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Why Convert?

Rod Dreher shares a letter that Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun, composed for a possible convert to Orthodoxy. She said in part:

I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. You will find as much “wrong” (if not more) in Orthodoxy as in the Anglican or Roman Churches.

So – the first point is, are you prepared to face lies, hypocrisy, evil and all the rest, just as much in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or denomination?

Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music?

Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side?

Have you a cookery book with all the authentic Russian recipes for Easter festivities?

Are you an expert in kissing three times on every possible or improper occasion?

Can you prostrate elegantly without dropping a variety of stationery out of your pockets?


Have you read the Gospels?

Have you faced Christ crucified?


Commenting Guidelines


thank you for the suggestions.I think that Lohfink's discussion is quite good. Unfortunately, though I have McCabe's God Still Matters, I don't have the previous book

Would it be possible for you to give a quote from it that you think particularly helpful on the question of "atonement."

Fr. Imbelli,

There isn't a "money-quote" in McCabe's 38-page "attempt to work out a theology of the atonement through meditation on the liturgical mysteries of Holy Week." He provides meditations on the mysteries of unity (Holy Thursday), the cross (Good Friday), and new life (Easter). Through, with and in Christ there is a reconciliation with God (an "at-one-ment" -- not McCabe's term) whereby we may participate in God's life and love, as friends of God and brothers and sisters to one another. "For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved. But that love is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son; God loves us because we are in Christ and share his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals which is the Godhead." When one begins to appreciate the meaning of such "communion," one can no longer think of atonement along the lines of "satisfaction," "retribution," or "repayment."


I think you offered a number of "money-quotes."

Thank you!

I think sermonizing/homilizing is a crap shoot. I've heard a lot of homilies and sermons in both RCC and Anglican churches that were merely dumbed down feel-good blah blah (for the anodyne, see C.S. Lewis refer'd elsewhere on this thread). But I think offering anything challenging and substantive that makes people feel uncomfortable and then immediately asking for their money is a hard job. Maybe the order of the liturgy needs to be changed so you pay up front like at the movies. 

Of tangential interest, a brief interview with Barbara Ehrenreich in the NYT Magazine today hawks her new book, "Living with a Wild God," about some experiences she had as a teenager (she won't call them spiritual or comfy). I deeply appreciate Ehrenreich's astringency, even when I don't agree with her. She is an atheist and was taken to task by her family for writing a book with the word "God" in the title, and made this observation: 

I’ve spent so many years talking about poverty and economic justice, I’m strongly tempted to get biblical. Jesus’s teachings are so radical, they’re just insanely generous and apocalyptic. Christians become more fascinated by the dead Jesus. They don’t like the living Jesus.

While she makes a sweeping and unfair generality in her last sentence, I would agree that Jesus was a generous and apocalyptic radical. If Jesus Christ had given out imprimaturs, he certainly would have given one to Ehrenreich's book, "Nickeled and Dimed." I would only suggest to her that Christians become "fascinated" with Christ's death because, resurrection aside, it proves he was serious about what he said.

Ms. Chapman:

You wrote: “Jesus certainly did not ‘have’ to suffer and die the way he did in order to fulfill his mission among human beings.  He ‘saved’us through his life, not through his death.”

Is not this second sentence too dichotomous? Don’t we have to say, “He ‘saved’ us not only through his death [I would add: “and resurrection”] but also through his life.” That is why, after all, the Church gathered, preserved, and honored above all other biblical books four Gospels in which Christ’s life, teachings, and wondrous works are set out. I would only add, with regard to your first sentence above, that the earliest Gospel, Mark’s, includes among the sayings of Jesus this one: “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life in ransom for the many” (Mk 10:45) and that another one says that Jesus rebuked the two disciples encountered on the road to Emmaus: “How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have announced! Did not the Messiah have to undergo all this so as to enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26). Such texts are there in our Gospels and need to be taken into account, wrestled with, and not just by theologians, which is what seems to me is happening on this thread, after many others on the same or similar topics.

