I Spent a Night in an Apocalyptic Cult

Approaching The Lair

I spent a night with an apocalyptic cult.

One block away from St Barnabas Broadway Anglican church in the middle of Sydney sits the World Mission Society of God. Their building had nothing particularly interesting about it: it just looked like any other business centre full of small company offices that you might pass in that area of Sydney. There were no sinister vibes as I walked up to the front door.

What lay inside was a slightly different story.

IMG_1065.JPGMy phone buzzed as it received an SMS: “Please call me or text me when you get in here. Thanks Alex.” Their enclave needed a swipe card to enter. After a short wait the Deacon of the Church came down to collect me.

This Deacon who I was talking to volunteers his time to evangelise, lead the service, run bible studies and so on. He claims to not be paid a cent by the organisation. He explained he works as a chef outside the “church”.

I’m not sure what the situation looks like the further you go up the hierarchy, but I assume that the big dogs at the top of the organisation receive significant cash flow from the lower ranks, such as this small gathering I was about to witness.

Memories of Previous Encounters

I was ushered into the cult’s office, which is essentially a refurbished apartment.

I had been here once before, during my first extended bible study with these people. I remembered how at that first meeting, we flipped back and forth through scripture for 3 hours straight, as another Deacon took me on a grand tour of this cult’s unique interpretation of the bible. I recall how during that meeting it took 90 minutes for me to catch on to where the study was heading: I could tell that the deacon was eventually going to do the grand reveal and claim that the founder of his church is Jesus come again. I waited another 90 minutes with baited breath: “When is he going to say it? When is he going to say it?”

When he finally dropped the bomb, I was so battered and exhausted from flipping back and forth in his bible that I could barely register a response. A lethargic “that’s interesting, I’ll have to think about it”, is all I could muster. The Deacon stared at me earnestly, clearly praying hard silently, praising God that he had found someone so receptive, and imploring him to lead me to the right path (ie. praying that I would convert to their church).

After that first bible study, I started inviting representatives from this cult to come and visit my house and continue chatting with me. Over the weeks that followed they lead me through their unique positions. Certain doctrines stood out:

  • The Jewish Passover, eclectically fused with the Christian Lord’s Supper features prominently in their thinking. In their understanding, the end of the world is upon us and observing the Christian Lord’s Supper on the date of the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming inferno.
  • They believe in a Modalist Trinity. They think that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all the same person, just manifesting themselves in different ways at different times of history.
  • They believe in two distinct Gods. The first God is the Modalist amalgamation of the Trinitarian persons, who they generally refer to as “God the Father”. The second God is “God the Mother”. This cult escapes all the biblical commands to observe strict monotheism by invoking the principle in Genesis 2:24 that when man and woman are united in marriage they become “one flesh”.
  • They believe that both of their Gods have become incarnate one or more times. God the Father incarnated once 2000 years ago as Christ Jesus, and his second coming occurred on 13 January 1918, when he reincarnated as Christ Ahn Sahng-hong, a Korean minister of a breakaway Seventh Day Adventist church who died on 25 February 1985. God the mother incarnated on 29 October 1943 as a Korean woman called Jang Gil-ja who is still alive to this day.
  • The second coming of Christ is identified with the Holy Spirit, and this cult believes that Christ Ahn Sahng-hong is in actual fact the Holy Spirit.
  • They hold to a naive understanding of the classical protestant doctrine of “Sola Fide” – faith alone – and they have a particularly strange and seemingly arbitrary soteriology. They think that prior to Jesus’ coming a person had to believe in God the Father, by the name of YHWH, in order to be saved. They hold that once Jesus had come, we had transitioned from the age of the father to the age of the son, with the implication being that it is no longer sufficient to believe in the father alone in order to be saved, but you must believe in the son too. They believe that in 1918, with the birth of Ahn Sahng-hong, we entered into the age of the Holy Spirit, and of course it is now no longer sufficient to simply believe in Jesus; a person must confess Christ Ahn Sahng-hong in order to be saved. I have not yet been able to establish how such a wacky and naive “Faith alone” soteriology is compatible with the cult’s insistence that one must observe the Jewish Passover in order to be saved.

In between the bible studies with members from this cult, I would encounter missionaries on campus at the University of Sydney where I study. One particular missionary from Korea stands out in my memory. He struck me as incredibly stubborn, angry, fundamentalist and close minded, convinced that he had the truth and the rest of the world is lost and not to be trusted. I remember him blindly quoting scriptures at me during our brief discussion, attempting to shut me down by biblical fiat.

I asked him why I should trust the bible. He answered that it contains many prophecies, all of which have come true. I found this entirely disputable, but it didn’t seem like it would be fruitful to push him on the point. He insisted that his cult is the only church on earth today which observes the passover. I rolled my eyes and responded that the Roman Catholic church observes it every single day, but he didn’t want to hear it and just resumed firing bible verses at me as if that would prove him right.

