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Surprised by Conversion: The Patterns of Faith | Peter E. Martin

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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 unmistakably unique.

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 burden.
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 prejudices.

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.

Social sacrifice

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.

Cognitive dissonance

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 experience.

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 sledgehammers.

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 experience.

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).

Cardinal Newman's 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 Fundamentalist, 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 | Thomas Howard
No Price Too High: A Pentecostal Pastor Becomes Catholic | Alex Jones
Welcome Home! Fallen Away Catholics Who Came Back | Victor R. Claveau, Editor
Why I Became Catholic | Joseph Pope

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

The Source of Certitude | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Liturgy, Catechesis, 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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