“Be not afraid of faith: some are born with faith, some achieve faith, and some have faith thrust upon them.” (with apologies to William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.)
A 25 YEAR CONVERSION ANNIVERSARY
Soon, God willing, I’ll be attending this year’s Easter Vigil, when catechumens are received into the Church. So, I think back on my first Easter Vigil and how I became a Catholic, roughly 25 years ago. Is a repetition of my conversion story appropriate for this anniversary? Only if I tell how my faith has grown and explain why a strictly rational, “top down to Jesus,” approach, is not enough.
AN OLD JEWISH PHYSICIST SWIMS THE TIBER
This story tells how an agnostic Jewish physicist became a Catholic in his senior years, to the horror of his colleagues, the amazement of his family, and the delight of his wife. Conversion stories do interest the Catholic faithful (possibly because the missionary impulse that goes with faith is vicariously satisfied).
However, in telling this story my theme is not auto-biographical. I propose to explore the roots of faith—revelation, grace and rational conviction. While, the last is not important for some, it is crucially important for others. And those others should note that rational conviction can lead to grace-filled faith (see “The Pearl of Great Price—Pascal’s Wager Revisited).
There is another issue here: what is the difference between faith and “scientific knowledge?” By distinguishing my belief in scientific “truths” from adherence to the dogma/doctrine of the Catholic Church, I hope to demonstrate the limits of the scientific domain and the unlimited power of faith.
A BIT OF BIOGRAPHY
I’ll focus here on the years that led me to the Catholic Church. Those interested in a more extensive biography, please go to the original post, “Top Down to Jesus..” The change from a Jew who prayed and repented on Yom Kippur to a God he didn’t quite believe in to a faithful Catholic began with troubles in my later years.
Without going into detail, so that I don’t violate anonymity, I’ll say that in my 60’s I became a member of a Twelve Step Group. “Hi, I’m Bob and I’m a ______ (fill in the blank).” The presence of a Higher Power (uppercase obligatory), who will help to break addictive chains—alcohol, drugs, food, persons—is a guiding principle of such groups.
I was disposed to believe in the presence of such a Higher Power, but I came to believe that while the phrase “Higher Power” satisfied some, for me it was Orwellian “sheer cloudy vagueness,” a euphemism for God. Accordingly, I began to search for a more satisfying way to think about the deity (at that time in lowercase).
THE HOLY SPIRIT INTERVENES
Fortunately at this point the Holy Spirit intervened (exactly how, this old guy’s memory fails), and I was prompted to read Who Moved the Stone by Frank Morison, a pseudonym for Albert Henry Ross, a British writer who originally set out to disprove the Resurrection, but who, on evaluating the biblical accounts, came to believe.
I won’t recount the evidence (it’s detailed more fully in the linked articles), but it seemed to me that an impartial jury (not composed of evangelical atheists) would give a verdict of “innocent,” i.e. Morison successfully defended the biblical account of the Resurrection.
What struck me even more on going from Who Moved the Stone to the the New Testament, was that this bunch of uneducated yahoos—fishermen, tax collectors, women—had managed to out-talk the scholars of Judaism and thereby to spread the Christian faith through the Roman world. Surely they must have been inspired by encounters with the risen Jesus and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.
THE GOSPEL JUSTIFIES BECOMING CATHOLIC
It also occurred to me that if one does believe in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, then one should also credit other incidents described there, in particular the words of Jesus giving the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter, thus founding the Catholic Church. Accordingly, the Christian religion to which I would convert should be Roman Catholic. (This choice also eliminated a certain amount of domestic controversy, since my wife was a cradle Catholic).
I must emphasize that this whole process was one of rational decision making–no visions, no voices–whence “Top Down to Jesus.” I envy those who have had visions of our Lord and heard His voice (and I have had first hand accounts of such from some of my friends), but this was not my good fortune.
CATECHESIS—LEARNING TO BELIEVE IN MIRACLES
Of course conversion is an ongoing process—study, service, prayer, adoration, retreats—all the tools and fertilizer to make the fig tree of faith bear ever more fruit. To fully recount this continuing process would take a book chapter, not a blog post. Much is related or implied in other articles I’ve written, but I’ll add these brief (?) comments.
First, as a scientist, I had to struggle to believe in miracles, particularly that cornerstone miracle of Catholic faith, the Eucharist as the Real Presence, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I was being catechized (before the days of RCIA) by a very learned and wise priest, Fr. Mc__. His response to my questions on troubling points of dogma was, “If you believe in one miracle, the Resurrection, why are you having problems with others?” and “If you believe in the possibility, even if you have questions, that is enough.” That helped.
