A Rationalist and the Thresholds of Conversion
As Sherry has mentioned, we are gearing up for a special edition of the Making Disciples seminar for the archdiocese of Kansas City, KS and the diocese of Kansas City, MO - as well as our Colorado Springs Sunday evening - Thursday noon version July 26-30. As I was looking at e-mail in the library of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, where I'm giving a parish mission, I noticed a headline of the recent National Catholic Register titled, "From Atheist to Catholic: 'Unshakable' Rationalist Blogged Her Way into the Church." I thought it might be interesting to look it over to see if I might be able to identify any of the thresholds in her conversion story.
What an interesting experiment! While it's a short interview, there were some significant moments that bear mentioning. First of all, the interviewee, Jennifer Fulwiler, was a very intelligent young woman who grew up atheist and "was convinced that religion and reason were incompatible. Not surprisingly, she was also emphatically anti-Christian and, especially, anti-Catholic. 'Catholic beliefs seemed bizarre and weird.'"
The first threshold that someone like Jennifer has to cross is trust; normally, trust in a particular Christian. For her, that person was Joe Fulwiler (a non-practicing Baptist who later became her husband). She worked with him and got to know him and eventually began to date him. It wasn't until after she got to know him a bit that she found out he believed in God. Her description regarding how that effected her is important to note:
To me, belief in God was so unreasonable that, by definition, no reasonable person could believe in such a thing. I felt I could never be compatible with someone that unreasonable. Had I known that Joe believed in God, I would never have dated him.I find it interesting that what she trusted was Joe's intelligence - not his faith; that would come much, much later. But this does point out that often effective evangelization is going to happen on the personal level and require a commitment to a real relationship over a long period of time (though not necessarily requiring marriage!)
interviewer: What was your reaction when you found out?
It gave me pause. Joe is too smart — brilliant, really, with degrees from Yale, Columbia and Stanford — to believe in something nonsensical. I also met many of his friends. They, too, are highly intelligent — some with M.D.s and Ph.D.s from schools like Harvard and Princeton — and believed.
None of this made me believe in God, of course, but I could no longer say that only unreasonable or unintelligent people believe.
I don't know how long she was at that threshold, but I suspect it was for awhile, because the next turning point in her conversion was triggered by a huge change in her life - the birth of her and Joe's first child.
I have always been a truth-seeker, which is why I was an atheist. But I had a prideful, arrogant way of approaching questions about life and meaning. I now realize that pride is the most effective way to block out God so that one doesn’t see him at all. Certainly, I didn’t.Isn't it interesting that the story of the Fall involves the selection of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad (a semitic euphemism for "knowledge of everything") over obedience to God? Perhaps pride is, in a way, the first sin... But back to the story. Because Jennifer was intellectually oriented, the next threshold was particularly important. It is
The birth of our first child motivated me to seek the truth with humility. I can’t emphasize this point enough: Humility, true humility, is crucial to the conversion process.
And not just curiosity about the Church, or about the dogmas that Joe might have believed, but ultimately, curiosity about Jesus. Unfortunately, the interviewer didn't ask questions that could flesh out this threshold too much, but what Jennifer says is telling...
I had already begun thinking about the possibility of God’s existence.I don't know if she was at the next threshold, OPENNESS, or not - there's not enough information in that statement. It may have been the beginnings of curiosity about Christianity.
After our son’s birth, I wanted to know the truth about life’s great questions — for his sake. For the first time, I was motivated to seek truth with true humility. For example, I began reading, studying, and thinking about the great minds. Most, if not the majority, believed in some other world, some higher power, a god or gods — something. Even the great pre-Christian thinkers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates believed.It seems her intense curiosity and respect for the intelligence of the scientists she mentioned compounded to move her toward openness to the possibility of God's existence. But it sounds like she was at the threshold curiosity for awhile.
Another avenue of exploration: I always revered the great scientists, including the founders of the significant branches of science. Very few were atheists. Indeed, some of the greatest were profoundly believing Christians.
It could be argued this was because they were steeped in the Christian culture and beliefs of their times.
That ignores a larger question I began asking myself: Is it really likely that great minds like Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Descartes and others didn’t know how to ask tough questions? Do these people seem to be men who didn’t know how to question assumptions and fearlessly seek truth? Of course not.
Was there ever an aha moment that finally made you abandon atheism?I find the interviewer's comments and questions interesting. She seemed earlier to suggest that perhaps Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other believers might have been "cultural" Christians - and Jennifer presumed that they were too intelligent to simply believe without questioning. Then, the interviewer seems to hope that the discomfort Jennifer experienced over the apparent design of creation would lead immediately to belief. The story demonstrates the incredible patience required in personal evangelization. A kind of commitment that perhaps only a disciple - and a genuine, loving, friend - will be able to make.
Several, but one in particular actually shocked me.
I asked myself two questions: What is information? And: Can information ever come from a non-intelligent source?
It was a shocking moment for me because I had to confront the fact that DNA is information. If I remained an atheist, I would have to believe that all the intricate, detailed, complex information contained in DNA comes out of nowhere and nothing.
But I also knew that idea did not make sense. After all, I don’t look at billboards — which contain much simpler information than DNA — and think that wind and erosion created them. That wouldn’t be rational. Suddenly, I found that I was a very discomfited atheist.
Is that the point at which you began to believe in God?
No. But now I was a reluctant atheist.
Her story illustrates very well, I think, the transition from curiosity to OPENNESS
I had lots of questions but knew no one who might have answers: I had always consciously, deliberately distanced myself from believers. So, coming from the high-tech world, where did I go for answers? I put up a blog, of course! I started posting tough questions on my blog.It's important to note that what happened here was Catholics weren't catechizing in a vacuum, but responding to the real questions that she had. The answers impressed her so much that she shared them with her Baptist husband, who was, in some ways, even more anti-Catholic (but ignorant of Catholicism) than she was. Both of them became intrigued and began to explore even more.
One matter stood out from the beginning: The best, most thoughtful responses came from Catholics. Incidentally, their answers were consistently better than the ones from atheists. It intrigued me that Catholics could handle anything I threw at them. Also, their responses reflected such an eminently reasonable worldview that I kept asking myself: How is it that Catholics have so much of this all figured out?
Unfortunately, the interview skips to the present, in which Jennifer speaks of her appreciation for community life within the Church - something she didn't experience as an atheist. It would be interesting to know how she crossed the thresholds of SEEKING (i.e., seeking a relationship with Christ and the Church) and the conversion that led to DISCIPLESHIP, which is expressed beautifully in this quote, “Conversion is the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ, a sincere adherence to him, and a willingness to conform one’s life to his. Conversion to Christ involves making a genuine commitment to him and a personal decision to follow him as his disciple.” National Directory for Catechesis, p. 47,48
If this idea of thresholds of pre-discipleship intrigues you, and you'd like to know more about them - and learning practical ways to help people like Jennifer respond to God's grace and move through them - consider attending Making Disciples in beautiful Colorado Springs!