Conversion: Intellectually satisfying, spiritually overwhelming
A short time ago, Ignatius Press published an extraordinary book—well done in every conceivable respect—entitled Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism. Edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, also both philosophers, the book naturally promised to be a feast for those who want to put their own “turn” to Catholicism into a sound intellectual framework. In this it does not disappoint, yet it offers much more.
Faith and Reason features highly cogent essays by Edward Feser, J. Budziszewski, Brian Cutter, Neal Judisch, Peter Kreeft, Logan Paul Gage, Robert C. Koons, W. Scott and Lindsay K. Cleveland, Bryan R. Cross, and Candace Vogler. The majority of these writers received their initial Christian formation from various forms of Protestantism, and so again and again we come up against the fundamental deficiency of Protestantism when closely examined by deep thinkers: Namely, Protestantism’s irrationality as a religious system. To put the matter simply, it is utterly nonsensical to base a religion on Scripture alone without an adequate account either of how we know what Scripture is or how we can recognize correct interpretations of it. But to give an adequate account of these questions is to embrace not only Tradition but the authority principle which marks Catholicism—and Catholicism alone.
Some of the writers came either from secular materialism or drifted through secular materialism following an initial Protestant upbringing. This path is particularly well-charted in the first three accounts, by Edward Feser, J. Budziszewski, and Brian Cutter. In reality, I think most cradle Catholics also flirt with our culturally dominant materialism or naturalism, after their initial upbringing. The larger culture in which Christians find themselves matters, and it afflicts us in many ways, small and large. The heart of this problem, as J. Budziszewski put it, is that to annihilate God we have to annihilate ourselves, for a consistent materialism also completely eliminates the possibility of self, of personhood. For this reason, the paths and arguments which led these three philosophers to the ultimate rejection of materialism are important to all of us, regardless of our confessional antecedents.
What about sin?
For all the benefits of Faith and Reason, I want to discuss something I expected that proved to be missing: Namely, a significant probing into the problem of sin, and in particular the impact of our own sins on our intellects. It may well be, in at least some senses, that the question of sin lies at the very heart of epistemology, which is the study of how it is that we know. But if so, either none of the philosophers in this volume is an epistemologist, or none of them is willing to tell the entire story.
And why should they? Indeed, I want to thank all of them precisely for not disclosing every piece of relevant data. To quote Budziszewski again, “I am not telling everything; some things are only for God and one’s confessor.” Still, by entitling his account “A Rake’s Progress”, he indicates a classic pattern, into which nearly all young men and a great many young women fall at a tender age, a pattern of accommodating their intellectual and spiritual commitments to the enticing sexual norms of our times (again, in ways either small or large). That accommodation often brings with it some interior refusal of the truth we have otherwise been taught, and which we were initially inclined to believe.
Of course, precisely because these are philosophers, it is to be expected that they are most interested in recounting how they overcame what we might call the purely intellectual obstacles to an adult faith—that is, to a non-culture-bound, fully Catholic faith. In some cases, too, it seems likely that the sexual chaos of the modern world did not, in fact, retard their embrace of that Faith. Moreover, even the great Augustine—who makes the problem of his own impurity very clear—tends to portray that impurity as an impediment to the commitment of conversion rather than as something which made it far more difficult for him actually to perceive the truth.
I might have benefited immensely from a philosopher who was both able and willing to explore in a personal, experiential way the problem of the darkening of the intellect through sin. But is there not a danger and a selfishness even in this desire? And may I not in any case see abundant evidence of the problem even in my own life? Again, I must praise the reluctance of all contributors to go very far into such a minefield, especially when those who could be most injured are still so much a part of their lives. In a large number of cases, the authors of these accounts were accompanied in their search for truth by their spouses. In one case, that of Scott and Lindsay Cleveland, we have a joint account. And most of the authors have children.
No, we can outlive neither the consequences of our sins nor of their becoming known. The seal of the confessional speaks volumes on this very point. In all but the rarest cases, charity itself demands the lightest of touches in discussing this aspect of what it means, at last, to be run to earth by the Hound of Heaven.
The Eucharist, the Body of Christ
Nonetheless, there are surprises when it comes to spiritual instincts, which are not purely rational in nature. One is that the reality of the Eucharist arises again and again in these accounts as a kind of proof that the lost philosopher has finally found his home. Partly this is a matter of having discovered a coherent account of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church, an account which simply does not exist in Protestantism or (obviously) Materialism. But partly it is a strong sense of the presence of Christ in either the Sacrament itself or, despite all human deficiencies, in a Catholic community that is routinely nourished by that Sacrament. This is not, ultimately, an intellectual argument; it is not the result of the philosopher’s quest; it is, rather, a kind of spiritual confirmation of its successful conclusion in real life.
As a lifelong Catholic with many sins but no gaps in Catholic practice, I have not been aware of this experience. But I have been aware of its opposite. Whenever I enter a Protestant church, I am struck by a sudden feeling of emptiness. This always puts me in mind of the experience of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. As an Episcopalian, after being widowed, in trying to discern God’s will, she would frequently go to her church to spend time in prayer. But again and again, during the course of her prayer time, she would find herself gazing out the window at the Catholic church across the street. By her own account, the Real Presence of Christ called to her from there.
In any case, the power of the Church’s sacramental life is evident, in one way or another, in each account of conversion. For example, Robert Kooms, coming in from Lutheranism, writes:
The one great thing I didn’t anticipate is what a profound difference the reception of the full range of Catholic sacraments would have on my spiritual development. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation and, of course, that of the Eucharist have freed me from many self-destructive vices that I had come to think of as inevitable features of human life, and I have seen a renewal of spiritual growth and development in my fifties and sixties that I would have thought impossible for someone so fixed in habits and character. [p. 203]
The case is even more pronounced in the story which closes the book, an account of a very different nature, though it too was informed by philosophical study, particularly of Aquinas. Candace Vogler was, from an infant, subjected to the worst kinds of sexual abuse by her father and a tragic dysfunctionality on the part of her mother. She touches on these things without going into gory specifics, but they are there. Yet she was still raised a Christian and, from the first, she was conscious of two deeply-rooted understandings of men: First, that men simply do not like women very much; second, that Jesus Christ, the perfect man, is not like this. He loves both men and women completely, and sacrifices Himself for them.
After many years of suffering, Vogler was brought into the Church, appropriately by a son of St. Thomas, a Dominican priest. Reflecting on her arrival, she writes something so powerful that it must close my review:
It is an extraordinary blessing to get to enjoy the ordinary graces of sacramental practice after years of just reading, praying, worshipping God in this place or that, and following along in the Rosary with Mother Angelica and her sisters on television. I have come here from hard places. I am not clear of the difficulties and may never be…. [But] I enjoy a kind of peace now that I could not have imagined before. I am the luckiest person I know. [pp. 285-286]
Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, eds. Faith and Reason: Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism (Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2019) 289 pp.
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