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Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin
Conversion stories are all
around us. These accounts cover the pages of countless magazines, digests,
books, and other publications, and no two chronicles of conversion are entirely
the same. Though objectively real, the individual's brush with religious change
is a subjective experience entirely one's own. Each conversion saga is
However, it is a mistake to
assume that the varied assortments of these "spiritual modifications" have
nothing in common. Indeed, upon a closer look at the stories, certain
recognizable patterns surface. In order to enhance one's appreciation of
conversion, it may prove beneficial to take a step back in order to illuminate
some common characteristics that impede the change, that block the path to the
goal. Therefore, I'll attempt to highlight some of the social psychological
components of conversion to Catholicism as well as a few of the factors that
slow down the process. Specifically, in order to accomplish this task, I will
conduct a modest social psychological analysis of Patrick Madrid's Surprised
by Truth, a collection of conversion
stories to Catholicism. My hope is to reveal the common ground among these
spiritual sojourners' genuine quest for the fullness of truth they eventually
discovered in the Catholic Church.
I must note at the outset that
those who are in the quest for the true faith are not necessarily consciously
aware of the entire gamut of social-psychological factors influencing the
process of conversion. In addition, the pre-conversion experiences of former
non-Catholics are riddled with a mixture of nonphysical obstacles -- hurdles that
all people encounter, regardless of creed. These include the moral and
spiritual hurdles of the participants of Fallen Nature to develop pride, as
well as psychological hurdles such as cognitive inflexibility. We, in our
fallen condition, indeed tend to block or ignore the gifted "moment" of
conversion. Therefore, I'll take a look at some of the psychological hurdles,
neither attempting to disavow God's grace as fundamental and essential to
conversion nor denying the adverse spiritual influences inhibiting conversion,
but emphasizing that every conversion encounter is not only spiritual, but also
psychological. Better yet, such experiences are social-psychological. It is for
this reason that by describing the eleven conversion accounts through the lens
of social psychology it should provide an alternative and beneficial angle with
which to view spiritual change. It will also help to provide potential answers to
the mysterious riddle of why some honestly seeking and/or brilliant individuals
never step across the threshold of the Church.
In addition, the previous is not
to say that Catholics are immune to similar socio-psychological influences. In
other words, we're all in this together. Being redeemed should not be mistaken
with being absolutely logical, unencumbered by adverse social pressures and
immune to the effects of the Fall. The propensity to be persuaded by social
influences and to choose lesser goods over greater goods challenges redeemed
and unredeemed alike, though the former have extra graces to overcome this
This said, the converts found
within Surprised by Truth are definitely
an intriguing and inspiring group. Their proactive and well-read journeys are
excellent examples of how the truth becomes liberty: breaking the shackles of
not only a limited appreciation of the richness of the Catholic Church, but
also of overcoming, for the purposes of this paper, the social-psychological
obstacles to conversion. Contrary to what some may presume, the obstacles are
much more than spiritual thick headedness; they also include the powerful,
mind-hold phenomenon of biased perception.
World of schemas
A good approach to initiating a
discussion on schemas and their influence on each of us is to tap into the
wisdom of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He states it much better than I
ever could. He once claimed: "There are not a hundred people in the world who
hate the Catholic Church, but there are thousands who hate what they mistakenly
believe the Catholic Church to be" (quoted in Madrid, 1994). One can infer from
Archbishop Sheen's statement that in order to truly hate something, one must
know exactly what it is that one hates. Even a single errant view can take on a
life of its own and result in a multitude more.
Couple this truth with the
following social psychological influences that impact our decisions, and it is
relatively easy to see how a worldview can form or be altered, structuring the
way that we receive and perceive the world. It should now benefit the
discussion to describe the cognitive filtration system known as the schema.
As defined by social psychology,
a schema is the automatic mental template that each one of us uses to organize
the world. Schemas are our organizational and active perceptual lenses that
impact what we notice, what we think about, and what we remember. Though
schemas can be quite useful due to their ability to make the "awareness
endeavor" smoother and more efficient, they can also serve to prohibit new and
important information from entering our paradigms. Schemas impact us in ways
that may or may not be consciously known to us.
