An adult conversion to Catholicism—or indeed to any form of orthodox Christianity—is not an everyday occurrence in the American academy. Most secular academics seem to receive any profession of Christian faith with a vague sense of embarrassment. Adherence to Judaism or Islam is another matter, although why is not immediately self-evident, since both impose stringent demands upon their faithful. Perhaps they meet with greater tolerance because they are less familiar, perhaps because, whatever the reality, they do not carry Christianity’s taint of having long figured as the religion of a male European elite that allegedly used its faith to cow others into submission. Nor does it change anything to remind skeptics that, in the United States, Catholics long suffered a discrimination that was, in its way, almost as implacable as that suffered by black Americans. A vague, nondenominational Christianity—or, better yet, Unitarianism—may be acceptable, but Catholicism lies beyond the pale. Catholicism is not something that people “like us” embrace.
Thus when, in December 1995, I was received into the Catholic Church, my nonbelieving colleagues tactfully refrained from comment, primarily, I suspect, because they literally did not know what to say. More likely than not, many of them assumed that, having lived through some difficult years, I was turning to faith for some form of irrational consolation. Consequently, from their perspective, to acknowledge my conversion would, implicitly, have been to acknowledge my vulnerability. Others, who were less sympathetic, doubtless assumed that my turn to Rome reflected what they viewed as my reactionary politics, notably with respect to abortion. From their perspective, I had exiled myself from acceptable conversation of any kind.
I have no intention of berating my colleagues or other secular academics, but rather to call attention to aspects of the prevailing secular mindset that make the idea of conversion virtually incomprehensible. For secular academics, the language and practice of faith belong to an alien world. Not understanding faith, they are ill prepared to understand conversion to it. Having long participated in the reigning discourse of secular intellectuals, I understand all too well where they are coming from, and I readily acknowledge that indeed “there but for the grace of God go I.” More important, however, my long apprenticeship in their world allows me to reflect upon their unreflective assumptions, for those assumptions cut a broad swath through our culture as a whole, challenging faith at every turn. So firm is their hold upon our culture that they are imperceptibly permeating the fabric of faith itself, constantly challenging the faithful to justify and rejustify our beliefs.
Believers, in sharp contrast to nonbelievers, welcome conversion stories as heartening evidence of God’s grace and the workings of the Holy Spirit. The conversion of a secular intellectual in particular seems to snatch a soul from the very jaws of feminism, communism, nihilism, atheism, or some other fashionable secular ideology. Given the broad gap between belief and nonbelief that both sides perceive, it is not surprising that both hostile and sympathetic observers expect conversion stories to be dramatic. Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, the convert is generally expected to have experienced a moment of blinding illumination followed by a radical change of life. This expectation testifies to a widespread sense that the tenets of faith and those of the world, of Jerusalem and of Athens, are in conflict. While emphatically not disputing the significance of the deep differences between the views and attitudes of believers and those of nonbelievers, I did not myself experience conversion as a radical rupture with my past. This is not to say that I did not experience the journey to belief as what my students call “life-changing”: in essential ways, I did. Nonetheless, in other ways I did not. In many respects, my conversion fit neatly—almost seamlessly—into the continuum of my life, and, from this perspective, it was a natural stage in the journey rather than a new departure.
For practical purposes, I grew up a non-believing Christian. Wait a minute, you may fairly protest, is that not an oxymoron? How can a nonbeliever describe herself as Christian if faith constitutes the essence of Christianity? Time and again throughout the Gospels, Jesus evokes belief in himself and the Father who sent him as the only test or standard. Think of Martha at the time of Lazarus’s death: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 10:27). And Martha is not alone. Time and again petitioners receive what they seek because Jesus fulfills their belief. As he tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 10:25“26). A Christian, by definition, is one who accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior and, no less important, as Lord. Everything depends upon belief.
The story of modernity has arguably been one of the marginalization and discrediting of belief, or, perhaps more accurately, its relegation to the realm of radical subjectivity. Modernity, in other words, has systematically divorced faith from moral and intellectual authority. Until well into the twentieth century, however, the mounting assaults on faith did not entirely erase the living legacy of Christianity from Western culture. If nothing else, the moral teachings of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount continued to receive a measure of respect—in exhortation if not uniformly in observance. My early years conformed precisely to this pattern, especially with respect to the Decalogue, which my parents took with utmost seriousness. In retrospect, it seems to me that my father especially never doubted the truth of Dostoevsky’s troubling question: “If God is dead, is not everything permitted?” Yet neither he nor my mother was a believer, and neither taught us to believe. Like many other honorable and upright modernists, they apparently grounded their strong sense of morality in the integrity of the individual.
