In the correspondence following Bishops’ Boots, Iona invited me to write about the process of conversion. Gee! Thanks, Iona. I am tackling this as a blog post rather than a Catholic Herald column because my views are tentative – I will feel happier or unhappier about them depending on the contributions to the discussion. It is possible that I might one day write a column on the subject, but that could depend on what you have to say.
We know that many circumstances can surround the gift of faith. For some, such as myself, it came with our mothers’ milk. For others it may have been a book, or a valued friend, a long process of research or a chance happening. For my wife, it was a moment in the Brompton Oratory when she realised that the Mass she was witnessing was not a prayer meeting validated by the congregation (as she had seen the C of E Communion) but an objective occurrence which the congregation were humbly attending.
I leave aside the exceptional cases of direct and dramatic occurrences, such as those described in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. I don’t deny that they may be genuine, but they obey different rules.
So I must, somewhat artificially, simplify the process.
I want to start with the atheists about whom Pope Francis spoke. You will remember that he assured us that since everyone was redeemed by Christ, everyone could do good. He didn’t specifically mention Professor Dawkins but, since he is also redeemed, he is included too. Let’s anatomise this.
For such an atheist to do good he must in some real sense be living out the redemption – that is, grace must be playing a part. It doesn’t matter whether we use a technical label like actual grace or not, the action is through God’s gift. It must also involve love – either for self, or for neighbour, or for the good of some group of mankind. It must not wholly be to obtain advantage of some kind, such as reciprocation, nor simply the result of instinct. Of course these non moral factors may play some part at a natural level, but it does require an element of free choice to do good.
But to whom? We know the scriptural answer to that: if we do good to the least of his brothers we are doing that good to Christ. Despite his ignorance, the atheist has actually done good to Christ-in-his-neighbour. His recognition of Christ in disguise is an act of supernatural faith. Were he to commit his life to such an attitude, while remaining trapped in non-culpable ignorance, he is as ready for Heaven as anyone with the label Christian.
But of course we must take the matter further. We might imagine our atheist beginning to wonder about what he has done. What is this love he has expressed which he can’t explain away by the methods of science? What is this free will which he has employed? That too can’t be explained in material terms. What is the source of this objective sense of right and wrong which leads us to approve and disapprove? And perhaps that lurking question, which can only be partially stifled in the human mind, comes to the fore. What’s it all about, Alfie? Is there a purpose to it all?
He can search for answers in a myriad ways but we would like to feel that it is eventually in Christianity that he finds an answer which truly satisfies him. He has built on his primitive faith and encountered the fuller truth.
There are some points which may be derived from this skeletal description. The first is that faith does not start with the Church. It starts with the individual’s search, and the individual’s recognition and acceptance of God. We remember that in matters of conscience the voice of God speaks directly to us. And this fundamental faith is a response to that same voice. It is then that the recognition that God has founded a Church within which that faith can fully flourish may come.
Secondly, the born Catholic will imbibe the truth of the Church at his mother’s knee. But it is only with his developing understanding, that he takes personal responsibility for his faith. This may be a gradual process, but the Sacrament of Confirmation marks the formal point at which the faith which he has accepted through his parents becomes his own. By the same token, were he later to decide that he could not accept the Church as the answer to his fundamental search, he would be bound in conscience to leave it. The interior voice of God, in so far as he can best discern it, takes precedence over all.
What is this internal voice of God? I have never heard God speaking inside me. So I suppose it is when I stop and listen, humbly, to my own true self. In finding that – made as I am in the image of God – I find him. Goodness! he was there all the time. I just wasn’t looking.
Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, described this as anamnesis. It means recollection. So it is not a process of finding God outside ourselves, it is finding and recognising God within ourselves. Benedict writes:
“This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the godlike constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is so to speak an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within. He sees: “That’s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.”