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Converting & De-Converting

PEG tweeted a link to this great blog entry by David Sessions, in which he re-examines his de-conversion from Evangelical Christianity to secular liberalism, and does so in light of Charles Taylor’s theories. Excerpt:

This is the story I would have told about myself at a certain point: I grew up in an environment where not believing in God was unimaginable; plenty of people weren’t “right with God,” but they still knew he was judging them. I had a primary education most people would consider fundamentalist (Darwinism was a hoax, Columbus was a God-ordained missionary to the savages, the American founders were Biblical literalists, liberal elites were trying to set up a “one-world government,” etc.) though, thanks to Francis Schaeffer, it fatefully included Greek philosophy and existentialist literature. At some point during and after college, I became aware the extent to which conservative evangelicals made up facts to support their predetermined beliefs, many of which had little basis in scripture or church tradition. I became aware of the difficult theological questions that never got satisfying answers, like why a loving, omniscient God would set humankind up to plunge itself into unimaginable tragedy. I experienced the power of alternative answers to the deepest questions in films and novels; books on history, anthropology and natural science convinced me that the only religious belief possible was a weak, theologically empty one whose pointlessness was almost immediately obvious. I was an accidental materialist, a believer overwhelmed by the facts.

The problem with this, in Taylor’s account, is that it’s only one side of the story, the side that gets privileged in our “theory-oriented” enlightened culture, where we “live in our heads, trusting disengaged understandings of experience”. People who have given up Christianity because of science often feel they have simply surrendered to obvious facts, which in a sense means they have. But only in a sense, because our construals of how and why the world is meaningful are “anticipatory,” meaning they run ahead of our rational explanations. The background world of what makes sense to us shifts ahead of us having theoretical reasons for why we changed our mind. So the poor Christian victims of Darwin are not in fact forced to abandon their faith because “science disproved the Bible”—it didn’t. Natural science is, in Taylor’s view, neutral on the God question. We feel a change in our pre- or sub-theoretical understanding of the world (which may have at least something to do with intellectual engagement), and the story about why that happened comes afterward.

Reading Taylor’s A Secular Age, though, Sessions came to understand that this was not really what happened to him. More:

But this did not happen primarily on an explicit, theoretically-engaged level; it happened “in the background,” in routines of daily life. Religious critics suggested as much—that I was sliding away from “the truth” only because of my environment, because I wanted to be “cool.” I strenuously objected that all this was, on the contrary, the product of Serious Reading and Good, Solid Intellectual Arguments. Most of us like to believe we have well-grounded, dispassionate reasons for our behavior and beliefs. But Taylor, following Heidegger, says this doesn’t really get at why we slide around the belief scale; rational explanations “give too much place to changes in belief, as against those in experience and sensibility” (9092). My critics were correct that something else besides just theories and arguments was driving the shift. The intellectual dimension was a real, but it was pulled along by massive changes in experience, and my changing sense of what kind of person I wanted to become.

What Sessions concludes is that his environment was a more important driver of his change of beliefs than any facts he encountered. He says reading Taylor is helpful because it shows that secular liberal humanism is not what you have when you strip the ornamentation of religious belief from reality, but is rather an alternate myth, or, as Sessions puts it:

The point is to remind us that [secular humanism] is a construal in a culture where it tends to assert itself as natural and uncontroversial, to all sorts of cultural and political detriment that I can’t get into here.

This is what readers of this blog like Thursday keep trying to say to liberal readers: You think you are advocating for neutrality, but you are no more neutral than those you seek to supplant. 

Here is a fantastic paragraph from an ex-Evangelical to his former tribe:

For those who inhabit a religious construal, and are perhaps working to deepen, enrich, and preserve it, there are also important lessons to be found in Taylor (who is, after all, on your side). I’ll address one to evangelical Protestantism, since I know it best: the unqualified disaster of apologetics that have focused on rational-empirical argumentation as a means of persuasion, intensifying the already-problematic tendency of Protestantism to be in one’s head than in the practices of one’s body. The thrust of “resurgent” evangelical activity in my lifetime has been mostly to embrace and even radicalize the most harmful features of the modern obsession with rational control. [Emphasis mine — RD] If you can begin to pull your religion out of that abyss, there’s no telling what a powerful countercurrent it might become.

Read the entire Sessions post. It’s great. And read it alongside this fascinating Christianity Today essay by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former lesbian and cultural studies professor who converted to Christianity, and is now married with children. She talks about how after she got tenure at Syracuse in the 1990s, she started advocating strongly for gay rights, and against the Christian Right. She began to research the Religious Right so she could understand the enemy. She began reading the Bible as opposition research. After publishing an article attacking the Religious Right, she received a letter from a Presbyterian pastor named Ken Smith, who didn’t attack her, but only asked her questions about how she knew the things that she knew? She tried to ignore the letter, but couldn’t. Excerpt:

With the letter, Ken initiated two years of bringing the church to me, a heathen. Oh, I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at Gay Pride marches. That Christians who mocked me on Gay Pride Day were happy that I and everyone I loved were going to hell was clear as blue sky. That is not what Ken did. He did not mock. He engaged. So when his letter invited me to get together for dinner, I accepted. My motives at the time were straightforward: Surely this will be good for my research.

Something else happened. Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. They did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate. When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate. Vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken’s God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy. And because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church, I knew it was safe to be friends.

I started reading the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations. At a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend J cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. “This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,” she warned.

With tremors, I whispered, “J, what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?”

She kept up her friendship with the Smiths, and kept reading the Bible. Eventually she started attending their church. She had a breakthrough when she grasped that she was never going to understand God on her terms:

 I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. I expected that in all areas of life, understanding came before obedience. And I wanted God to show me, on my terms, why homosexuality was a sin. I wanted to be the judge, not one being judged.

But the verse promised understanding after obedience. I wrestled with the question: Did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view, or did I just want to argue with him? I prayed that night that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood.

The willingness to obey before I understood. Yes, this. Reading that line reminded me of my own slow, winding, herky-jerky path to conversion, and how I kept hitting a dead end because I wanted to understand it all before I obeyed. This doesn’t work. I was thinking about Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s point this morning, listening to our priest’s sermon about fasting (Lent starts for us tonight), and about how, when I first became Orthodox, I didn’t understand why we fasted, and fasted so strictly. But I did it because that’s what one does as an Orthodox Christian, and everybody in my church was doing it. Now I deeply get it, and as hard as it is, I’m grateful for it, because it’s exactly the medicine I need for my soul. But it took the experience of doing it for years before I really understood it.

What’s interesting about the Butterfield story of conversion in light of Sessions’s story of de-conversion is the role experience plays in both. It is epistemologically humbling, no matter what side of the belief/unbelief divide you are on.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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