I must say I did not at all like the suggestion that I might be “air-brushing” these texts of their obvious meaning. I don’t think that in such matters much is very obvious, We are dealing with mystery–the mystery of evil and the mystery of grace. I don’t, for example, think that it is at all obvious what it means for Christ to give his life as a “ransom.” I do know that the metaphor appears in a canonical book and that it is my task as a Christian and as also a theologian to try to figure out what it means, for example, by investigating how all that language about redemption (buying back) was used in the Old Testament, in Greek literature, in Jewish literature roughly contemporaneous with the Gospels. Stanislas Lyonnet did such an investigation and he concluded:

It is clear, then, how different the “law of redemption” is from the law grounded on the principle of commutative justice–“Do ut des”: “I’ll give if you’ll give”–which is the law that governs the freeing of captives or slaves by a price paid to compensate the owner of a slave or captive. When the biblical authors used the vocabulary of ransoming, etc., they wanted to evoke, even by the force of the words, the very source from which the entire economy of redemption proceeds, God the Father himself, and He certainly not like a merchant who doesn’t free anyone or anything unless an equivalent price is paid, but rather as one who gratuitously frees us from any slavery in order to make us “his own.” In other words, he is not like someone who doesn’t free a person unless he loses nothing, but like someone who frees for no other reason than that he loves (De peccato et redemptione, 48).

This is not air-brushing, but serious engagement with the text in its context. (The book continues with a close study of other language used in the NT of Christ’s salvific work. It seems that portions at least of it were translated in a book entitled Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice, which would seem to be out of print.)

The gap noticed here by several people between learned theology and popular catechesis and comprehension of the faith is a very old phenomenon. In the early 1920's the French Jesuit historian Jules Lebreton wrote a two-part article entitled (in translation) “The Disagreement between popular faith and learned theology in the Christian Church of the Second Century,” Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, 19 (1923) 481-506, 24 (1924) 5-37. (Already in the second century!)

Fr. Imbelli and I were for some years colleagues at Dunwoodie, the major seminary of the archdiocese of New York, and we worked very hard to train future priests so that that gap might be closed. Unfortunately, both there and elsewhere, academic achievement in theology was not, in my opinion, high enough in the scale of criteria for admitting a person for ordination. If I were still teaching in a seminary, I would certainly make sure that the future priests came away with a more balanced theology of the Atonement than the one that has alienated so many people from the faith and is rightly being criticized here.

Finally, Holy Week is not far away. How sad it would be if mistaken interpretations of the death of Christ were to keep people from participating in all three of the great Days of the Week, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. There shouldn’t be a void between the first and the third Days.  It is, after all, not called “Wretched Friday,” “Awful Friday,” “Sad Friday,” “Bad Friday,” but “Good Friday,” and there’s a reason for that. 

I don't know if anyone would be interested, but I have a past post that links to what various people have written about atonement - James Alison, NT Wright, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, Jeffrey John, Duns Scotus, Keith Ward, and Steve Chalke ... ... Also I quote there from an article by Richard Leonard SJ ...

"God did not need the blood of Jesus. Jesus did not just come ‘to die’ but God used his death to announce the end to death. This is the domain of ‘offer it up’ theology: it was good enough for Jesus to suffer; it is good enough for you. While I am aware of St Paul in Romans, St Clement of Alexandria, St Anselm of Canterbury and later John Calvin’s work on atonement theory and satisfaction theology, I cannot baldly accept that the perfect God of love set [us] up for a fall in the Fall, then got so angry with us that only the grisly death of his perfect son was going to repair the breach between us. This is not the only way into the mystery of Holy Week. For most of Christian history the question that has vexed many believers seems to be, ‘Why did Jesus die?’ I think it is the wrong question. The right one is ‘Why was Jesus killed?’ And that puts the last days of Jesus’ suffering and death in an entirely new perspective. Jesus did not simply and only come to die. Rather, Jesus came to live. As a result of the courageous and radical way he lived his life, and the saving love he embodied for all humanity, he threatened the political, social and religious authorities of his day so much that they executed him. But God had the last word on Good Friday: Easter Sunday."

