When I began exploring religion my husband followed my search, and he ended up converting to Catholicism at the same time I did. Since he was raised Baptist, it was interesting to compare our different perspectives on the whole thing, particularly when our research led us in the direction of Rome. When we started reading up on the Catholic Church, there were some teachings that made sense to me right away that he needed to look into more before it made sense to him, and vice versa. We were discussing this again the other night and he suggested that some people might find it interesting to read a post about my impressions of Catholic beliefs, coming from my background of lifelong atheism.
I don’t have any better ideas for something to post about today, so here it is. In what will probably be a failed attempt at brevity I’ll keep it to five things, and for the sake of interesting discussion I’ll choose some of the things that I didn’t struggle with that I sometimes hear other converts say were sticking points for them.
Without further ado, here five Catholic teachings that just kinda made sense to me from day one:
I don’t know if I could have ever believed that Christianity was true without the concept of Purgatory.
As I’ve mentioned before, when I was younger I had some bad experiences with Christians. I’m sure I was as much to blame as they were but, either way, I was on the receiving end of no small amount of unkindness in the name of Christianity. Frequently these same Christians would say with confidence that they were definitely going to heaven. It just didn’t sound right to me. I knew enough to know that God was supposed to be great and loving and heaven was supposed to be a really nice place, but if all these people who had been so mean here on earth could go directly heaven when they died (me included), I wasn’t interested in spending eternity there. At the same time, being mean to people wasn’t exactly the worst thing in the world, and while it didn’t appeal to reason that a just God would let people into heaven with that kind of behavior, it also didn’t seem reasonable that he should send them to hell for it either.
This is why Purgatory really made sense to me. Once I understood heaven as the place of perfect goodness, perfect joy, perfect love, I could see that allowing a soul that harbored even a small amount of animosity or unkindness or hate would taint the whole environment, like allowing someone with dirty feet to step into perfectly pure water. Yet surely God wouldn’t send us to hell for, metaphorically speaking, having a little dirt on our feet. So I could easily believe that a just God would allow for some sort of purification process in the afterlife for those who didn’t purify their souls quite enough in their time here on earth.
Some people, of course, probably do use their time on earth wisely, to purify themselves enough during this life to be able to go directly to God when they die. Which brings me to the next thing that really resonated with me…
2. The communion of saints
All my life I’d noticed that many cultures throughout the world have a belief that we can have some limited contact with those who have died before us, and that those souls are probably aware of what is happening down here on earth. I’d heard many stories of people believing that a deceased grandmother or uncle or brother was “watching out for them”. And, once I believed that we have eternal souls that live on after our bodily death, it seemed that some form of communication like that was certainly possible.
So when I read that the Catholic Church teaches that we can have contact with anyone who is already in heaven, that we can ask them to pray for us just like we can ask our neighbors here on earth to pray for us, it was a no-brainer. It sounded right from the moment I read it.
Also, on a practical level, the longer I’m a Christian the more I see the need for solid spiritual role models. Of course Jesus is the ultimate role model, but in my great laziness it used to be easy to fall into a mentality of, “Well, Jesus was divine, so a regular person like me could never come all that close to being perfect like he was. What I’m doing right now is probably as good as I can expect to do.” Yet every time I’d fall into this spiritual apathy or complacency, it only took about five minutes of reading about the lives of the saints to inspire me with wonder at the amazing things that ordinary people can do through Christ, and to re-commit to growing in faith and holiness (St. Monica, St. Frances of Rome and St. Teresa of Avila are some of my favorites). As with many other things, it was as if the Catholic Church anticipated my needs before I even knew they were there.
3. Veneration of Mary
It took me a while to even begin to wrap my mind around the concept that God exists. After I began to think that all this crazy Christianity stuff might have something to it, I walked around in a daze for a while, having to completely re-think my entire existence and the world around me. The concept of God and his power was a bit overwhelming, and I realized that my limited intellect could hardly begin to understand his greatness.
As I was thinking about this, at some point the thought popped into my head: so if God made himself a man like the Christians say he did, that means…that means that God, the Creator of the entire universe, chose his own mom. Whoa! “I want to know more about her, ” I immediately thought.
Once I thought through all this, I could completely understand why people venerate Mary. I wanted to know as much as possible about the woman who God saw fit to be his human mother. Also, per point #2, it seemed like she would probably have a special love for those of us still here on earth, and was probably praying for us and watching over us in some way. So, needless to say, when I read about the Catholic emphasis on Mary I had no problem with it at all.
