From Atheism to Catholicism, By Way of Truth and Beauty

“All the different threads of my inquiries,” says Dr. Holly Ordway, “when followed up, led me to the same place: the Catholic Church.”

Dr. Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; she teaches courses on apologetics, medieval culture and philosophy, and modern and post-modern culture.

Dr. Ordway’s book Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014) describes her journey from atheism to Christianity, and her subsequent entrance into the Catholic Church. She recently corresponded with Catholic World Report, discussing her life and beliefs as an atheist, her journey toward Christianity, the mistakes made by many Christians in conversing with atheists, and the main reasons why she became Catholic.

CWR: Early in Not God’s Type, you state that as a young atheist, you thought that the “decisive argument against faith was that I could not believe, no matter how much I might want to.” What sort of understanding of “faith” did you have at that time? How might you respond now to an atheist who expresses a similar notion?

Dr. Ordway: I had the faulty (but common!) idea that faith meant blind faith: that is, believing something without evidence or even contrary to the evidence. Unfortunately, this is a misunderstanding that is propagated by many Christians. As an apologist, I’ve heard Christians say that they don’t want to know about evidence for the Resurrection or for the existence of God, because that will “diminish their faith.” It’s no wonder that many atheists conclude that ‘faith’ is a synonym for ‘ignorance’.

If having faith really did mean believing something without any grounding for that belief, I would never have been able to do it. I couldn’t then, and I can’t now: it’s simply not possible. It would be wishful thinking or self-deception.

So I would respond to an atheist with this objection, first of all, by saying that the word ‘faith’ is better understood as a form of trust, and in particular, trust of a person. I have to trust that my close friends are reliable, on the basis of my understanding of their character, from many observations and interactions over time. I can never prove that they aren’t secretly manipulating me for their own ends; I can only conclude that it is reasonable for me to trust them. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t make my faith in my friends irrational. Once you trust someone, then you are willing to accept what they say as true, even when you don’t have enough information to judge for yourself, because you have reason to believe that you can rely on them. That’s faith.

Hebrews 1:11 is an important verse to consider: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. An atheist might point to “hoped for” and “not seen” as indicating that Scripture teaches blind faith. Not so! First, the key words are “assurance” and “conviction”: in order to have an assurance or a conviction of something, you must have some reasons for doing so. Second, ‘not seen’ does not mean ‘not real.’ There are plenty of things that are not seen and yet are completely real: my own consciousness, for instance, and all relationships between people. If you know that your mother, spouse, or child loves you, that is the conviction of something “not seen.” And that’s precisely what faith is.

CWR: You admit that after the 9/11 attacks, you found that “atheism was eating into my heart like acid.” What sort of conflicts or tensions were you experiencing? How did you try to resolve them?

Dr. Ordway: I did not then believe that human beings had souls (much less eternal value), and I thought that there was no transcendent meaning or value to life. In that context, I told myself that the 9/11 attacks could be seen as nothing special. After all, people die every day, and no one that I knew personally had died on 9/11. Why should I be grieved?

And yet there was part of me that viscerally knew that the right response to 9/11 was sorrow and shared grief; that it was a terrible tragedy and ought to be regarded as such. Imaginatively, I recognized my common humanity with those who had died and those who were grieving, but at that time I had no philosophical or theological basis for that recognition. Acknowledging the evil of 9/11 would have taken me into the realm of objective values – and I didn’t want to go there. So, at that time, I tried to pretend that the conflict didn’t exist… although it was there, all the same.

CWR: You credit the fiction of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for changing everything, even though the process was a slow one. What are some ways in which fiction challenged your atheist assumptions?

Dr. Ordway: In specific terms – and I talk about this in Not God’s Type – Lewis in particular helped me grasp the meaning of the Incarnation, through the character of Aslan in the Narnia books. But that was relatively late in the process! Both Tolkien and Lewis had been shaping my imagination for years before then.

Christian fiction and poetry gave me an alternative vision of the world, one that was meaningful and integrated in a way that my atheist view wasn’t. My conscious philosophy was that there is no such thing as objective truth and beauty, but Tolkien and Lewis said “yes, there is: come and see.” If there is no such thing as meaning and purpose, why should I be so deeply moved by these stories? My very enjoyment of literature undercut my atheism.

Tolkien and Lewis also helped to keep alive my moral sense. Both The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia present goodness and virtue as beautiful and life-giving, and evil as ultimately deceptive, unfulfilling, and ugly. This helped to nourish that part of me that resisted the reductionism of atheism, so that eventually I would be able to see that my view of the world was incomplete and flawed.

Both authors also showed me that I was wrong in dismissing Christianity as a wish-fulfillment religion. Narnia and Middle-earth have both beauty and suffering; these stories don’t trivialize evil or pain. Consider Frodo, who never fully recovers from his wound, or consider the way that Lewis includes death and suffering in the Narnia books. Paradoxically, the fantasies of Tolkien and Lewis showed me a more nuanced, more complex, ultimately more realistic picture of life than did my atheist philosophy. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I also about in my book, was also extremely important in helping me see that Christian faith encompasses both joy and pain.

