English professor Rosaria Butterfield went through a soul-shaking experience. A post-modern lesbian activist, she started reading the Bible as part of a research program geared towards exposing the errors of the religious right from a lesbian feminist perspective.
Then something happened.
In her own words, “After my second or third, maybe fourth, pass through the entire Bible something started to happen. The Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. And it absolutely overflowed into my world.”
Her friends warned her. “This Bible reading is changing you,” a transgendered friend said.
And so it did. She became a Christian.
What’s an English professor to do when she goes through a soul-wrenching conversion experience like this?
You guessed it; she wrote a book about it. It’s titled The Secrets Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.
This reminds me of Anthony Flew‘s story a few years ago. Flew was one of the world’s most renowned atheists. Yet his motto “Go where the evidence leads” led him to convert to deism late in his life, about which, of course, he wrote a book. His “conversion” caused a huge brouhaha in the atheist camp, prompting some to invalidate his quasi-deathbed conversion as a senile brain fart, and rushing others to present cases of counter-conversions from religion to atheism — conversions, of course, purely based on logic and reason.
But here’s the thing discounted by most. People don’t build world views using reason alone. They have a huge emotional commitment as well, coupled with some misunderstandings of other world views, or even bad experiences with their acolytes.
Some (most?) people don’t even make the effort of evaluating other world views. They just uncritically adopt the one they were raised with.
Couple that with the appearance of coherence and comprehensiveness of most world views, with the almost illogical tendency of humans to develop a fanboy attitude, and with other factors like peer pressure, herd mentality, and the lust of the flesh, and there you have the mêlée of today’s world views.
When people do go through the seismic change of world views, it’s rarely just the outcome of dispassionate reason à la Spock. That was the enlightened, modernist dream of Gene Roddenberry, but it didn’t happen that way. Why not? Because homo sapiens is inherently homo religiosus. This is why, over 150 years after Darwin and in spite of all the Dawkinses of the world, over 84% of the world is still religious. We have this built-in sense of transcendence and purpose that only religion can fulfill. [Incidentally, this is why I think that, in the Hegelian view of Judeo-Christian thesis and secular-humanist antithesis, the world is ultimately going to merge into the synthesis of the pagan Gaia religion, but that’s the topic of another post.]
It’s not just reason, then, that propels people to shift between world views. It’s emotions, it’s experience, it’s raw life. When people go through tremendous, horrific trials in life, they end up dismissing a certain belief system based on the emotional devastation that ensues. I think of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, author of the hauntingly beautiful If This Is a Man, the best book on the Jewish holocaust I’ve read (I’ve read many). After all the horrors he witnessed during his year at Auschwitz, he summed up his world view in one phrase, “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God.”
But notice that even the inhuman horror of Auschwitz is not final in searing one’s heart against the transcendent, even for Levi, for he adds, in pencil, “I don’t find a solution to this dilemma. I keep looking, but I don’t find it.”
Most humans are not like Levi, though. They are more like Brittany, far more earthly in the change of their world view. We know Brittany; she’s our typical next-door neighbor; raised in a conservative home, she said she believed in biblical values until she got alone with her boyfriend for the first time, got passionately aroused, had no accountability, and had sex. Then she needed a new values system to justify her desire to continue premarital sex and help her not feel guilty.
That’s not what we are talking about here with Ms. Butterfield. Like Levi, she wrestled with an opposing world view, in a spiritual battle that involved logos, ethos, and pathos. And probably still does. I haven’t read her book (though I will), but it’s remarkable just for the fact that she was willing to reevaluate her core beliefs, her own world view.
And that’s something you don’t see often.