For a good chunk of this past semester (Fall 2014), I have been leading a class of Laurentian University students through Books I-VIII of The Confessions (Penguin Classics edition). I really have enjoyed working through Augustine’s reflections on the gentle persistence with which God slowly bent his will to the divine will until the last obstacle was that will itself, and how, at the last, it gave way in a garden as the future saint read Paul’s call to lay aside reveling and drunkenness and instead to put on the Lord Jesus. It is a powerful conversion story. Perhaps the paradigmatic conversion story.
The purpose in the syllabus is to look at how Augustine synthesizes Neo-Platonic and Biblical thought, and how this in turn shapes Western thinking on love. Augustine’s synthesis shapes far more than that, of course. But the class is entitled “Ideas of Love,” and treats love as a major philosophical and theological concept in the Western tradition. So that’s what we focus on. (The unstated purpose is, I pray, to get students often with very little or no Christian formation to consider—even as Augustine did—the possibility that becoming a Christian of a traditional sort need not involve embracing absurd doctrines or a finally unsatisfactory way of life).
As I have been doing this at school, I have become fascinated with a fellow blogger, sought-after speaker, radio host, mom to 6 and homeschooler, Jennifer Fulwiler. I first ran across her on EWTN’s The Journey Home , a programme on which the host, Marcus Grodi, invites people to speak of their conversion to Roman Catholicism. The youtube caption of Fulwiler’s episode was simply, “Jennifer Fulwiler: Former Atheist.” Well, that caught my attention. I watched the show and wanted to know more. That led to a google search, which turned up her reality series, Minor Revisions. Detailing her fabulously frenetic family life even as she tried to finish up her memoir, the series had my wife and I captivated from the first moments of the first episode. I immediately liked her Facebook page and started watching for a release date. The book’s been out for a while now, but I finally picked it up—and devoured it—a couple of weeks ago.
The long-anticipated memoir is Fulwiler’s own conversion story, summarized on Journey Home and alluded to throughout Minor Revisions. Entitled Something Other than God (Ignatius, 2014), it stands squarely in the Augustinian tradition of conversion stories; indeed, I can’t help but wonder if some of the overlaps are deliberate—the slow clearing away of intellectual misgivings, the recognition that becoming a Christian meant more than intellectual assent to certain truths, but meant becoming a different sort of person, the growing awareness that God was not a concept which one adopted, but the one Person who really matters, the One who had been seeking the seeker from the start. All these themes are, of course, themes in The Confessions. Even Fulwiler’s title, borrowed from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, has a decidedly Augustinian ring. Here’s the Lewis quote in full: “[A]ll that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Whether the homage to the great North African is deliberate, I cannot say. Whether it is there cannot be doubted. Fulwiler is, among other things, an Augustinian. I hope, should she read this, she takes it as the compliment it is intended to be!
Something Other than God is smart, brash, funny, warm, insightful, and above all, brave. Fulwiler’s conversion comes after a long hard look at the implications of atheism—she quotes Bertrand Russell on the need to build life on a foundation of unyielding despair—from which our functionally atheistic culture seeks always to distract us. It is a conversion that entertains other possibilities. Other religious possibilities are mentioned (though not explored in detail) as part of her story; there is a genuine weighing of options and a real sense of the reality of risk. Not least because Fulwiler’s conversion is entire. She not only signs on for the Church’s teaching on contraception, and all that flows from it, but she does so in the midst of an at-risk pregnancy and the counsel of medical professionals to consider abortion, or at least artificial means of contraception to prevent future pregnancies. Whether or not you end up agreeing with her (or with Rome), you will not be able to deny that her decision was fully and authentically hers. As a woman.
I confess that it is this part of the story that most captivates me, because it is the most foreign to my experience. I’m a married Anglican priest. And here is a woman—whose continued work-life gives the lie to the notion that she is oppressed by the teachings of her church—using the very language of feminism (specifically, about the need for women to control their bodies, and for men to respect that) to defend Paul VI and Humanae Vitae.
No doubt, this will be the place where many will want to press Fulwiler further. If you do, check out her blog, conversiondiary.com. But before you do, read the book.
Which brings me back to my students. I do hope that some of my students stick with Augustine. And I hope that they’ll ask me for a modern telling of the timeless tale of the restless heart’s attempt to satisfy what only God can. I know where to send them.