CWR: A key word that comes up often in your account is “beauty”. You had a keen sensitivity to beauty, but your atheist assumptions often were incompatible with that awareness. Was your awareness of that incompatibility intellectual or intuitive? Why is beauty so significant when it comes to addressing skepticism?

Dr. Ordway: It is a universal human experience to appreciate beauty, and this leads to the consideration of whether beauty might in fact be objectively real – not solely in the eye of the beholder – and if so, whether there are other transcendent values beyond beauty, like truth and goodness. To be sure, there are cultural variations in what people describe as beautiful, but these variations are minor compared to the fundamental shared experiences. Not all cultures respond in the Western Romantic way to landscape as an experience of the sublime, but it is difficult to imagine a culture where the typical response to seeing a sunset was “That’s ugly! I wish the sky wouldn’t turn those weird colors.” Conversely, although people may become accustomed to living in poor sanitary conditions, I can’t imagine someone saying, “Our house will be made more beautiful by throwing trash on the floor.”

Beauty is fundamentally useless; it is its own end and its own reward, and it eludes attempts to explain it in utilitarian terms. Materialists often argue that responses to beauty are evolutionarily adaptive, helping to attract mates or improve empathy, and thus increasing the likelihood of passing on one’s genes. This is bunk. It is reductive to an extreme, and these explanations don’t hold up to the actual experience of great art, music, literature, or natural beauty.

C.S. Lewis makes an important distinction in his great essay “Meditation in a Tool-Shed.” We learn certain things by looking at something analytically, but these are never the same things that we learn by looking along something by stepping into the experience – his example is of looking at, or along, a beam of light. What we see when we “look along the beam” cannot be understood from the outside perspective, but it is equally true.

As a skeptic, I could look ‘at’ a sonnet and declare that language as simply an invention of clever mammals for practical ends, but when I read the poem as a poem, I was looking ‘along’ language and seeing something vastly bigger and more meaningful.

CWR: You are quite blunt in saying that the stereotypical (or simply typical!) Christian approach to atheism was not appealing to you. How would describe the common but faulty approach used by many Christians? What are some better alternatives for those who are in conversation with atheists? 

Dr. Ordway: One common fault is to make unwarranted assumptions about what an atheist believes or thinks. For instance, some Christians assume that atheists are all angry at God, or are rejecting God because they want to live an immoral life. This may be true in some cases, but certainly not all, and in any case, doing amateur psychology is a rotten way to start a productive conversation! Or a well-meaning Christian may assume that all non-believers have the same questions. Not so. It’s vitally important to find out what someone really believes, and what questions and concerns he really has, which may or may not be the ones you expect.

Another common fault is to expect conversions to happen instantly, or near-instantly! Christians can get either pushy or discouraged when they discover that sharing the Gospel doesn’t have instant results. We need to remember that following Christ changes everything; that it is often a terrifying prospect; and that conversion involves the whole person – not just accepting an idea intellectually, but committing to follow the Risen Lord with mind, soul, heart, and strength. It is not to be taken lightly. One of the ideas I’ve tried to emphasize in my book is how alarming the experience of conversion can be!

Perhaps the most significant problem facing Christians today is that the language we use is often meaningless outside the context of the local Christian community. We no longer have a shared cultural vocabulary to give the meaning of words like ‘faith,’ ‘sin,’ even ‘God’ or ‘the Church.’ The result is that we can have entire conversations where we’re talking past the very people we’re trying to reach – and we don’t even realize it. For instance, the word ‘sin’ in common usage today means “something Christians object to, because they’re either prudish or bigoted.” A conversation with an atheist about the existence of God will go nowhere if ‘God’ means ‘sky-fairy’ to one person and ‘the Ground of All Being’ to the other.

We have to reclaim language for the Church – by having greater awareness of the meaning of words when we do apologetics and evangelism, and by re-investing meaning into words and concepts through literature and the arts. This is at the heart of what I do as a teacher of cultural apologetics, as a writer, and as a poet.

CWR: When did you become an Evangelical Protestant, and how long did you remain in that tradition? What were the key issues that drew you toward the Catholic Church? 

Dr. Ordway: I was never really an Evangelical Protestant, though I moved in those circles in apologetics (and still do). I accepted Christ as a ‘mere Christian’, then was baptized in an Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. I was an Episcopalian for seven years before being received into the Catholic Church in 2012.

What drew me to the Catholic Church? Everything! That is to say, the more I learned about theology, doctrine, ethics, and tradition, the more I was convinced that the Catholic position was true, on one issue after another. I did a second Master’s degree in Christian Apologetics at a staunchly Protestant university. Since I could see there were differences between what Evangelicals believed and what Anglicans believed, I made a point of investigating all the topics I studied to find out not only the Protestant, but also the Catholic and Orthodox view. The result was that doing a degree at a Protestant university helped me quite a long way toward Rome.

Another very important element was seeing that the Catholic witness on sexual ethics and pro-life issues was clear, strong, and consistent in a way that stood out among the other Christian traditions.

