Dr. Abigail Rine Favale graduated from George Fox University with a philosophy degree in 2005, and then earned her doctorate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She currently heads the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She has won awards for her fiction, published pieces in academic journals, and wrote a book that won the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Book Prize in 2014, the year she entered the Catholic Church. She and her husband Michael live in western Oregon with their three young children.
Favale’s recent book Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion (Cascade Books, 2018) is a moving, insightful, and vulnerable account of her journey from the Evangelical Protestantism of her youth through feminism and then into the Church. James Matthew Wilson reviewed the book for CWR earlier this year, and my recent review of the book can be read on the National Catholic Register site. Favale recently corresponded with me about her conversion, delving into a wide range of topics, including Evangelicalism, feminism, Scripture, ideology, and much more.
CWR: Right away, I was struck by the strong emphasis on place, an emphasis that eventually resulted in you coming to grips with the particularity and incarnational nature of Catholicism. Was there something about the “scandal of particularity” that bothered you about Christianity as you embraced feminism? And something about it that eventually brought you to and into the Catholic Church?
Favale: Christianity’s scandalous embrace of particularity did not bother me—in fact, this was the one thing I held onto, the lone Christian memento I kept in my pocket even as I wandered far outside the bounds of orthodoxy for over a decade. Ironically, I thought I was discovering a purer, more radical embrace of particularity through feminism, because I had the misguided understanding that Christianity denies the particularity of women. I’d concluded that Christian tradition was not incarnational enough, and needed a hearty dose of feminism to be set aright.
If anything, it was the emphatic metaphysical claims of Christianity that gave me pause—the universals, one might say, rather than the particulars. I was content to embrace—and revise—Christianity as a beautiful story, but not as an account of reality to which I was accountable. That was the central irony in the postmodern, feminist version of Christianity I’d cobbled together for myself: I believed in “incarnation,” and read about it, and wrote about it in academic gobbledygook—but only as an abstract concept. I believed in an incarnation that was not incarnate. An abstract incarnation. An “excarnate” incarnation. (Nod to Charles Taylor.) At the time, I did not realize the irony.
And yet, this enduring preoccupation with the incarnation is what eventually brought me round again—not just to Christianity, but to the Catholic Church, where the Incarnation is kept alive in the sacraments, the Eucharist, the communion of Saints.
CWR: You were raised in an Evangelical home. What were the positives of that? And what was lacking? Was there something about Evangelicalism, as you experienced it, that caused you to look to feminism for answers and a sense of belonging?
Favale: I’m very grateful to my evangelical upbringing for introducing me to the saving work of Christ, and the need to open one’s heart to him on a deeply personal level. My childhood was Christian from the beginning, and becoming Catholic has brought to fruition those seeds planted in my youth. I don’t see my Catholic faith as a rejection of my evangelical birthright, but rather its fulfillment, its culmination.
And yet, there were things that were lacking, such as a connection to Christian history and tradition—I had no contact with the Church through time, the great cloud of witnesses. There was the world of the Bible, and my local church, but I had no real awareness of the centuries between. One facet of this was an absence of any sense of a feminine genealogy, women who had lived heroic lives of faith that helped shape the Church. As I describe in my book, in the world of evangelical Protestantism, all the distinctly feminine aspects of the Christian cosmos—Mary, the Church as a mother, the female saints—have been excised, leaving only the masculine aspects. Without the complementary balance, those masculine aspects loomed large and awakened in me a desire to seek out the sacred significance of womanhood. This is what led me to feminism, which at first seemed to offer all the answers I needed. But what I sought for in feminism was ultimately fulfilled in Catholicism.
CWR: A significant issue for you, as you struggled with your faith in your late teens and early twenties, was how to read and make sense of Scripture—the issue of hermeneutics, which you delve into at several points. What were some of the problems you encountered? How did Catholicism help you work through those issues?
Favale: In an evangelical context, the Bible is the sole and final religious authority. I was taught to read it literally and straightforwardly, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I encountered the concept of “hermeneutics”—the idea that the Bible can’t just be read at face value, but has to be carefully interpreted. When I first encountered Christian feminism, I adopted an egalitarian ethos, and I read scripture through that lens. At this point, I still saw the Bible as true and authoritative, as long as it was interpreted correctly. Eventually, this shifted into a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion. Those troublesome passages that offended my 21st-century sensibilities were not simply misinterpreted; they were wrong, corrupted by the author’s patriarchal mindset, and could be disregarded altogether.
