How To Convert

The common view of religious conversion seems to be this: There are many ways one can stumble towards the gentleman we call God. And on the surface, I agree. After all, rainbows and relationships have lead men to faith, as have Holocausts and heartaches. Collins converted at the sight of beauty; Walker Percy at the sight of a Jew in New York City. Dorothy Day became a Catholic by a series of small and slow steps; St. Paul by one big fall, simultaneously off and onto his ass.

But it is necessary to dive deeper. For a rainbow is meaningless without our light-translating eyes, as is a relationship without our participation. A Holocaust is horrifying, but only if we have the heart to be horrified. In each instance of conversion the Self is the thing that matters. To say it coherently: A conversion occurs because an external event reveals the truth about the internal self. There may be multiple and varying facets of conversion, but there only one way to conversion, and that is through the human person. Namely, you.

And does this not make sense? The Blessed Sacrament aside, what is the most perfect image of God on earth? Where is the evidence for his existence? I hold that the greatest mass of evidence for the existence of the Creator lies in the strange creatures said to be made in his image and likeness. Ourselves. You want God? Look in.

Conversion, then, can be described quite simply as an act of seeing ourselves. Not looking at ourselves, mind you. We do that way too often, an act of bogus self-assessment, an intentional glance in a mirror and a ridiculous summation of all the things that don’t matter one bit: “I’m Joe, I work in a factory, I listen to hipster music, I look good in these jeans, I’m a social conservative…”

No, no, no. Conversion is seeing ourselves, all our shams and poses stripped away. Conversion to the Jew-God-Belief must be akin to accidentally looking in a mirror, to seeing ourselves as if for the first time, to walking down the street, looking into a shop window, stopping, and thinking “Who the hell is that? He looks so – ah. It is I.”

Take the example of the Universe surrounding us. There are two ways to go about it: One is to look – and you will walk away an atheist – and the other is to see – and you will walk away a believer.

Individual One looks up at the night sky and calls to mind several facts – the light from
the stars travels through both space and time to reach his eyes, the earth is not the center of the universe, in fact, it is not even a dust-mite in the universe, the Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter, we cannot comprehend the vastness of space, we are alone on this rock, it’s all so meaningless, how can there be a God who hold us in high esteem? Individual One looks, he makes his assessment; there is no conversion.

Individual Two looks up at the night sky and recalls the exact same facts. He too is struck by the apparent infinity of the universe, the utter worthlessness and laughable unimportance of the World. But then something happens: He turns and accidentally faces a mirror. What makes the 1000 light-year galaxy so tremendously great? It is not the number – who can conceptualize such a size? It is not the thing itself, for there is no rational reason we should be impressed by a Very Big Thing any more than a Very Small Thing. “What on earth? Ah – it is I.”

There is no conception of Frightfully Huge without me to project that conception. A planet might be larger than other planets, but it takes a human person to give it the quality of Unimaginably, Awfully Larger. As C.S. Lewis says,

“To puny man, the great nebula in Andromeda owes in a sense its greatness.”

There is no reason the size of the Earth makes it an unimportant dust-mite other than the fact that I have a conception of importance and of dust-mites, and I have given it to the universe around me.

If we were only material creatures, we would look at the distance between us and our workplace; 5 miles. We would look at the distance between us and the farthest galaxies we can see; approx. 1000000000 light years. We would move on; two distances, one much larger than the other, absolutely nothing more to it. But what does the mirror actually show? People freaking out, falling on their knees in despair over such a distance. People looking up and contemplating their existence.

In short, our actions admit that we apply the Spiritual to the world around us. They admit that we are spiritual creatures. The man pointing to the skies and saying our existence is meaningless is the greatest proof I can offer that our existence is meaningful. Conversion happens as a result of this – realizing there exists within you the conceptions of awe and majesty and terror and horror and that these are not of this world. What animal is thrown into existential crisis over the size of a mountain? What rational reason do we have to be awed?

So to the Christian hoping to win converts, the point is this: The overused, “How can you not believe in God? Have you never seen a sunset?” is close, but not close enough. The real question is, “How can you not believe in God? Have you never seen yourself seeing a sunset?”

To my Catholic readers, the point is this: We must show man himself. We must create beauty. What is art – poetry, painting, great novels, music, movies, myth – but a mirror held up in the face of man, calling him to “know thyself”? What is the experience of being overwhelmed by beauty but the acknowledgment that there exists That Which Is Too Much For Me? And if that does indeed exist, why on earth would I be able to acknowledge it, unless by some incredible and strange fact I am made in the image and likeness of That Which Is Too Much For Me?

To my atheist readers: convert.

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  • Anonymous

    I just have one small correction, the Milky Way is ~100,000 light years in diameter and ~1000 light years thick/tall, which makes it about 1000+ times bigger than what you mentioned. I think this adjustment makes your comparisons a lot more powerful

    • Marc


  • enness

    Another excellent piece, thanks.

    “…St. Paul by one big fall, simultaneously off and onto his ass.”

    PFFFT goes the coffee!

  • Rosemary M

    “To my Catholic readers, the point is this: We must show man himself. We must create beauty.” And sometimes to show man himself is to show brokenness; but I think one can tell, when an artist shows the brokenness of man, whether he or she believes also in beauty.

  • Laceagate

    Excellent post!

    It would be good to note that another interesting argument that comes up from atheists is “we are just an anomaly, because the chances of life happening are so rare.” I argue that our existence is meaningful because it is rare. It seems that whenever something is rare it must be an accident.

  • Alex Dawson

    (From an agnostic)
    I think this is a very good piece overall, thank you for writing it.
    However, it is quite a huge step from recognising that the universe is not meaningless to deciding you know the origin its meaning. [I don't want to be too controversial on my first post, but is this not merely a God of the gaps argument?]