You may hear of converts
asserting that, though they had read the Bible in its entirety, they did not
remember reading key passages in scripture that support the Catholic position
and oppose theirs. This seems to support the phenomenon of schematic bias, the
result of our cognitive filtration system's tendency to attend to information
that supports the schema, to interpret information so that it is in line with
the schema, to remember information that confirms the schema, and to discount
or forget ideas that disconfirm the schema. Regarding the converts in this
study, Bob Sungenis claims so much when he asserts that each denomination
incorporates an "interpretive base" (p. 127), constructed from a selected set
of verses that it stresses. Unfortunately, if schematically interpreted
incorrectly, one reads into scripture things that it was never meant to say;
one engages in eisogesis rather than exegesis. In a similar vein, Steve Wood
marvels that he had previously scorned infant baptism, something that studying
Protestant and Catholic history helped him to rectify. His readings in history
became, in some sense, his "schema-corrective."
A common thread tying the
converts and, it is perhaps safe to say, all people together is that
individuals tend to resist change. Fearing change in the face of truth could
very well be one of the more powerful and enduring effects of the Fall.
Responding swiftly and correctly to reality is at times a difficult and
daunting task. Barriers to change may be erected in a variety of ways to shield
one's beliefs. It is perhaps best stated by Marcus Grodi, who claims to have
constructed a schematic, Reformed Protestant stonewall that "encircled my soul.
For nearly forty years I labored to construct that wall, stone-by-stone, to
protect my Protestant convictions" (p. 36). Only once this wall is breached can
the truth be truly liberating; only then can we receive fully the gift of
truth. As stated eruditely centuries ago by St. Thomas Aquinas, "The value of a
gift is not determined by the giver's ability to give, but by the receiver's
ability to receive." The converts list a number of factors that inhibit their
ability to receive the truth of Catholicism.
The conversion stories describe
that there is a variety of factors pulling these individuals away from the
Church. Whether it is the person's behaviors or experiences, these factors
buttress the perceptual blinders to the verity of the Church. For Steve Wood,
the excitement of Calvary Chapel's counter-cultural evangelization was
alluring. For Rick Conason, his immoral behaviors inhibited conversion to
Christianity -- to be Christian was to sacrifice fun and freedom.
The well-known concept that the
most significant factor stopping individuals from becoming Catholic is
Catholics themselves (i.e., their witness) is supported by some of the conversion
accounts. Tim Staples disliked the ignorance and indifference of Catholics he
encountered. Al Kresta loathed the timidity and tentativeness of some Catholics
towards their faith. Marcus Grodi relates a laundry list of negative
experiences with Catholics, which is perhaps eclipsed by a few Catholic priests
who considered it strange that he wanted to convert since, according to them,
conversion to Catholicism is not necessary.
Automatic v. controlled thinking
Social psychologists distinguish
between two types of cognitive processing: automatic thinking and controlled
thinking. Automatic thinking is effortless, reflexive, and nonconscious;
whereas its counterpart, controlled thinking, is effortful, reflective, and
conscious. The former is an almost instinctive response to an event, and the
latter is more of a reasoned and typically balanced type of thinking. We rarely
encounter an event without the occurrence of automatic thinking, and we should
not underestimate the power of this type of thinking on our decision-making.
Automatic responses can be quite helpful because they can accelerate our
decisions in support of the truth. But the flipside is that if these
involuntary and effortless thoughts distract or dissuade us from reality, then
they are yet another obstacle that we must overcome in order to know the true
and to choose the good.
The converts in Surprised by
Truth highlight their personal experiences
with automatic thinking. Tim Staples asserted that he simply and plainly knew
that he was right and his Catholic friend was wrong with regards to religion.
Paul Thigpen was attracted to some aspects of the Church, but his automatic and
reflexive cognitive response was: "That's just for Catholics" (p. 25).
Likewise, Steve Wood's struggles with Protestant disunity were deeply
disturbing for him. Yet to believe that the Catholic Church harbored the answer
to the fragmentation he discovered within Christianity was not an option: "I
found it unthinkable that the Catholic Church could be the missing piece to the
puzzle" (p. 89). He had yet to overcome his instinctive anti-Catholic
If even the initial response to
things Catholic engages your perceptual blinders, the task to acknowledge
Catholicism as the exclusive true religion becomes even more inconceivable. Add
to this "implausibility" roadblocks of a more family-oriented or social nature.
The barriers to conversion then grow to be more and more insurmountable.
Total conversion carries with it
an expensive price tag. It is a personal expense that many are unwilling to
pay. Take, for example, the rich young man in Matthew's gospel. Christ told
him, "'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the]
poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me'" (Matt.
19:21). The man left, unwilling to give up his riches for the richness of
Christ. No one ever said that the moral life would be easy. As Chesterton put
it: "The Christian ideal was not tried and found to be wanting, it was found to
be difficult and left untried." The call of Christ is definitely not for those
unwilling to make large sacrifices.
