A Conversion Story

The great English philosopher Michael Dummett recounts his journey to Catholicism in an intellectual autobiography in a recent volume of essays on his philosophy:

During my time at Winchester, my religious opinions underwent a radical swing. Initially, I had an atheist and scientistic outlook; in company with many others in College (the scholars house), I declined to receive an Anglican confirmation at the designated age. My parents protested mildly; neither was a practising Christian, and I think their objection was to any unconventional behaviour rather than to religious dissent. Then my opinions started gradually to shift. From a diffuse pantheism I came to believe in God, as understood in the Semitic religions. I was much influenced by a heterogeneous sect of Catholic writersG.K. Chesterton, Eric Gill, Christopher Dawson. One by one, I came to accept the tenets of the faith. That which I found it hardest to swallow, and which was the last I came to accept, was that of life after death. I do not think that I understood at the time that this rested absolutely on the belief in that, on the face of it, bafflingly unlikely event, the general resurrection: I think I had then a dualist conception of our souls as naturally capable of existing separated from our bodies. I should probably have been puzzled if I had learned of St. Thomass dictum Anima mea non est ego (My soul is not me). I was received into the Church in February 1944. My parents were very upset, not, I think, because my action was unconventional, but because of a deep prejudice against Catholicism which had been instilled into them in childhood and survived their loss of all religious faith. Apart from three distant cousins, all female and two of an older generation, whom I very much liked, I had never known any Catholics, and had never attended a Catholic service; I now went to two nearby churches, and found the forms of worship strange, and fascinating. I later learned much more about my religion, and became critical in various ways and a strong advocate of liturgical reform; but my faith was deeply rooted, and it was not for twelve years or more that the first doubts assailed me about whether it was all true.

I have undergone several periods when I have been overcome by such doubts; during them, I have not ceased to attend Sunday Mass, but have abstained from the sacraments. My doubts have always been global rather than local; my reasons for believing in God are philosophical rather than affective; they can suddenly strike me as unconvincing. The liturgy enables those who take part to feel themselves present at the long-past events of Christs life; something similar is a feature of all religions, I think. But during such periods I was oppressed by the thought that all that is actually happening is the present performance of the liturgy. But most usually my doubts have been engendered by what troubles everyone: can a world in which such suffering occurs be one made by a God who is said to love? What a tender love was His, Who from realms of highest bliss Came into a world like this the Christmas hymn exclaims: it was the world He created. That world looks as if governed by uncaring forces. The pain of animals is a good example; I once saw on television a sloth carried off by some bird of prey and then devoured alive. As for human pain, it is not its mere occurrence that has usually troubled me: after the Cross, no one can say to God, You dont know what it is like. After the great cry of dereliction no one can say this even about the feeling that the Sicilian heroine Rita Atria had, that God had abandoned her. What troubles me most is the way some people die. Some deaths are too devoid of dignity or peace to allow any self-surrender; how can they be the means by which anyones soul is supposed to pass into eternity? I have no answer to these questions; they trouble me continually. It has been only sporadically, and not for a long time now, that they have overwhelmed me and prevented me for a period from being a whole-hearted believer. When the period has ended and my faith in God has been restored, it has not been because I have found the answers, but because I have become able to live with the agony of not knowing them, confident that they are to be found.

"I have celebrated my seventy-fifth birthday," Dummett concludes. "I remain a Catholic, and hope to die one."

John Schwenkler is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.

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