All my life, I’ve been fascinated by stories. Whether it was told in the form of a book, a movie, a play, or through some old relatives sitting on the front porch on a hot day sipping cold bottles of beer, I’ve always been captivated by the almost magical power a story has to make you feel more human, more alive.
As a kid, I used to write my own tales incessantly. When I was eleven I finished up a 100-page novel about an awkward loner girl who was ostracized by the popular kids, only to have them falling at her feet and begging for her approval and forgiveness after she solved a great mystery (no idea where I got that plotline). By the time I graduated from high school, I had five or six more unfinished books tucked away in dresser drawers. But a funny thing happened as I got older: I lost my passion for stories.
At the time I was a strict atheist materialist, and the more I thought through this worldview, the less room I found for the human story. Every time I had ever felt moved by some epic tale of heroism or glory, I had been moved by a sense of the transcendent, that something had transpired here that was more than the sum of its parts. I was touched by the idea that even if every single character on the staged died, with nobody knowing of anything that they had done in their final glorious moments, they would still have had an impact on the universe in some lasting way. Yet my atheist materialist belief system did not account for that. In a worldview that said that all of mankind’s experiences ultimately go no further than the chemical reactions in the human brain, concepts like heroism and glory and honor, as they had classically been defined, did not exist.
In college I briefly explored Buddhism, and found it to be wisest among the godless philosophies. I was drawn to Buddha’s ideas about the cessation of suffering being possible through letting go of passion. And it was another blow to my love of the story: whether it was a thriller or a mystery, a historical epic or a nonfiction how-to instructional, what made reading or moviegoing electrifying was the thrill ride of death-defying victories and breathtaking losses, and the transformation of the individual that took place along the way. Yet if Buddha could have heard me, he surely would have cautioned me against all these passions, and perhaps even counseled me not to think of “me” as doing anything at all. There is nothing permanent in this world, he would say. Even my concept of “self” was merely an illusion — a dangerous illusion that I needed to let go of, because it would keep me clinging to all those passions. In a sermon to his first followers, the Buddha said that the best path is to get wearied of feeling and perception and consciousness, until you’re finally wearied enough that you let go of passion. Then you’ll be free.
“Well, that’s unbelievably depressing,” I thought when I first read it. I wanted to jump on a tabletop in defiance, shouting that not all passion is bad and that the instinct to seek triumph and joy and love and the wild ride that comes with it is something to be toasted, not something to intentionally grow weary of and discard. But then my rational brain would kick in, pat me on the hand and remind me to get real. Everything in this world is destined to decay, including yourself, and there is no individual life beyond death, so you might as well let go of it all.
And then I discovered Christianity, and everything changed.
First of all, Christianity preached the soul. It said that, wrapped up in all those chemical reactions that fuel our emotions and our experiences, there is a non-material aspect of our being, one that unites us to a realm beyond the fleeting material world. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton fabulously connected this concept to the concept of the story when he took aim at atheist materialists who see history in purely economic terms, who assume that we humans make our decisions based on cost/benefit analyses rooted in instinct alone. He wrote:
Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing-grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading. Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration.
I was still researching Christianity when I read this, and I actually got chills when he went on to say that a true story only begins “where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off.”
That is what I had been looking for all those years as I wandered through the wasteland of dead materialist thought. Immediately, I recognized that the eternal soul is the necessary component to the story. It clicked into place that stories — as well as all art — are secret handshakes of beings with souls, the very calling card of the only members of the animal kingdom who are made in the likeness of God. “It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south,” Chesterton wrote. And if you do try to remove the mysterious movements of the human soul from the human story, he warned, “it will not only cease to be human at all, but cease to be a story at all.”
I still had a million questions about this odd belief system. I’d only read a couple pages from the Bible at this point, and still could not imagine setting foot inside a church. But I began to see something here, something that sent a shiver down my spine, something that left me with an exciting and terrifying premonition that told me that I would end up giving up everything I had for this belief system because everything it said was true: It was that here I saw no sins against the story.