I concluded that he wasn’t actually trying to convince me of his position; he was trying to convince himself. His strategy of rote learning bible verses and regurgitating them during conversation was like a drug that would sustain the illusion that his position rested on solid ground.

I asked him if he realised that God the Mother was a living woman. He responded that yes he knew that, and he has even met her in person. I was intrigued and asked him what she was like; he leant back with an offended expression, superior posture and with an indignant voice stated “She was like God!” I was amused, and let the conversation flow onwards.

Research Into The Cult

ranchdafagfaga.jpg I began to do some research into the origins of their movement.

Who really was this Christ Ahn Sahng-hong character anyway? What I discovered didn’t exactly mesh with the information I was receiving from the cult first hand.

I discovered that Ahn Sahng-hong was simply a disillusioned parishioner of the Seventh Day Adventist church in Korea. In true protestant spirit, he simply got up, left, and started his own church. The church he founded was not all that different from the SDA church that he had abandoned. At no point during his life was he reported to have claimed that he was the second coming of Christ, and there is nothing in his extant writings which indicates he himself and his early followers thought of him as anything less than a simple preacher and teacher.

At one point while he was alive, some of the members of his church started worshipping a woman called Um Sooin, claiming that she was God the Mother and that Ahn Sahng-Hong was Jesus come again. These members were expelled from his church, and Ahn Sahng-Hong wrote a scathing critique and rebuttal of their views.

Upon his death in 1985, there was an immediate schism in the church he left behind. Some people wanted to conservatively follow the direction that he had set the church on before his death. Other people wanted to deify him as God and reintroduce the concept of God the Mother. The first group – lead by his son – split off as the “New Covenant Passover Church of God” the second, larger group went it’s own way and has adopted a variety of names, including “Witnesses of Ahn Sahng-hong Church of God” and “World Mission Society of God”.

A Brief Lesson Before The Liturgy

We entered the apartment, where there were rows of chairs arranged in the living room facing a pew and a television. A couple of people were sitting in the pews. We greeted each other and I was keen to chat, but I was whisked away to one of the bedrooms which had been done up as a little conference room. The Deacon sat down at the table and launched into a pre-prepared lesson.

“God’s people should fully observe the commandments of God”, he proclaimed. I immediately thought to myself “Sounds like some sort of spin on the old heresy of saving yourself via good works and keeping the law”. We began to go on another tour of scripture. It struck me that these people take the bible incredibly literally, and don’t pay much heed to the literary context of the verses that they focus on.

This particular study was all about idolatry, with a particular focus on Christian crosses being a most grievous violation of the second commandment. “The Cross does not save us, the passover does” he said. This was the first of many times the passover would be mentioned tonight. “Most Christians think that you must worship the cross to be saved” he said, making me wonder how he could be so deep in his own cults doctrines that he could be so misinformed as to what the wider Christian world believes.

We read 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, using the NIV translation. I noticed that this church only uses the NIV and enquired why. The Deacon responded that the NIV is optimal because it easy to understand. So much for sticking to the original Greek!

1 Corinthians 11:4-7 is a part of the new testament where Paul commands women to cover their hair during church services. Most Christian communities take that command to be a historical one – appropriate to a certain time and place – observance being optional today. However these guys take it literally and seriously.

“So wait, why exactly do you do this?” I asked, hoping that he would give me some actual logical reasons. “Because the bible says so.” is the only response I received. I internally shook my head.

We flicked to Revelation 14:1-3. He explained to me that 144000 people would be saved without having to die, whereas “the multitude” are those who are saved but die before the second (or should I say third?) coming of Christ, at which point they will resurrect. Apparently this special group of 144000 people will ascend to heaven bodily, just like Jesus did, and will have something the Deacon mysteriously referred to as “creation power”, as well as judge angels and demons.

The Deacon highlighted the fact that the 144000 saved people are said to be singing a “new song”. He claimed that their church knows this song, and regularly sings it. I was intrigued, as I had never heard any doctrine similar to this before.

The Service Starts

8pm had arrived, so we returned to the living room and I took a seat at the back, next to a Nepalese guy. I noticed that the congregation was strictly gender-segregated: All the women sat on the right and wore veils, while all the men sat on the left. There was a young looking boy sitting on the men’s side, he looked about 12 or 13.

IMG_1068.JPG

The service started with everyone simultaneously reciting the “teachings of mother”

  1. It is more blessed to give love than to receive, as God always gives love.

  2. When we give glory to God, the glory returns to us.

  3. A beautiful mind has no hate, and brings forth a perfect love.

  4. As Abraham was blessed with the better when he gave in for his nephew Lot, so we are blessed more greatly when we give in for our brothers and sisters.