The underlying problem was this: without consciously recognizing it, I had become my own interpretive authority, a magisterium of one. I was no longer accountable to the Bible and formed by it; the Bible was now accountable to me, and formed by my beliefs. I had no sense that there was any other option, however, because in a Protestant context, there is no interpretive authority outside the self to guide the interpretation of scripture—only the Holy Spirit, which miraculously always seemed to agree with me. Becoming Catholic opened an entirely new way of reading scripture, and freed me from the pressure of having to consider and resolve for myself every quandary raised by the text. Now, I read the Bible with tradition, with the Church. Once scripture was restored to this rightful context, it came alive again, speaking words of truth and power, because it was no longer simply a mirror of my opinions and assumptions.
CWR: By the end of your undergraduate years, you write, you had become something of an ideologue who believed that everything bad, in some way, could be blamed on patriarchy. In your experience, what is the attraction of a radical feminist ideology? And how would you respond to a feminist today if she were to say, “Your Catholic Faith is an ideology! And a patriarchal one at that!”?
Favale: This is an excellent question. Let me address the two accusations in turn—first, the misguided belief that Catholicism is an ideology, in the same way that feminism is an ideology.
Catholicism, unlike feminism, cannot be easily funneled into contemporary political polarities, but transcends them. Ideologies are simplistic, reductive, intellectually stifling, adverse to critical inquiry, and prone to us-them battle lines. Thinking as a Catholic, however, is far more liberating. The Catholic intellectual tradition encourages finding and embracing truth wherever it can be found. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was intellectually formed by Aristotle, a pagan philosopher; Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher, and Al-Ghazali, a Muslim philosopher. He did not cower in an ideological bunker, eschewing all non-Catholic perspectives. In contrast, I’ve never read a mainstream feminist text that encourages nuanced and charitable readings of non-feminist texts and adopting what seems wise and true. Rather, it is the opposite; as the famous feminist mantra goes, “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, don’t you dare touch those non-feminist tools! Only a critical, suspicious stance toward non-feminist viewpoints is permitted.
This leads to kind of groupthink, one increasingly enforced in the academy. In my years behind feminist lines, I often heard fellow feminists advocating for a suppression of non-feminist views on abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination; I rarely heard feminists advocating for great academic freedom and ideological diversity—even in my fairly conservative, Christian academic environment. A very contemporary example of this ideological mindset is the current attitude toward “TERFs”—a pejorative label given to feminists who critique transgenderism. The question of what constitutes a woman is foundational to feminism; a non-ideological feminism would invite dialogue, critical inquiry, and varying perspectives on this essential and currently controversial question. Instead, dissenting voices are blacklisted and decried by their fellow feminists.
If I could express the difference in a succinct metaphor, it would be this: living within the feminist worldview was like seeing the world in stark, simplistic terms—black-and-white—whereas entering the Catholic cosmos opened a new way of seeing that was vastly more colorful, varied, complex, and beautiful—like Dorothy walking out her front door into the weird and wonderful land of Oz.
Now let me address the second accusation: that Catholicism is patriarchal. I grew up in a patriarchal religious setting, as mentioned above, where the feminine elements of Christianity were more or less blotted out. Feminist Christianity, in many ways, is the inverse twin of this approach; it seeks to root out and upend what is masculine, reading it as marked by domination. The Catholic cosmos, in contrast to both of these, is cosmos of harmonious synergy—masculine and feminine entwined together in fruitful spiritual union. When feminists look at Catholicism from outside, they look through the lens of temporal power, and all they see is a male priesthood and hierarchy, mistakenly thinking that is the Church. They see Mary as a passive, docile symbol, rather than the Mother of God, the representative human being and first Christian, who crushes the serpent underfoot. They see the male priest at the altar and overlook the gathered women who are living icons of Christ’s body and bride, a counterpart to the priestly iconography of the bridegroom. They misinterpret courageous female saints like Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena as rebels, rather than faithful daughters (and Doctors) of the Church. They disregard completely the profound insights on the question of gender from twentieth-century Catholic writers. I completed a doctorate in contemporary feminist theory and women’s writing and yet never encountered writers like Edith Stein, Prudence Allen, Adrienne von Speyr, Gertrud von le Fort, and John Paul II, because their contributions are completely ignored in the discipline of women’s studies. There, only one kind of conversation is allowed, and it happens in an echo chamber.
