For months as I have been writing up my deconversion narrative I have felt a lot of anxiety contemplating whether or how to talk about my best friend from college. I have brought him up a couple of times now, so far just to talk about how we met and how we fared as friends after I deconverted. What happened in the middle is what changed my life and ended up with me as an atheist. But delving into that means getting into some intimate details about my friend’s life during what were probably his most nightmarish years. My story is inextricably linked with his story. It’s a story that deserves to be told but it is not entirely mine to tell. And I have felt that I simply could not tell it without getting my friend’s permission. I thought maybe I could do so if I effectively kept him anonymous or even if I resorted to drastic measures like lying about identifying details to throw off the scent of those who know him. But I doubted such a plan would work.
So the other night, with great trepidation, I reached out to him on Facebook where he has finally just recently appeared. I told him about my deconversion narrative and I asked for his permission to tell his story as part of it. Remarkably, admirably, and to my amazement, he has openheartedly agreed not only to let me publicly recount the dark night of his soul as I experienced it and as it affected me, but he has gone further and insisted on being publicly identified. He says he wants to live a life with no secrets. Since he is now a monk, I found this quite bold and impressive.
After he read the narratives in which I have already discussed him, he wanted to add his own recollections for balance. I thought this was a great idea and hope that as I continue to tell my narrative, he may continue to offer his own version of events wherever he desires. So, below I am going to quote my description of when we first met, followed by his own reply to it. His name is John Hazlet. But when he joined the order, he began going by the name of Bede.
As I’ve chronicled before, when I was a teenager in high school, on relatively secular Long Island, I had few fellow devout evangelical friends outside of church. And, fairly or not, I didn’t feel like many (if any) of the friends I did have at church were as serious as I was about the faith. So when I headed off to one of the most self consciously evangelical Christian colleges in the nation, I was enthused at the prospect of finally living and studying with like-minded, seriously committed Christians.
So the first day, literally within only an hour or two of my mother and brother dropping me off at college for the first time, I found myself in my brand new room talking about theology with a fellow incoming freshman. He was extremely straight laced, conservatively dressed, theologically articulate, exquisitely pleasantly mannered, had a large serious faced, and was charismatic in the most soothing and polite way. He was going to study Philosophy. I had declared Christian Thought as my major but I was batting around whether to switch to English or possibly Philosophy.
So, I related to him a story about the week before when my aunt and mother were talking about some incident in which a small human child had fallen into some sort of non-human primate’s area at a zoo and the primate handed the child back to the mother. My aunt and mother had agreed, “That’s GOD!” “Yes, THAT’S GOD!” I was pointing out to my new interlocutor that I found their judgment on this superficial and contradictory. We cannot go around crediting God for the time the child is spared harm unless we are going to blame God for all the awful things that happen too. God had to be a hands off kind of God lest He suddenly be morally responsible for not intervening in some cases, while he does in others.
But my new friend did not except this distinction or this concern at all. All things which happened were God’s will. God determined the whole of history through providence. This was outrageous to me. What about free will? How could God punish anyone if He determined everything that happened? And so my friend, who had literally read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion as a high school student by his own self-motivation and internally converted to Calvinistic Christianity from his mother’s Catholicism, proceeded to explain to me that God freely decided, in advance of the creation of the universe, who those were whom he would save by his grace and who those were whom he intended to never be saved (the “reprobates” as Calvinists call them).
This was dumbfounding to me. The most I had ever heard of John Calvin was a brief mention in my high school history class sophomore year. I thought his ideas were a long obsolete 16th Century curiosity. I had no idea that they were a powerful influence on Christianity for centuries, straight on through to the present. And this was really the first time in my life I encountered someone my own age who knew more theology than I did. Which, admittedly, was easy to do—all you had to know was anything not written by C.S. Lewis. But still! This was troubling to run up against this strange and awful theology being presented by someone who knew far more than I did about the subjects in the debate we were having.
