Slow-Motion Conversion: How My Mind Has Changed

By Zaleski, Carol | The Christian Century, January 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

Slow-Motion Conversion: How My Mind Has Changed


Zaleski, Carol, The Christian Century


ON JULY 11, 1991, the Feast of St. Benedict, I was baptized and received as a Catholic in the chapel of the twin Benedictine communities of St. Mary's Monastery and St. Scholastica Priory in Petersham, Massachusetts. Any views I've acquired since then pale in significance, washed out in the light of the gospel and creed I accepted on that day. Yet a gradual change began then, and continues to the present, as I assimilate the effects of baptism and confirmation. No doubt there are corners of my mind that still haven't heard the news.

Mine was a slow-motion, book-driven conversion. For many years I ran on two tracks. Along one track, I inched toward the church. I longed to press forward, forgetting what lies behind, as St. Paul writes (Philippians 3:13-14, a key text for Augustine's Confessions and thereafter for countless narratives of Christian conversion), but nonetheless I held back, searching and temporizing, out of respect for my Jewish heritage. Since my upbringing had been wholly secular, whatever I knew of Judaism and Christianity came to me mainly through reading. The chief influences were Augustine, Anselm and the monastic theologians of the 12th century, in whose writings I caught sight of a country I longed to inhabit but--I know this will seem strange--didn't know where to find.

I met Christ in my studies, but it took much longer to get to know the church. I found in the works of Marie-Dominique Chenu, Etienne Gilson, Jean Danielou, Emile Mersch, and especially in Henri de Lubac's four-volume Exegese medievale, a Baedeker to this distant native land. But I had no inkling of the role that some of these thinkers had played as figures in the ressourcement movement that informed the Second Vatican Council. I knew nothing of the supposedly arid neo-scholasticism that was being overthrown--and is now being rehabilitated. I had barely heard of Rahner and Lonergan. I read Karl Barth enthusiastically but naively, as if he were a second Kierkegaard, and Hans Urs von Balthasar as a transmitter of patristic wisdom. I held a key in my hand, and it almost rusted there.

On the other track, I was a student of world religions, trained in the latest theoretical approaches--a devoted reader of Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and Carl Jung, a student of classical Indian Buddhism, interested in mythology, iconography, philosophical yoga, folklore and visual culture, and at the same time a product of a graduate theology program that involved grappling with Enlightenment and modernist thinkers. Studying world religions while reading medieval Cistercians and 19th-century Romantics gave me a taste for symbol and sacrament, but, unchurched as I was, I could not fully grasp the gulf between religion as object of study and the church as supernatural reality.

Funny things happened whenever these two tracks crossed. In my first book, Otherworld Journeys (1987), I made a comparative study of medieval and modern accounts of near-death experience, highlighting the cultural factors that shape visionary experience. As a historical and comparative exploration, the book still seems sound. But there are a few pages in which I venture into theology and go off the rails:

      Theology ... is a discipline of
   critical reflection on religious experience
   and religious language. As
   such, no matter how objective or
   systematic it becomes, it cannot escape the fundamental
   limitations that apply to religious discourse in general.

      ... although theology involves analytic thought, its fundamental
   material is symbol. Its task is to assess the health
   of our symbols; for when one judges a symbol, one cannot
   say whether it is true or false, but only whether it is vital or
   weak. When a contemporary theologian announces, for
   example, that God is dead or that God is not only Father
   but also Mother, he or she is not describing the facts per se,
   but is evaluating the potency of our culture's images for
   God--their capacity to evoke a sense of relationship to the
   transcendent. … 

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