March’s Atheist Conversion Story: When Imagination Connects With Reason

God works in mysterious ways and He always finds ways to reach us in areas that speak to our hearts. Dr. Holly Ordway found God through her love of literature: C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia, and others. I heard her speak on the radio awhile back and was instantly intrigued by our related love of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. She found God through the art of literature and now she is a great asset to Catholicism. She is on the faculty of the M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University; it’s an ecumenical, ‘mere Christian’ program, with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox faculty and students. It is a 100% online program. She is an author of several books, one which is set to come out soon: “Apologetics and Christian Imagination.” She also has another project in the works where she will be doing a critical study of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. She resides in Wisconsin and travels frequently in the U.S. and abroad to speak on imaginative apologetics, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. If you’d like to know more about her, you can find her at www.hollyordway.com. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do.

Question 1:  Were you always an atheist or did you leave the faith and become one?

I never had any faith; I was raised in a non-religious family, with the mildest sort of ‘cultural Christianity’, and I didn’t believe that God existed, simply because I had never given any serious thought whatsoever that He might be real. Let me give an excerpt from my memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms:

As an [adult] atheist, I would have said that faith of any kind was alien to me, and had been alien to me since as far back as I could recall. I had never in my life said a prayer, never been to a church service.

A memory from first grade seemed iconic: the teacher giving us children words to spell on the chalkboard. I was a precocious reader and writer, so I wrote my word confidently: “g-o-d.” But the little boy next to me who wrote “G-o-d” was praised for his correct spelling, not me. From my story-books on Greek and Norse myths I was familiar with lots of gods, and so the capital G puzzled me. I did not understand that God could be a name.

In one sense, I had a non-religious childhood. Easter meant chocolate bunnies; Christmas meant presents. Yet, although I remember only a few of the Christmas gifts I received over the years, I vividly recall the festivity of the season.  . . .  My mom rarely put music on the stereo during the rest of the year, but during the month leading up to Christmas – the time that the Church marks as Advent, though I didn’t know anything of liturgical seasons then – she would play Christmas records, and the house was full of songs and carols. “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silver Bells,” and my favorite, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” . . .

I never gave thought to whether these carols were about something that really happened. It wasn’t that I believed they were false; the question never occurred to me one way or the other. I knew nothing about Jesus, and didn’t go to church. I had neither the content of faith nor the practice of it, but the music formed a little space in my soul, like a cup waiting to be filled, that by its very shape suggested something was meant to go there. . . .

It was a seed that lay dormant for a long time, but it was a seed.

Since I had been allowed to ‘decide for myself’ about faith (a well-intentioned, but ultimately harmful choice), I naturally decided that if it wasn’t important enough even to discuss, it probably wasn’t true. Thus, as a girl, I had an inarticulate sense of the spiritual, combined with a conscious agnosticism. When I went to college, and there encountered a fully secularized and generally anti-Christian environment, I became consciously an atheist; I accepted the idea that was presented to me, both implicitly and explicitly, that faith was something for ignorant and superstitious people, certainly not for educated, modern ones.

Questions 2:  What was it that started to open the door for you, as far as considering the faith?

The imagination, and literature! Here is a passage from my forthcoming book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination (Emmaus Road):

When I was so firmly an atheist, I found the very idea of faith to be so repellent that I would not have listened to the arguments that ultimately convinced me.

However, although I was not interested in apologetic arguments, I had, without knowing it, been experiencing the work of grace through my imagination. As a child and young adult, I read fantasy, fairy tales, and myths, and I especially fell in love with the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know that I was encountering God’s grace through those books, but in fact I was. Later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on fantasy novels, and had Tolkien’s great essay “On Fairy-stories,” with its powerful statement of the evangelium, the Good News, at the heart of it. Later I began to teach college literature, and in re-visiting classic poetry for my class preparation, I was deeply moved and intrigued by the writings of specifically Christian poets. I had to admit that whatever it was that these authors believed, it was not simplistic or silly. Eventually, I realized that this question of ‘faith’ was more complex, and more interesting, than I had thought – and I decided to learn more.

There were a lot of questions that I needed to ask and have answered before I came to accept Christ, but imagination opened the door. As George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes baptized C.S. Lewis’ imagination, so Lewis, Tolkien, Donne, and Hopkins had baptized mine.

But also like Lewis, I had a two-step conversion. I came to belief in God, but then struggled with the idea of the Incarnation. All the evidence pointed toward the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as historical facts, but I found that I was unable to accept the idea of Jesus as God Incarnate. I understood the concept, but I couldn’t grasp it, even though I knew that it was part of a larger argument that was extremely convincing.

