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About a week ago, I was making the case for Catholicism to a college freshman when a friend of mine set a guy on fire.
He didn’t mean to! But they were making a really potent alcoholic drink in a loving-cup, trying to float grain alcohol on top so they could flambé it. I’ve seen this done by people who couldn’t blow a legal BAC in a post-apocalyptic anarchy, and this is the only time I’ve ever seen a guy catch fire. Flame billowed out across his pants, and for the first time in my life I saw someone actually stop, drop, and roll.
Don’t worry. Everyone is fine. The worst damage sustained was to the flambéed guy’s dress shirt, which is permanently the color of scorched Curacao. There are many theological lessons one could draw from this episode (if you were a hermit, you would not have caught fire), but I was especially struck by one thing said by a rueful lady, yet another Christian convert, shaking her head after the drama was over.
“I knew this would end badly,” she said, “but I told myself, ‘You don’t make good decisions!’ So I didn’t say anything.” A bad decision!
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how conversion happens — in part because of my conversations during the Weekend of Flame. And I think this lady’s comment illuminates at least four of the crucial issues.
First, conversion is often born of self-mistrust. If someone is happy or at least bourgeois, then he often feels that he’s tested his beliefs and found them satisfactory. Trusting his parents, his culture, or his intuitions has given him happiness and self-acceptance, and trusting an unknown God or an unknown Church isn’t likely to seem either sensible or admirable.
If someone doesn’t have the Dolce Vita moment when everything we enjoy seems worthless if it doesn’t point to something beyond itself, I am not sure any philosophy is really useful.
Second: Your compass is broken, but it’s the only one you’ve got.
“Texts from Last Night” posted a text that read, “You know the commpass Jack Sparrow has? The one that just points at whatever you want? Thas pretty much my moral compass.” (Spelling, grammar, and catechetical errors in the original.)
If you feel a need for philosophical practice — whether or not you’re interested in Christian forms of that practice — you are probably aware of some lacuna, some grimy crawlspace in your soul. Investigating this crawlspace may lead you toward truth. I longed for justice even though I was sure I would always be the presidential candidate of the Guilty Party. Overcoming my fear of justice was a huge part of my becoming Catholic; it’s something I still wrestle with as I write these words.
But self-mistrust can be taken in an extreme epistemological sense, in which people ask not, “What is true?” but, “How can you be sure?” This is the kind of question that leads people to spend their entire lives “on the church porch,” or cohabiting but never married.
I know that all kinds of bizarre things can influence our judgments — this Cracked article mentions physical actions of cleaning, among others, which proves that Pontius Pilate was smarter than you. And yet if my mind is just a bunch of meat prodded by various stimuli, all my actions (including reading this article; including sorrow, including hope) are just responses to the cultural forms which have arisen to manage human biology. The thing we think of as “truth,” then, is a noble lie. In the false dichotomy of nature/nurture, truth is subsumed by neither. There is no reason that the longings of our souls should correspond to any actual existing truth or harmony or God; it could all be just epiphenomena of evolution. What if your meat, your milieu, or your mom is just tricking you into believing that a contingent truth is universal?
There’s no irresistible answer. In the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are.” If your compass is completely unrelated, or even randomly related, to truth, then philosophy is impossible; love, the knowledge that one has done rightly, and every other form of aesthetic judgment are mere effusions of the untrustworthy self rather than recognition of truth.
So, thirdly: Self-mistrust plus acceptance of contingency equals . . . what? I am not sure what this combination could equal, other than either rejection of philosophical practice, or belief in a Creator God. If you’re committed to philosophy but not sold on the other thing, I would suggest you reassess.
But fourthly: Nobody trusts “a Creator God.” We search not for that empty cardboard box of a concept, but for a specific God and a place to be in the world: a heaven, and a community where enough people are working toward that heaven.
My own conversion was a Rube Goldberg mechanism of intricate absurdity. The one factor I can draw out is that I admired some Catholics who didn’t push me to make their questions my own. They often had nothing to say about my questions. Yet the beauty they found in their God and their Church was so much bigger than what I found anywhere else.
These weren’t people who made good decisions. They didn’t have to be good, although of course we should try to be, and I’ve done things myself that I know made Catholicism, as such, appear obnoxious or self-righteous. I’ve definitely seen the cruelty, hypocrisy, and indifference of Catholics make it all but impossible for seekers to trust the Church. But penitence is, for some people, even more attractive than unsullied virtue; and the Catholics I knew had a way of understanding their crimes and their repentance, which made more sense and offered more hope than any other way of life I’d seen before. Prudence might have suggested that I shouldn’t trust them. But they were so bizarre — so eldritch and so thoroughly themselves. All they had to be was startling.