JOURNEY OF FAITH
From 'Briefing', a one-time journal of the Catholic Church of England and Wales, January 2004.
As best I can remember, my journey of faith began at the age of 12 with my defection from the Radical Atheist Society to its more confused rival, the Moderate Atheist Society. Both societies were secret and purely imaginary, although privately elabourated with vast membership, advertising and prototypes of what an adult might call position papers. I cannot quite remember why I founded the Radical society. Conversations with my father — a university professor who describes himself, half-seriously, as a non-practising, non-believing Orthodox Jew — probably had something to do with it, as did my first exposure to the Bible, courtesy of the new subject of Religious Knowledge. (As an American, I had purely secular schooling, but the family was spending a year in the UK.) In any case, I remember sitting in a very small bedroom speculating about how much better the world would be if the foolish belief in God could be eliminated. I was too young to know how many people had made the same discovery before me, or to understand the difficulties and disappointments of a Godless life. I saw the world with the desperate clarity so easily available to children.
Nor can I quite reconstruct the reasons for the defection, only the shock it caused in my fantasy world of religious and anti-religious discussion. In retrospect, however, I see the clear signs of the first strand of my life of faith — doubt. Doubt is usually portrayed as the enemy of faith, and it often is, especially when it is only an expression of spiritual sloth. But doubt can also be something anti-empirical and pro-divine. It can be the persistent nagging of conscience, the refusal to accept the world as it seems, the openness to the transcendental. Coming from a house of no religious practice but great respect for the life of the mind, I was particularly open to the doubtful path to God.
The next three strands of my life of faith emerged during the following few years. The first was beauty, particularly the many beautiful depictions of the Madonna’s love for her child. This art appreciation, like the subsequent tumultuous beauty of my first romantic love, had no theological grounding. They were just powerful feelings. The artistic beauty was important enough to me that I chose a religious painting as an essay subject in university. I suspect the essay was terrible, but I remember that my teacher, a young Jewish woman from New York, asked me with some acerbity, ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing writing about Christian art?’ My incoherent answer had something to do with the universality of beauty.
Then there was a fascination with Christianity. At 13, I refused the bar mitzvah — it seemed like hypocrisy for a moderate atheist like myself — but I was interested in the Jewish religion. I asked my father for a good book to read on the topic. He suggested that I study Christianity instead of Judaism, because the more powerful religion had more historical relevance. (He remembers nothing of this discussion.) So I found a book in the public library about the history of Christianity. As far as I can make out from this distance, the book had a solid Protestant bias, but such sectarian questions did not seem very important. I loved the intellectual and historical drama — the effort to express ideas that were beyond normal human logic and then to use those ideas to shape lives and societies.
The fascination continued. At university, my favourite course was Medieval Church History and my favourite part was the Arian controversy, which offered both deep theology and huge political implications. I still found no place for religious belief in my own life, but the quite Christian quotation painted on a wall across from my window — ‘The Wages of Sin is Death’ — left me feeling indistinctly uneasy.
Finally, there was a taste for absolute truth, accompanied by a distrust of the scientific method’s claims of objectivity. These notions seem to have been spontaneously generated about the time I was first trying to make adult sense of the world. I remember finding that I, unlike my much-admired father, really did believe that there had to be something more to reality than all the contradictions and opinions of everyday experience. I also remember not believing my social studies teacher in ninth grade (that is US education-talk for history for 14-year-olds), when he claimed that this truth could be found through the ‘scientific method’ — that is just by collecting evidence and coolly evaluating it. Only much later would I find the ‘something more’, in the transcendent truth that is fully available only through the interplay of natural reason, revelation and the grace of the Holy Spirit, but the foundations of faith were already being laid.
Life went on without any pressing religious need. I got married to a lovely woman, a disaffected but fundamentally devout Catholic. I saw no reason for a Jewish ceremony — that still seemed like hypocrisy — and she did not insist on a Catholic marriage. So we settled on the Church of England (we were in the UK at the time). I felt some unease swearing by Almighty God, about whose existence I had grave doubts, but it seemed much better to have some ‘religion’ behind so important a commitment. A few months later, my wife wanted us to go to Catholic Mass for Easter, but I said no, and that was pretty much the end of our organised religious life.