Throughout my non-churchgoing, non-believing adult years, I had always considered myself a Christian in the amorphous cultural sense of the world. Having been reared on the Bible and Protestant hymns, I was conversant with the language and basic tenets of Christianity. I had, moreover, been reared with a deep respect for the great Hebrew prophets, assorted Protestant leaders and Catholic saints, and even the unique value of Jesus Christ as the preeminent exemplar of loving self“sacrifice. Never, I am grateful to say, did I, like too many secular intellectuals, denigrate or disdain believing Christians, whom I had always been inclined to regard with respect. But for long years, I did not give much thought to joining their number. By the time I had completed college and then graduate school, I had so thoroughly imbibed materialist philosophy that it did not occur to me to look beyond it. My quests, such as they were, focused upon the claims and contours of moral worthiness in a world that took it as a matter of faith that “God is dead.”
Over the years, my concerns about morality deepened, and my reflections invariably pointed to the apparently irrefutable conclusion that morality was, by its very nature, authoritarian. Morality, in other words, drew the dividing line between good and bad. During the years of my reflection, however, the secular world was rapidly promoting the belief that moral conviction, like any other idea, expressed the standpoint of the person who enunciated it. And it was becoming a widely shared belief that there were as many moralities as there were people and that it was inappropriate to impose one’s own morality on another whose situation one could not fully understand. Although as predisposed as any to respect the claims of difference, whether of sex, class, or culture, I increasingly found this moral relativism troubling. It seemed difficult to imagine a world in which each followed his or her personal moral compass, if only because the morality of some was bound, sooner or later, to clash with the morality of others. And without some semblance of a common standard, those clashes were more than likely to end in one or another form of violence.
My more wrenching concerns, however, lay elsewhere. Thinking and writing about abortion had led me to an ever greater appreciation for the claims of life, which were so often buried beneath impassioned defenses of a woman’s right to self-determination, especially her right to sexual freedom. When I began to think seriously about the issue, my commitment to women’s right to develop their talents predisposed me to support the legality of abortion, at least up to a certain point. Even then, I found it impossible not to take seriously the life of the fetus that was being so casually cast aside. The emerging discussions of assisted suicide only intensified my discomfort, as I found myself worrying about one human being deciding whether another’s life is worth living. “How do we know?” I kept asking myself. “How ever can we know?”
Today, it is easy to see that I was instinctively revolting against a utilitarian or instrumentalist understanding of the value of human life. For I did understand that as soon as we admit as a serious consideration whether our obligations to others are inconvenient, the value of any life becomes negotiable. At this point, as you will note, my internal struggles still unfolded within a secular framework, although I fully appreciated that devout Christians and Jews viewed reverence for life in its most vulnerable forms as a divine commandment. Indeed, I was slowly coming to envy the certainty that religious faith afforded, and I began to think seriously about joining a church. At the same time, I knew that no matter how noble and well-intentioned, worldly preoccupations were not an adequate reason for doing so.
As if barring my path to church membership stood the figure of Jesus Christ. The churches I most respected all required that prospective members affirm their personal faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. I did not question the legitimacy of the requirement, but nothing in my previous life seemed to have prepared me to meet it. To the best of my knowledge, I had no personal experience of religious faith and no real grasp of its nature. When I was twenty, André Amar, a brilliant professor of philosophy and a devout Jew, had spoken to me of religion as a realm unto itself, irreducible to any other, and his words had lodged in my mind, but I did not fully understand them. To this day, I cannot point to a single moment of conversion, no blinding light that opened my eyes, no arrow that pierced my heart. Almost imperceptibly, the balance between doubt and faith shifted, and, on one ordinary day, it came to me that I had decided to enter the Catholic Church.
It would be easy to think that my decision, however lacking in drama, represented the end of my journey to faith. Instead it marked only the beginning of what is proving to be an adventure I could not previously have imagined. The Sunday after reaching that decision, quietly and alone, I went to Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta. Both my Catholic-born but at the time unbelieving husband and my devoutly Catholic friend and graduate student, Sheila O’Connor, would happily have accompanied me, but I did not tell them where I was going.
