I never really cared about Christianity much before. And I hated the subject of history too because of all the politics and stuff. The only kind of history I liked back then was prehistory and some ancient history (less politics and more adventure, you know). When my landlady started mentioning various points in church history to attack the Catholic Church, I couldn't respond. (I met my landlady in 1996 when I was studying in Victoria.) Besides her negative (and what I really thought was non-loving) attitude, there was not much about which I could say. I thought if the Catholic Church is as wrong as my landlady claims it to be I had better find out. So I read. And read. And read.
I thought I should read from a non-Catholic book as much as possible rather than one written by a Catholic. This way, I can minimize bias. I wanted to be fair because I don't like misrepresentations. I didn't get everything into my head of course. In fact, I usually only remember about fifty to sixty percent of what I read. Besides history, I also read apologetics stuff and basically anything that mentions anything to do with Christianity. I wanted to know the Truth. At the same time, I had full-time schooling so I could only restrict myself to reading so much. Since I get free unlimited access to the internet, I decided to use it as a major tool for research although I would never neglect the physical publications. Internet was a lot more accessible in that I don't have to leave my chair or walk half way across campus to get to the library from where the majority of my classes are held. At first, I read material from Catholic Answers whom I somehow found (maybe by search engine). At first, I was quite impressed and thought that Catholic Answers do a pretty good job because my eyes were totally opened up to a whole new world of information that I never thought about before and also because I knew next to nothing about defending the faith or theology or any of that stuff. But now after having sampled so many apologetics material (both Catholic and non-Catholic), my view is of course different. I still think Catholic Answers do a pretty good job at the introductory level. But it's not the best. Dave Armstrong's Biblical Evidence for Catholicism is an even better Catholic apologetics site. It is more open and ecumenical compared to Catholic Answers in my opinion. It also has better referencing.
And then of course, there are many other sites that are comparable. Une Fides, Catholic Insight, Catholic-Convert.com, 100% Catholic, Nazareth Resource Library, just to name a few. Also are other really nice Catholic websites where you can find theological articles, reviews, news, and contemporary issues. Some such sites I should mention are: Catholic, Catholic Information Network, Eternal Word Television Network, Envoy Magazine, Catholic Encyclopedia, and PetersNet. They're all really good stuff and really worth your while to explore. One thing good about PetersNet (besides its database of all sorts of articles) is its website reviews from orthodox Catholic point of view. Catholic Encyclopedia is a collection of articles of many upon many issues and topics and are not necessarily from a Catholic perspective many of which are written before I was even born. Envoy Magazine offers some past issues in their site. It's not a bad magazine and its production staff seem to be quite creative too. Impressive staff too according to their profiles. I should love to subscribe to Envoy as well. EWTN's host "Mother Angelica" heads some kind of tv show all the time on a regular basis and is quite popular (at least in the States) so I've heard.
This one time on my way back home to Vancouver from Victoria (after finally done with UVic), I met a lady on the ferries. She was reading a book and the title in large beige-colored print on a green background caught my eye and I had seen the title mentioned before in my readings as well. I forgot now exactly what the title is, but I think it's something like "How to become a Catholic" although I'm only about fifty percent sure. All I remember for sure is that it has the word "Catholic" on it. Anyway, it caught my attention and I approached the lady. We only had a few minutes before getting ready to get off the ship so we couldn't say much. It turns out that she was a convert from a Presbyterian/Methodist background. I asked her to give me a short conversion testimony just for curiosity sake and she told me that she was watching EWTN this one time and the stuff they were saying in defending the Catholic Church attracted her and was making sense. We were also mentioning various Catholic website names before it was time to depart. Anyways, that was the first time I met a convert. I told her to visit CatholicSource too. A somewhat touching experience I must say. (Two priests in the Chinese Catholic Community (one from HK and Fr. Ip whom I've mentioned already) who say of themselves as being converts don't count by the way.)
I also venture half of the time into evangelical sources particularly the anti-catholic ones. I felt that I need to get an even treatment of both sides. But I had misunderstood myself. I may have overstepped the line too much and almost ended screwing myself up. Father Ip had advised me that I don't need to do such research. I'm not a theologian and neither are most of my opponents. Protestant theology and Catholic theology are different anyway and my opponents and I are not knowledgeable enough to debate topics and end with fruitful results.
He has a point. I do admit I don't have any theological training at all; I never took any theology or bible course or any course on the scriptural languages. All I did was read all sorts of stuff from various sources. I talk to and I listen to all sorts of people, all the time gathering information. My ears would automatically perk up and my eyes would switch to a fixed stare at whatever caught my attention and that includes (but certainly not limited to) words like 'Christian', 'bible', 'church', 'sola', the surnames and first names of various apologists and authors (both Catholic and Protestant), 'convert', 'rome', pope-related words, etc, etc, etc. I didn't want to screw up my mind by getting too deep into the theological and linguistic issues because of my lack of foundation in the basics.