  5. Being arrogant means wanting to be served.

  6. Though others do not work, we should not complain but do our work faithfully. Having the mind of a master allows us to work with pleasure and ease.

  7. Arrogance comes from a mind full of complaint. When we serve God always with gratitude in our hearts, complaint and arrogance recede from us, and humility dwells in our hearts.

  8. When we praise brothers and sisters, the praise returns to us.

  9. As the sea receives all the dirt and purifies it, we should have a broad and beautiful mind enough to cover up even the faults of our brothers and sisters.

  10. Whoever wants to be led by the Lamb should become a lamb smaller than the Lamb.

  11. Sacrifice is needed to become a greater vessel.

  12. We should endure present sufferings, for the Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for us.

  13. Even God did not come to be served, but to serve. When we serve one another without wanting to be served, God will be pleased.

This was immediately followed by three hymns from their unique hymn book (302, 66 and 69), suspiciously labelled “A New Song” in reference to Revelation 14. I asked where I could obtain one of these hymn books and was told that they are reserved for members of the cult.

After the singing, the Deacon stood behind the pew at the front and launched into a long prayer. At first I couldn’t tell if it was formulaic or spontaneous prayer, however as he rambled on I realised that he was just making it up as he went along. Certain elements of the prayer contained hints of the cult’s apocalyptic nature, for example he referred to how most people are “deceived by Satan and the false prophet”, to which the congregation all murmured a hearty “amen!”. He concluded the prayer “in the name of Ahn Sahng-Hong yim” and everyone sat down.

The sermon began, although it turned out to be more like a bible study where the leader does all the talking, and the only interaction that the congregation has is to say “amen!” at regular intervals. The topic today was idolatry, “You shall have no other god’s before me”.

The preacher immediately revealed his naive understanding of Sola Fide. “Many Christians believe that you just have to have faith and you will be saved” he claimed. “The irony is that he’s not far from the truth” I thought to myself: most Christians DO believe that you just need to have faith and you will be saved. Most Christians don’t take the time to read up on the deep theology at the core of their tradition, and therefore never comprehend that their naive understanding of Sola Fide is actually deep and damnable heresy. This cult therefore rightly rejects the common distortion of the doctrine that the average Christian is peddling. “But alas,” I thought, “they don’t understand the true doctrine either”.

The preacher directed us to Matthew 22:35-38. He highlighted that the greatest commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he flipped to 2 Kings 23:25, and noted that the only person who is spoken of as keeping all the commandments of God was King Josiah. Then we read 2 Kings 23:21-23 and once again the speaker emphasised the importance of keeping the passover.

The speaker was drawing outrageous, creative, illogical links between concepts based on the verses we just read. “How do we keep the greatest commandment?” he rhetorically asked. “By keeping the passover” he firmly answered. “Amen!” rumbled the congregation. “Is there any other way to be saved?” he asked. “NO!” exclaimed almost everyone in the room simultaneously, followed by lots more “Amen!”.

We jumped to Deuteronomy 6:4-8. The preacher seized on the language used in verse 5 “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Noticing the similarities between that and previous verses we had just read, the speaker concluded “The greatest commandment of God is to keep the passover”.

We continued on a whirlwind tour of scripture following this same pattern again and again. First of all we would read a verse, then the preacher would ask some rhetorical question about what we need to do to be saved, and the answer would always be some variant on “we must keep the passover” followed by lots of “Amen!” from the crowd.

At one point, the preacher asked “What happens to those who don’t keep the passover?” and interestingly he completely waffled on the answer, rather than just being straight up and confessing that they will burn in hellfire forever and ever.

Hints of Extremism

About halfway through the sermon, things started to get weird.

“Who hates the passover the most?” the preacher queried. “Satan” muttered the congregation. “How will Satan tell us not to keep passover?” he asked. “Indirectly, through enticements and temptations” he immediately responded.

This was a prime example of brainwashing tactics. The preacher was convincing his flock that if anyone objects or disagrees with his doctrine, they are equivalent to Satan.

He flipped to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, and I started to get uncomfortable as he continued to take what it said dangerously literally. “What should we do with false prophets and those who disbelieve?” the preacher asked. “The bible says to kill them!” he confidently proclaimed. “Satan always tries to destroy the passover” he claimed, “We can see it in history!” I was getting very edgy at this point, as the preaching seemed to be moving towards expounding extremist ideology.

We flipped to Isaiah 24:1-6, a classic Armageddon text which describes the chaos and terror as the world comes to an end. “Why were these people damned?” the preacher asked. “Because they broke the law and failed to keep the passover” he staunchly stated.

