The Personalist Project

I've been reading Jen Fulweiler's conversion story, Something Other than God: How I passionately sought happiness and accidentally found it. You should, too.

I'd been under the impression that Jen was an unusually intelligent writer of the mommy blogger persuasion. But the book has given me a far deeper appreciation of her intellect and personality. Her account of the wearing away of her objections--first to religion in general, then to Catholicism--is refreshingly unflinching and thoroughly entertaining. The grace to abandon atheism came via a mixture of logical arguments so strong she had to bow to them and personal testimony so striking and mysterious she couldn't dismiss it.

This isn't a book review.  I urge you to read the whole thing; you won't be sorry. But one aspect in particular struck me: her realization that you can't just sit there, in any interior state whatsoever, and expect God to reveal himself--much less count it as a point against Him if He fails to obey when you say jump.

You have to make some contribution, some effort. Fulweiler could see that it made sense in other contexts--Buddhism, for example--that the subject needs to be in a condition to receive enlightenment. 

A line from C. S. Lewis made things clearer for her. It went like this:

[God] shows himself to some people more than others. Not because He has favorites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.

She thought over her own disappointing history of trying to persuade Him to reveal Himself, and suddenly had the key to why she'd never gotten anywhere:

I might find myself sitting at the kitchen table, a cheeseburger from a fast-food chain in one hand, a magazine ridiculing celebrities with cellulite in another, using most of my mental energy to stew about why I deserved to live in Tarrytown [an expensive neighborhood she'd been lusting after], and at some point I'd think, "I can't imagine why I haven't had any experience of God." Then I'd decide with a shrug that the problem must be that God doesn't exist. 

It wasn't just that she needed to focus her attention and cut out distractions. There's another C. S. Lewis passage she doesn't mention (in which  he's explaining the title of his novel, Till We Have Faces) which makes things clearer:

A human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman: that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires) being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or person.

Passivity doesn't attract grace. The person has to make some effort.

But how much effort, exactly? Well, maybe a lot less than you'd expect.

Here are some illustrations:

  • Earlier in her trajectory, Jen was not really convinced that Catholic moral teachings were correct but decided, as an experiment, to live as if they were. She had no certainty, no feelings of love for God, no commitment, no enthusiasm--just enough desire to follow the truth that she was willing to perform that one experiment. Soon afterward, she signed up for religious instruction.
  •  My mother was once walking down the street in Brooklyn, NY, doubting whether there was a God. In a moment of smart-alecky decision, she threw out a challenge: OK, God, if you're real, show me a pink elephant. She turned a corner--right into a block party with street vendors and carnival games with prizes hanging in the booths. Conspicuous among these was a large, inflatable pink elephant. 

I wanted to be born again, but I had a problem. How could I have faith in something when I didn't know if it was true? ... She told me that she had felt the same way before her conversion, so she had hit on a compromise: she asked Jesus to be her Savior for the next twenty-four hours, and then, if He came through, she would commit her life to Him. This made sense to me. O ye of little faith! But God is gracious. We continued talking for a while, standing in the kitchen, and suddenly it felt as if something broke inside me, and I got down on my knees there on the kitchen floor (surprising her very much, since Evangelical Protestants don't kneel) and asked Jesus to be my savior for twenty-four hours. 

When I stood up, everything was different. I forgot all about the twenty-four-hour deal. I believed. I had somehow crossed the divide and was safe on the other side.

  • I know a man who, having tried irreligion for many years, had got just about far enough to be willing to say an Our Father--but not as written, because he wasn't so sure he accepted the theology behind it. So his prayer went something like this:

OK, God--if there is a god--Our Parent, who art in heaven--if there is a heaven-- ,hallowed by thy name. May, um, good energy cause, um, good things to happen...

And so on. That was the beginning of the end. He's been practicing his faith for over thirty years now.

Jen's strategic imitation-faith, my mother's wise-cracking challenge and conditional surrender, and a skeptical man's pointedly minimal willingness to pray an adulterated Lord's Prayer--these were all it took to start the ball rolling. God didn't turn away sneering,  "Oh, please, you'll have to do better than that." He led them along, little by little, and they've been wholehearted Catholics ever since.

There's lots more food for thought in Something Other Than God. Have you read it? Did you have a hard time putting it down? What did you think?

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