I had not attended a Mass since my youth, during visits to France, and then only rarely. I had no clear idea of what to expect, although I knew enough to know that I could not receive communion. Yet an almost visceral instinct told me that this first direct encounter with the faith I was planning to embrace was something I could not foresee and must undertake alone. By now, most of my specific memories of that morning have merged with the countless times I have attended Mass at the Cathedral since. All that stands out is my response to that first hour, as a Catholic-to-be, of confronting the figure of the crucified Christ that dominates the Cathedral. There, directly in front of me, was the Lord I had pledged myself to serve—a Lord whom as yet I barely knew and who nonetheless seemed to hold me fast.
Shortly thereafter, thanks to the help of Sheila’s mother, I began to receive instruction from Fr. Richard Lopez, the remarkable priest who remains the confessor and spiritual director for my husband and me. Fr. Lopez rapidly determined that I was much more familiar with Catholic theology than he had reason to have expected, and thereafter his instruction focused primarily upon the practice, rituals, and traditions of Catholicism. Between our meetings, I read the Catechism and other books on the elements of Catholicism, attended Mass, and learned and said prayers. During the meetings, Fr. Lopez guided me through the practical meaning of words and rituals. We discussed the significance of the colors priests wear during the different seasons of the liturgical calendar, the role of the Virgin Mary and the saints as intercessors, the structure of the Mass, and more. In retrospect, what astonishes me is how much I learned and how little I truly understood. For the words we exchanged, valuable as they were, remained mere words. Learning them felt like a privileged initiation, but I used them rather in the way in which one learns to say the beads of the Rosary before one begins to grasp the immediacy of the events they signify.
In deciding to enter the Church, I had decided that I believed in Christ Jesus and accepted him as my Lord and Savior, but even as my love for and commitment to the Church deepened, I remained unsure of precisely what my faith meant or from whence it derived. Fr. Lopez reassured me that faith and faithfulness were, above all, matters of the will rather than the emotions, which, he insisted, remain inherently suspect. His words conformed to what I had learned from my own reading in Catholic theology and eased my occasional misgivings about the elusiveness of my own feelings. On the day of my reception, which included the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, penance, marriage, and communion, a transformative joy consecrated a decision that now seemed to derive as much from the heart as the mind.
That joy, although varying in manifestation and intensity, has persisted since. But my understanding of its meaning has not ceased to change and grow. Today I see more clearly than I could at the time that much of my initial hesitation and diffidence derived from my unconscious persistence in materialist habits of thought. Like any good rationalist, I kept looking for unambiguous explanations for my turn to faith, and, although the possible candidates abounded, none clearly stood out as the reason. It took two or three years for me to begin to understand that the decisive action had not been mine but God’s. In principle, we all know that faith is a gift or grace, not a personal accomplishment. But if my case is as common as I suspect it is, we find that knowledge surprisingly difficult to believe and make fully ours. Thus, with the best of intentions, we try to earn that which lies beyond the reach of even our most heroic efforts and which exceeds any merit we can conceive.
An important part of what opened me to Catholicism—and to the peerless gift of faith in Christ Jesus—was my growing horror at the pride of too many in the secular academy. The sin is all the more pernicious because it is so rarely experienced as sin. Educated and enjoined to rely upon our reason and cultivate our autonomy, countless perfectly decent and honorable professors devote their best efforts to making sense of thorny intellectual problems, which everything in their environment encourages them to believe they can solve. Postmodernism has challenged the philosophical presuppositions of the modernists’ intellectual hubris, but, with the same stroke, it has pretended to discredit what it calls “logocentrism,” namely, the centrality of the Word. In the postmodernist universe, all claims of universal certainty must be exposed as delusions, leaving the individual as authoritative arbiter of the meaning that pertains to his or her situation. Thus, what originated as a struggle to discredit pretensions to intellectual authority has ended, at least in the American academy, in a validation of personal prejudice and desire.