“All the other philosophies avowedly end where they begin; and it is the definition of a story that it ends differently,” Chesterton wrote. “From Buddha and his wheel to Akhen Aten and his disc, from Pythagoras with his abstraction of number to Confucius with his religion of routine, there is not one of them that does not in some way sin against the soul of a story.”
Only Christianity understood it. What it said of who we are, why we’re here, what we really want, and what is truly good in life all resonated with everything I’d ever known about what makes a story. To read the Catechism was like watching the stage get set up for a great epic. It said that the material world is good, but will not bring us lasting happiness. It taught that life is to be cherished, and that we should live each moment to the fullest. It said that resentment leads to slavery and forgiveness brings freedom. It warned that indulging your carnal pleasures to excess will lead to death, spiritually if not physically. And it loudly, boldly proclaimed that in order to achieve anything worthwhile, you first must be willing to sacrifice everything.
There were a lot of reasons I ended up converting to Christianity. It was a years-long process in which I searched and asked questions and read a couple of shelves full of books. But one of the key turning points in my journey was that moment when I realized that this belief system understood the human story better than any other. When I realized that I was looking at an uncannily thorough knowledge of what it means to be a player in the grand drama that we call the human experience, I had to consider that it may have all come from the One who wrote the script.
Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth As it Is in Heaven. Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those
Who Have Trespassed Against….
“But what if someone wants you to kill them and eat them?” my friend asked. I think that that was the moment I realized I was no longer a liberal atheist.
My husband and I were at a dinner party shortly after we got married, and someone brought up a recent news story about a man in Europe who had been killing and then eating other men. What turned the subject into a debate was that he met these guys in some kind of “Kill Me and Eat Me” internet forum, so the victims opted in to the whole thing. Because of this, most of my friends at the party declared that the killer had committed no crime.
“I think it’s fine,” a friend’s husband announced. “In a way, the guy’s a hero. These other dudes wanted to be killed and eaten, and this guy was the only one who would do it.”
After doing a reality check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I began laying out the case that the man was not a hero, and had in fact done something horrible. After a few more back-and-forths, I grudgingly admitted that my friends’ case was not totally unreasonable. I mean, the victims had signed up for it — he even let people go who changed their minds in the beginning steps of the macabre process. But something within me screamed that this was wrong in the most dire sense of the world. And I even got my friends to admit that they thought so too.
“Yeah, you’re right, it does feel wrong,” the gal across from me said as she sipped her merlot. “At first I had the same reaction you did: it’s a deplorable crime against humanity. But then I thought it through, and realized that it was fine.” Ultimately, they said, what’s right and wrong is up for individual people to figure out for themselves.
It was one of my first lessons that reason can convince you of stuff that’s stupid and wrong. It also primed me to be receptive to the idea of the Natural Law, which I would read about a few years later when I began exploring religion. I came across C.S. Lewis’ magnificent book Mere Christianity, where he makes the case that the truth about right and wrong is written on every human heart. To those who would say that morality varies widely by time and place, he responded:
But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like the are to each other and to our own…Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him…Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.
This is what I think of when I hear the word against in the Our Father. It’s popular these days to scoff at the notion that objective Right and Wrong exists, to pretend that we have no notion of such a thing. It is usually only when someone goes against it that we suddenly realize that the Natural Law exists, and that it’s a horrible thing when someone violates it. And the more personal the situation, the more we realize it.
Borrowing my friends’ reasoning that there is no such thing as true right and true wrong, I could have announced at the dinner party that my personal philosophy was that “survival of the fittest” is the highest aim of humanity. I may have even gotten some folks to agree that it was a valid, reasonable view. But when I started grabbing the hosts’ belongings and putting them into my trunk, challenging them to a contest of strength to determine who gets to keep the stuff, I think they would have pretty quickly said that I was wrong — not wrong because their personal, subjective opinions happened to contradict my actions, but wrong because what I was doing was objectively, unconditionally wrong. C.S. Lewis continues:
Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, the next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they broke was an unfair one. But if treatises do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong — in other words, if there is no Law of Nature — what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?
