Since we’ve been discussing some Mormon perspectives on conversion and personal revelation, I’ve got the perfect excuse to link to Daniel Siliman’s essay on Catholic conversion stories. It’s very much a RTWT, but I’ll post an excerpt to whet your appetite. (Ok, it’s a long excerpt. I got carried away.)
My sense is, too, that while there’re certainly historic examples of Catholic conversion narratives, that this widespread popularity — that conversion narratives as a common Catholic practice — is new.
Catholics don’t traditionally need these narratives. If a Catholic is asked, are you a Catholic?, the answer — the evidence — isn’t normally going to be a conversion story, or an account of how one got that way. A Catholic might say, “I was born in the church,” or, “I’ve been baptized and confirmed,” or, “I go to mass regularly.”
The faith is understood as being, in a sense, not personal. It is an institution in which one participates, not something that is essentially about the individual or an internal reality for a single person. It’s not necessary to have searched for the church or to have found it. It’s enough it’s just there and that one just is Catholic.
…This is different, obviously, for evangelicals. The conversion story is essential to evangelicals.
The authenticity of one’s faith for them isn’t evidenced by facts, or participation in rituals, or a list somewhere. Instead, it’s evidenced most essentially by the evangelical’s testimony.
…To be a Christian, for an evangelical, it’s essential that one have made a decision — there has to be this moment of choice. The evidence for that is a story, in this very specific genre of conversion narrative.
There’s a long, long tradition of conversion narratives in evangelicalism — there’s maybe even an argument that it’s these narratives that bind evangelicalism into a single whole, absent any kind of magasterium. The genre of narativizing one’s own life as a story of searching, running, fleeing, feeling and finding God is central to what evangelicalism is.
Nevertheless, it appears that it’s now pretty popular with Catholics. There’re now enough Catholic conversion narratives out there that, even if it’s still not necessary for a Catholic to have this kind of a story ready and rehearsed for a spontaneous delivery, there really is a sub-genre of conversion narratives that are specifically and uniquely Catholic.
There are two questions, then, that arise from the adoption of this genre of personal conversion story by contemporary Catholics:
1) What does this tell us about Catholicism today? Or: what is the felt need that these Catholic conversion narratives are responding to?
2) What does this tell us about about the genre itself?
Putting a very heavy emphasis on the conversion story and the moment of recognition seems a little like telling and retelling the story of how a couple met or the way they knew they wanted to get engaged. It’s not that those moments aren’t interesting (I only read the NYT wedding announcements that include stories), and the thought processes can be instructive, but those moments aren’t the heart of the marriage. They may have kicked it off, but the marriage itself isn’t an ancedote, it’s a process.
Thinking of relationships in terms of epiphany moments seems like it would get you stuck on the hedonic treadmill. If your love is no longer as urgent feeling, if it’s not still giving you hits of revelation, maybe it’s not real love. Maybe you’d be better off with a new person who promises new rushes and new moments of conviction. It’s a bad model for romance or friendship, and I suspect it works out pretty badly when applied to philosophy as well.
Matt touched on this a little in a comment:
One of things I enjoy about Catholicism is that it’s not about feelings in the same way Evangelical denominations often are. It’s not necessarily a sign of your lack of holiness that you aren’t constantly in ecstasy, and the beauty of the sacraments is that grace is made concrete. There’s not the pressure to wonder about the silence of God as often happens in Calvinism. When it came out that Mother Theresa often did not feel the presence of God, understanding Catholics saw no fundamental issue, and mostly just thought this showed her faith to be all the stronger.
That said, you’d be sorely missing a core part of the Faith if you reduce all feelings and experience to “warm fuzzies,” and I believe that you’d be making a theological error to think that the truth of the Faith rests on some conception of reason seperable from emotions and experiences…
If my turning point was “Morality loves me,” my project is figuring out how to accept and return that love. And it’s a lot more kludgy and tentative than the initial change was.
If you want to see a lot of examples of Catholic conversion genre, Why I’m Catholic has a big library of conversion stories. I didn’t tend to find them persuasive when I was an atheist, though I thought a lot of the Protestant-to-Catholic stories looked like they’d patched errors.