Sad as it may seem, my experience with radical, upscale feminism only reinforced my growing mistrust of individual pride. The defense of abortion especially troubled me because of my inability to agree that any one of us should decide who has the right to live. But my engagement with faith drew me into more general reflection about the importance of charity and service in the life of the Christian. Initially, I had shied away from the idea of the imitation of Christ and even from the entreaty in the Universal Prayer to “make me holy.” Such aspirations struck me as the ultimate presumption: who was I to pretend to holiness, much less the imitation of our Savior? Gradually, those fears began to dissipate, and I found myself meditating upon the Gospels’ teaching on service, above all, that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for all.” Having been received in the Church on the day after the feast of the Immaculate Conception, I also pondered the Holy Mother’s response to the Annunciation: “Let it be done unto me according to Thy Word.”
The injunctions to charity and service unmistakably applied to all Christians, but it was difficult to deny that, since the moment of the Virgin Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel, they applied in a special way to women. Her example, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has reminded us, offers the exemplary embodiment of faith. “Faith is the surrender of the entire person: because Mary from the start surrendered everything, her memory was the unsullied tablet on which the Father, through the Spirit, could write His entire Word.” It is incontestable that, throughout most of history, women have suffered injustices and abuse that cry out for redress. It is no less incontestable that the path to justice and dignity for women—the recognition of their equal standing with men as human persons—cannot lead through the repudiation of the most basic tenets of our faith. No amount of past oppression can justify women’s oppression of the most vulnerable among us—or even our repudiation of our own specific vocation as women.
Pope John Paul II has written extensively on the special dignity and mission of women, frequently provoking the shrill opposition of feminists, especially Catholic feminists. Above all, feminists deplore his insistence upon the abiding differences between women and men and upon women’s exclusion from the priesthood. I would be astonished if, at one point or another, every woman has not tasted some of that anger, the outraged sense of “Why me? Why should I always be the one to give?” And it does not help if men interpret women’s yielding as proof of men’s superiority. Not expecting heaven on earth in the near future, I see little prospect that either of these responses will simply evaporate. Yet both miss the key to the Holy Father’s theology of the person, namely, that the essence of our humanity lies in our capacity for “self-gift.” This understanding links our relations with one another to our relation to God, reminding us of the danger of treating another person as an object. It also suggests that, whether in relation with others or in communion with God, our highest realization of self results from the gift—or loss—of self.
In our time, it is countercultural indeed to see the loss or effacement of self as an admirable goal. Our culture’s obsession with identity and the rights of the individual seems to suggest precisely the reverse. You will nonetheless recall the First Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). For years the passage, when I thought of it, puzzled me. In what way was poverty of spirit to be seen as desirable, especially in a Christian? And what, precisely, did poverty of spirit mean? I had left the question, together with others that I hoped some day to understand, in the back of my mind until I happened upon Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ eye“opening explanation in his Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (1996). Pointing out that this is not merely the first of the Beatitudes, but the only one in the present tense, Leiva-Merikakis explains that the poor in spirit are those who literally “beg for their life’s very breath””those who depend upon God the way we all depend upon air to breathe. Poverty of spirit is the grace of those who have emptied themselves of everything but the desire for God’s presence, “who offer God a continual sacrifice from the altar of their spirit, and the sacrifice in question is the very substance of their being.” And those who achieve poverty of spirit have their reward in the present as well as the future, for to live in poverty of spirit is indeed to live with God.
A decisive moment in my journey in faith came when, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the thought pierced me that Jesus had died for my sins. And, immediately on its heels, came the devastating recognition that I am not worth his sacrifice. Only gradually have I come truly to understand that the determination of worth belongs not to me but to him. God’s love for us forever exceeds our control and challenges our understanding. Like faith, it is His gift, and our task is to do our best to receive it. The knowledge, even when partial and imperfect, that He loves us also opens us to new responsibilities and obligations. For if He loves us all, He also loves each of us. And recognition of that love imposes on us the obligation to love one another, asking no other reason than God’s injunction to do so. As fallen human creatures, we are nonetheless likely to continue to search for human reasons that justify our loving service to those in whom we find little or no obvious redeeming value. And the best human reason may be found in the faith that God has freely given us: our nonjudgmental love of the other remains the condition of God’s love for us. For, knowing how little we merit His love, our best opening to the faith that He does lies not in the hope of being better than others, but in the security that His love encompasses even the least deserving among us.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese teaches at Emory University. Her most recent book, coedited with Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, is Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (Routledge).