I’ve been following this thread and find it perplexing why, after 106 comments, Anne C. and Crystal still cling to an interpretation they don’t like, rather than accepting a fully satisfactory alternate interpretation of the same texts (ably stated by Joe) when it is presented.

The final refuge seems to be the implication that Joe and Bob are up in the clouds of “high theology” and we peons have all been catechized uniformly to believe in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, so of course it's necessary that we continue to have this as our horizon of thought despite all arguments to the contrary -- because we are miscatechized, and there's no way out of that.

Really? This does not ring true for me. I for one, was never taught, catechized, or schooled to view the crucifixion according to the theory of penal substitution, and I had twelve years of Catholic education. I could complain about sentimental extravagances, or other distortions, but not this.

Yet, even if I were schooled in this interpretation of the atonement, if I later discovered my education to be defective, or one-sided, would I be wise to cling to it, and insist that it’s the only way to understand the subject? At a certain point, it becomes an insistence upon the narrative of one’s alienation, without an adequate respect for the partial nature of that narrative, or an openness to finding a better understanding. 

In other words, I am asking whether the point of this conversation really is faith seeking understanding, or whether it's to prove that alienation from the central Christian doctrine of the cross is inevitable. If it's the latter, I don't buy it. It does not correspond to my own experience or that of many, nay most, of the people I know, or to rational arguments or the witness of history. There are some very good reasons why churches are packed on Good Friday, and it's not, for the most part, because people are commited to the theory of penal substitution. I would suggest that the cross calls up much more central themes for people: faithfulness, sacrifical love, compassion, and the mystery of suffering and solidarity.

One final word. It's very easy to find contemporary writers who will caricature and sneer at the atonement theology of penal substitution, or use its presumed absurdity as a convenient brickbat to hurl at people for whom the "legal" view of God's justice has persuasive power. I object to this as a low level of discourse. I have respect for people who argue against the theology of penal substitution and I would agree with many of their arguments, but I also have respect for people who hold the theology of Anselm as valuable in Catholic theology, and for those reformers, particularly Calvin, who took such points of departure as ingredients of their own theology. It takes work to understand, but we are talking about some profound subjects here: particularly God's justice, divine providence, and the cost of fidelity.


Just a footnote -- "See the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself" uses the word "victim" in the distinct sacrificial sense, not in the sense in which we speak of "victims" today. That Jesus offered himself as a "ransom for the many" (a phrase that has a good chance of being from his own lips) or as a sacrifical victim for the salvation of the human race seems to me to make a lot of sense and to fit in with the behavior of Israel's prophets, who interpreted their sufferings in such sacrificial terms. We do not even need the Resurrection to warrant this self-interpretation of his death; the resurrection references in the three passion predictions (Synoptics) and in John 2 and 10 are unlikely to go back to the lips of the historical Jesus. The exaltation or resurrection of Christ can be linked to God's acceptance of the Son's gracious sacrifice; as we would all hope that the sacrifice of our own lives -- the self-emptying of death -- would be so accepted. 

They eventually throw up their hands and basically say that " you just have to take it on faith". […] Perhaps this is because they themselves do not have enough education in high-level theology to even attempt to explain, for example, that the words in the CCC don't really imply what most who read them think they say when taken at face value, but something else entirely. 

How do I react when I see a passage of the catechism that goes against my intuition? Even if it resists my attempts to make sense out of it, I do not reject it. Instead, I accept that there is something there that I do not understand, and am ready to come back to it again at some later time. For me "taking it on faith" does not mean accepting some statement at face value, but accepting that there is more to it that what I can understand at this point in time.


For theological statements at least, I accept that the Magisterium knows better, and even more so for quotes from the New Testament. So, when I hear something seemingly offensive or wrong, the question is not an aggressive "is this right or wrong?" but becomes: "How can I understand this so that it is acceptable and can be received?" It's not about using rhetorical devices to artificially transform something unpalatable into something that fits my beliefs, nor about silencing my internal reluctance or opposition to the offensive statement. Instead, it starts from the assumption that there is some truth in the statement, that is, there is something that, once properly understood, I can personally embrace. I can't see it yet, but I know that it is there. Then reading the catechism (say) is always work in progress.