On the other hand, I don't believe you must be a trained theologian in order to understand the issues to a level where you can explain and defend at least the basics of your faith to skeptics and critics. Obviously, one cannot erect a sturdy structure without first building a solid foundation. But as long as you don't put too much material on top and also avoid the "big guys" (I, after all, am not competent enough to go so deep with them in the first place), you should be okay.
Of course, if I was going to go deeper, then I would have to properly equip myself, and that might mean taking one of those 8-month programs or something in order to go through proper guidance and training when consulting the appropriate literature. You don't want to be all over the place unless you have a good background already. You don't want to be the 12ft-deep end of the pool unless you know how to tread water, right? And besides, members of the laity have been increasingly and actively involved with Catholic evangelization and education to deepen the knowledge and appreciation of their Faith among both the faithful and the non-faithful alike. Especially the converts! So many apologetics publications are produced and made available and many more people are able to access these resources easier than ever. Hopefully (prayerfully), the liberal and indifferent attitudes of many present-day Catholic will go down and that a renewed yearning for Peace and Truth is occurring in people's hearts. That's what this world needs given all the negative stuff happening around everyday and everywhere.
As an aside, the involvement of laity would subjectively give a layperson more meaning and purpose to believing in a religion and the layperson would therefore appreciate it more. That's probably one of the reasons why Protestantism is more "successful" than Catholicism; it's because so many more Protestants play an active visible role in their church. They have something to do; they feel involved. Their religion now has purpose because they are actually doing something. Also, realizing the importance of the role they play, they would need to discipline themselves well because people are aware of them. This is actually quite important. Catholics who just go to church on Sundays thinking that going through the routines like everyone else is good enough are prone to get pulled into evangelicalism. In evangelical services, there are no rituals. You only find that in traditional Protestant denominations like Anglican and Lutheran churches. When the same things are done repeatedly over and over again every week, it is easy and tempting to shift attention onto other more "interesting" things. Out of this can also arise the danger of not knowing your faith well enough. So if an evangelical challenges you, you couldn't respond because the evangelical seems to know more than you and that must mean he is right and that you are wrong. You hence start doubting your beliefs. You may think you understand Catholic beliefs but now feel that Catholicism (actually just according to your own understanding) is unacceptable and you must convert away. The nominal Catholic may also fail to see what are the real treasures behind Catholicism. I think a good example of this sort of blindness is shown in this tract. In it contains a dialogue between a practicing Catholic and a former Catholic. The former Catholic claims she had never heard of the Gospel in all 30+ years she was a Catholic. I think the practicing Catholic in the dialogue has proved that the ex-Catholic was wrong. I encourage you to read it whether you are Catholic or evangelical. It serves as a wake-up call for the nominal Catholic as well as a mind-opener for the evangelical who doesn't think the Catholic Church teaches the Gospel (or teaches a false a gospel). And so....From the perspective of the involvement of laity, the Catholic Church is catching up to its Protestant counterparts. Especially after the Second Vatican Council, members of the Catholic laity are increasingly playing an active role in the administration of various parish/church related activities and departments. Protestants have been doing this stuff way before. But, of course, historically speaking, the Protestant notion of the involvement of the laity (vs. clergy) was an attempt to eliminate the existence of a hierarchy and/or in fact the priesthood, saying that everybody is the same.
Speaking about "nominal" Catholics, care should be exercised about judging others. We may end up judging others of lacking in religious fervor and therefore not being Christians. And we may be doing that because we think we are good and we compare others to us and think we are better. But we may not be better; in fact, we could be worse. The thing is, we shouldn't judge primarily from the outside. I use to feel really troubled as I compared the fervor of the evangelicals around me to the nominalism of the Catholics around me. As I attend Mass, I would always think that most others are just attending Mass in person but not in heart. But then I realized by the Grace of the Holy Spirit that someone else could be thinking the exact same thing about me. After all, I also look around when readings are being read or when the priest preaches. I also have a non-cheerful looking face as opposed to the beaming ones of certain pentecostals or charismatics. I don't raise my hands up when songs are being sung. But does that mean I'm not interested in the message of the Gospel or worshipping God in the Mass? Of course not. I frankly consider myself to have quite a bit of religious zeal. So could others. Besides, we are not to judge others lest we are judged by God the same way. [Lk 6:37]
Anyways, various individual courses and programs of different lengths are offered at many theological schools. The archdiocese of Vancouver (BC) to which I belong offers some courses for those interested in some religious studies. The relevant information page can be found here.
Perhaps I should jump off topic for a sec [and talk about the "Immaculate Conception"] before continuing with this discussion of my experience in learning about Christianity...
...To borrow an analogy from Kimberly Hahn's Conversion Story, it says, "God saved me from drugs, alcohol and wild sex." When I first read that, I thought it meant that the guy used to live a life of that filthy stuff. But as I read on, Kimberly reminded me that it is also possible a person making the above statement could be saved from drugs, alcohol and wild sex in the first place before even doing it. Thus, when Mary proclaimed God as her savior, it does not necessarily mean that she had to have sinned first before needing a savior. The fact that she didn't even need to be in the state where God and her are separated (ie: sin) would be enough for her to declare God as her savior.
