One of the things that I learned later in my life was that I was born the day after Pope Pius XII died. So I was born during an interregnum, and I feel that is an apt metaphor for my life. I lived most of my life as if God did not exist. I was like a semi-sedevacantist, as I believed that there was no God on a throne in heaven… but also that neither God nor heaven existed at all.
Most of my formative years were spent in Portland, Oregon, where the majority of my relatives lived. As a child, there was no point during which I thought there was a God — never a time when I had some belief in a transcendent being or took this idea seriously. Discussions about faith or talking about God never occurred in my household. I knew that there were different religious belief systems among my school friends, my neighbors, and the world. Nevertheless, this was a subject that did not come up in discussions.
I pretty much idolized my dad while growing up. He was a polymath interested in many things, from science to the arts. He described himself as a retired Christian and just never talked about religion at all. Neither did he lambast people of faith or inveigh against religion. He worked in the theater, performing multiple jobs from acting and writing to set designing and building. I spent a lot of time with him in his work environment among the actors. I loved these people; they were talented and creative, and they shared my same materialistic worldview.
My mom was a bit of a cipher to me. When my mother started going to Mass, as far as I knew at that time, she had always been Catholic. It was only much later in life that I found out that my mother, her sister, and their mother had become Catholic while I was in high school. I surmised later that there was severe disagreement concerning the topic of religion between her and my father. So, faith was just not talked about, and this was the atmosphere during my formative years. I did spend about a year going to Mass to please my mother — but mainly because I loved to sing. Hymn selection was pulled right from the radio. I thought it hilarious that, as an atheist, they asked me to sing in their ensemble.
When I was in high school, my mother asked me to meet with the priests there to learn about the Catholic Faith. It was the first time I consciously heard the word Catholicism. It struck me at the time as seeming both odd and ominous — something from times past. From what I remember, they were trying to appeal to me by discounting miracles in favor of natural causes. (These two priests later left the priesthood.) Significantly, I thought this rather odd since I was already ignoring miracles due to my worldview. During this period, I learned pretty much zero about what the Church taught, but I was very rocky soil.
The space program and the moon landing were a significant influence on me; these shaped my life in those days. I became a great fan of science fiction, especially author Isaac Asimov. This genre inspired my imagination and shaped my worldview. As C.S. Lewis advised in Surprised by Joy, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading” (Lewis 1955, 191). Apparently, I was careful in my reading because I encountered nothing to challenge my materialistic worldview. My base assumption fell into the category of scientism: that all actual knowledge must be empirical. It was not worthwhile to look into philosophy or religious thought. These ideas were myths that the human race would outgrow. I was curious about many things and would often grab books from the library to explore them. It just never occurred to me that the question of God’s existence should be delved into at all. Modernity had already settled that question.
I was also attracted to a form of arrogance that purported this truth about the universe: that when we die, we are annihilated. This, I concluded, was a brute fact that people denied by believing in an afterlife. My heroes were Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock. Both were advocates of using pure reason to solve problems scientifically. Their stoicism was also attractive to me. I wanted to live a life without strong emotions, with all my decisions being rational. However, my attempts at imitating them did not work out for me, and it never dawned on me that my guides were fictional characters.My heroes were Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock. Both were advocates of using pure reason to solve problems scientifically. My attempts at imitating them did not work out, and it never dawned on me that my guides were fictional characters. Click To Tweet
I was the rocky soil described in Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower.” I delighted in science and in the fast pace of discoveries. The beauty of the universe was palpable to me — the wonders in what we were learning! Being a man who could be captivated by a painting and its intricacies, if invited to meet the artist, I would have stumbled at the idea that an artist created it. The universe was just there to be admired.
Looking back, I can discern some of the events in my life that God used to bring me closer to Him. There is an old joke about making God laugh by telling Him your plans. The opposite is also true — that God can make us laugh if He reveals His plans for us. I would have scoffed at the idea that I could move from being a convinced atheist to a convinced Catholic.
When I finished high school, I joined the Navy. My motive was to get the education in electronics that I desired and then quit. I worked in avionics, where I troubleshot and repaired “black boxes” at the component level. I excelled at this and enjoyed the whole process of troubleshooting and repair. I was also attracted to working on board aircraft carriers, which was the closest I would get to being on a spaceship. Consequently, I ended up making a career of the Navy, learning many lessons in the military which would later be helpful for my conversion.
