"The Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth it is this, and Protestantism has ever felt it so; to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (-John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).

"Where the bishop is, there let the people gather; just as where ever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church". -St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca 110 AD)a martyr later thrown to the lions, wrote to a church in Asia Minor. Antioch was also where the term "Christian" was first used.

“But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” 1 Timothy 3:15

"This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic." -CCC 811

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Atheist Converted to the Catholic Faith

Why I’m Catholic

By Jennifer Fulwiler
I am asked with increasing frequency why I converted to Catholicism as opposed to one of the other Christian denominations. Though this blog is sort of one long conversion story, I’ve never put together a post summarizing that part of my journey because that subject matter can be a hot (and divisive) topic. 

Also, these types of posts are often interpreted to have an implication that people who have had different experiences and have come to different conclusions about religion and God are wrong and therefore not going to be saved. I want to make it really clear that that is not what I believe (nor what the Church believes — in fact, one of the many things that resonated as true about Catholic teaching is the belief that non-Catholics and non-Christians could also go to heaven). 

Anyway, I’ve decided to go ahead and write about that part of the conversion process, but I want to add a big disclaimer that I’m sharing this in the spirit of telling my story. I am far too concerned about what I see happening in the world today to have any interest in causing division among Christians. We’re in this together. 

As always, please take this for what it is: the ramblings of some fool with an internet connection. :) Take it (and everything else I write) with a grain of salt.

My search for God really began in earnest when I started reading up on Christianity. For a couple years I’d been making half-hearted attempts to open my mind to the possibility of God’s existence but it never really went anywhere. And then I stumbled across some reasonable Christian writers who laid out a logical case for Jesus having actually existed, the events as described in the New Testament having actually happened, and for Jesus being who he said he was (former atheist Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ has a nice, quick summary). Not that these authors “proved” their case irrefutably or that no arguments could be made against them, but they had a much more compelling, evidence-based case than I’d thought they had. I was intrigued.

I decided to see what it meant to be a Christian. Some bad childhood experiences had left me with a bad taste in my mouth about the religion, but I decided to give it my best effort to start fresh, exploring this belief system with an open mind. I bought a copy of the Bible.

Before I even opened the cover, we had a problem.

I wanted to know if the people who did the English translation of this version were said to have been inspired by God as the writers of the original texts were. When I found out the answer was no, I was concerned. Translators have a lot of leeway and can really impact a text. If this book could potentially be the key to people knowing or not knowing God, I was uneasy about reading a 21st century English version of texts that were written in far different cultures thousands of years ago, translated by average people. Could God not have inspired all translators? Though I was concerned, I decided to set the issue aside for the time being and move on.

Somewhere around page two, we had another problem.

I found the creation story fit surprisingly well with what we know of the origin of the universe through science, albeit in symbolic form. I could definitely believe that this was true. I could not, however, believe that it was a journalistic style account of events, like something you’d read in the newspaper. So I immediately needed to know: is it required of Christians to believe that Genesis is to be taken literally? I asked people and looked around online, and quickly found that there was not unanimous agreement on this. I found people who laid out a pretty good case that, yes, it is required of Christians to believe that Genesis is a literal, blow-by-blow description of events that happened about 6,000 years ago; yet others made a good case that Christians should believe that it is truth conveyed through symbolism. I really couldn’t tell who I should believe.

I decided to move on and get to what I really wanted to know about: the Christian moral code. One of the things that had originally piqued my interest in religion in the first place was the fact that humans throughout history have all had this same sense that objective truth exists, what is “right” and “wrong” is not subjective. Also, I had begun to feel confused and lost when I looked at the world around me. This was around the time of the Terri Schiavo controversy, and when I tried to weigh issues like that, as well as the other big ethical dilemmas like human cloning, research on embryos, etc. I just felt sad and adrift. I really didn’t know what was right or wrong, yet I had this vague sense that a true “right” answer must be out there somewhere. If there was a God, surely he had opinions about these things. And surely he could guide me to find them.

So I picked the Bible back up and continued reading.

One example of the type of answers I was searching for was what Christianity had to say about abortion. At the time I considered myself staunchly “pro-choice”, yet something had started to nag at me about that position. I felt uneasy about the whole thing, and wanted to know if Christianity said that God is OK with abortion or not. I read through the New Testament (eventually reading it cover to cover), and couldn’t find much. I kept instinctively flipping to the last page for some sort of answer key. How was I supposed to find the part where God tells us what he thinks about terminating pregnancies? Someone recommended that I get a concordance. I was happy to do that, but it felt strange: in order to know how to live as a Christian you need a Bible and a concordance? And were the writers of the concordance inspired? What if they missed something big or made a mistake?

I wasn’t coming up with much so I Googled around to see what Christians had to say about it. And I found as many different opinions as I found people, everyone offering Bible verses to back up their claims. Each person stated their interpretation confidently as a fact — yet they contradicted one another. When I looked up the verses they cited in my own Bible, sometimes I felt they were right-on, other times I felt they were taken out of context, and other times I didn’t even know what the context was (e.g. some Old Testament verses where I just had no idea what was going on).