As I was becoming more and more Catholic in my theology, I was also becoming more drawn to the Eucharist in my devotional life. Again, I discovered that the Catholic Church had the most well-developed and consistent framework for understanding the meaning of the Eucharist.

When I began to attend Catholic Mass, in the summer of 2012 in Oxford, England, I was powerfully struck by the recognition that here, in the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, was the real thing. I could feel – even without receiving – that there was something profoundly different, and substantial, and tremendously important, about the Catholic Mass. In Not God’s Type I describe what happened that summer as a ‘paradigm shift’: I hadn’t learned anything new, exactly, but what I already knew fell into place in a new way.

If I were to sum up what convinced me about the Church, I would say ‘integration.’ All the different threads of my inquiries, when followed up, led me to the same place: the Catholic Church. And my experience as a Catholic has strengthened that sense of integration and wholeness. Becoming Catholic is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

CWR: You laud “mere Christianity” (as made famous by Lewis) as an “excellent framework” for ecumenical collaboration and cooperation, but you found it was lacking in certain ways. What were those deficiencies? 

Dr. Ordway: “Mere Christianity” is an extremely useful approach when used as Lewis used it, and as he presented it: as a strategy for evangelization. It’s when ‘mere Christianity’ is taken as a creed in itself – something that Lewis explicitly warns against – that problems arise. I have seen people use ‘mere Christian’ as a kind of denominational label, as if this excused them from the messy business of attending a local church and accepting a specific ecclesiological commitment. Lewis would not be happy about this.

When ‘mere Christianity’ works well as a framework (as it does where I teach, at Houston Baptist University, for instance) it does so because it is a way of placing emphasis on the shared elements of orthodoxy, focusing on a commitment to the work of the Kingdom, and accepting that there is disagreement on other issues.

I would also note that ‘mere Christianity’ as Lewis presents it is a Protestant concept. This is not a criticism of Lewis – he was a Protestant, so of course his thinking is shaped by Protestant views on the Church – but it is important to recognize. Lewis sees Catholicism as one room opening off the hallway of ‘mere Christianity,’ where as Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, and so on each have their own rooms. However, the Catholic view is that the Catholic Church is not just one room in the house – it is the house! Or rather, it is the great cathedral, and the other Christian denominations are out-buildings on the cathedral grounds, or lean-tos against the cathedral walls – much better than being out in the cold, but also not all the way inside. To be Catholic is be all the way inside – to have the fullness of the Faith. This is a claim that sounds arrogant to our non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, but it’s the truth. (We must take great effort not to make that claim any harder to accept than it already is, by being arrogant and over-bearing in the way we present it. Humility and graciousness are always necessary.)

CWR: You make a strong connection between the fact of the Resurrection of Christ and the reality of the Church. Why is that connection so important? 

Dr. Ordway: First of all, the Resurrection is so important because all of what we believe as Christians depends on it. As St Paul put it, if Christ was not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. Uniquely, the Christian faith is based on a claim about a historical event, which either happened or didn’t happen.

But the Resurrection also matters for the Church because it means that Jesus is alive. Jesus is the founder of the Church, and the Church is, mysteriously and mystically, both the Body of which he is the Head, and the Bride for whom he is the Bridegroom. The Church is a living reality, far more than a metaphor, far more than a descriptive term for Christians who happen to gather together once a week to worship.

CWR: What advice would you give to Catholics who are engaging in apologetics with skeptics and atheists? And what might you say to those atheists who are considering the claims of the Catholic Church?

Dr. Ordway: To Catholics, I would first say: make sure you have a strong grounding in the Faith, and a devotional life that helps you grow in your relationship with Christ. Go to Mass, daily if possible. Go to confession regularly. Pray every day – including simple things like giving thanks before a meal. Incorporate other devotions into your life, such as spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, or praying the rosary. Read the Scriptures. In part, this is important because evangelization often starts with, and rests upon, our own witness: will skeptics and atheists see that we live out what we profess? But it’s also essential because to engage in apologetics is to step out onto the front lines of spiritual warfare. The work I do as an apologist has taught me how weak I am. I need the grace of the sacraments, the intercession of Mary and the saints, and the support of prayer!

Second, I would say: know what you believe, and why, and know how it fits together. Read the Catechism, and learn from good Catholic apologists, both ‘classic’ and modern (I’m a huge fan of Fr. Robert Barron and his Word on Fire ministry). It’s helpful to have resources that you can recommend to people on topics that you’re not very familiar with yourself. No one can be an expert on all fields! Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know; let me follow up on that and get back to you.”

Third, I would say: be gracious, be respectful, and be patient! Ask questions, and listen as much as – or more than – you speak.

To atheists, I would say: “Come and see!” The Catholic Church makes very bold, even shocking claims. Isn’t it interesting that the Catholic faith is simple enough for a child to know and love Jesus, and yet deep and complex enough to give a lifetime’s work to a towering intellect like St Thomas Aquinas? Come and see. Come to Mass; pick up the Catechism; ask some questions. You might just be surprised.


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