While in the Navy, I met my wife, Socorro, in the Philippines. She was Catholic and devoted to prayer, to the Rosary in particular. I saw this as a character flaw. I disdained this superstitious belief system and, following in my father’s footsteps, would never discuss the topic. Arrogantly, I just put up with her behavior. I appeased her by allowing our two children to be baptized Catholic, but all I could think of during the ceremony was how ignorant this all was.
My nihilistic worldview tended towards “what can I get away with” instead of “what ought I to do.” As you can imagine, this caused a lot of conflicts. While an atheist can be a good person, I wasn’t. My father, as an atheist, was a very good person in many regards, but as I later discovered, he would have been a better person if he had responded to God’s grace. I was holding his hand as he died and will always be praying for him.
I will not go into the details of my many sins; they would rival a Russian novel in length. Still, arrogance was my besetting sin, toxically brewed with self-absorption. I was looking at opportunities and people as a means to an end.
My wife was my St. Monica, though I did not realize this at the time. Her daily prayers for me for two decades were an instrument that God used in my conversion. Her perseverance in prayer still stuns me, despite how much of a selfish jerk I was. Sadly, she died four years ago of cancer. I will always be indebted to her for showing me an example of unselfish love. I still vividly remember her at hospice within days of her death. Her concern was asking if we had eaten yet when she herself could barely eat.
The first intellectual waypoint in my conversion that I can identify was, oddly, listening to talk radio. At the time, in the early 1990s, I was stationed at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. I was driving on the Beltway in Washington, D.C. when I heard G. Gordon Liddy give an atheist caller a summary of St. Thomas Aquinas’ five ways of knowing God. I remember being somewhat stunned that there could be intellectual arguments for God’s existence. I packed this information away but had no desire to investigate it further.
In 1993, after we were transferred to NAS Norfolk in Virginia, I felt that I might be losing my atheistic beliefs. I found that, generally, I did not admire the behavior of some atheists. At the same time, I saw the merit in how some religious believers led their lives. That these atheists had the same materialist philosophy as myself was not a point on which I wanted to dwell. Still, at that time, leaving my atheism behind was a step too far for me. Instead, I purposely started reading atheistic philosophers. It is a bit embarrassing now to think about my Ayn Rand phase, that radical selfishness really enticed me.
One day, while riding my bike to work, I was struck by a car in a hit-and-run. My life did not flash before my eyes as I saw the impending collision. My first thought was that I was about to be annihilated. It is not a spoiler to write that I survived this incident after being catapulted into traffic. I was pretty banged up but only required stitches. After this, for whatever reason, I no longer believed that at death we become non-existent. God had to get my attention, and apparently, this was the available two-by-four.One day, while riding my bike to work, I was struck by a car in a hit-and-run. My life did not flash before my eyes. My first thought was that I was about to be annihilated. It is not a spoiler to write that I survived this incident.… Click To Tweet
Still, this was not enough to get me to seriously examine the issue of God’s existence. While Christmas was always theologically opaque to me, I always loved traditional Christmas carols. However, I was ignorant about the Incarnation and really could not tell you what Christians believed. I just loved the beauty of these songs, and I loved singing them. I started to find it harder to locate traditional carols on the radio. They were mixed in with more secular songs about the holidays and snow, and I found myself skipping around the dial to find a station that still played them.
I ended up on Protestant radio stations. I would skip to another station when they started talking. Yet, over time, I started to tolerate their messages between carols and found myself interested in the questions about God and, specifically, Jesus. As a life-long book lover, I thought perhaps I should investigate these claims with an open mind. This started what I call my “200” period. In the Dewey Decimal System, class 200 is the Religion section. I was reading random books on Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. I learned from Protestant radio that the host in one hour might have a different view from the host in another hour. I found the same to be true in the books I was reading. There was much greater consistency in the Catholic books. These had a consistent theological worldview that seemed to fit together better; there was a much deeper intellectual cohesiveness to them, despite my beginner’s grasp of them. More and more, I was seeking out Catholic titles. One aspect of this that surprised me was that, whenever I read Catholic titles from dissenting authors, I realized theirs was bad theology. At the time, I knew nothing about dissenting authors; it was just the growth of my spidey theological sense.As a life-long book lover, I thought perhaps I should investigate these claims with an open mind. This started what I call my 200 period. In the Dewey Decimal System, class 200 is the Religion section. Click To Tweet
During this time, I had also started reading heroic fantasy. Before, I had disdained fantasy for not being scientific. I became attracted to the hero quests, especially the virtues of the characters involved: the importance of only doing what was good and not falling into relativism. One day, a serious revelation hit me regarding these characters. Why was I so attracted to these virtues when I didn’t practice them myself? This disparity bothered me.
