Out of Gas

Back when my husband and I lived in Taiwan, we had the privilege of living next door to a very nice man who also happened to be a real-life nuclear physicist. He didn’t speak English, and my Chinese didn’t extend much beyond “Hi, how are you?” and “What’s for lunch?” so he and I didn’t talk a lot, but he was a good neighbor, and obviously no slouch in the Brains Department. That’s why I will never forget the morning when he knocked on our door, asking my husband to come look at his car which was cranking, but wouldn’t start. My husband didn’t have to be asked twice; he immediately followed our neighbor and set to work determining the problem. The two men discussed the possible causes of the car’s failure to start. As my husband opened the hood and then sat down in the car to turn the key in the ignition, the nuclear physicist suggested several mechanical scenarios which would require repairs. He was clearly worried. It was then that my husband looked up at our neighbor and uttered the Chinese equivalent of the phrase, “Dude, you’re out of gas.”

And so he was. He was one seriously embarrassed nuclear physicist.

I mention this because I recently reread Russ Rentler’s conversion story. By way of introduction if you don’t know Russ, he’s a medical doctor specializing in Geriatrics. He’s also a revert to the Catholic faith after decades spent in Evangelicalism. In his conversion story he admits:

I was embarrassed that as a relatively bright person with the ability to obtain a medical degree, I had never considered reading history and instead based my understanding of Church history from a 16-year-old “Bible Scholar” thirty years earlier. How could I be “so smart” and yet be so close-minded about something so important as my faith?

Call it the “Nuclear Physicist phenomenon,” if you will. Even very bright people overlook the obvious sometimes, NOT because they’re stupid. But why then?

I don’t consider myself a total idiot, yet for 45 years I believed that every Evangelical church I attended was preaching the same Gospel that the first Christians preached. It never occurred to me to question this, despite the fact that I attended churches that taught that you could never lose your salvation, and churches that taught that you most certainly could lose your salvation. Now, really, you’d think that it would have dawned on me that the two were mutually exclusive, that the first Christians must have believed one or the other, and that, ergo, some of the 20th-century churches I was attending had strayed from the Faith once delivered!

But it didn’t. Conflicting doctrines are the status quo in Protestantism, and having been raised a Protestant, it was business as usual as far as I was concerned. Of course different denominations believe opposing doctrines. Why would anybody have a problem with that? As long as you can “prove” your beliefs from Scripture….

Think of it as a blind spot in your visual field. A blind spot is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and it doesn’t mean that you’re blind. There’s just one tiny little area in which you can’t see. We all focus on certain things, and while we’re focused like that, we can’t see what’s in our blind spot. We need to step back and look around – in doing that we may discover things that were right under our nose all along.

Inherent in the practice of “proving” one’s beliefs from Scripture are certain obvious drawbacks. The fact that non-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses can “prove” straight from the Bible that Jesus was created by God (Col 1:15, Heb 1:5, Rev 3:14), is inherently inferior to God (Jn 14:1, 28, Jn 17:3, 1 Tim 2:5), and therefore under no circumstances should be considered or referred to as “God” (1 Cor 8:6) should tell you something. An old joke warns Evangelicals that quite a few flaky doctrines can be “proved” from Scripture, such as the fact that Jesus is not with believers when they fly in airplanes – Matthew 28:20, “LOW, I am with you always!”

As a Protestant I laughed at that joke. Ironically, when I first heard it I was attending a missionary conference with representatives from 50-some Protestant denominations present, some teaching that you can lose your salvation and some that you can’t, some teaching that baptism actually regenerates and some that baptism is merely a symbol, some teaching that speaking in tongues is what real Christians do and some that speaking in tongues is at best goofy and at worst demonic. I don’t think that one single person in that auditorium understood that the joke was on us.

Evangelical believers in sola Scriptura are taught that their beliefs must come straight from Scripture, and that Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture; in other words, they are taught to focus steadily on Scripture, and Scripture only. Glancing at the historical record, at the extrabiblical writings of the early Christians, just to see how one’s own modern-day beliefs line up with those of the people taught by the apostles themselves, is the spiritual equivalent of ceasing to focus single-mindedly on an object and taking a moment to look around the room. In doing so, something that may have been right in front of us, yet hidden in our blind spot, jumps out at us. How could I not have noticed that? – we ask ourselves. It was when I stepped back and looked around the history of Christianity that I realized that the Catholic Church was right there in front of me in that Bible that I had been so focused upon.

So, no, you don’t have to be an idiot to not realize that your Christian beliefs just don’t add up. You may be excelling in your profession. You may have earned a Ph.D. You may be a nuclear physicist.

But at the same time, your belief system may be out of gas.


On the memorial of St. Isabelle of France

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Good one. Reminds me of a question I once heard from a Mormon acquaintance talking to a friend about his faith: why does everything have to make sense? If you start with the Solas and work back, you end up defending nonsense – but to us poor humans, defending nonsense is often the more appealing option, when changing is the other.

    Better yet to never notice the nonsense in the first place – a talent all of us possess, with no regard to intelligence or talent. I keep needing to remind myself…

    • Why does everything have to make sense? Well, we do speak of the “mystery” of suffering and the “mystery” of the Holy Trinity – God Himself will always remain a mystery to His finite creation. But to look at the early history of Christianity and to find in it only Catholicism, and then to declare that the only way to make sense of this is to claim that Jesus defaulted on His promise to be with the Church always and allowed His (Protestant or Mormon) body to “apostatize” only to be “restored” in the 16th or 19th century… umm, no. How about starting with His (nonnegotiable) promises? Things like Church history then really would make a lot more sense….

      • Another thing I’ve always loved about the Church, even when I fell away: Catholics have long had, paradoxically, a well-defined set of mysteries. The Trinity, the Incarnation, the Communion of Saints, Free Will and so on. We don’t create new ad hoc mysteries to explain how our new interpretation works. St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp and St. Iranaeus of Lyons all wrestled with the same mysteries we wrestle with today. Since the 1500s, we’ve had an explosion of new mysteries, needed only to explain away difficulties with new beliefs.

        Give me that old time religion!

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