    And, on a lighter note
    “What animal is thrown into existential crisis over the size of a mountain? ”
    Do we really have any good reason to think that no animal has gone through such a crisis?

    • James H

      Nice to have a respectful post from the Other Side! :D

      It is indeed a huge step – if you take it all at once – but there are several steps in between.

      If something is not meaningless, it must have meaning;
      for meaning, there must be purpose;
      purpose implies thought;
      thought means mind;
      mind means being and intellect.
      For something as mind-meltingly huge as the observable universe (and any others that might exist) to have been founded by a Mind is just head-explodingly gobsmacking.

      The resident Thomists could say more, and better.

      • Alex Dawson

        Thanks for the reply James!

        I see how that is on the face of it a more reasonable train of thought. I’m not sure I’m absolutely convinced by each step (although a lot of that probably comes down the definitions of each of the words – oh the joy of ambiguity of language!). I’ll ponder if I can express something concrete about that.

        However even if for sake of argument I take it to be true:
        1) Its a huge jump to associate “an intellect” with God.
        2) The argument only really implies there exists “an intellect” for each meaning – so on that logic alone there could equally be many individual entities responsible for each individual meaning (which funnily enough seems to correspond with some polytheistic traditions).

        I see your relation to a “founder” as you put it, if you say “there is a meaning for the universe”.
        However I would probably phrase it as “there exists meaning within the universe” or perhaps more precisely “there exists meaning within the world” (not wanting to restrict myself to the physical universe :p)

        I might stop my etymological train of thought; once you consider “what is the meaning of meaning” you know you’re getting into trouble… (especially since I’m no serious philosopher)

        • Nathan

          I know this was a while ago, but your respectful post is so admirable that I could hardly help but reply.

          As you said, going into “what is the meaning of meaning” and such is really serious philosophy, and we could talk about that for days and both end up being more confused at the end of it.

          I think the point the writer was trying to make here is a little more intangible. In that video at the end of the article, watch the image from about 1:05 to 1:15. There is a sort of..stirring. A reaching out of the human mind, heart, and soul to something greater. This isn’t a syllogistic argument, perhaps not even an “argument” in the usual sense of the term. It’s more of an attempt to see a mirror. To see the child-like part of ourselves that looks at a star or a flower and simply.. understands. A very inherent core part of our nature attaches meaning to practically everything. A child looks up at the stars and is awed.

          It’s interesting to point out that children, while closer to non-rational animals on a level of mere intellectual power, have more of this sense of awe than most adults (who have more developed intellects). You’d think that if intellect and rationality was all that separated us from animals, the differences between animals and humanity (namely, a human concept of awe or mystery) would become more defined and clear as our intellects (our would-be only difference from animals) become more developed. Which begs the question, why do children have a sense of awe that we tend to lose as we grow older? Just a interesting question to think on.

  • KirbytheAgnostic

    Very well written. However I must agree and disagree in some ways. The main thing that keeps me from being and atheist is that sort of sense of something that this priest ( or whatever he is) is talking about in the video. Human being’s sense of thought happiness, appreciation of art and music. It feels like there is something that sets us apart from animals. However, what i can not say for certain, or even take any educated guess at, is that this force, this sense of something is some omniscient otherworldly creator, christian or otherwise. Do I think that you are wrong? No. Not at all. You are merely expressing your belief on a this matter. I don’t think any of the other religions are wrong either. Again they are expressing their beliefs. However, it is when members of these said religions, or irreligions ( atheists) yell at each other that what they believe is wrong is what shakes me. I am curious and more than anything would like to know for sure the answers to the “Big questions” however, I do not, and no religious answers seem to be more true than what the others claim, again do mistake this for saying that you are wrong, just that I don’t know and there isn’t anyone who has convinced me that they know.

    • Jacob Timothy Michael Hughes

      Well, I would argue, in all seriousness, and please pardon my insistent rudeness, that your argument is stupid.

      You see, for if we are not wrong, and they are not wrong, but our views conflict, that would mean that there are two truths. For some, God is loving. For some, God doesn’t exist. For others, there are many gods.

      I’m going to call BS. If something is true, it is true. It isn’t true for some and not others. If God exists, he exists for all. If he does not, then he exists for no one. No, we shouldn’t yell at each other about who is right and who’s an atheist, (unless, of course, you are like me, and insist on having all of your conversations with other men in the manliest of all dialects: the roar) but we do need to argue, at least from the Christian perspective. Jesus didn’t tell us to make disciples of those nations that don’t disagree with Christianity, he told us to make disciples of ALL nations. I for one plan on taking him at his word on that one.

      By the way, you will never understand how we know that we are right until you do too. It’s something that words haven’t been created for.

  • barefoot cinderella

    dear atheist: God is winking at you ;) wai u no like him?

  • Korou

    (From an atheist reader).

    No thank you.

    Have you read Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow? Have you heard of it? The universe is huge and beautiful and wonderful; and Dawkins is an excellent communicator of this.

  • Virgil

    Atheist here just a cruisin’ on through.

    I admit I don’t really follow your line of reasoning here. You seem to assume a priori that natural creatures could never feel something like awe or wonder, and then conclude that humans must be supernatural because we do feel awe and wonder. How could you know whether animals feel those emotions? Even if they don’t, there remains the possibility that we have it by virtue of our much more complex brains.

    Also, in another comment reply below, you made the argument that goes as follows: events are meaningful. Meaning implies purpose, which implies a mind. All true. You then use that to conclude that there must be a God of some kind, or some sort of overarching intelligence. However, that argument is ultimately a truism up until the point where you conclude that God exists. Events are meaningful to us because we have minds. The argument is only enough to show what we already know–that we ourselves have minds and stuff matters to us because we have intentions and emotions.