At this time, I was retiring from the Navy as a Chief, and we were moving to Jacksonville, Florida. Within days of arriving there and driving around downtown, I saw the magical words, “Catholic Bookstore.” I don’t think I had ever seen a Catholic bookstore in my life — just Protestant ones. This bookstore was part of a parish, and we walked inside. I was stunned by the beauty of this parish aesthetically. It called to me in ways I did not understand. As an atheist, I tried to deny aesthetic beauty — the relativism of the “eye of the beholder.” These were the contortions my previous mindset went through to pretend beauty was just “attributes of matter.” However, this parish would end up being where I attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and entered the Catholic Church.
It was the summer of 1997 when we moved to Jacksonville. It turns out that the city had one of the three Catholic radio stations in existence at the time. I was indebted to Catholic radio, listening to thousands of hours of it. I delighted in discovering that the intellectual consistency of the Faith was not just something I had imagined. While the shows on EWTN were vital to me, it was the new broadcast, Catholic Answers, that fed me. CA’s suggestions also directed me to be much more discerning regarding what titles to read. In particular, I must give a shout-out to Jimmy Akin since I continue to learn so much from him. It was not just the knowledge that he imparted, but he also served as a primer on how to think … his intellectual curiosity and how he treated people. I also remember the first time I saw EWTN’s web page with a picture of Mother Angelica. It sparked no interest in me, as it invoked none of her personality. When I saw her on Mother Angelica Live, however, I was instantly won over. I owe such a debt to her in all that she did, providing the platform for Catholic radio that helped me so much. In addition, I have watched the majority of The Journey Home programs from day one since I still delight in the uniqueness of individual conversion stories.
There is one advantage of coming into the Catholic Church from atheism. Once you get over the “There is a God, and He loves me” thing, it is all downhill from there. I didn’t have the theological objections that I would have had if I had come from a different faith tradition. The Navy had prepared me in understanding the nature of and need for authority. Thus, I came to understand the authority of the Church before I started to accept her teachings. As St. Augustine wrote, “I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church” (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, 5). I had a lot to both learn and unlearn. My attitude became, “If this is authentically what the Church teaches, then I must try to understand it.” It was the intellectual cohesiveness of the Faith that helped me to trust and assent. When I say “understand,” I mean, first, to grasp something at some surface level and then, second, to spend the rest of my life hoping for further understanding. I also realize that I don’t need to understand everything fully at a deeper level. My wife had minimal schooling, yet she lived the Faith at a level I aspire to reach.
Reading Scripture for the first time, I was surprised by all the literary references I recognized; previously I had not known that they originated in the Bible. I kept wondering if my ignorance knew any bounds. I held myself so high above religious believers, but I did not know even basic things. Furthermore, reading Scripture on my own, I am sure I reinvented many heresies. This turned out to be good training for me to learn that I needed an interpreter, as did the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts, who said, “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31).I was surprised by all the literary references I recognized; previously I had not known that they originated in the Bible. I kept wondering if my ignorance knew any bounds. Click To Tweet
I also started reading Church history, and there was so much in it that surprised me. All I knew about Church history was a slant on the Galileo affair from my biology teacher and the Inquisition parodies by Mel Brooks and Monty Python. As I learned more, I realized that so much of what I had been taught about history reminded me of Sherlock Holmes using the clue about “the dog that didn’t bark” to solve a mystery. The Church’s almost 2,000-year history did not bark and had been “sanitized” in a way, thereby mentioning only the negative parts. One of my newly-realized, positive discoveries, the one that astonished me the most, was that the Church birthed western civilization and, subsequently, the scientific revolution. All that I had assumed about faith versus science was not just mistaken — it was the exact opposite of the truth! Later I would read the works of Fr. Stanley Jaki and discover exactly why the scientific method was “stillborn” in other civilizations. Tracing the development of everything from hospitals to the university system added to this surprise. Thomas E. Woods, Jr.’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization was eye-opening. I had taken so much for granted in the modern world. There are episodes in Church history that make one grimace, but there are also many glorious achievements. I prefer my history to be unsanitized, and Church history is even more amazing, considering it is made up of fellow sinners.
