Last year, David Sessions wrote an essay about his “deconversion” from Christianity, drawing on some of the ideas we aired last week about religious experience in a secular age. In particular, he noted that “something else besides just theories and arguments was driving the shift” and that, in addition to reading and thinking, he “was pulled along by massive changes in experience.” Dreher compares this to the story of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a lesbian academic who became an evangelical Christian (eventually marrying a man), and who admits to praying “that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood.” Rod considers what this says about the limits of reason in our lives, especially with regard to religion:
The willingness to obey before I understood. Yes, this. Reading that line reminded me of my own slow, winding, herky-jerky path to conversion, and how I kept hitting a dead end because I wanted to understand it all before I obeyed. This doesn’t work.
I was thinking about Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s point this morning, listening to our priest’s sermon about fasting …, and about how, when I first became Orthodox, I didn’t understand why we fasted, and fasted so strictly. But I did it because that’s what one does as an Orthodox Christian, and everybody in my church was doing it. Now I deeply get it, and as hard as it is, I’m grateful for it, because it’s exactly the medicine I need for my soul. But it took the experience of doing it for years before I really understood it.
What’s interesting about the Butterfield story of conversion in light of Sessions’s story of de-conversion is the role experience plays in both. It is epistemologically humbling, no matter what side of the belief/unbelief divide you are on.
Sessions argues that Rod takes the comparison too far:
There is a superficial similarity in the sense that Butterfield and I both had experiences that changed us before we had a full explanation or argument for what happened. What Butterfield describes … is essentially her embrace of obscurantism, a “truth” that either defies or ignores well-established scholarship—and even her own previous experience—on human sexual orientation. But the fact that experience drives intellectual transformation is not a license to abandon intellectual rigor.
For example, how does she know God has a point of view about homosexuality, or that it’s negative?