That was, however, a rather simplistic analogy with obviously lots of limitations written in defense to objections regarding the doctrine of the "Immaculate Conception". For the serious fact-seekers and theologically-inclined, there are certainly numerous theological/biblical treatises and studies out there on the subject (probably both for and against). When I read Scott Hahn's (Kimberly's husband) transcripts on Holy Mother and Ark of the Covenant studies, I felt quite unprepared and should I say "unqualified" to be studying this. I read them all the way through and managed to pick up a few points, but certainly didn't understand all of it. First off, I never really read the entire OT from beginning to end (just reading parts here and there does not count) much less read it several times. You have to read the OT a number of times in order to understand it in several lights including: the OT as a story, the OT as prophecy, and the OT as a historical account of ancient Jewish culture. Second, I am totally ignorant of Hebrew and Greek so when they mention a Greek or Hebrew word I'll be like, "Sure, okay, whatever". Yet, all of this is important and a solid grounding of at least the basics must be achieved before attempting to do exegetical analysis. Thus when the common evangelical who is untrained in theology and/or hermeneutics starts criticizing Catholic doctrines, s/he would be doing everyone including herself a disservice unless s/he can prove or at least discuss using well-documented information the reasons for her/his position. Even for a subject such as church history, anti-Catholic evangelicals can screw things up by trusting untrustworthy sources for information in church history.
So why do evangelicals quite often seem to "know" more than Catholics? Because of a number of reasons: 1) Many Catholics are nominal and therefore do not even care enough about the faith to make use of the quality literature available for them, 2) Many Protestants, on the other hand, are more upbeat about their faith and therefore care enough to make use of the mountains of literature available to them, and 3) There are indeed a lot of books and stuff published by Protestants but because of some anti-Catholic propaganda that much bias has also circulated around and have made imprints on the minds of its Protestant readers. Noticed that I highlighted the word 'quality' for Catholics while highlighting the word 'mountains' for Protestants. This is not to say that all Catholic literature is of good quality and that Protestants don't produce any good literature also. Protestants can and do produce some fine stuff (eg: C. S. Lewis). It's just that there are lots of good stuff written by Catholics but are consulted by relatively few Catholics, while there are lots of literature consulted by relatively many evangelicals but are of poor scholarship.
It also depends on what kind of literature we're talking about. If it's on devotions, then I should think most aren't bad. I mean, how bad can a book on individual Christian devotion be? But if it's one on history or even socio-political issues, then many popular ones are less than honest. And many are popular not because they are genuine Christian products, but perhaps because they were distributed amongst certain groups whose members all think the same way, or because the publications were printed in huge quantities and distributed all around freely. Read the history of anti-Catholicism in America for more details on anti-catholic propaganda. Here's a sample tract. Also, how many Protestant bookstores are there compared to Catholic ones? More than likely, the majority of "Christian Bookstores" are evangelical or at least carry more evangelical stuff than Catholic stuff. Which is not surprising since you don't want to be ordering stuff that'll just be collecting dust. Even many Bible translations are done by Protestants. But I suspect it's because of the spirit of John Wycliffe who wanted to make the Bible available for the common person in the common person's language. Hence you have an organization called "Wycliffe Bible Translators". However, I think their efforts are to be recognized and that God be praised in that respect because they are, after all, translating the Bible and contributed in certain ways to biblical and linguistic scholarship. Anyway, there is an article from the Catholic Encyclopedia on various translations of the Holy Scriptures.
Another thing is that I almost always end up reading material between only Catholicism and Protestantism, but I very seldom hear any mention of the Greek Orthodox Church. Shouldn't I be fair and devote equal efforts to knowing Eastern Orthodoxy as well? The conversion roads are certainly not just two-way between P and C, but there are also conversions from O to C and from P to O. But then I don't really feel much of a desire or push to check out the Orthodox Church. I never did, even earlier in this particular struggle, when I proposed to study the issues from various Christian perspectives. I don't know if it's just because reading the issues between Protestantism and Catholicism was already enough for understanding Christian truth or maybe it would take too much time. Whatever the reason, I just don't feel a need to study the Orthodox Church, and if I did, it would simply be out of interest.
I don't do much research anymore. I want to take a break now and focus more on the practical stuff like my personal growth and spiritual development. But I would never regret spending so much time on the readings that I did. I was willing to invest time and energy in seeking the truth and I am now at my goal. I can now rest and take it easy and go on with other things in life. I was asked out of friendliness one time how much Protestantism has changed me. In the sense of conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, Protestantism did not change me although it almost did. But in the sense of renewal in the Faith, Protestantism has changed me a lot. And I will always be thankful for that grace because it opened my eyes to much more understanding of Love in its two major forms (Love for God and love for one another as yourself).