There are two basic categories for the impetuses that drove me towards my Damascene moment – a misnomer, given the slow (we’re talking 20-odd years here; it’s probably something I’ve been building to my entire life so far) and painstaking (intellectual curiosity leading to a great deal of reading, not all of it as lucid as the final book in the chain) nature of the chain; also not Damascene in that it occurred, in its full form, some time after the moment when I felt God (though that was certainly a not-unimportant moment in the process). All in all, then, I think my conversion story is probably a more typical one than the dramatic (dramatised?) stories of some kinds of born-again preachers, who one day see the light and convert; to their Pauls, I am more of a Constantine – slowly converted, and never taking one experience as absolute evidence.
The first, perhaps most important, impetus to conversion is one that’s hard to pin down, but has been there for longest; it’s that element that has been there from the start, since my earliest memories. My maternal grandparents (that is, my grandfather and his wife; my grandmother died before I was born) are deeply religious, and used, when they visited, to take me to Church. Similarly, I attended Quaker services with some friends; and all the services seemed to have something – even the Quaker ones, with their informality, lack of ceremony, and so on – that was there, a deeper presence and meaning. I could feel it as an outsider, and part of me always just wanted to pretend to believe – perhaps part of me did believe, then – in order to be a part of the deeper presence, to understand the deeper meaning.
That drive to understand it, combined with an upbringing in a very much humanist household in a humanist community, led to a certain position on religion: outside, looking in, with scant regard for believers. It sounds harsh, and indeed looking back on the past it made me occasionally harsh; but that I had friends – one Muslim, one non-denominational (non-doctrinal, non-traditional) Christian – willing to discuss these issues led to an increasingly sharp, hardened and well-honed position of atheism (though at times, in a rather devil’s-advocate manner, I took the position of my Jewish heritage against Judaism’s younger Abrahamic siblings; perhaps a wish to fit in through belief, perhaps evidence of a need for a faith). That lasted a long time – I’d created, carved out, a role for myself, which I inhabited perfectly; the cynical, unbelieving, indeed anti-believing, passionate disputer. It did not help that every logical argument for the existence of God was hopelessly flawed (the cosmological, perhaps, was the least wrong, though hardly without problems); to use a phrase that came to me much later (or rather, a full explanation did) a leap to faith was required.
We now move towards my adult life, and a rather faster-moving series of events; so far, the timescale of our narrative has been years – each section dealing with a number of them, slowly building the contradictory positions of the rational atheist and the emotional deist – the next part all takes place in the space of around 3 years and begins with the collapse of the dichotomy into a more straightforward deist. Why this happened I cannot say; certainly some experiences in that time – which I will discuss below – gave me a sense of the numinous, a taste (though not a complete one) of the divine. Perhaps the emotional element simply overrode the rational one for a while; in preceding years I had been drawn to any system of “theology” described to me by someone with a clear faith in it, but this changed over 2008/09 to become a more fully deistic idea, unconvinced of the truth of these theologies. In a LiveJournal post, written in February 2008, I said that “rationally I know I lean toward atheism, but emotionally I lean towards deism” and over the course of the next few years, this remained the case; indeed, up until December 2010 I would have called myself a deist – and if pressed, I still might.
What, then, happened to change that position of dichotomous atheist/deist to a more simple deistic position? I think first and foremost, one must understand that specific experiences do affect one’s rationality; that is, each event which I felt as a “divine experience”, whilst part of me wrote it off as simply a transcendent experience of beauty, another part thought of as an important event, something more effecting than that, and incorporated it, over time building up towards a conversion experience. Furthermore, it has been said before that an experience is utterly subjective; what I take from an event may be very different from what another person takes from the same event, and this is even truer of transcendent feelings, which are intensely personal. I think it bears repetition in this context given that I will be discussing a small number of specific events that bear significance to me, albeit not necessarily to anyone else.
The first such, I suppose, is a concert by a group named Celtic Woman, performing in Boston, MA. I saw them with a pair of very good friends and a person I consider to be a twin of my soul; Josh and Brit, and Anne, respectively. I’d heard most of the songs performed before, as much of it was material on their recorded albums, but certain songs I hadn’t; however, hearing them performed live – especially You Raise Me Up, The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun and The Call – moved me in a very different way. I didn’t discuss this with any of them at the time, and when I wrote about the concert I didn’t mention it; but on seeing them again – with Anne and Brit, in Richmond, VA – those same songs moved me (whilst Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears moved me in an entirely different way…). That experience was a sort of taste of “the power and the glory”, to coin a phrase; an important moment, but not a religious experience – though that I didn’t see it as such may be more to do with me than the experience itself: as Lucy says in the film of Prince Caspian, in reply to being asked by Peter why he didn’t see Aslan, “Maybe you weren’t looking”.
