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Joining the Unsaved, Part 2

By Carl E. Olson
Questions begin to arise, and in pursuing answers, seeds of the Catholic faith are planted.

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Carl Olson’s story of his conversion to Catholicism continues through his move to Oregon, his marriage to Heather, and his initial acquaintance with some of the great Catholic writers. Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton, and others become Olson’s teachers, as questions about political philosophy lead to questions regarding the nature of the world. The Catholic church’s incarnational approach to reality begins to impress Olson as being perhaps the real “biblical” way to understand the world.

In the fall of 1991, after two years at BBC, I moved to Oregon looking for work in the graphic design field. Shortly after arriving in Portland, I met Heather, who was a student at Multnomah Bible College. After we started dating, we attended a couple of different Evangelical churches and finally settled into one we deemed to be Biblically sound.  I also became reacquainted with Richard, who lived in the Portland area. I would spend time with him, discussing various passages of Scripture and certain concepts about church authority and doctrine. He emphatically believed that “true” churches had no structure or organization, but were meant to be small home meetings led by the Holy Spirit and based in the final authority of Scripture. While I enjoyed our conversations, I was occasionally put off by his strong judgments of anyone and everyone who didn’t absolutely agree with his interpretation of Scripture.

That same year, two things happened which didn’t seem, at the time, of life-changing consequence. One day while visiting with my cousin's wife, I asked her why she attended an Episcopalian church.

“Well, I really enjoy the service there,” she said.

“Is that the best reason to attend a church?” I asked.

She seemed puzzled and asked, “Why do you attend the church you do?”

“Because it teaches the Bible,” I replied.

“How do you know it teaches the Bible correctly?” she innocently responded.

“Because there are certain hermeneutical and exegetical methods you can use to interpret the Bible correctly,” I said, thinking this point should be obvious to any serious Christian.

Her question back took me by surprise. “But how do you know those methods are correct?”

Part of me thought it was a needless question, and I tried to explain to her how the true meaning of the Bible is very obvious to true Christians. But the logical progression of her questions and their implications stuck with me. How could I be absolutely sure that what my church taught was more correct than any other church? How could true Christians differ so widely over the interpretations of so many passages of Scripture?

This especially bothered me, because there were sections of the Bible that had puzzled me while attending BBC—and had never been explained to my complete satisfaction.  One was John 3:5 and the meaning of being born of “the water and the Spirit.” But foremost in my mind was the sixth chapter of John. I would read and re-read it, the words haunting me: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53). I was well aware of the metaphorical interpretation common in some circles, but I thought it was rather weak, especially in light of a passage like 1 Corinthians 11. I had been fortunate to grow up in a church that observed weekly Communion (albeit a short and tacked-on variety), and I was seeing that there was a disparity between the emphasis of Scripture and the reality of the practice as I experienced it.

A few months after moving to Portland, I developed a strong interest in politics, especially the history of political thought in Western culture. This was the start of an unusual detour into Catholic social thought and teaching. In addition to some popular authors, I began reading the works of Russell Kirk, an American scholar noted for his brilliant observations of political philosophy and the place of religion in society. Kirk’s emphasis on what he called the “permanent things” and his understanding of the place of Christianity in the history of political thought were fascinating to me. Although I had always enjoyed history, I realized how spotty my actual historical knowledge was. Through Kirk I was exposed to the crystalline logic of Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman, the dazzling intelligence of G. K. Chesterton, and the brilliant fervor of St. Augustine. I began to wonder why it was often the Catholics, down through history, who had so much to say about the relationship of the Christian faith to politics and society, especially in the profound and serious manner of these men.

Reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy marked the opening of a door I would not have found on my own. This stunning apologetic for Christianity against the errors of modern philosophies made me realize how central “paradox” is to the Christian faith. True Christianity is a radical balance of “both/and” instead of just “either/or.” This understanding would later be key to understanding certain Catholic teachings. Soon afterwards, I read Dorothy Sayer's Creed or Chaos, an excellent explanation of the need for creeds and formal statements of belief in maintaining and continuing doctrinal purity. Then I read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, his study of the Incarnation and its effect on human history. Suddenly, I was seeing how large, how breathtaking, how absolutely Incarnational the Catholic view of reality was, compared to the often-pitiful perspectives I held. I was getting glimpses into the larger world of Catholic thought, a world so large it was frightening, and so intimate it was exhilarating. As I considered the reality of the Incarnation, I was seeing the logic and beauty of a sacramental faith, which saw God’s work being achieved through physical matter, not just through spiritual impulse. While I was not ready to give the Catholic church too much credit, I knew it was certainly not the “Whore of Babylon.” If the Catholic church did indeed propagate false teachings, it also had a handle on some important truths—and I was ready to discover more of them.

Copyright © 2000 Carl E. Olson.

Carl welcomes your comments. Email him at

Originally published in the June 1998 issue of This Rock, a publication of Catholic Answers. Visit their Web site at

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