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The mystery of conversion, always deeply rooted in Divine mercy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 30, 2015

There is a three-year-old in the house these days, as my oldest son and his family are visiting. Today young Jeffrey got to play on the red caboose which is displayed on the pavilion grounds in our town. This prompted a discussion of the traditionally lamentable demise of the caboose. By the 1980s, all the functions of the caboose in a train were being handled electronically, so safety laws requiring a caboose were dropped. A whole era of children’s stories came to an end.

Unlike Antony in the wake of Caesar’s murder, I come neither to bury the caboose nor to praise it. But it is an example of an ephemeral influence on the human psyche, and who can say what its impress on any given person’s character might be? This is a more important question that we might think.

Attentive readers will have noticed that I have reviewed two books recently which take different approaches toward convincing or persuading the men and women of our age to recognize God’s existence, take Him seriously, and seek a relationship with Him. I now wish you to notice that I ended each of my titles with a question mark (Fr. Robert Spitzer on happiness: An effective approach to God? and God the Designer: Yes or No?). Why did I do that?

There are two reasons. First, I wished to pique the reader’s interest in whether the central arguments in each case were convincing. Objectively, I would say that they are. But second, I hoped to raise a more subtle question: Will these central arguments be effective in engaging a significant proportion of each author’s projected modern audience? That is a far more difficult issue.

All the Reasons for Unbelief

As with the unfathomable imaginative impact of the little red caboose, the influences which dispose men and women to believe or not believe in God, or to act as if God does or does not exist, are many and varied and hard to guess. The same caboose which means nothing to one person might instill dreams of travel in another—or the realization of how uncomfortable it would be to travel very far.

Indeed, the same stimulus can help to form different people in different ways. For example, a father who attempts to instill reverence in his children may be successful or unsuccessful, depending on the overall way in which his various children react to his personality, the other influences in the life of each child, or a child’s propensity to live in rebellion. In my own case, faith was attractive in my formative years in the 1960s because by embracing it I had to swim against the cultural tide (which it seems to be in my nature to do). For many others, cultural pressure had the opposite effect.

Even when we make a list of rather obvious reasons why many people do not believe in God, or at least persistently ignore the question of God’s role in their lives, we can see that the same reasons could stimulate some other soul to greater belief. Along with cultural pressure, consider ignorance, pride, mistaken understandings, bad experiences with religion, misplaced priorities, selfish desires, distractions, bad example, and frameworks of perception which make religion seem false or irrelevant on its face. Each and every one of these things can push any given person in more than one direction.

This is why, in the work of evangelization, something more is needed than this or that book, this or that argument, or this or that sermon. With communities, it is necessary to learn something of their history, their common cultural values, what comes easy to them and what hard. With individuals, it is necessary to get to know them well, to learn something of their personalities, likes and dislikes, motivation, and stumbling blocks. The more we understand about another person, the more likely we can write or say the things that will successfully address that person’s needs, that person’s obstacles to faith.

Inducements to Faith

Apologists call “motives of credibility” those things which attract people to Christ and the Church such that they want to believe. I’ve talked about this before. Among other essays, see Models of Apologetics (1/9/2013), Why believe in God? And why are some answers so unbearably thin? (1/8/2015), Evangelization and the Gift of Meaning (3/3/2015), or even go back to examine the darker side of such motives in Victims of Our Catholic Personalities (6/6/2007).

Something as theologically irrelevant as cultural pressures in favor of the Church can induce people to take the Faith seriously, though the development of an interior life may be slow in coming. But usually there are obstacles that need to be overcome—a bad father figure, a misperception of the nature and role of the physical sciences, a situation handled badly by the clergy, serious attachment to some vice, an image of God that is either terrifying or just plain stupid, a particular suffering, some private guilt, a sense of unworthiness, anger at God. Not everyone needs an intensely personal touch, but many people do.

It was quite common in my youth for would-be evangelizers to stress arguments to overcome errors and misconceptions. I have certainly done plenty of this, and clearly it has its place. But in the last generation, as cultural religiosity has disintegrated and died away, the Church has increasingly sought to inject a sense of Divine mercy into the resulting chaos. The theory (though no particular “theory” is needed to proclaim the mercy of God) is that a great many of our contemporaries are not only confused but, in their confusion, alienated from themselves. Nothing seems to make sense; as Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold”. The poverty of meaning in the modern world will nearly always, at one point or another, lead to a kind of enervating despair.

Divine Mercy

In the face of this vacuum of meaning, recent popes, beginning with John Paul II, have strongly emphasized God’s mercy. Pope Francis has continued and even heightened this emphasis, and it makes what we might call “old school” Catholics nervous; they fear that the message is unclear about the exact character of prevalent sins and the need for a change of life. But in the midst of alienation, including alienation from our very selves, the mercy of God can often restore a fundamental connectedness that has been lost.

To put it in the first person, assurance of mercy is assurance that, no matter what mess I have made of things, and no matter how deep my present confusion, God loves me inexpressibly and yearns for me to call Him “Daddy” (Abba). Mercy is an experience that, very frequently, we can actually extend to others with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. In a flash of grace, the soul recognizes that God is Savior, that God is the sole source of meaning and love. To feel intimately connected to God changes everything.

When a person’s outlook is fundamentally changed in this way, everything that has alienated or confused the person in the past suddenly becomes a motive for strengthening this new and vital relationship. And now, Fr. Spitzer’s exploration of happiness and Dr. Augros’ arguments for the First Cause begin to penetrate. Tailored to each personal situation, the motives of credibility—through the assistance offered by an apostle-friend—finally become attractive. The mind begins to catch up. Conversion becomes a work of love.

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8) and “We love, because he loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 05, 2015 2:57 PM ET USA

    "I wished to pique the reader’s interest in whether the central arguments in each case were convincing. ...I hoped to raise a more subtle question: Will these central arguments be effective in engaging a significant proportion of each author’s projected modern audience?" I have assigned Dr. Augros' book as supplemental reading in our apologetics course this fall. If you raise the question again next May, I'll let you know the book's impact on our CCD students.

  • Posted by: chady - Aug. 01, 2015 7:26 AM ET USA

    'Open our hearts to your Word O Lord, to repentance, to pardon and a life in the Spirit. Amen.'

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Jul. 31, 2015 5:04 PM ET USA

    Excellent! I can use this with alienated persons in my life. Maybe it will strike a chord - if honesty prevails.