The converts in Surprised by
Truth let go of precious much to follow the
surprising truth. Tim Staples knew that a religious change would result in
breaking up with his girlfriend, estrangement from his Protestant family,
conflicts between him and his friends, and the forgoing of his life-long dream
of being a pastor. Paul Thigpen relates losing important business relationships
in the Protestant publishing world, letting go of his pastoral ordination, and
having to explain his desire to convert to his wife who considered conversion
to Catholicism strange. Al Kresta describes that one of his concerns regarding
conversion was trying to support his family. Becoming Catholic meant he would
be out of a job as both a pastor and a radio show host. For Julie Swenson,
rejecting her Calvinistic belief system required her to sacrifice her pride and
to admit her previously mistaken perspective on orthodox Christianity.
The previous displays the
difficulties that these converts had to confront -- loss of job, loss of friends,
loss of lifelong aspirations. Yet, it seems that something significant had to
occur to each one before he or she would step back and reassess his or her
respective ideological stance. Rarely will a ship alter its course when sailing
in smooth waters. In other words, some type of discord within the person likely
had to arise before a change ensued.
An example of this mental
discord is what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive
dissonance is a drive or feeling of discomfort that surfaces from having two or
more inconsistent perspectives and results from acting in a manner that is at
odds with one's self-concept. For example, kicking the neighbor's dog in a fit
of anger might cause some dissonance for an animal lover.
If cognitive dissonance sounds a
lot like a conscience abuzz, it should. It is social psychology's unwitting way
of supporting the moral notion that our behaviors and attitudes should be
consistent; and these behaviors and attitudes should be the result of a
conscience well-formed. A rightly ordered conscience is invaluable for
spiritual and mental, eternal and temporal, health.
In order to display cognitive
dissonance, a good starting point is Chris Conason. His unhappiness, he
discovered, was a result of his belief in Christ, yet unwillingness to live out
those beliefs. Christian is not a label to be worn, but a veritable life to be
lived. His half-baked version of Christianity did not include the latter.
Conason finally "was given the grace to realize that the problem was the
conflict between [his] belief in Christ and [his] sinful lifestyle" (p. 170).
It was a conflict so severe that he thought if he continued this lifestyle, he
must fear for his life.
Dave Armstrong illustrated his
and Al Kresta's mutual experience of cognitive dissonance saying that after
being troubled by a number of Protestant doctrines, he spoke with Kresta over
the phone. Armstrong told him that he was considering converting to
Catholicism. Kresta also shared this "theological crisis" in which the
cognitive dissonance resulted from being a Protestant pastor who also had a
belief system similar to a Catholic's. It seems that the dissonance continued
to increase, practically demanding a change. Less than two months after the
conversation, Kresta became a Catholic.
Dissuasion before persuasion
Cognitive dissonance theory
enables us to understand an important dynamic of the conversion stories found
in Surprised by Truth. Implicit in this
theory is that something has to happen to us before dissonance arises, spurring
an awareness that something in our lives must change. Yet, before we can bridge
the gap between our previous worldview to that of Catholicism -- before we can
recognize that the grass is truly greener on the Catholic side -- we oftentimes
must first notice that the grass on our side is browning or nearly brown.
Chesterton (1927/1990) claims
that one of the steps of the conversion process is when the individual runs
fearfully away from the truth. For Chesterton, the Church is like a magnet that
repels and attracts, pushes and pulls. Regarding its attraction, once the
person gives Catholicism a fair shake, then its truth will draw him even
closer. Chesterton states, "It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church.
The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment
they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The
moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it" (p. 92). However,
being allured by the once "forbidden fruit" is rarely a non-disturbing
As C. S. Lewis puts it: in our
pleasures, God whispers to us; in our conscience, God talks to us; and in our
suffering, God shouts to us (Sheen, 1985). Pain and suffering are God's
megaphones to us, calling us to change.
For some of the converts, the
dissuasion process began after an encounter with a converted friend. For
others, a Protestant denomination split produced a fracture in their schematic
foundation, their perceptual dam, forcing them to consider whether or not there
was true unity -- as required in scripture -- in the Protestant denominations.
Eight of the converts listed
their readings of the Church Fathers as important for dissuading them from
their previous theological perspectives. For Thigpen and Sungenis, the writings
of St. Augustine played an important role. St. Ignatius was highly influential
for Frazier and Staples.
Cardinal Newman played a major
role in debunking negative perspectives toward the development of doctrine for
Thigpen, Grodi, and Kresta. Among the converts, Chesterton, Thomas Merton, and
Scott Hahn each were given more than one vote for helping them to see the
errors in their theological schemas.
