“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
Because of the covid-19 lockdown, I was not able this year to attend Easter Vigil, when catechumens are received into the Church. However, as at all previous Eater Vigils, I recalled my first Easter Vigil and how I became a Catholic, 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
So, let\’s begin with the minimum bit of biography. I\’m not going to say much about my early religious life, other than I grew up as a secular Jew, despite having several rabbis as great-grandparents. (In the great wisdom of early adolescence, I refused to be Bar-Mitzvah\’d, believing it to be a sham ceremony when there was so much misery and injustice in the world, misery and injustice ignored by those fur-coated ladies parading in Temple.)
Nevertheless, I did believe in a Creator. my teen-age passion was astronomy, visiting the local planetarium and constructing (not well) a six-inch reflecting telescope. Even though I’d never read Psalm 19A, I knew instinctively its message: “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” Working during a college summer in the Yosemite forest service, lying underneath one of the big trees, I was filled with awe at the Creator’s work here on earth.
My wife is Catholic, and we were married in a Catholic church. But I stayed my distance from the Church, only attending functions at my children\’s Catholic school and at baptisms (at one of these, for my oldest daughter, I was much embarrassed by being asked to serve as an altar boy for the priest—my protestations that I wasn’t Catholic were to no avail).
Now into each life some rain must fall, and fall it did in mine. In order not to violate anonymity, I’ll say only 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—alcoholic, addict, gambler, codependent,…whatever).” I learned that the presence of a Higher Power (uppercase obligatory), is a guiding principle of such groups. This Higher Power is required to help one break the addictive chain—alcohol, drugs, another person. I was disposed to believe in the presence of such a Higher Power, but I came to realize that the phrase was doublespeak, Orwellian “sheer cloudy vagueness,” a euphemism for God, so I began to search for a more satisfying way to think about the deity (at that time in lowercase).
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,” in other words, the arguments that the biblical account of the Resurrection were true.
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.
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). 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.
THE CONVERSION PROCESS: RECONCILING SCIENCE AND CATHOLIC FAITH
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. But, let me add the brief (?) comments below.
First, as a scientist, I had to struggle to believe in miracles. My catechist, Fr. Mc___’s gave this answer to my questions on points of dogma: “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. 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, my scientific skepticism waned.
Second, those few non-“Top Down\” but “In the Heart” moments where I felt the presence of Deity (not well defined, not as an image or as a voice) have been evoked by music. 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. The spirit has moved me at other times by means of music: Amazing Grace; 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.
SCIENCE CAN’T EXPLAIN EVERYTHING
Now I claim that this belief in Jesus and in the dogma/doctrine of the Catholic Church, this faith, is akin in certain respects to and also different from my belief/faith in science. To begin with let me assert that by no means can science explain everything, that is to say, “scientism” is a false doctrine. The books of Keith Ward, the writings of Fr. Stanley Jaki (particularly The Limits of a Limitless Science), and most recently an essay by the eminent biologist Austin Hughes on “The Folly of Scientism” effectively demolish the positions of the evangelical atheists, Dawkins, Atkins, and Hawking, who believe that science is the only answer. They ignore all that science can\’t explain, the “why” questions.
I’ve written elsewhere¹ on the failures of science when it tries to step out of its narrow limits, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. As a practitioner of science, someone who has directed research, sat on agency granting boards, published and refereed papers (with a name equation—Google “Kurland-McGarvey Equation), I’m enough of an insider to be a critic
To sum up, and this has been a long and exhausting effort, 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. The faith we have in Jesus Christ is as well founded in terms of empirical evidence and inner knowledge as the faith we as physicists have in what science tells us about the world. And, at the end, we have to realize that there are mysteries—The Trinity, Transubstantiation, Salvation,…—that we accept by faith and not by rational analysis.
¹I’ve discussed how science works at greater length in several blog posts and in ESSAY 2 of my web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.”