Getting in touch with the world beyond your head is more difficult than you imagine.
I got an email a while back from a man (I’ll call him Dave—not his real name) who is considering converting to Catholicism. What I found unusual is that Dave is considering converting by asking his Protestant Evangelical friends for their best reasons not to convert. I give Dave credit for trying to get beyond his head, but this is not an effective way to do it.
What, then, is an effective way? Good question.
The answer lies in a correct view of human nature. What distinguishes humans from animals is that we are concerned with justification, writes Matthew Crawford in his 2015 book, The World Beyond Your Head. We want to know the legitimacy of what we believe and do. Are our beliefs and actions good… true? Animals are not concerned with justification. Deer eat my wife’s backyard plants and are not the least bit bothered.
My concern with justification usually arises when someone asks me, Where are you coming from? Or when I am challenged by another, or anticipate being challenged by another, or when I know that other person doesn’t agree with my beliefs. To rise to this challenge, I have to evaluate my own beliefs—are they true? In that moment, I have to step back and evaluate them, as Dave is doing. But the path he’s taking in stepping back is not effective.
Dave’s path is not effective because there are two ways we step back to justify what we believe. The first starts with skepticism: That can’t be! The second asks a question: How can this be? The first is ineffective, for it looks for reasons not to believe. But this overlooks Blaise Pascal’s observation of human nature: “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not.” The second way (How can this be?) recognizes that we have hidden reasons for what we believe. It begins with being open to reasons in my heart that I might not be aware of.
A good example is Saul of Tarsus (before he was known as the Apostle Paul). On the road to Damascus, a voice asks: “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” Saul doesn’t say, This can’t be! He asks: Who are you, Lord? Another example is Jesus’ mother, Mary. The angel Gabriel tells the young virgin she’s going to get pregnant. Mary doesn’t say in horror: That can’t be! She asks: How can this be?
Louise Cowan says Mary is asking the angel to “widen her imagination.” That’s faith: stepping back to justify what we believe by opening ourselves in good faith to that which is unanticipated, unfamiliar, unknown, or what might initially strike us as wrong or incorrect. The Apostle Paul took this approach with the unfamiliar. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.
It doesn’t seem to me that Dave is taking this approach. A good-faith approach would be to enter the Catholic world (I didn’t say convert) to experience things from its point of view. This doesn’t start by looking for reasons not to believe. Instead, it’s open hands and heart, getting beyond your own head by asking: How can this be? I don’t know Dave’s Protestant Evangelical friends, but my hunch is that he won’t get good-faith reasons from them.
But I don’t fault Dave for what he’s doing. He’s unknowingly taking an Enlightenment approach to justification. Enlightenment thinkers assumed an individual’s thoughts and reasons are 100 percent transparent to him or her. Give me enough good reasons to convert, and I’ll convert. Give me enough reasons not to, and I won’t. I’ll figure it out. God says No you won’t. He reminds us that our “heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.” But God can. “I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be” (Jer.17:9-10). God also delights in using secondary causes, so he can use other people to reveal our hearts. When I am challenged by another, I can open my heart and head to what they believe.
This is effective for we’re predictably irrational, with hidden reasons often shaping our decisions. I’m not a mind-reader, so I cannot divine the reasons why Dave might—or might not—enter the Catholic Church. Nor can Dave. Nor can his friends. Nor can they divine whether their reasons are rational. Our hearts have their reasons that reason knows not.
Neuroimaging bears this out. The human brain processes about 11 million bits of information per second. But we can only consciously process forty bits per second (and that’s a high-end estimate). We live the vast majority of our lives in our nonconscious mind, with our hearts conjuring reasons that reason knows not. We are literally strangers to ourselves.
This is why Aquinas said we can’t reason our way to faith. There are never sufficient reasons to believe if you’re predisposed not to believe. On the other hand, many find sufficient reasons to believe when they ask: How can this be? They get beyond their own head, entering an unfamiliar tradition to understand the best rendition of it. They don’t begin by staying in their own head and asking others opposed to that tradition for reasons not to believe. All you get from that approach is the worst rendition of what a faith believes.
I close with a final thought regarding Dave’s approach to converting.
Dave and I have never spoken, and I don’t know that we ever will. If we do, I won’t give him reasons for or against converting. I’ll instead ask Dave a simple question: “When you were feeling drawn to your future spouse, did you ask your friends to give you their best reasons for not marrying her?” I doubt that he did.
Dave doesn’t seem to know the gospel is about God “wedding” his love with us. My question regarding how he approached marriage is the right frame. The gospel is God “marrying” us. Dave’s frame is a court of law. The so-called “best” arguments “win.” Reason “wins.” But winning a verdict doesn’t engender feelings of love. It fosters pride based on a false sense of justification: I’m right, they’re wrong. That wasn’t the Virgin Mary’s approach. It wasn’t the Apostle Paul’s approach. Nor is it the way of our bridegroom, Jesus.