It appears that the Surprised
by Truth convert's journey to Rome included
a few books and experiences that acted like chisels, slowly chipping away at
the Protestant foundation. Other books and experiences acted more like
Cognitive dissonance overload: The schemaquake
Found in a number of the
conversion stories is the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back." The
individuals were at one time influenced greatly by their non-Catholic schemas.
Then something happened -- something that shook their schemas at the very
foundation. "Sometimes the only way that the good Lord can get into some hearts
is to break them" (Sheen, 1985, p. 46). What "broke" the preconverts was a
schemaquake; typically, a subjectively intense and dissonance-provoking
James Akin experienced a
fractured schema after he realized that most of the distinctively Catholic
teachings criticized by Evangelicals rested on passages in scripture that
Catholics take literally, not symbolically.
God could only break through T. L. Frazier's self-described pagan outlook subsequent to his irritation
following expulsion from his father's home, while Julie Swenson was finally
able to examine her pride and smugness towards non-Calvinist belief systems
only after being confined to bed (a result of pregnancy complications, a
miscarriage, and an ensuing major surgery).
schema-wrecking Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine bulldozed Dave Armstrong's paradigm of the
historical church. In Armstrong's own fitting words: "This book demolished the
whole schema of Church history which I had constructed" (p. 248).
It seems that in these
conversions, only after the individual was first dissuaded could he or she be
persuaded to see the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church. Only once
the schematic blinders had been removed could the light penetrate through to
the truth-thirsting souls of these Catholics-waiting-to-happen.
However, one should not presume
that all non-Catholics have constructed nearly impenetrable walls around their
souls, and a rightly placed book here, or ingeniously staged encounter with
another convert there will overcome it. Yet, there is something to be said
about the reality of schemas, automatic thinking, and cognitive dissonance and
their impact on the ways individuals experience the Catholic Church. Since we
are not purely logical beings but
psychological beings (Robinson, 1981), our judgments may be biased strongly by
social psychological influences. Due to the effects of the Fall, the truth can
at times appear errantly absurd and dangerously skewed to some, yet self-evident
and rightly ordered to others. Whatever the case, it is ultimately through the
grace of the Holy Spirit that one can come to embrace Catholicism's verity.
Yet, as social psychology
teaches us, our psyches can unconsciously construct a number of obstacles on
the spiritual runway of the heart preventing the truth from landing.
Psychological barriers to truth -- like moral hurdles to goodness -- are never
entirely deconstructed. Nonetheless, these autobiographical conversion accounts
are mentioned in order to relate a quite intriguing phenomenon. As described by
the conversion stories in Surprised by Truth, once these social psychological obstacles are dismantled, and the
perceptual blinders are removed, then through the power of the Holy Spirit the
truth of the Church will be able to reach its resting place in their hearts.
Ironically, what previously would have caused a negative automatic response to
things Catholic may now be the very feature that fosters our participation in
the Church. Then, and only then, can we become truly free to know and love the
truth and goodness of Christ's Church.
[This article originally appeared in the April 2005 issue of
Homiletic & Pastoral Review.]
Conversion Stories from Ignatius Press:
Rome Sweet Home:
Our Journey to Catholicism | Scott and Kimberly Hahn
Born Again Catholic | David Currie
Catholic Church and
Conversion | G.K. Chesterton
Crossing the Tiber:
Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church | Stephen K. Ray
Classic Catholic Converts |
Fr. Charles Connor
Lead Kindly Light |
No Price Too High: A Pentecostal
Pastor Becomes Catholic | Alex Jones
Fallen Away Catholics Who Came Back | Victor R. Claveau, Editor
Why I Became Catholic |
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
The Source of Certitude | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
and Conversion | Barbara Morgan
"My Name Is Alex Jones" | Steve Ray | Foreword to No Price Too High: A
Pentecostal Preacher Becomes a Catholic by Alex Jones
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | Interview with J. Budziszewski
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light
Evangelization 101: A Short Guide to Sharing the Gospel
| Carl E. Olson
Discovering the New Faithful | An interview with Colleen Carroll Campbell
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Mr. Peter E. Martin, a Kansas Jayhawk at heart, holds masters degrees in
theology and counseling psychology. He is currently a doctoral candidate in
clinical psychology at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a graduate
program that integrates the psychological sciences with the Catholic
intellectual tradition. His doctoral dissertation is on the correlation
between relationship attachment styles and religious conversion. This was his
first article for HPR.
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