It’s easy to quibble with the idea of Natural Law when it’s all theoretical. But we feel the truth of it on a visceral level when someone goes against it — when they trespass across the boundary of Right and Wrong — especially if they have done so in a way that impacts our own lives. Rarely are we more in tune with God’s truth about what is truly good, with the beautiful code of conduct that is inscribed on every human heart, than when someone has trespassed against us.
I’ve received a lot of feedback in response to my post called Finding God in 5 Steps. Of all the interesting and insightful things that people shared, there was one email that hit me right between the eyes, and made me realize something that I’ve hardly gone a day without thinking about. It was from a young man who fell away from faith for many years and had only recently returned to a close relationship with God. He said that he agreed with what I wrote in that post, but thought that I missed one thing:
There was one thing that was essential to my reversion that you do not mention. One must be willing to give up everything for God…I believe that the biggest problem people have with finding God is that they are not willing to give up earthly desires to find Him. People want the best of both worlds. They want a relationship with God and be able to hang on to worldly desires. I think this is all to often overlooked.
Until I received his email, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me what a key aspect of the conversion process this is; I hadn’t even realized that I went through this step myself. But when I look back, I see that before I could accept the truth, I first had to be in a place of willingness to lose it all.
One of the things that’s different about seeking the truth about God as opposed to, say, seeking the truth about a mathematical equation is that the truth about God is personal and transformative. If you’re seeking the truth about mass-energy equivalence and you discover that e=mc², it doesn’t mean anything for you personally. You don’t need to live your life any differently just because you now know that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content. But not so with God. Because God is the source of all that is good, to know what God is is to know what Good is. Religion has almost always been understood to be about moral codes because a moral code defines what is good and what is not, therefore it defines what God is and what he’s not.
That’s why the search for the truth about God is always personal. It’s always going to bring in all your insecurities, issues and attachments, because your life will be forever shaped by whatever truth you encounter.
Here’s a rough analogy: Let’s say that a woman was seeking God, and she came across a belief system that taught that it’s morally wrong to own a car; something about car ownership, they said, was contrary to God’s nature, and therefore objectively wrong. Naturally, her first reaction was, “That’s absurd!” But then she found a lot of other reasonable stuff in the belief system, so she took another look at that crazy car teaching. To her surprise, it ended up being not as unreasonable as she’d initially thought; in fact, she had to admit that some of the defenses she read really got her thinking.
But in the back of her mind there was always this voice that said, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT A CAR! There was no way. She even thought through it a couple of times: She needed it to run errands, her husband needed his car for work. And she couldn’t just take the kids out of all their activities. Nope. The life that she had carefully crafted would completely fall apart if she gave up having a car.
As you can imagine, this line of thinking would bring her investigation into the anti-car belief system to an end. There’s this idea out there we can will ourselves into automaton mode and make evaluations about any kind of subject with perfect objectivity. But it’s not true (except maybe in matters of math or science, and even then I think our biases come into play more than we’d like to admit). To use the example of the woman in the car, there is no way that she is going to accept the belief system that includes the teaching against cars, even if her rational mind believes that it’s true…unless she’s willing to let go of her car, and therefore her entire lifestyle.
Again, the analogy is rough, but I think it conveys the process that many of us experience on the road to conversion. When I was first researching religion, for example, some of the Catholic Church’s teachings sounded just as crazy to me as the idea of not owning a car. At first I dismissed them as absurd. But even when I came to see that the arguments in their defense were incredibly compelling, I was still not that close to admitting that they were true, because, deep down inside, I knew that they would turn my life upside down if they were.
Around that time, everything fell apart: We faced major financial problems, then medical problems which compounded the financial problems. We had to move in with my mom, which meant that I lost touch with many of my friends because I was in a different part of town. With my health, finances, and social life all a big hot mess, I discovered the freedom of having nothing left to lose. Of course I did still have plenty of great stuff like a supportive family and a first-world existence, but I’d lost so much so quickly that I’d received a crash course in detachment. And that’s when I could finally allow myself to see the truth about God.
And so I whole-heartedly agree that that Finding God in 5 Steps post is missing a step, one that is perhaps the most important: First, you must be willing to lose lose it all.