At that point, I turned very deliberately to the Chronicles of Narnia and began re-reading them, because I knew what I needed and I went looking for it: I went looking for Aslan, the lion who is the great Christ-figure of the Chronicles. I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy, both of which prominently feature Aslan. And through my experience of those stories, my Imagination was able to connect with what my Reason already knew, and I was able to grasp, as a whole person, that it could be true: that God could become Incarnate. And that imaginative experience removed the last stumbling block for my acceptance of Christ.

Question 3:  Why Catholicism?

Short answer: Because it is true!

I’m a Catholic because I am convinced that the Catholic Church is the Church that Our Lord Jesus Christ founded, the only place where the fullness of the Faith can be found. I’m grateful for my years as a Protestant (an Episcopalian) and for the deep faith of my Protestant friends and colleagues, who are brothers and sisters in Christ, although they are ‘separated brethren’ who don’t enjoy the full richness of the Faith.

The longer answer is that, as a Protestant Christian (an Episcopalian), I found myself gradually drawn closer and closer to the Catholic Church on matters of doctrine and ethics. There were a number of issues, but the primary one was the question of authority.

From Not God’s Type:

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. Yet the evidence of history is that the Spirit doesn’t guide every individual Christian into a full knowledge of the truth – nor even every devout, intelligent, or well-educated Christian. There are any number of issues on which there must be a right answer, yet Christians differ: What happens in baptism? What is the age of the earth?

It can’t even be that the Spirit inspired the writers of Holy Scripture and left it at that, because devout, intelligent, well-educated Christians differ on the interpretation of Scripture, and even on what constitutes a ‘plain reading.’ What does the word ‘day’ mean in Genesis? Is ‘this is my body’ a metaphor? Like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, I found myself asking, “How can I understand what I read, unless someone explains it to me?”

The Gospels and Epistles were written in the lifetime of the apostles, but they were written for the Church that already existed, for Christians who were already gathering in worship and being taught by the apostles. Jesus didn’t give us a book; he gave us himself, in the Eucharist, and when he sent his Spirit at Pentecost, he gave us the Church. It seemed strange that Jesus would speak so strongly about his Church as to declare that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), if its unity and its truth of doctrine were dependent on flawed, incomplete human understanding. If Scripture was inspired and authoritative, as I believed it was, wouldn’t God also provide for its right interpretation? It made sense that an infallible Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, would develop to preserve, transmit, and teach the fullness of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

And if the Church was something more than a collection of people choosing to worship together – if it really is the Body of Christ – then it remains so, even if some members of the Body choose to separate from it; its authority remains despite the weakness and sinfulness of the individual members entrusted with that authority. The Church is a living and supernatural reality, “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Question 4: How has your life changed since becoming Catholic?

My relationship with Our Lord has grown much deeper: attending daily Mass has been transformative for me in that regard. Encountering Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament has helped me to grow in trust, in humility, and in love – all very much works in progress, to be sure, but I can see, with gratitude, what Our Lord has done in my life even in four short years.

My life has become, little by little, much more integrated. As an academic and an apologist, I face the constant temptation to allow my faith to become intellectualized – something that I know about, rather than something that I live. The traditional practices of Catholic devotions, such as praying the rosary and keeping a Friday fast, have helped me grow stronger in my faith as a whole person: my mind, yes, but also my body and my emotions and my will.

My prayer life has also deepened a great deal, in large part because I have come to know and love Mary, the Mother of God, and have become friends with a number of other saints. Coming to a deeper awareness of the living reality of the Communion of Saints has helped me to be much, much more active in my intercessory prayers!

Question 5:  What one piece of advice can you give to Christians when speaking to atheists about Christianity?  

I would suggest that in any conversation, before you really get going, ask “What do you mean by that?” One of the key issues of apologetics and evangelization today is what I call the “meaning gap”: that we often use words that our listeners don’t understand, or for which they have very different meanings. As a result, many so-called discussions end up being frustrating and unproductive, because we’re literally not talking about the same thing: we’re just talking past each other. If someone believes that ‘God’ means “cosmic sky-daddy” (as many atheists do), then arguments for the existence of God will seem ridiculous – because this idea of God is ridiculous. Or if someone believes in God, but by ‘God’ means ‘the idea of goodness in the abstract’, then the Christian idea of a personal God who acts in history will not make any sense at all. However, if you ask “what do you mean by ‘God’?” then you can find out what the word means for that person, and engage accordingly. The conversation will be much more productive.

And – let me just add – be sure to pray!

 

Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

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