4. The belief that non-Catholics and non-Christians could go to heaven
Once I began to understand a bit more about the Judeo-Christian concept of God, I could not believe that a just God would bar entry to heaven to people who didn’t know about him or his church through no fault of their own. I didn’t think I would ever be able to be a Christian if I were required to believe that. So when I started reading the Catholic Catechism and came across stuff like section 847 here, it removed a major roadblock to faith. Not much more to say on that one.
5. Sacred Tradition
One thing that is absent from the topics above is any discussion of whether or not the teachings above are Biblical. In the beginning, that’s not the metric I used for evaluating whether or not these concepts were likely to be valid, for a couple of reasons:
First, I just could not make sense of any discussions about the Biblical basis for these claims. Catholic authors and non-Catholic authors each offered a bunch of Bible verses to support their claims about the truth or falsehood of Catholic teaching and, honestly, neither case jumped out to me as obviously right or wrong. Even after I’d read the New Testament, I could see both sides. Also, I hadn’t yet read the entire Bible cover to cover so for all I knew there was some verse hidden somewhere that cleared it all up that neither side was telling me about. I was so confused.
My other problem was that, coming from a background of atheism, I wasn’t sure that I even believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God. All my life it had been just another book to me and, though I liked what I was seeing of Christianity and was really trying to open my mind, I was having a hard time believing that God was the ultimate author of these texts. The four Gospels did sound like the authors were telling the truth, and the epistles were very interesting, but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. As I wrote about here, whenever I read the Bible I was left with lots of big questions, and there seemed to be as many answers out there as there were Christians. I just didn’t know what to do.
Meanwhile, the more I looked into the Catholic Church the more it seemed to be, to use G.K. Chesterton’s phrase, a “truth-telling thing”. Reading about its beliefs was like having the natural law that’s written on the human heart poured out into actual words. I saw behind these teachings something far more wise than humans, a force that understood us better than we understand ourselves.
So when I read of the Catholic concept of Sacred Tradition, the notion that God uses this one church to act as a sort of divinely-guided Supreme Court that always speaks the truth on matters of doctrine and morals, a lot of things fell into place. For one thing, it explained how this church could have such deep wisdom behind its beliefs — it had seemed so incredible and unlikely that a group of people could come up with insights this great and keeping them going for 2, 000 years, so in a way I wasn’t surprised to hear the theory that this church and its teachings didn’t come from people at all.
It explained how Christianity was able to flourish before the “Bible” as we know it today was created, how the early Christians knew what books to include in the canon in the first place, how illiterate people could grow in faith, how Christianity could flourish before the printing press, how people with low reading comprehension skills could grow in faith, etc.
It also made my struggles with the Bible disappear. Based on my difficulties knowing how to correctly interpret it and how to know it was the inspired word of God when it didn’t even say so itself, it immediately sounded plausible that this static word of God was meant to go hand-in hand-with the teachings of a living church.
These five teachings, as well as a few others, allowed the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place so that I could put my heart into giving Christianity a try. I’d known from the beginning that I would never be able to know for sure whether or not God exists and Christianity is true by simply reading books. At some point, I was going to have to put my heart into it. In the beginning that just wasn’t possible — I had more questions than I had answers, and way too many concerns about Christianity to approach it with anything other than an arms-folded-across-my-chest skepticism.
But the more I read about the Catholic Church’s beliefs, the more my skepticism melted into interest, my cynicism turned to curiosity. I’d found so many good answers to all my tough questions — logical, reasonable answers — that I was ready to give it a try. Though I still had doubts and major spiritual dryness, I found the ideas of this church compelling enough to bet it all that what it said was true. I would take a leap of faith. I would change my life to do what the Catholic Church said I should do, in hopes that it would lead me closer to God.
As I’ve said before, the results were more amazing than I could have ever imagined.
Anyway, I apologize that this post doesn’t even begin to do justice to these huge theological concepts — volumes of books have been written about each of them, so I probably butchered their explanation by trying to fit it all into a blog post. Please keep in mind the same disclaimer applies to this post as to everything else I write: I’m just a fool with an internet connection who likes to talk about how and why I believe in God after years of atheism — I’m no scholar or theologian, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. 🙂
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