The Personalist Project

I've been reading Jen Fulwiler'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. Fulwiler 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?

Comments (5)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Feb 7, 2016 11:28pm

This reminds me of a step in my own conversion. I had been asking God to show me He was real by performing some miracle for me. Soon thereafter, however, it occurred to me that if He were to perform a miracle—e.g. by moving the building I was looking at one yard to the left—it wouldn't work. I would probably be shocked for a moment, then go over to the building to check it out, and after a few minutes I would decide it was an hallucination or something. In other words, I realized that to accept that miracle as truly a miracle would require a prior faith (or at least an openness) that I lacked.

It was just a step, but an important one.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Feb 8, 2016 9:45am

I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. As you say, she has a wonderful combination of probing intelligence, authenticity, and down-to-earth humor.

Rhett Segall

#3, Feb 8, 2016 10:08am

Apropos of the experiences of Devra's and Jules:

Yvette, a lively 16 year old, rushes enthusiastically into my homeroom.

"Mr. Segall, do you remember yesterday how the class was discussing whether or not God exists?"

"Sure" I said.

"Well, on the bus on the way home from school yesterday I prayed: 'God if you're up there please let me know'."

"Well", Yvette continued, "as soon as I got off the bus and went into my house the phone rang. I picked up the phone and heard someone say

"Hi Yvette. I just wanted you to know I'm up here."

"Excuse me."  Yvette said, startled.

"Yvette, I'm up here" the voice repeated.

"Who is this?" Yvette asked.

It was her friend Bianca, from down state, coming up to the Catskills for the weekend.

God's sweetness and sense of humor on full display!

Devra Torres

#4, Feb 15, 2016 3:14pm

Those are great stories! I heard about something like yours, Jules, from a friend: his sister was trying to decide whether to marry a certain man or not and asked Him to arrange for the man to offer her an engagement ring of a particular very unusual color and style. He did, against all odds--but she realized she still had to make a decision, that she wouldn't be satisfied unless she did, even though she had received a made-to-order confirmation.


#5, Feb 16, 2016 5:42am

It's even more delightful listening to Jennifer read it on CD.  There's nothing like an author's own voice to feel connected to her and her story.  I listened in my car doing mundane, every day errands which I then found myself eager to do!  God entering the mundane!  Lovely experience!

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