Kicking Against the Goads

First of all, let me apologize for being one of those people who sign up on a forum just to ask one question only to disappear forever. I don’t much enjoy internet message boards and the like, so I doubt I’ll be very active as a member. However, I’m posting this here because I respect the quality of the answers I’ve seen to other questions. Even when my hackles rise at a point someone has made I appreciate the refreshing clarity that you folks seem to value. So, let me say that this a question on the matter of conversion. Biographically, I was born to a Catholic father and a Methodist mother. After they split up, I mostly attended Methodist church, going to Mass once or twice a year, until the time that I was old enough not to go to church at all. Now I’m 34 and I haven’t been in a Catholic church in twenty years. Having said that, here is an email I just sent a priest friend of mine. There’s nothing personal or confessional about it, and I would be happy to have a broader perspective of thoughts. So if you can read and comment then please accept my thanks!:

Hello Fr. [Redacted],

I went to the library after you wrote me back and tried to organize in my thoughts how to proceed.

The first thing that I should address is that of my temperament. One of the most popular of spiritual cliches these days is the formula “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This defines one in a very specific way. The person who says it is big on compassion and mystical experience. They probably enjoy walking in nature and spend a great deal of time trying to find the pattern that exists behind all religious expression. Certainly, they feel wary and skeptical of dogma and doctrine. These are the rules of man and not the life of God. I am not one of these people. I like nature well-enough but I never feel any kind of spiritual kinship with it. Neither am I prone to mystical experiences nor particularly compassionate (the latter is a character flaw of mine, I’ll admit). I am not, and I’ve never been, drawn to the things of the spirit.

The other half-- the rules and dogmas and traditions-- have always attracted me. I am drawn to the process of humbly approaching the absolute, of allowing an external force to conform me into something better (so long as it truly is better, of course). This seems to me the most important part of the practical work religion does in the world, and the people who reject it reject, in my opinion, the actual working part of their faith. What I want to emphasize right now, though, is that I do not feel the presence of God in my life, nor do I sense it in the world. My long-term intuition that the universe is bleak, unforgiving, and utterly indifferent to myself and everything else remains (mostly) unchallenged. What’s more, I’ve grown comfortable in this worldview. I don’t contemplate death with satisfaction or indifference (it still scares me), but it doesn’t fill me with despair either. I’ve come to accept these things in a way that is baked pretty deeply into my psychological and imaginative make-up.

Another, perhaps even more damning, admission: I feel no love when I contemplate the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t feel desperately antagonistic toward Jesus either. For the most part, I feel indifferent. When I feel anything it is mere pity that another human being has suffered that much.

None of this is intended to be dismissive. Even as an atheist, I have taken these matters with absolute seriousness. Jesus Christ is the center of the Christian religion. Any hesitancy about him as a person and a divinity is a stance against that religion. Likewise, I’m not sure that a mystical temperament is necessary to be a Christian, but my (almost) complete lack of sensibility when it comes to such matters says something. Doesn’t it?

Perhaps it does. And yet, my contentment is being challenged. A large part of this comes from deep immersion in J.S. Bach, which has occupied a good deal of my time lately. There is something inspired in this music! The other day I was listening to a youtube video by Peter Kreeft and he said that he personally knows three former atheists who have told him that the St. Matthew’s Passion convinced them of the existence of God. “There is the music of Bach, therefore God exists” he said and my skin prickled when he said this because, as I listened to the St. Matthew’s Passion the same thought came unbidden to me. Reverence for the human genius and brilliance of the man (and of course there is no question of him being a genius) just doesn’t seem enough. There’s something else, and that sense of alterity bothers me.

Also, I’ve found myself drawn to the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has written powerfully about how rationality can only exist from within a tradition. He has opened the world of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine to me, thinkers whom I always liked but never really took seriously. But now I feel the need to. Frankly, if a man of MacIntyre’s intellectual stature feels bound to this tradition, then that in itself seems at least a reasonable, if partial, argument for it.

At base, this is where I pause. Natural Theology and apologetics only take you so far. They, at best, make a particular stance plausible. It takes something else to get one to accept the merely plausible as truth. I hesitate at the place between amiable, liberal acceptance of a believer’s rationality and the monstrous place beyond that where the believer stands. I’m ambivalent because not all of my questions have been answered, because I find some of what I see over there ugly and destructive, because the only need I have to be over there is an anxious sense that maybe there is truth and goodness even though I cannot comprehend it.

So what do you think, Father? The whole thing has got me pretty agitated. I would appreciate some perspective or insight as to how to proceed. Thanks!

There’s something called actual Grace (technical term: prevenient Grace). It’s not sanctifying Grace - it doesn’t result in salvation. It is how God draws us to himself. I think you’re getting a good dose of prevenient Grace.

You are feeling drawn to God and the Church, but you don’t know the root cause for this. I think the root cause is the very thing you have believed doesn’t exist, which is why you can’t perceive it - you’re not looking there.

As an atheist, the only path that will lead you to God and satisfy your intellect is philosophy. Philosophy is the study of truth, and is the foundation for all truth. Even mathematics is a branch of philosophy - when we say A = B we are talking about equality, which is a philosophical concept. Philosophy is not opinion, but objective reality.

t is possible to establish the truth of God beyond all reasonable doubt through philosophy. Aquinas has his “five proofs,” which are philosophical, but are not fundamentally rigorous.

A full-on logically rigorous proof is not an easy thing to construct - it draws on many areas of philosophy, such as the nature of existence - which is logically complicated and requires a lot of drilling to get to the fundamental logical principles and tie them together.

Such a proof has been constructed by Norman Geisler in his book, Christian Apologetics. This book requires an attentive reader - I would consider it a college-level text.

You have been given a gift. It would be unfortunate if you didn’t open it and look inside.

Thanks for the response DavidFilmer,

I’ll see if I can find that book in the library. I’ve also been reading Kreeft’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics (which is why I was looking him up on youtube to begin with). I can promise that I shall attend to the matter with all sincerity.

I also plan to work my way through Aquinas (a lifetime’s task, of course) as well as De Doctrina Christiana by Augustine. Gilson and Chesterton too. We’ll see how it turns out. Vale.

A note about prevenient Grace.

What God is doing is putting himself in front of you, in the person of Jesus, and of the Church, with the assertion of being true and being Truth. He is putting himself before you as truth not just to your intellect, but also as an object before your will as something that could be very good (if it were true). And he puts himself there as a person to trust, not just a theory to trust. If the person is true (Christ, the Church), then all the understanding he brings with him is also true.

So, you are hearing ideas, but also seeing the person saying them to you, and entertaining the thought that it would indeed be very good if you could trust the person and join him.

Prevenient Grace brings you to this point, where you are, in effect, hearing, “Follow me.”

Faith = Hebrews 11:1

It doesn’t come from within oneself, it’s a gift from God. Ask for it and mean it when you ask. He will give it to you.

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