Public conversion: a rational decision?

Public conversion: a rational decision? Professor Meghan Sullivan
The Church needs you as much as you need it, writes Colm Fitzpatrick

 

If God loves all of us, why doesn’t he explicitly reveal himself to everyone so that there would be no doubt of his existence? Surely, if God can do all logically possible things it would be a piece of cake for him to make his existence evident to all – especially to vociferous and hard-line atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris?

This question – formally known as the problem of divine hiddenness – has historically stumped believers and created many smug un-believers along the way. Why apparently is God so hidden, quiet and silent? The disciple Thomas got to touch the flesh wounds of the risen Jesus and St Paul converted to Christianity after receiving divine revelation – so why can’t we?

This query – the problem of divine hiddenness – was an important subject of the second Annual Newman Lecture which took place at University Church last Wednesday.

Philosophy professor Meghan Sullivan from the University of Notre Dame addressed a captivated audience on the subject ‘Public Conversion and Personal Reasons’, on why faith is a plausible and important part of life.

Her talk revolved around the relationship between private conversion, a move which is personal to your heart and mind, and public conversion, essentially the social or institutional joining of a church.  In other words, as she puts it: “A question that many of us face is ‘Why not love God and neighbour and think deeply about the Christian mystery but without the institutional entanglement’?”

Belief

This is a pertinent question to ask in today’s world given that Christians who are confident in their belief in God are increasingly avoiding church services, and living out their lives of faith in a way they seem satisfied with. On top this, Prof. Sullivan suggests that we are at a point in history to think more broadly about the “nature and value of the Church” because of some the unique crises it is currently facing such as the clerical abuse scandals and the cultural assumption that knowledge can be both efficient and impersonal – take the mobile phone, for example, if you’re in doubt of the latter point. These failures and challenges, she suggests, make the manifest Church seem more “dispensable” than perhaps ever before.

Tackling this problem head on, Prof. Sullivan suggests the way by which most of us are converted is key to understanding the purpose of the Church and why it’s anything but dispensable. She points out that the majority of those who turn to the faith are converted in a slow, incremental way – a reorientation which she describes as a “sub-luminous” conversion, as opposed to a luminous conversion which is more direct and compelling.

“The first is the glaring conversion, so this is the blinding light, the fall from the horse, encounters with burning bushes or angels, a sudden healing, a finger stuck into a wound. These are the conversions that we maybe valorise or mythologise. But then there are the conversions that I think happen no less miraculously but in a more quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of way,” Prof. Sullivan explains.

This second type of conversion is one that resonated with Prof. Sullivan herself given that she gradually converted to Catholicism as young adult after facing the existential implications of 9/11 and beginning a spiritual journey of her own.

Starting off by attending Mass on Wednesdays and then coming to the realisation that a Sunday service is probably more formative, she eventually did the RCIA programme during her third year of college and was confirmed into the Church in 2004. From the outside to her close family and friends, this radical shift in her beliefs and practices may have looked like an “early mid-life crisis” but internally it seemed evident to her that God was calling her to transformation in this subtle way.

“But from the inside, even from that first day in 2002 of going to Mass, it felt like I had already been headed that direction in a long time without even knowing that it was a direction that someone could be headed in. And I think that a lot of converts share that feeling,” she says.

The question she poses – and one that brings the problem of divine hiddenness to the forefront – is why does God call most of us in this impersonal and seemingly indirect way rather than through a luminous conversion?

There have been plenty of interesting answers to this philosophical problem but Prof. Sullivan says we should turn to the writings of St Augustine to best solve this conundrum. Anticipating the question of why God wouldn’t make a clear user manual for understanding the Scriptures, Augustine says this interpretative challenge is one of the ways God loves us.

His point is that as sinners we haven’t just lost our capacity to love God properly but also to love each other, and so a process of knowing God that isn’t mediated through human agency neglects the vital need to bond with and love one another.

“In our fallen condition we’ve lost the ability to both love and connect with the divine and also both to love and connect with one another. God can either give us individually a luminous conversion or he could distribute evidence about himself across a group of us in space and in time. We can call this latter option a network model for divine revelation,” Prof. Sullivan explains.

This network model points to why the Church is important today because it is in this structure that individuals garner a knowledge of God through friendship and love of each other which is a love that intellectually binds together the Church. This type of knowledge of God can only be realised in the community of the Church, which is a kind of “social process by with our collective knowledge of God across space and time is achieved”, all the while being networked by love.

Hypothesis

It’s a powerful hypothesis which quashes the problem of divine hiddenness and simultaneously points to why it’s rational for private converts to become public converts rather than pursuing an individualistic spiritual journey.

Moreover, this isn’t a solution that can be proudly placed on a bookshelf to pick up dust, but has practical implications for the Church today.

Firstly, membership in the institutional Church deserves a defence from theologians, philosophers and laity;  we all play a role in ensuring that the structures of the Church don’t protect and promote serious sin; the diversity of vocations in the Church needs to be promoted as all of us gain different kinds of knowledge through this diverse network; we need to reinforce the notion that knowledge is a person-to-person enterprise and is built on love; and finally we must challenge a common model of how we understand evangelism by recognising that faith development is a two-way system meaning that the Church should be “open to wisdom from new nodes in the network”.

Above all, Prof. Sullivan’s talk and ideas are a challenge to all Catholics to live out their faith in a more integrated kind of way in the knowledge that we can learn about God and ourselves through dialogue and interactions with fellow members of the Church community.

If you’re having doubts about waking up on Sundays to attend Mass or are thinking about public conversion, this idea will convince that you need the Church as much as it needs you.

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