Moat of the guys I mentioned above have what would be called a "traditional"  understanding of atonement.

I'm grateful for the explinations from Fr. K and Fr. I.

At the end of the day, I have to work out beliefs that make sense to me, given my own discerned prayer experience.

I’ve been following this thread and find it perplexing why, after 106 comments, Anne C. and Crystal still cling to an interpretation they don’t like, rather than accepting a fully satisfactory alternate interpretation of the same texts (ably stated by Joe) when it is presented.

Well, damn, maybe it wasn't as "fully satisfactory" as you think it is,

I don't think we have yet a fully satisfactory language for expressing the meaning of the paschal events for today -- sacrifice may be an "accidental category" (Thomas O'Loughlin) and may have to be rethought or deconstructed as Rene Girard and others have proposed. But certainly we should not cling to misunderstandings when more satisfactory readings have been offered, just as we need not go on and on about God as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne when theology for the last two thousand years has gone so far beyond anything of the sort (though Christian iconography has committed terrible blunders).

"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:14–16).

All our theological meditation, indispensable as it is, is only the never-ending attempt to ponder the meaning of that confession of faith.

Rita, that seems less than charitable.  In addition to what Abe said, and I would have to agree with him to some extent, what I take from Anne is the frustration of someone who is just a lot more serious about this subject than the people around her.  It's not quite like finding out that most of the people in the pews attend the same service you do only because that's the one where they serve donuts afterwards, but it raises some thorny issues about the nature of a "shared" faith.  Here, with respect to one of the absolutely central tenets, there is a strong tendency, backed up by a lot of vivid language (with no less than a biblical source!) that you find disturbing -- and that your "deeper" understanding is not at all what your friends, even your parish priest, apparently believe.  So maybe it has always been thus, but it's certainly a strange thing to contemplate for a Church with a common doctrinal understanding.  Most people with this tendency -- the need to be right and accurate and coherent with respect to subtle and complex subjects -- usually accept after a while that they aren't like most other people and just try to figure out the most satisfactory accommodations.  So while I can accept the much more thoughtful and learned explanations, the problem I face on Sunday mornings might not go away.

Re Rita's comment: I never thought Catholics believed in substitutionary atonement in the Calvinist sense, though I'm not sure I'm smart enough (or have the desire) to wrap my head around the difference between Calvin's ideas and the Church's.

I also don't think that theologians need to get defensive about their work with catechists. Theologians ARE on a different plane; they research Scripture and commentary and try to refine our understanding of God.

Catechists are teachers, whose job it is to introduce accepted interpretations of Scripture to the faithful as the faithful are ready to receive it. They have to be willing to meet people where they are on their "faith journey," and to, as Pope Gregory advised St. Augustine of Canterbury, feed them with appropriate food and not try to ram the raw meat of faith down their throats all at once. 

I hope my thinking is not lazy, but it is drawn less to the theological and more to the practical: How do I, in my given circumstances, and laden with the experiences of my life that have given rise to any number of doubts about specific items in the CCC, continue in the faith? Ultimately, it's helpful (to me, anyway) to remember that divine love is not a quid pro quo as in "I believe/do X and God gives me Y."

There is grace, there is forgiveness, there is repentance. Aren't these the aspects of God that Holy Week calls on us to contemplate?



This thread started out referring to Mother Thekla’s somewhat opinionated response to a person’s desire to convert to Orthodoxy.  I would like to go back to that if it is not too far off course.

I think that someone born into a certain church has to be careful before they judge another’s reason(s) for wanting to join in.  These reasons can be turned back on the “cradle’s” continued membership, i.e., why do you stay?  I suspect that the stayers are as guilty in many cases of the same reasons that Thekla questions about the convert’s reasons.

I have always believed that conversion is a long-term process, full of starts, stops, wrong turns, corrections, and many confused wanderings.  Others can point us to guideposts, but to assume that my reasons are not right because they are not theirs is a bit off mark.