And it was not rational inquiry that led me to belief in transubstantiation, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Host and Precious Blood, but a hymn. Several weeks after that session with Fr. Mc___, my doubts about the Real Presence were wiped away: during a 40 Hours procession the Monstrance was being carried in to the accompaniment of Tantum Ergo; I remembered enough of my high school Latin to translate the verses as they were sung, and as “praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui” rang out, my heart filled, tears filled my eyes, and I knew without a doubt that the little cracker in that beautiful monstrance contained the body and blood, divinity and humanity, of Jesus Christ. Amazing Grace!
In later years, my scientific skepticism waned as I looked at the evidence for contemporary miracles, particularly that reported by Dr. Alexis Carrell at Lourdes, and read what C.S. Lewis and Ralph McInerny had to say about the reality of miracles.
Second, there have been a few “In the Heart” moments where I have felt the presence of Deity (not well defined, not as an image or as a voice). These were evoked by music: Gregorian chant during a retreat at St. Vincent Archabbey, certain hymns and liturgical music, and very, very infrequently, at quiet times in early morning during Adoration or other prayer, when the melody of some favorite hymn would come to mind.
BELIEF IN SCIENCE REQUIRES FAITH
I claim that my belief in science has elements that are akin to my belief in Jesus and the dogma/doctrine of the Catholic Church. To begin with, let me assert that by no means can science explain everything. That is to say, “scientism,” which does make such a claim, is a false doctrine.
The books of Keith Ward, the writings of Fr. Stanley Jaki (particularly The Limits of a Limitless Science), and an essay by the eminent biologist Austin Hughes on “The Folly of Scientism” effectively demolish the positions of the evangelical atheists, Dawkins, Atkins, and (of late) Hawking, who believe that science gives the only answers.
They ignore all the questions that science can’t explain, the “why” questions. For example, they believe that since we can show by functional MRI where the brain is active when we pray or contemplate, we fully understand how and what the mind is doing in prayer or mystical experience. Wrong!
Most people put the same faith in “science” as the Christian faithful did in the dogma of the Church. But, how many people have done the experiments or read the papers on which the fundamental tenets of science are based? For example, who has read Planck’s paper that proposed quantization of energy to resolve the ultra-violet catastrophe, the 1900 work that is the cornerstone of quantum mechanics?
HOW SCIENCE WORKS¹
The essence of the scientific method is that theoretical predictions can be verified by repeated measurements, and this in turn implies that those things and realities that cannot be tested by an experiment or repeated observations cannot be dealt with scientifically. And even then science is limited in setting up idealized experiments, situations isolated from the surroundings for which the theoretical thought experiment may not always be possible.
Moreover, unlike dogma and doctrine, which is eternal, science changes. Theories and explanations have passed away in the face of new facts, new theories. The caloric theory of heat was disproved by Count Rumford’s cannon-boring experiments. Ether as a medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves (light) was done away with by the Michelson-Morley experiment.
Desperately avoiding an act of creation that implies a deity, theoretical physicists are now putting their faith in multiverse theories, M-theories with infinite landscapes, theories that are most unlikely to be verified experimentally (i.e. are not capable of being falsified).
These are exercises in mathematical metaphysics, exercises which are even more removed from one’s experience than those of the medieval theologians on the number of angels that could stand on the point of a pin. In fact, no medieval theologian is known to have asked this question, even though it’s reasonable: how many immaterial entities can be contained in a point?.
Indeed, it is clear that the lucid framework of physical science cannot even support all the occurrences in our everyday experience–the butterfly wings beating in China to yield the tornado in Oklahoma, order springing from disorder (as shown by the Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine), mathematical unknowability.
THE MANY ROADS TO RELIGIOUS FAITH
To sum up, let me assert that religious faith can be attained by a variety of roads—the vision, the voice from above, or by rational “Top Down” endeavor. As the quote at the beginning put it, some are born with faith, some achieve faith and some have faith thrust upon them.
Now, achieving faith is not a discontinuous process, a sudden jump from non-belief to belief. In my case it has grown. I have found that meditation, Lectio Divina, retreats, being a Benedictine Oblate, having a spiritual director (and troubles) have deepened my faith so that it is no longer a “top down” process.
During these last 25 years, and especially during the last year, I have learned that the 12 Step slogan “Let go and let God” is a guide to achieving a deeper faith. This is embodied in trusting God, or as Jean-Pierre Caussade puts it: “Abandonment to Divine Providence.”
Finally, Let me assert this proposition, one that I will defend on my death bed: my faith as a Catholic is more secure, more related to eternal truths, than the faith I have as a physicist in what science tells us about the world.