During the formative years of my life I grew up in Portland, Oregon, in an atmosphere where religion was not part of my life. Religion was a private thing that was never talked about. I knew that my neighborhood friends went to church with their parents, and they never talked about their church or about any religious questions. I also knew that our family was considered odd because of our lack of church attendance. My father to this day says that he is an agnostic or a "retired Christian." My mother, who passed away last year, entered the Catholic Church in my high school years. The topic of religion was so private in my house that I didn’t even know that my mother had converted from Methodism to the Catholic Church until many years later.
C. S. Lewis said, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." Without knowing it, I was very careful of my reading. Growing up, I enjoyed reading, and science fiction was my genre of choice. I prided myself on choosing what was called "hard SF," such as Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement. I read little outside of SF except general magazines on science. I also enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories. The character appealed to me since he seemed so in control and used the abilities of his mind and science to solve crimes. I would attempt to act like Mr. Holmes by being acutely aware of my surroundings.
My first brush with religion was going with my mother to a progressive Catholic church. I was a teenager, and to please her I went to Mass. The music used during the Mass included selections such as the Byrds’ "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Day by Day" from the musical Godspell. I enjoyed singing and didn’t mind these songs. My mother knew the woman who headed the singing group, and I ended up auditioning and then singing with them. I enjoyed the irony of being an atheist and singing in the church.
One evening I went to the home of the priest for a class on the Church. The priest gave an overview of the Bible and how the miracles didn’t really happen but could be explained by other means. I remember thinking that as an atheist I already didn’t believe in miracles. Why should I become a Catholic to not believe in miracles? I also heard the word Catholicism used for the first time. This word somehow seemed ominous and stuck with me. During this yearlong period I never received any information about what the Catholic Church taught. The homilies were full of social justice and not much else. I was going to Communion not knowing what I was receiving. I might have laughed if I were told what Catholics said the Eucharist was, though it would have been nice to be told the truth. My parents ended up divorcing and I stopped going to Mass. I did not think that my parents’ divorce would have any effect on me. My mother sought the divorce and I encouraged my father to go ahead, that it was no problem to me. During this time I never connected my moral decline and my failing grades with what was happening at home. My parents’ divorce was in no way bitter or acrimonious, but just the split and the subsequent changes affected me without my realizing it.
During my final years of high school I enrolled in an electronics class. I enjoyed learning electronics theory and bread-boarding components and started to think about a career doing this. I ended up joining the Navy under the Advanced Electronics Field program. When I was asked what religion I wanted noted in my service record, I proudly said atheist.
While I was going to a Navy electronics school, one of the instructors invited me to his house for dinner. It turned out that he was a Baptist trying to bring people to the faith. We talked in his living room and he said some things that were attractive to me because at that point I was like a typical sailor living in party mode. I tried to join in the conversation, but the only philosophical idea that I could think of was a lyric from Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven": "Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on."
This was a clear indication of my total lack of spiritual depth at that point in time, and I smile at the memory now. The night ended in a full-immersion baptism and some literature. I never saw him or the other people outside of class again, and there was no follow-up. My conversion must have lasted all of twenty-four hours. It was definitely a case of the seed planted on hard, rocky ground.
While stationed overseas, I got married in the Philippines. My wife is a Catholic, and we were married in a Catholic church. This church was somewhat of a marriage mill, and there was no preparation for marriage given. The only other times during the next decade and a half that I had entered a church was for the baptisms of my two children. I felt ill at ease during the baptismal preparation and felt a total fraud for going along with this while being an atheist. For many years I gave no thought to the idea of God or religion other than to disparage it. My wife continued in her private devotions with some prayer books she brought with her and by praying the rosary. I tried to talk my wife out of what I thought to be superstitions, but she wisely ignored me on this subject.
At the time I joined the Navy, my views were closely aligned with what is modern liberalism: The government needs to do all it can to help people and to make their lives better. But as I was traveling around the world and having a family, my views on what was important in life were changing. In the early nineties I started listening to talk radio, and it was on the G. Gordon Liddy show that I heard him state the five proofs of God as detailed by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae. I was quite surprised at such rational-sounding ideas. I started to observe that many people whom I respected believed in God, and those who called themselves non-religious I did not agree with on many issues.
Maybe subconsciously I saw my atheism slipping because I started to work actively to shore up my atheistic "faith." I started reading books on atheism. One book I read recommended the works of Ayn Rand. I joyfully read Atlas Shrugged, and I thought it contained the answers I needed to be able to remain both conservative and an atheist.
At the height of my new-found fervor, something happened that would change my life. I used to ride my bike to and from work. One morning, as I was coming to the end of a block, I saw a car coming directly toward me from the right. The man in the car was turning onto the main road and did not see me. I calculated that there was no way that I could avoid getting hit. In those seconds my whole life did not flash before my eyes, but only the sure thought that I was going to be killed. The car hit me dead on, and I went up onto the hood and was then knocked into the street. My first reaction was surprise—surprise that I was alive. Many people stopped, and a crowd came to my assistance and to determine my condition. The driver of the car sped away unnoticed by those helping me.