Another aspect of reading history reminds me of the often-cited quote on The Journey Home by former Protestants: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” a line from St. John Henry Newman. I was ceasing to be secular and growing in appreciation of the Church’s role. The role of the saints in history was another surprise. The pivotal roles they played! Even the hermits were essentially living in community with the Mystical Body of Christ, praying for the good of her members. There were so many saints to fall in love with and to help me fall in love with Jesus! Reading the lives and works of some of these saints helped me get over what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” The saints came from all walks of life, and they were saints because they walked with Jesus. They are a rebuke to my arrogance and a constant challenge to me to imitate Christ in my own life. It is easy to complain about the times in which we live instead of conforming our own life to Christ. I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, “The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote” (Chesterton, 1933, 5).The saints came from all walks of life, and they were saints because they walked with Jesus. They are a rebuke to my arrogance and a constant challenge to me to imitate Christ in my own life. It is easy to complain about the times in… Click To Tweet
Moreover, in St. Francis of Assisi, another of Chesterton’s comments struck me during the process of my own conversion: “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank” (Chesterton, 1923, 88). In fact, this rather rattled me. It put into words a feeling I had developed over time. I had previously reflected that, as an atheist, for me, giving thanks was to pat my own shoulder. My previous materialism denied any existential thankfulness. My fundamental existence was a “fluke of the universe,” to quote National Lampoon’s parody song “Deteriorata.” Blind chance invites no thankfulness. I grew amazed at how thankful I had become to be able to be thankful to God. Gratitude opened up new vistas for me. My world became bigger as my ego was slowly getting smaller.Gratitude opened up new vistas for me. My world became bigger as my ego was slowly getting smaller. Click To Tweet
At the 1999 Easter Vigil, when I came into the Church, I reflected on how I had spent 40 years in the desert of atheism. I was so joyous in leaving that behind me! In my arrogance, I thought that I had read myself into the Church. I was telling God, “Fine, you met my intellectual parameters.” Yet, really, it was God’s sheer grace that moved me towards conversion, as well as the prayers of my wife, my mother, and, no doubt, others. This initial grace led me to some of my now-favorite authors who helped diminish the roadblocks I had. It was my reading of Peter Kreeft that helped to reassure me that my movement towards Jesus was not wishful thinking. I had been worried that I was fooling myself. It was reading Chesterton that got me to stand on my head to see the world and develop thankfulness and gratitude to God. The treasury of the writings of the Catholic saints was also an invaluable resource. I fell in love with the works of the Carmelite saints, especially St. Teresa of Avila, the founder of the Discalced Carmelites. As someone who had never previously prayed in my entire life, I realized, from them, that I continue to have much to learn. Finally, I learned about myself, that my primary motive for conversion was a recognition of my sinfulness. When asked why he became Catholic, Chesterton quipped, “to get rid of my sins.” My stoic tendencies kept failing me because I could not do this on my own. I needed a Savior who, indeed, could save me from my sins.
I describe myself as a Vampire Introvert. I must be invited in, in order to not feel socially awkward. After my initial conversion, I was bursting at the seams wanting to talk about the Church; however, my introverted tendencies pretty much prevented this until I started blogging in 2002. My blog, The Curt Jester, is an outlet to express myself and exercise my Catholic faith. As just some random Catholic convert, I was a bit surprised that it got any attention or that it led to my appearances on Catholic radio and other places. I was even more surprised to meet or hear from people who thanked me for something I had written or even a parody I had created. If God could use Balaam’s ass in salvation history, He can use me also.Sometimes I reflect on the fact that, if I had still been an atheist when my wife died, I would not have handled that at all well. Yet God, in His mercy, has helped me. Jesus wasn’t kidding about that pick up the cross daily thing. Click To Tweet
I find the most annoying thing about a conversion story is that it is really, “Here is where I am currently in the life-long process of conversion.” I am so thankful for my faith and cannot now imagine life without it. Sometimes I reflect on the fact that, if I had still been an atheist when my wife died, I would not have handled that at all well. Yet God, in His mercy, has helped me. Jesus wasn’t kidding about that “pick up the cross daily” thing. I also find Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of Luke daunting: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). I have been forgiven so much, and I know my love of Jesus is not commensurate with that. I just pray to make that less lopsided.