This also coincided with starting to experience, rather than just being told, how some of my Christian friends live their lives – notably, at this point, Anne. Later, David, Scott (a theology student), and my girlfriend Heather have fulfilled the same role of living as a Christian, but in the first instance it was Anne, during the time I stayed with her in Pittsburgh, who really brought home to me what Christian living was. She went to Mass, lived as a Catholic, and prayed; she didn’t try and bring me into this – as a non-Christian, I did not look down on or disdain her practices, but didn’t involve myself either, and she didn’t try and convert me – but simply practiced her beliefs in front of me. That’s actually profoundly moving, if you’ve ever experienced something like that; and later, when I met Scott, something similar occurred – and something else, but we’ll come to that in its own time.
The effect of seeing this – of seeing Anne, David, Scott and Heather practicing their beliefs in their everyday lives – is actually more important than I can really say, to me. It made me realise how important God is to them, and how central the reality and actuality of the Trinity is; how important Christ’s sacrifice is to them personally, rather than to them communally as Christians (albeit of different Churches). Seeing that cross-denominational importance, feeling it at one remove, is so affecting that it’s hard to overstate the effect it has on one, and the dampening effect it has on any temptation to ridicule religion as simply a part of being in a community.
The next element that needs to be discussed is a renewal of the intellectual side of faith and Christianity. I have, at the moment, a couple of books waiting to be read purporting to try and convert the reader to Christianity (or at least theism), but the most effective books at doing so were actually Dawkins’ God Delusion and C. S. Lewis’ text about what Christianity is, rather than why one should believe it – Mere Christianity. More useful than either of those – though Lewis’ plain language and simple speech, with all its moral flaws, has something of the evocation about it – has been talking to Scott about theological issues. The ability to talk to someone I consider intelligent and actually look up to – not just respect, but see as something of a role model in some (indeed, many) ways – about theological issues and concerns I have is an incredibly powerful privilege; it has brought me to faith, on a logical level (not, to my mind, an oxymoron) in a way nothing else has. That he can discuss and dissect the issues I bring to him and give clear, precise and educated answers – and will admit where he can’t, or be patient and spend time to explain and help me where I don’t understand those answers – is incredibly important to me, and I want to thank him here.
Finally, there are two experiences that need to be discussed. Both revolve, to a degree, around Heather; though one is more of a long-term thing, whilst the other is a snap event, the closest I have ever come to a Damascene moment. First, I need to give the background; I have been in other relationships, but never with someone with the intensity of Heather; nor I have ever been in a relationship with someone with that passion and fire, and that extends to her religious beliefs as much as everything else. I’ve also never been in a relationship where I have felt like I don’t measure up – and can’t – to the standards I believe my partner deserves, but where I know I’m loved anyway; and finally, I have never been in a relationship where everything is altered by it – not just the way I feel about Heather, or about things when I’m with Heather, but everything, universally, when I’m with her or away from her, simply by the fact of being in a relationship with her. From reading Lewis, this seems to parallel, pretty closely, the ideal of faith in the Christian God; perhaps that is why falling in love with Heather – a deep, powerful, passionate love, of a kind similar to that involved in Christianity – has made me see clearly the possibility of loving, and having faith in, that Christian God which she believes in.
The other experience is one I had with Heather, and – I believe – it was a moment of communication with God. I’m going to break, once more, into event-narrative here, simply for ease of communication; and then afterwards I’ll explain. Heather and I were in York Minster on a beautiful summer’s afternoon in August, together, simply holding hands; the Minster is an Anglican Church, not particularly low or high, but old and with an air of reverence about it. It’s not a new Church to me, I’ve visited many times before, but it remains beautiful and with the ability to impress; but this time, I sat with Heather for a moment of quiet contemplation. However, during this moment of contemplation, I felt something; or rather, I became aware of feeling some things. First was that I was a part of something much, much larger than myself; second, that this thing was not something I was part of so much as something I could be a part of, and with; and third, a feeling of contentment at this knowledge, and a powerful feeling of utter peace. I believed at the time this was god touching me, in a deistic sense; I believe now that it was God, in the Christian sense – a religious experience, given that – if nothing else by loving Heather – I was now looking.
So what took me from the semi-Damascene moment of communion (in the non-liturgical sense) to faith in the Christian God? I suppose the largest element is time; unlike Saul, I wasn’t going to give up my beliefs for a momentary sensation (it wasn’t exactly God manifesting in front of me with a sign saying believe); but rather, I was moving towards belief anyway, slowly, and the moment in the Minster simply provided both extra impetus and a reminder of that movement. Thus on the return to St. Andrews, a few books on Christianity – The Four Loves, Mere Christianity, and The Case for God being the main ones – as well as talking more and more to Scott about theological issues (sorry, my friend – you were being used, without knowing it, as a confessor, almost!). The development was slow, culminating in a moment when I finished reading Mere Christianity on a train from St Andrews to Manchester for the Christmas holiday, when I knew that what Lewis said was true (mostly; his misogyny and heterosexism are not just distasteful but, to me, utterly wrong). Perhaps, then, there was that Damascene moment after all… not on the road to Damascus with an angel appearing, but on the train to Manchester, reading C. S. Lewis.
There are some more reflections, personal addenda, that could perhaps be added to this, but I think I'll do that at a later date; it's more about my personal beliefs and interpretations of Christianity and Christian doctrine, so not wholly relevant to this.