I escaped with relatively minor injuries and some stitches. This was also an end to my atheism. Facing death, I found that I did not really believe that if I had been killed that my existence would have winked out of the universe. The soul is not just some metaphysical idea.
I wish that my conversion had been as sudden as Saul’s blinding light, but my new thoughts only percolated slowly in my mind and brought me to a general theism. I believed there was a God, and I had no idea what I should do about that information. I knew that I should be going to a church. It would be difficult to find someone as ignorant about Christianity as I was. I knew there were different churches and I had no idea what might be the difference between a Protestant, Catholic, or Mormon church.
My love of singing was also connected with my love of Christmas carols. At one time during the Christmas season you could turn on most radio stations and hear these carols. As it became increasingly difficult to find these songs played on the air, I ended up listening to the local Protestant radio stations to hear them. I also started to listen to the messages they had between the songs. My previous atheism and stoicism had not prepared me for all the mistakes I had made in life, and now I was ready to admit that I was a sinner and that I was in need of a redeemer.
When Christmas ended, I continued to listen to their broadcasts and learn about who Jesus was. I read a large number of books from prominent Protestants with a smattering of books from Catholics. I also started to read the Bible, and I made the mistake most beginners make by just trying to read from Genesis to Revelation. I still had a pagan view toward religion. When reading the Bible, I thought that something supernatural would occur to prove that it was true and that God existed. Since I was reading the Bible using only my own frame of reference, I also reinvented many heresies as I went along. One of the items I noticed while listening to Protestant radio is that the person speaking one hour often would contradict what someone else said earlier. Despite my previous experience with the Catholic Church, I started to do some deeper reading on Catholicism.
I had just retired from the Navy, and my family moved to Florida. I found a Catholic bookstore and bought a Catechism and some other books. Reading the Catechism I was greatly excited by what I found. I saw that what the Church taught was consistent with what I had observed in life, and it was presented as a coherent whole. I had a residual sola scriptura attitude that I had absorbed from society. I understood via the media that any serious Christian thought must be in the Bible. I was concerned that part of what I read I did not also see directly in the Bible.
Fortunately, we had moved to an area that had a Catholic radio station and also had EWTN on cable. The questions asked and the answers given on Catholic Answers Live were an important part of my intellectual conversion. Being in the military, it was easy for me to come to understand that the Church needs a hierarchy and a magisterium to proclaim the truth. The military has written instructions for just about everything, yet we constantly had to interpret for others what they meant. Sometimes we would have to query a higher command to ensure that our interpretation was correct.
I saw that there had to be a living Church to protect doctrines and to interpret and teach them without error. As times passed there had to be a way to address new questions as they developed: By using just Bible study, it would be quite difficult to answer questions with any authority about topics such as in vitro fertilization and cloning.
The founding fathers of the United States understood this problem when they wrote the Constitution. They knew that the Constitution could not interpret itself, and they set up the Supreme Court to do this. Of course, this system breaks down if the Supreme Court makes an interpretation inconsistent with the founders’ intent. Because of original sin, no human organization can keep from falling into error. It is only through the Holy Spirit guiding the Church that we are assured that the Church is not teaching error.
As Augustine said, "I would not believe the Gospels if it were not for the Church." This was the very Rosetta stone that helped me to believe in the authority of the Church and to accept all that it teaches. Instead of looking at an issue like contraception and wondering if what the Church taught were true, I had the attitude that I accepted this doctrine as true and that I needed to learn why it was true. I have come to appreciate the great and glorious treasure of what the Church has taught through the centuries. The intellectual underpinnings of our faith are something that we can never exhaust, and at times we can come to a deeper understanding of those teachings.
With this understanding, I was ready to enter the Church. Since the Easter celebration was close, I had to wait and attend the next session of RCIA. My wife and I also started to attend daily Mass. My yearning for the Eucharist increased, and having to stay back while others received Communion was difficult. Finally the day arrived; I was received into the Church and confirmed.
After receiving Communion I realized that, both figuratively and literally, I had spent forty years in the wilderness and had now entered the Promised Land. I also knew that just as Israelites still faced many battles upon entering the Promised Land, I also would face spiritual battles in the years to come.
Writing a conversion story is difficult, since it has a beginning and middle but not truly an end. Our conversion stories do not end truly until our deaths, when hopefully we hear, "Good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master." To go from the desert of atheism to knowing and loving God through his Church is a joy that words can’t express.
Jeffrey Miller was received into the Church in 1999. Jeff writes from Jacksonville, Florida. Follow Jeff’s blog The Curt Jester which presents his humorous and sometimes serious take on things religious, political, and whatever else crosses his mind.