I realised that these people are experiencing a dramatic tunnel vision, as they are utterly convinced that the world is about to go up in eschatalogical flames and they are freaking out trying to work out how to escape such a fate. They have a cult-level sense of urgency and are single-mindedly  convinced that following the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming calamity. “We share the good news” the preacher intones, “because this is how we escape the destruction.”

The End of the Service

The sermon concluded around 8:45, and we moved on to the tail end of their informal evangelical-esque liturgy. Another hymn was sung (song 70), as the collection bag was passed around and the congregation contributed their tithings.

After the tithing song, a sister was called to the front to deliver the closing prayer. Once again I couldn’t tell if it was spontaneous or formulaic, but the content was remarkable. Lots of petitions were addressed to both the father and the mother, I got gnostic vibes as she repeated “Thanks for saving us from this sinful and evil world” twice. Some sort of doctrine of pre-existence was briefly hinted at.

As I listened to this prayer, I was struck by how simplistic, primitive and unsophisticated these people were. Their faith was not particularly reflective, and involved simply taking the bible as literally as possible.

After her prayer, the entire congregation together recited a formulaic prayer in Korean. Unfortunately I’m not sure what was said and don’t have access to the text or a translation.

With that, the service was finished. All of the women immediately removed their veils and people began to pack up and go home. The Deacon approached me and asked me to delete the photos I had taken inside the building that day. “What have they got to hide?” I wondered to myself.

I hung around for a little longer and tried to interact with some of the people, but they all seemed highly brainwashed and incapable of actually holding a conversation. Eventually I left and walked home. I made it home alive, happy that I managed to survive the experience. I intend to continue meeting with their missionaries, and hope to visit their main church out at Blacktown next time.

Appendix: Summary of the WMSCOG liturgy

  1. Communal recitation of the 13 “Teachings of Mother”
  2. Three hymns, two sitting and one standing
  3. Deacon leads with an opening prayer in spontaneous format
  4. The core Bible study and sermon
  5. Hymn, and collection of tithings
  6. Sister delivers a closing prayer in spontaneous format
  7. Entire congregation recites a formulaic liturgical prayer in Korean

The songs that were sung were all heavily tailored to express the cults unique theology. Far more was sung about “Heavenly Mother” and “Christ Ahn Sahng-hong”, than was sung about the father, Yahweh or Jesus.

 

Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

mormon-spirit-prison[1].gifHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons, because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the LDS church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Testimony – Christian to Catholic

(Go to part 1 – “Agnostic to Christian”)

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.

I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.

new-testament-psalms-kjv-thomas-nelson-vest-pocket-bound-book-gideons-national-0be10e7503f62a9003c7fb6867e51e4c[1].jpgEventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.

Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:

Matthew 4:1-4RSV-CE

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

72647261dcde7ac05e8264f247adf541[1]I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.

I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.

Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.

In the Emergency Room

Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.

350ml-Thankyou_2015_450W[1].pngI remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.

Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.

Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.

cOubz.jpgThere was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.

As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.

Into the Insane Asylum

I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).

not-the-messiah-624x260[1].jpgAt this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”

I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.

maxresdefault[3].jpgEventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.

Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.

I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.

bookmark.jpgThere were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.

During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.

A Quiet Six Months

Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.

My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.

VicPark500[1].jpgDuring that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.

One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.

Cult days

I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”

Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.

600x600bb[1].jpgI checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.

The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.

I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.

It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.

Soldier-Jesus[1].gifThis entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.

Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!

They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.

dsc_1085[1].jpgI was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.

Escaping The Cult

Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.

17201170_10212531452940163_5236575150923387689_n[1].jpgIt was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.

That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.

church060[1].jpgAfter leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.

I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.

Macquarie_Group_logo[1].jpgDuring this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.

NTE 2013

NTE13-DL-Flyer-front[1].jpgIn December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.

Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.

In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.

NTE_crowd_0[1].jpgAlso in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.

I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.

12107858_10153293505873131_4755215337540405378_n[1]One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.

It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.

Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas

It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.

At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.

I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).

FB-92[1].jpgAround about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.

206631_1959400226354_3519722_n[1].jpgIt was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”

Theological Concerns Begin to Mount

SolaScriptura[1].jpgIt was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

  • Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
  • What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
  • What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
  • What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.

I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.

still-looking-imputed-righteousness[1].jpgAnother point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.

There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.

Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.

evil-popes[1].jpgI remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.

To China!

I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).

china-2[1]During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)

Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.

10568733_10152630262094813_870665020_n.jpgHowever, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.

I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!

Driven Back to Catholicism

1426731_10151981780870091_339659697_n[1]Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”

I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.

It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.

3c2a2c263fdf36662624c6db2d5fe454[1].jpgDuring my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.

I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.

I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.

One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2[1].jpgAt the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.

I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.

(Go to “Testimony: Catholic to Universalist”)