I first became a feminist because I was seeking an answer to this question: what is the sacred meaning of womanhood? Ironically, what I found within feminism was deep ambivalence toward the very concept of womanhood. I found a much more compelling answer in Catholicism. I have never had my dignity and purpose as a woman so celebrated and affirmed than under the mantle of Holy Mother Church.
CWR: As in all great conversion accounts, love—both false love and the Love of God—play a central role in your journey. What sort of false or flawed loves did you pursue? How did they eventually point you to Source of Love, God Himself?
Favale: Even when we run headlong into sin, we are pursuing some kind of good. I’m with St. Augustine on that. More than anything, in my “lost years,” I think I was seeking a sense of identity. I sought this through turbulent relationships and sexual promiscuity, defining myself and my value in relation to men. I sought this through feminism, in an attempt to secure my identity as a woman, to belong to something larger than myself and imbue my life with purpose. I sought this through personal achievements, thinking I could earn and work my way into a sense of identity and belonging. I fashioned a version of Christianity that was all-affirming, one that said nothing of sin, repentance, and grace; I crafted an image of God that was nothing more than an idealized version of myself. But none of these things could provide what I was seeking, because identity, meaning, and belonging can only be found in a heartfelt surrender to Love—not love as I imagined it to be, but Love as He truly is. And here we hit upon one of those beautiful paradoxes at the heart of Christianity: in seeking after my self, I lost it. In surrendering my self to Christ, I found it. This sense of surrender I’m speaking about is not a violent, compelled surrender, like a conquered army waving the white flag. This is surrender as trust, like an exhausted body giving in to blissful rest, or a bird surrendering to the wind.
CWR: As you rightly note, your conversion echoes that of St. Augustine in so many ways. What are some of the “parallel patterns” (as you call them) that you see there? What other conversion stories impacted you?
Favale: Augustine and I had our intense inner conversions in the thirty-first year of life, after about a decade under the thrall of “glittering myths”—to borrow Augustine’s phrase. For Augustine, this was Manichaeism. For me, it was postmodern feminism. These myths began to crack open, revealing their inner emptiness, after we both began delving into philosophy, particularly Plato. We both wrestled with our vocations—his as a call to celibacy, mine as a call to give myself over to motherhood—and we both had, shall we say, storied pasts and struggles with sexual sin. The Catholic Christian view of sexuality was probably, for both of us, the biggest hurdle to finally overcome.
I was shocked to find these parallels when I read The Confessions not long after my own conversion. As a feminist academic, I’d been trained to loathe Augustine without ever reading him. In feminist circles, he is the one credited for supposedly derailing Christianity, making it a shameful, body-loathing patriarchal stronghold. But when I actually read him, I found a human being much like myself, a kindred soul, and nothing of that feminist caricature.
There were several other conversion accounts that helped me better understand my own; some from the Gospels themselves, such as the conversion(s) of St. Peter. I relate so much to Peter—his reckless enthusiasm and inconstancy, his willingness to take sudden and radical leaps to Christ, but also his fickleness. Now, I long for the faith he shows in John 21, when he recognizes the resurrected Christ on the shore and immediately strips off his clothes and dives into the sea—the very sea that once terrified him. That’s the kind of faith I want to have.
Several twentieth-century women writers who have been instrumental in my ongoing conversion are all Catholic converts or reverts: Elisabeth Leseur, Gertrud von le Fort, Sigrid Undset, Edith Stein. I can’t recommend their writings highly enough.
CWR: Your account is somewhat unique in that your entrance in the Church is recounted about halfway through the book, rather than as a sort of culmination. You are keen to highlight how entering the Church (as Chesterton touched on his own conversion account) is, in a way, the easy part. The harder part, as Chesterton noted, is to actually live the Faith. Has that been your experience? What were the key issues or struggles for you after having entered the Church?