Other incoming freshmen came wandering through and I would explain the issues I was debating with this intractable fellow and they would back him up and speak this strange Calvinistic language fluently. Our R.A., a breezily laid back, skinny, bespeckled, hipsterish junior, majoring in Philosophy, came by and he laid down the Calvin like it was the Gospel and common sense all rolled into one.
I felt incredibly frustrated. Here I had longed to be in a place with like-minded people finally and they all had this dark and counter-intuitive, immoral theology that I could not understand how anyone would believe. And they started pointing to all these difficult Scriptures and I had no idea how to counter their interpretations. Finally, I talked to another freshman on the hall and asked him first thing, “What do you think about predestination.” And he, possibly observing my exasperation, replied, “I don’t think it’s worth losing friends over.” And we became close friends (and eventual roommates).The next morning my original interlocutor and I went to the church service for incoming freshmen together. Afterwards, were were back debating Calvinism. I reared back and gave my free will based view of things the best and most thorough and logical defense I could. And finally, he said, “Ohhhhh, so that’s what you mean!” And I was, like, “Yes, I have finally made the clarity and correctness of my position clear.” And then he said, “That view was held by a monk named Pelagius…” Very good! There was precedence for my views! “…Pelagianism has been damned as heretical by more church councils than any other doctrine.” (9 years later I would learn from George Lucas he was also a Sith Lord!)
I was so indignant and upset that my new friend had essentially equated my views with the greatest of all possible heresies, that I conveniently lost him in the lunch room while we were split up getting our food. We nonetheless went on to become best friends.
I am the (at the time, and even then with some qualifications) “extremely straight laced” person mentioned above, with whom Dan became “best friends” in college. We recently got back in touch after a lapse of some eight years (by my reckoning) and Dan sent me a link to this page in the context of very graciously asking my permission to delve in future posts deeper into his recollections of my undergraduate struggles as they affected his own. I thought I would make a few comments about what he has written here.
First let me emphasize that although I remain a Christian (now – again – a Catholic one) my sense of what that means has as one might expect (or perhaps hope) changed substantially since my days as a philosophy major at Grove City College. Where issues like providence and predestination are concerned I would now be inclined to sympathize with Dan’s account of the views I then held as rendering incoherent the idea of morally meaningful choice, though there are people I respect who continue to hold such views.
Next, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that at that time I had “internally converted to Calvinistic Christianity from [my] mother’s Catholicism.” For one thing, my mother’s Catholicism had from before my birth been theologically unsettled and sporadically practiced. By the time I arrived on the banks of Wolf Creek to study philosophy she had been an Evangelical for years and I was, strictly speaking, still Catholic.
What I think Dan captures is a kind of snapshot of a moment in my ecclesial journey, a journey characterized for some years by a tendency to get swept up in what I was reading (Kalistos Ware, Calvin, Augustine, Luther, Cranmer), dip into a tradition for a time, then discover an enthusiasm for something else. A pattern not untypical of American religious experience. In all this I was very earnest, pretty confident that the views I was convinced of at the moment were definitive, and (importantly, I think) not very deeply engaged in the practice of whatever tradition I was bookishly exploring at the time.
Further, while I remember with a shudder the condescending tone I deployed in the course of our Pelagian conversation, I don’t think I said that that heresy had been “damned … by more church councils than any other doctrine” but “condemned” by more councils than any other “heresy.” And now here I am a monk, heir to a way of life that has often been suspected of harboring semi-Pelagian tendencies!
Finally, may I suggest “converted” rather than “deconverted”? A shift in one’s foundational convictions, with all that such a shift carries with it, seems to me to have the character of a conversion regardless of its direction.
I intend to comment on the other post in which I’m mentioned and look forward to future installments of Dan’s memoires of a difficult and formative period in both our lives!
—Bede Hazlet, OSB
Yes, he definitely said it was a heresy condemned, not a doctrine damned. I do not know why I wrote it the other way the first time. It does make nearly as much sense the way I wrote it. I am even going to go so far as to fix the original. The issue of the word choice “deconversion” is an interesting one deserving its own post, so I will save a discussion of it for later.
My posts on when I was a Christian and my process of deconverting are below.