Meet Bede, My Best Friend in College, Who Is Now A Monk

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.

My account:

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.

Bede’s reply:

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.

Your Thoughts?

My posts on when I was a Christian and my process of deconverting are below.

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

Before I Deconverted: I Dabbled with Calvinism in College (Everyone Was Doing It)

How Evangelicals Can Be Very Hurtful Without Being Very Hateful

When I Deconverted: I Had Been Devout And Was Surrounded By The Devout

When I Deconverted: Some People Felt Betrayed

When I Deconverted: My Closest Christian Philosopher Friends Remained My Closest Philosophical Brothers

When I Deconverted: I Was Not Alone

When I Deconverted: Some Anger Built Up

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • B. Andrew

    fascinating

  • John Morales

    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.

    This is telling, and not in a good way.

  • steveschulers

    Hey Bede!

    Thanks so much for your personal contribution to Dan’s tale. I really enjoy hearing people’s stories, particularly pertaining to their spiritual, ideological, and philosophical journeys. I know that Dan has had guest contributors to his blog in the past, maybe the two of you could work something out? Of course some FTBers can be pretty hostile to people of faith, so maybe this wouldn’t be a very accepting forum for you to write for. Still, I am sure I would very much enjoy hearing your tale.

    Thanks Again!

    Steve

    • John Morales

      Of course some FTBers can be pretty hostile to people of faith, so maybe this wouldn’t be a very accepting forum for you to write for.

      Some new chew-toy would be good, ’tis true.

      (Every schoolchild knows substitute teachers are fair game!)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      (Every schoolchild knows substitute teachers are fair game!)

      Not when the teacher’s still in the room. Be nice. He’s a guest. He’s family. He’s here for biographical purposes, not theological ones.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Hey Bede!

      Thanks so much for your personal contribution to Dan’s tale. I really enjoy hearing people’s stories, particularly pertaining to their spiritual, ideological, and philosophical journeys. I know that Dan has had guest contributors to his blog in the past, maybe the two of you could work something out? Of course some FTBers can be pretty hostile to people of faith, so maybe this wouldn’t be a very accepting forum for you to write for. Still, I am sure I would very much enjoy hearing your tale.

      Thanks Again!

      Steve

      I take it Bede will be offering his own commentary on this series. I might see if I can get him to engage in a dialogue about philosophy and theology but that would probably take the form of a back and forth within the same post, rather than an outright guest post. As you note, unless he stuck to some uncontroversial, strictly philosophical territory, I don’t think the FtB readership would take to kindly to his way of thinking. It would be more counterproductive than productive.

    • John Morales

      Be nice.

      I promise I shall, and I hope I would have anyway.

      To make it clear, I allude to Steve’s understatement of the matter; I well recall how your last guest blogger fared.

  • Hazzard

    “Conversion” versus “deconversion” stood out in my reading of this, too, though I’m more ambivalent about it:

    No, atheism is not a faith, and abandoning a religion is not equivalent to adopting one. But –

    Yes, the road to atheism (especially for former believers) is an intellectual journey, often fraught with deep personal consequences, and we should accord it all the respect we’re customarily supposed to accord any profound and difficult “spiritual journey.”

    A devotion to truth (as best we can understand it, within the limits of human fallibility) and honesty (not least, about our own ignorance) is surely as admirable and as humbling as devotion to God — from my point of view, vastly more so.

    • Bede Hazlet

      Dan is kind to encourage his readers to “be nice” to me, but I do have a sense of humor and I’d like to think that, as a chew-toy, I’m not the kind that squeaks. (Though my experience of being nibbled is limited, so we’ll see.) It seems to me that by showing up on the blog I’m acquiescing in the prospect of letting its culture take its course in my regard.

      He’s quite right that I’m here for biographical purposes rather than theological ones (and even then not really in my own right, but for the sake of clarifying Dan’s story).

      I think I should try to explain, though, what I meant by suggesting “conversion” rather than “de-conversion.” Hazzard has more or less expressed what I had in mind. I wasn’t thinking of atheism as a faith, exactly (I hadn’t thought about it). My point was just that the notion of “conversion” doesn’t seem to me to have an exclusively “religious” meaning: I think it’s applicable to any major shift in the commitments by which you situate yourself in the world and live in the world, whether you’re shifting in the direction of faith in some kind of God or gods or the tenets of a non-theistic religion or the rejection of such a faith. The experience has a comprehensive quality, involves a particularly vivid engagement of the whole person.

      I seem to have blundered into the use of a word that has some specific connotations (and a bit of a history) among atheists of which I had been unaware.

    • John Morales

      Greetings, Bede. I am pleased to see you here.

      First, I promise I’ll try not to be a pest or presume too much of your time.

      My point was just that the notion of “conversion” doesn’t seem to me to have an exclusively “religious” meaning: I think it’s applicable to any major shift in the commitments by which you situate yourself in the world and live in the world, whether you’re shifting in the direction of faith in some kind of God or gods or the tenets of a non-theistic religion or the rejection of such a faith.

      Well, no, it doesn’t.

      But from what I’ve read*, Dan’s only change was losing belief in the supernatural and therefore in claims whose only justifiable basis is claimed supernatural authority**.

      I put it to you that, since the deity you worship is supernatural, it’s perfectly meaningful to speak of a de-conversion, but rather misleading to speak of a conversion when referring to Dan’s departure from your faith.

      (He has adopted no new presuppositions about reality but merely abandoned an otiose one, and his beliefs are his own synthesis, not based on any dogma)

      I seem to have blundered into the use of a word that has some specific connotations (and a bit of a history) among atheists of which I had been unaware.

      My personal objection is one Dan delicately didn’t mention, which is the way you apparently connote that you categorise atheism as itself a religion.

      It ain’t, since one can’t meaningfully in the religious sense convert to it (for the reason adumbrated above).

      * Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers The Idols Of Faith”)

      ** Revelation.

  • Bede Hazlet

    Thank you, John, for your words of welcome and your further thoughts. I don’t think we’re actually in disagreement here. In my ignorance of the underlying atheist issues with the word “conversion” I used it in an idiosyncratic way that has resulted in a muddle. I didn’t intend to suggest that atheism is some kind of religion.


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