The Catholic Church is full of “liturgy queens” in high places who dote extensively on liturgical minutae.  No one seems to call them out very regularly and question their proper Catholicism.

Before the Mother Theklas of the world become too censorious they might look at their own reasons and motivations for staying in a tradition that prides itself on, nay, insists on the absolute rightness of, a certain way of worshipping.

Jean --

About ramming "raw meat" down the throats of primitives, it seems to me that Pope Gregory's advice isn't very relevant when directed towards theologians and catechists in the contemporary developed world where the laity is sometimes as well-educated, or even better educated, than the catechists and where they are sometimes better educated than even some theologians.

It seems to me that this probem can at least partially be solved by extending collegiality with the bishops into the various countries round the world.  The problems in different countries and cultures differ so very widely one from the other. 

I have always believed that conversion is a long-term process, full of starts, stops, wrong turns, corrections, and many confused wanderings.  

Jimmy, what you describe has been my experience as a convert. But mightn't it not be the same for cradle Catholics who are looking to look more deeply/thoughtfully at the faith and "how to be Catholic"? Aren't all Catholics "converts" in the sense that they're looking for that change of heart that will lead them close to God?

I took Mother Theklas's comments differently from you. I think she was basically warning converts against merely immersing themselves in aesthetically pleasing liturgical practices and looking for "correct" answers and certainty. She seemed (to me, anyway) to be trying to get under the liturgical drama queens and underscoring that God places deeper demands on all of us through the Church, but that it's led by very fallible human beings.

About ramming "raw meat" down the throats of primitives, it seems to me that Pope Gregory's advice isn't very relevant when directed towards theologians and catechists in the contemporary developed world where the laity is sometimes as well-educated, or even better educated, than the catechists ...

Ann, yes, I suppose that's the other side of the line that catechists have to toe--not depriving the faithful of real meat when they're ready for it and helping to direct people to the next step. My experience with Catholic catechists is limited given the rural area in which I live. On the other hand, I realize that those of us still looking for more meat must take the responsibility to find our own food.

Jean --

I'm sure you're exactly right about many people looking for more meat, and I'm also sure that many are not finding it.  This is where I think the internet could be extremely valuable for those who want more nourishing intellectual food.  Yes, intellectual food.  It is has been popular for a very long time in the U. S. to denigrate, even hate, "intellectual pursuits".  (See Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life")  But asking for a deeper grasp is asking for deeper intellectual understaning of the Faith, with all of the hardships that intellectual pursuits entail.  But if we want to grasp the Faith better, then it isn't just our good intentions that will make that happen.  We must read some hard stuff and discuss it with others who are knowledgeable.  But where to find those knowledgeable others?

In some dioceses at least, the seminaries allow non-matriculating people to take courses.  But I don't see how that is sufficient for all the people who are asking serious questions which aret of varying levels of difficulty.  It seems to me there need to be internet programs for adolescents, for young adults, and for older ones, and for people of all those levels with more or less education. In other words, the internet is going to have to become part of Catholic adult education somehow.  But how? Should there be internet courses?  Or just internet blogs?  Or book discussions?  Or all of the above?   Do we need a radically different sort of prepaation for catechsists?  For priests?  Or what?   

I'm one of those non-matriculating people, since my vision makes it hard to get out and about.  But there is really a wealth of information to be found online.  Of course,  information itself isn't enough - it helps to have a way to evaluate it and to personalize it.  Maybe the most important thing is just the motivation to learn more.  When I first started blogging I was part of a group NT study blog with some Quakers ... fun and I learned a lot  :) 

My problem with the internet is that so often you don't know whether or not ot trust a sourse, e.g., Wikipedia for starters.  There is some excellent stuff in philosophy, I know, but I wouldn't know if theological articles are reliable.  That's one reason i think we need some live humans ata the end of the line.

True.  Theology, like philosophy, is really a pile of people's opinions.  Some of what you read you respect because it's written by well known people in the discipline.  But it helps to have a real person you trust of whom you can ask questions.