What frequently happened when I was looking for Biblical answers to my ethical dilemmas was that I’d read two contradictory opinions from two different Christians. I’d decide that Christian #1 made the best case based on Scripture, so I had my answer. But then Christian #2 would come back with a new verse that I’d never seen before that shed new light on it, and then I’d think his case must be the right one. And then Christian #1 would come up with yet another verse and I’d think he had the right answer. And then…well, you get the idea. It seemed that in order to form my own opinion about any of these issues I’d have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

So I started reading. I decided to skip ahead to the New Testament since that’s where Jesus comes in. And, as with the Old Testament, we quickly had a problem. Here is a sort of sample discussion I’d have with whatever Christian I could find to pester with questions:
ME: Ack! I just read this part in the New Testament where Jesus tells some rich dude he has to give away all his stuff! If I decide this Christianity thing is true am I going to have to give away all my stuff?! [Worried glace at brand new Dell Inspiron laptop.]
FRIEND: Hah! No, don’t worry, Jesus was just talking to that one guy.
ME: Where does it say that? Does he later clarify that that instruction was only for that one guy?
FRIEND: No, but that’s clearly how he meant it.
ME: That’s not clear to me. Anyway, there’s this part where he tells this woman Martha that her sister Mary did the right thing by putting Jesus before trivial stuff. Was that only a lesson for her?
CHRISTIAN: No, that’s a lesson for all of us.
ME: [Flipping to last page to look for answer key.] Where is that clarified?
This usually ended with my Christian acquaintances telling me to let the Holy Spirit guide me (and probably making a mental note to find less annoying friends). Even though I wasn’t sure I believed in God, I had been praying through this whole process. So I prayed for guidance. I asked God to lead me to the right conclusion about all these questions, to speak to me through Scripture about everything from abortion and experimentation on human embryos to whether or not I needed to give away all my stuff.

After a while of praying, reading the Bible, and visiting some churches, I felt like I had some conclusions. I decided that a good Biblical case could be made for “a woman’s right to choose” (as I thought of it then), that I didn’t need to give away all my stuff, that it was probably OK to experiment on embryos if it was for curing diseases, etc. I’d felt led to these conclusions, presumably by God, and had found some scriptures that would seem to support them.

But something didn’t feel right.

As I continued thinking and praying about whether or not I’d come to the right conclusions about what God wants for us, I realized what the problem was, the reason I couldn’t relax: I couldn’t trust myself. You have to understand, I am a seriously sinful, selfish person. I realized that my self-serving nature severely clouded my ability to be confident in my interpretation Scripture. I had some pretty passionate opinions about all of these issues, and it was so hard to tell what was leading me to my conclusions. Was my decision that the Bible would be OK with me continuing in my comfy American lifestyle led by the “Holy Spirit” or “Jen’s seriously deep desire not to give away all her stuff”? I couldn’t tell.

My confusion about all of this made me wonder how people who are severely unintelligent could use the Bible as their guide. I’m probably in the middle of the Bell curve on intelligence, and I was really struggling. For that matter, what about the illiterate? Widespread literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet people who couldn’t read couldn’t use the Bible as their guide. They’d have to go through another, fallible person, which seemed dangerous.

Taking all of this as a whole, the writing was on the wall, so to speak. Christianity did not seem to be the path to God, if he even did exist. At least not for me. I just couldn’t trust myself to to get it right. I felt as adrift as ever in terms of the big ethical questions of our day. Though I thought I might have “experienced” God or the Holy Spirit or something from outside the material world a few times in my exploration, using the Christian holy book to find out how God would want me to live was just not working. I was leaning towards moving on to the next religion, seeking God through some other belief system. I prayed for guidance.

Around this time someone told me that one of the Christian denominations claimed that God did leave us this “answer key” I’d been yearning for. I found out that the Catholic Church claimed to be a sort of divinely-guided Supreme Court, that God guided this Church to be inerrant in its official proclamations about what is right and wrong, how to interpret the Bible, how to know Jesus Christ, and all other questions of God and what he wants us to do. I heard that it claims that God speaks to us through sacred Scripture and through the sacred Tradition of his living Church.

That got my attention.

Clearly there was a need for this. Surely I was not the only person to ever feel lost in the world, unable to trust myself to objectively interpret the Bible to discern what God wants from us, unable to clearly tell which of my conclusions about right and wrong were guided by the Holy Spirit and which were guided by deeply-rooted selfishness (or perhaps something worse).

Now, obviously I wasn’t going to become Catholic. I mean, the Catholic Church is weird and antiquated and sometimes the people in it do seriously bad stuff. But I was interested to at least explore this line of thinking and see what I found.

I could have never, ever imagined what I’d find. Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church was like nothing I’d ever experienced. This was truth. I knew it. I’d finally found it. It described God, our relationship to him, the Bible, Jesus, moral truths — the entire human experience — in a way that resonated on a deep level.
When I started living my life according to Catholic teaching the proof was, as they say, in the pudding. It worked. It worked better than I could have ever guessed it would. And since I’ve been able to receive what they say is really the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, my soul, my entire life, has changed profoundly. But that is whole separate story (and, really, the main subject of this blog). To summarize my experience, I leave you with a quote from G.K. Chesterton, writing about why he converted to orthodox Catholicism:
I do it because the [Catholic Church] has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden.
My thoughts exactly.

Again, I share this not to cause division, but for the same reason anyone talks about anything they love — that mysterious desire we all have to shout from the rooftops about the things that we find to be profound, beautiful, and true.

1 comment:

  1. This was wonderful. Thanks for writing this.

    ---Many Questions


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