06 June 2011

Spiritual Autobiographies: A Newly Catholic Phenomenon?

Daniel Silliman has a very interesting post up on his blog about the phenomenon of Catholic conversion stories, which he sees as being -- in the most part -- something new in the Catholic world, whereas it's a staple of Evangelical self-identification.

There's a lot going on in his post, all of it very interesting, and I think his central point is absolutely right: this is, at least as a popular form, a new phenomenon among Catholics. I wonder how much of it is a result of Vatican II's reminder that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, and its exhortation that we should read the Bible more. Certainly, there's a level at which this must simply be a response to 1 Peter 3:15's mandate that we should always be willing to say why we believe what we do.

Telling how we became Catholics is something obviously has an ancient pedigree, perhaps most famously in the example of Augustine, and over the last couple of centuries has been echoed in the well-known spiritual autobiographies of such individuals as John Henry Newman, Josephine Bakhita, and Thomas Merton; indeed, it's striking that when Newman was recently beatified it was decided that his feastday would be, not the day of his birth, his baptism, or his death, but the day he entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. There's clearly a place in Catholicism for personal narratives and spiritual journeys, and perhaps even more so in this post-Vatican II world where we think of ourselves just as much as the people of God as we do the Body of Christ. Bearing this in mind, I'd still say that Daniel's right, that as a popular phenomenon it's quite a new thing.

Evangelical Catholics and Catholic Evangelicals
I think he puts his finger on a key issue when he says that Catholic conversion stories are so evangelical, because as far as I can see they tend to be formed in large part by American Evangelical culture: I'd be very curious to know the extent to which this new trend towards Catholic spiritual autobiography is a specifically Anglospheric phenomenon, rather than a universal one.

Certainly, when I think of such prominent contemporary apologists as Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Jimmy Akin, Mark Shea, Peter Kreeft, Dwight Longenecker, Thomas Howard, and Francis Beckwith, all of whose spiritual autobiographies are well-known, it's striking that the common factor in their stories is that they all were Evangelical Protestants who, after years of reading, thinking, and praying, eventually became full members of the Catholic Church -- or, in the case of Francis Beckwith, returned to full communion with the Church. Their stories, in essence, are Evangelical conversion stories, albeit ones that go one step further further.

Their influence in terms of apologetics and their personal examples surely play no small part in the striking growth in this sub-genre, so that nowadays we'll hear of former atheists such as Dawn Eden explaining in quasi-Evangelical terms why they became Catholic, and also of Catholics who'd strayed writing accounts of their reversion to Catholicism.

I have grown somewhat used in recent years to recounting my own reversion to the faith, as I'd been raised Catholic but become ardently atheist in my teens, after much thought and research grudgingly accepting the truth of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in my early twenties, and only fully returning to communion in my late twenties. I've often over the last year or so also accompanied friends to their Evangelical Anglican church, and chatted with people there afterwards, and when my story's been told it's often been met with the thrilled response: 'That's like C.S. Lewis!'

I think Lewis, with his reluctant conversion and submission, may well be a kind of mentor for this kind of storytelling. Certainly, he's an influence on so many Christians of so many stripes that I don't think we should discount the possibility that Surprised By Joy may influence Catholic self-identification at least as much as any specifically Catholic writer.

I happen to think this is a good thing. One thing lots of those apologists I mention tend to come back to quite often is that denominationalism is perhaps the greatest scandal of the universal Church, and that we must work towards the unity for which Christ prayed. In light of this, they often talk of how, just as they'd believe Evangelicals should become Catholic, so Catholics should become Evangelical. This entails, among other things, a deep familiarity with the Bible as the word of God and the ability to explain to the best of our abilities why we personally hold the hope we do.

What is a Christian?
I would distinguish between what should happen when a Catholic is asked 'why are you a Christian?' and 'why are you a Catholic?'

Catholics don't necessarily see being a Christian as based on what you believe; rather, it's about what you are. Baptism, we believe, is the new circumcision, something that ontologically changes us so that we are adopted into God's family and belong to Christ. In that sense, it's baptism that makes us Christians. In the case of adults we must make a personal confession of faith, but even so, it's not our personal confession that makes us Christians, so much as it is our being baptised. Obviously, Catholics believe in infant baptism, where parents guarantee that they will raise the child in Christ, and on the basis of their faith the child is baptised.

(This, I suppose, is how we can justify baptising those with severe learning disabilities, people who might never be able to confess a faith in Jesus. It's a bit like the paralytic man who's brought to Jesus by his friends, and who Jesus addresses in response to their faith, not his own.)

The point being, that there's a sense that even when I was an atheist I was still a Christian: I had ceased to believe, but I had been sacramentally adopted into God's family, and belonged to Christ regardless of what I did. I suppose it's like the idea of the prodigal son: he may well have scarpered off to a farway land and basically forsaken his family, but that didn't change the fact that he was still part of his family.

As such, if someone asks me why I'm a Christian, I sometimes feel the need to point out that that question has two answers, depending on whether the question is meant sacramentally or intellectually. They usually want an intellectual answer, but I think the sacramental one is more important.

As for why I'm a Catholic, this is easier, in a sense. I left the faith, after all, and I returned; these were acts of will, in accord with reason, all doubtless powered by God's grace. Even so, though, I don't always respond to this question with a personal apologia. Sometimes I answer after the fashion of a friend of mine who used to be Anglican and is now Catholic, saying, in a drily Newmanesque way, that I'm Catholic because I believe in Christ and I believe that the fullness of Christian truth subsists in the Catholic Church. This, of course, invites the question of why I believe that, and depending on the day I can answer with my own story or with an argument rooted in philosophy, history, and Scripture.

Now, I feel Daniel's absolutely right to pick up on the corporate nature of Catholic identity, but I think he misses the mark somewhat when saying that it's not essentially individualistic too. It is. As ever, in the Catholic worldview, there's a both/and mentality at work. We may not talk about our faith as individuals, but we see our faith as both corporate and personal; this is rather neatly expressed in how the Creed, which we recite every Sunday at Mass, summarising our beliefs, while usually beginning in English with 'we believe' in fact begins in Latin with 'I believe'. I'm glad that the new translation shall be restoring the singular pronoun!

Anyway, for most of us who are 'Cradle Catholics' rather than converts, there's still a story there, albeit one that's not dramatic: the question of 'why are you a Catholic?' isn't about why we became Catholic, as why we remain Catholic. Many of us are plagued by doubts and temptations, and yet we remain faithful and hold fast to Christ.

For most of us, being Catholic isn't about one big Pauline choice; it's about thousands of little ones, a constant war of attrition in the battleground of our souls. Even if we have converted to Catholicism, many of us would be uneasy of talking of our conversion, as we never know if we shall eventually fall: we don't know who among us will fail to finish the race.

I think that may be at the heart of the matter. For us, the question isn't about how or why we became Catholic; it's about how and why we remain Catholic, and that, ultimately, is a question about faith: about faith in things unseen, about personal faith in Christ, and about keeping faith with him who keeps faith with us.

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