saying, that the Catholic understanding of His words (“if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh”) made far, far better sense of the discourse, as well as of the reaction of His disciples (many left Him out of disgust), of the corresponding verses in Matthew, Mark and Luke (“this IS My body”), of St. Paul’s comments on Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians, and of the unanimous understanding of all Christians for the first millennium of Christianity that Jesus’ words were to be taken literally. You might say that that sixth-grader “quizzed” me, and when I failed the quiz I felt forced to take an interest in a subject that I had managed to ignore my whole life long, with life-changing results….
Let’s face it: your average neighbor isn’t theologically inclined. Try and explain to her the nuances of the Catholic understanding of justification vs. the Reformed understanding, and most likely all you’ll get is an incredulous stare. I just want to go to Heaven, your neighbor is thinking to herself, not found a seminary! It’s sooooo much easier for her to just stick with the familiar prevailing wisdom which has served her so well for so long now. It isn’t like there’s going to be a test….
Ah, but that’s where she’s wrong. Life is the test, and some of the questions can be very, very hard to answer. That’s when people’s eyes start straying to the answers their neighbors have jotted down on their test papers, just to see, you know, what they thought the right answer was. Your well-intentioned offers to lend her Scott Hahn’s Rome, Sweet Home may be rebuffed repeatedly while life’s going great, but when her denomination decides to condone abortion or homosexual activity, your beliefs may finally receive a hearing. Neighbors who believe they already have the answers just don’t want to hear about it – it’s people with questions who want answers.
So when I’m standing beside my broken-down car on the side of the road on a frosty December morning, cell phone in hand, trying to reach my son, you can bet I’m all ears when he explains to me which one is the oil pump and which one is the radiator. I need to know! And when your neighbor breaks down by the side of Life’s road, make sure she has your number – and make sure you’re ready to take the call.
On the memorial of St. Ernest of Mecca
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: An Automobile Engine by Eiko/Wikimedia Commons