Favale: I could write an entire book on this question. Oh wait! I did. When I became Catholic, I did so fairly suddenly and rather desperately. The beauty of the Church and a profound hunger for her sacraments enabled me to suspend my feminist hang-ups, namely the Church’s bans on women’s ordination, contraception, and same-sex marriage. For me, the real conversion—the tumultuous inner transformation and whole worldview inversion—did not come about until over a year after I formally entered the Church. I could not fully understand the Catholic cosmos from a distance, from outside, not enough to resolve my lingering doubts. And this process of inner conversion was, to be honest, pretty grueling; I had to reckon with the wrongness of my most deeply-held beliefs and perceptions about the world. I’d thought of myself as an enlightened feminist prophet, when in reality I was a blind man sitting by the side of the road, only just now learning to cry out: “Lord, let me see.”
The turning point was learning the fundamental spiritual posture of surrender. In a feminist worldview, surrender is not a virtue, but a cardinal sin. Instead, we are trained to embrace suspicion—suspicion toward God, toward the Church, toward the Bible, toward authority in general. Unfortunately, this orientation of suspicion all but snuffed out my faith, because faith is less about intellectual assent as it is about trust. It was when I began to pray some dangerous prayers—prayers of surrender—that the hardened shell of suspicion around my heart crumbled, and my worldview exploded open. That’s when the real conversion began.
CWR: You are very open and vulnerable about the tensions between you and your husband, Michael, after you became Catholic. But the book ends on a beautiful and positive note in that regard. How has that been? Has he entered the Church?
Favale: Someday, I would love to write the sequel to my memoir on this very question, because God has been working in Michael’s heart and life in miraculous ways—and I use the word “miraculous” very intentionally. But I can’t write it yet, because the story of his conversion is yet unfolding. I’ve had to learn to entrust Michael’s conversion completely to Christ, through Mary’s intercession. I’ve learned that conversion is God’s business, not mine, and my role is to pray and be patient, to take heart and wait on the Lord. Since I learned this hard lesson, I’ve had complete peace about Michael’s conversion, a peace that is rarely and only momentarily disrupted. Michael has not formally joined the Church, but I will say this: he is more of a practicing Catholic than the vast majority of American Catholics!
CWR: In hindsight, looking back at the arc (so to speak) of your journey to the Church, what stands out or surprises you the most now? How is being inside the Church most different than being outside?
Favale: I’m still a little shocked that I became Catholic at all, to be honest. The only way I’m able to make sense of it is that there was a brief window of vulnerability, when my defenses were down, and I was hit by an arrow of grace before that window closed again. You have to understand, at the time I decided to join RCIA, I had never been to Mass at the local parish. I had no Catholic family, hardly any close Catholic friends or influences in my life. It is still remarkable to me that this happened; when I think about it, I am filled with gratitude, but also a shiver of fear, as if I’ve been yanked back from the edge of a cliff and can still feel how close to death I was.
I am also continually surprised at the vast riches the Catholic intellectual tradition has to offer on the question of gender. There is always so much more to read, to contemplate, to explore. I’ve been invited to a never-ending feast.
CWR: Finally, what has it been like being a Catholic in a very “unChurch” state (Oregon), and what is like being a Catholic teaching at a Protestant university?
Favale: It is much easier to teach at a Christian university as a committed Catholic than as an angsty post-evangelical, let me tell you. I remember having a fair amount of ambivalence when I first accepted this teaching job; I saw myself as a feminist missionary, entering the evangelical jungle to save the Christian gospel from itself. Now, I am so grateful to be in this environment, where everything I do in my teaching and writing can be refracted through my faith. I have far more intellectual academic freedom here than I would in a secular academic context. After spending years writing and publishing works I now see as heretical and misleading, I want every word I write from here on out to illuminate the beauty of Catholicism, and I have the freedom to do that in my current job. Moreover, my faith is bolstered and strengthened by the sincerity and faith of my students and colleagues.
I’ve had some Catholic friends who’ve struggled to live in the Pacific Northwest as Catholics, where the dominant culture is overwhelmingly secular and at odds with Catholic values. But I’ve never lived in a vibrant Catholic enclave as a Catholic. I’ve never known anything other than being a weird Catholic girl in a non-Catholic world, and I’ve found his grace is more than sufficient—it’s abundant, even here. Especially here.
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