Topics that I write about in this weekly column are often chosen from some book or article that I have read. I read something that interests me and hope it might interest readers of this column.
Recently a friend called my attention to an essay in the June/July issue of the journal “First Things.” My friend was so excited about the essay, I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. Entitled “The Cross and the Machine,” its author is Paul Kingsnorth, who is a novelist, essayist and poet living in Ireland. The essay is about Kingsnorth’s journey toward accepting the Christian faith.
“The Cross and the Machine” is exceptionally well written. Some sections I think read like a poem. Other sections read like a history of 19th and 20th Century philosophy.
Kingsnorth’s long animosity toward Christianity reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ description of himself as “the most reluctant convert.” For years Kingsnorth felt no attraction to Christianity and for periods in his life tried to embrace other visions of reality.
Reflecting on Kingsnorth’s essay reminded me of how many people I have known who have had a special interest in stories of conversion. All the people I am thinking of are Catholics. I imagine part of what makes conversion stories interesting is trying to observe and to some extent understand how the Holy Spirit draws people to make such a serious decision as converting to Christianity. How does a conversion happen? Of course any conversion involves mysteries that we will never completely understand. Perhaps that’s what makes them so interesting and attractive.
Three conversion stories I am familiar with have come to mind as I have reflected on Kingsnorth’s story, and they and bear some similarity to his story. The stories I am thinking of are the conversion of Saint Augustine, the conversion of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and the conversion of philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife, Raissa.
Anything I have ever read about Saint Augustine’s conversion has included some mention of his mother, Saint Monica, who prayed for his conversion for years. Part of what is so amazing about his conversion is that he went on to become one of the deepest and most influential thinkers in the history of Christianity. His Confessions is a classic.
I remember when Thomas Merton’s story of his conversion, The Seven Storey Mountain, appeared. I think I was a college student. The story is still inspiring readers today.
It is impossible to overemphasize the influence that Jacques Maritain had in the undergraduate courses in philosophy I took in the seminary back in the 1950s. As I recall, his philosophy was referred to in just about every course I took. I met him once. A deeply religious person, he even looked as I imagined a saint might look.
Each of these stories involves the mystery of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Rather than try to understand the stories, which I never will, perhaps I should just allow them to instruct and encourage me.
Reading Kingsnorth’s story reveals what an unattractive portrait of religion he received from the culture that surrounded him. Noting that the school he attended had mandatory religion classes, Kingsnorth writes the following:
“The school may have had mandatory religion classes, but the age taught another faith. Religion was irrelevant. It was authoritarian, it was superstitious, it was feeble proto-science. It was the theft of our precious free will by authorities who wanted to control us by telling us fairy tales. It repressed women, gay people, atheists, anyone who disobeyed its irrational edicts. It hated science, denied reason, burned witches and heretics by the million. Post-Enlightenment liberal societies had thrown off its shackles…religion was dying a much needed death at the hands of progress and reason…Et cetera.” (p. 17)
Am I the only one who finds Kingsnorth’s description vaguely familiar? Can we think of any other culture to which his description might apply?
Near the end of his essay, Kingsnorth admits that his journey toward Christian faith was mysterious, but he adds the following:
“This is not to say that my faith is irrational. In fact, the more I learned, the more Christianity’s story about the world and human nature chimed better with my experience than did the increasing claims of secular materialism. In the end, though, I didn’t become a Christian because I could argue myself into it. I became a Christian because I knew, suddenly, that it was true.”(p. 40)
Becoming a Christian because it was true seems like the best reason to me. I suspect that reason would have been what eventually moved Saint Augustine, Thomas Merton, and Raissa and Jacques Maritain. I am very grateful for their stories and for Paul Kingsnorth’s.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.