Or so I thought. Despite my dismissal of the Holy Spirit, He persisted. After three children and various life difficulties, the last two strands of conversion came simultaneously into my life. One was a respect for morality, for the sharp difference between good and evil. I had grown up in a world of personal judgements, of fundamental options, of the preference for self-expression over goodness. The fact of the Nazis, whose self-expression and fundamental option had killed many members of my extended family, had dented my intellectual confidence in moral relativism, but the heart does not always follow logic, especially when the logic points towards life-changing decisions. Only in my early thirties, when my young children’s moral questions and my own moral mistakes started to make me deeply uncomfortable, did I realise that I needed to rely on a higher, objective standard of right and wrong.
The fall of pride, the final strand, was by far the most difficult to accept. I was not exactly proud of being an atheist, or perhaps by then an agnostic, and I was not particularly proud of my worldly accomplishments. My pride was in my self — the belief that I should be able to manage anything that came my way without any more-than-human help. When I found that I could not manage, I felt bereft. The broken pride started to heal, by the grace of God, on a country walk in the grounds of a monastery outside of Boston (the visit was my wife’s idea). At first, there was only a small, still sense of peace. It was not even a spark of faith, more like a half-glowing ember. I now recognise that incoherent presence as the first signs of God’s peace, the peace that passes all understanding.
A few weeks after the country walk my wife and I decided to take the children to church. She was looking for some of the old-fashioned moral teaching she remembered from her childhood (not actually a strongpoint of the current Catholic pedagogy). I was just interested. In the Mass, however, the ember of faith started to glow more brightly. After a few weeks, the ember had grown into a small flame, and I decided to become a catechumen. Although I was not aware of it at the time, all of the strands of faith were being knit into a solid cord.
Several months of instruction led to baptism in February 1988. I did not feel ready to be baptised — I had many new Catholic ideas to adjust to and much theology to absorb. The priest who instructed me told me to take a leap of faith. He argued that the acceptance of a lack of intellectual control was really an acceptance of the saving power of Jesus and of the sacraments of the Church. He was right. My first confessor was also right when he told me not to try to believe everything at once, but to learn to believe through study and prayer.
For the last 16 years I have tried to follow that advice. Study and prayer, my feeble efforts not to stand in the way of the Holy Spirit, have been richly rewarded. The doubt has never disappeared, indeed it continues to challenge and inspire. The love of beauty has become broader – the beauty of the faith has become a transcendental comfort. The fascination with Christianity has only grown, and has become as much emotional as intellectual. I now truly love the Church – not blindly, I hope, but deeply. I have tried to serve her, directly with teaching and talks and on committees and the like, and indirectly through my conversation and intellectual endeavours. Those endeavours reflect my continuing effort to approach the truth, which I now recognise as both transcendental and symphonic (in the word of the my theological mentor Hans Urs von Balthasar). As for morality, I do my best to lead a good life, and to help others in the same direction. My experience, and that of my friends, has persuaded me that the Church’s moral clarity is one of its most potent weapons in the modern world. Finally, the pride has hardly diminished, but I keep on trying.
The path of faith from conversion to here has not always been straight or easy. There was a geographic displacement, from the US to Europe. There were the various challenges of marriage, family, friends and work. More profoundly, there was the need to learn more about being Catholic, indeed the need to become more Catholic. That change was made more difficult by my almost total lack of spiritual gifts. I rarely find prayer easy and am too analytic and too proud. Fortunately, I have had much help. The Holy Spirit gets all of the credit, but His human associates have certainly played their part. I am thinking not only of the many people who love me, but also of the saints who pray for me and of the theologians who have been particularly important for me. I just mentioned von Balthasar, whose understanding of the beauty and drama of the Christian life has shaped my faith. Without his writings, and those of the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger and Aquinas, to name a few, I would have been even more blind to the Splendour of the Truth.
When I talk to ‘cradle Catholics’, young and old, they often express some combination of contempt and jealousy for my Catholic enthusiasm – ‘If you had to grow up with it, you’d be more realistic.’ I cannot say that they are wrong, although I do meet many lifelong Catholics who are at least as enthusiastic as I am. What I can say is that the Faith does not disappoint. It provides answers when there are questions, and new questions when the answers are too easy. It provides a guide to the conduct of the mind, the body and the heart, and it makes available the sacramental strength required to follow that guide. It provides meaning in the darkness of destructive doubt and helpful doubt in the easy certainty of subjective-technological modern thinking. For me, and I believe for all who are willing to make the effort, it provides the fuel for what I now recognise as the blazing fire of God’s love.