As the youngest of three, I was often the child in the car with mom, waiting for older brothers to finish appointments or extracurricular activities, and as she and I waited we listened to “Unshackled” on WMBI, Chicago. This radio drama was devoted to stories of dramatic conversions. Christians retold their journeys out of alcohol or substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and broken homes. As a kid in a sheltered Christian home, these stories fascinated me. And they also established a paradigm of conversion in my mind.
But it’s a paradigm that has had to change. While some Christians have a “Damascus Road” kind of conversion, many more have the kind St. Augustine describes in Confessions. In Book VI of the Confessions, St. Augustine laments his willing unbelief in Catholic Christianity even though he had already refuted the teachings of Mani. He describes a change that is a gradual letting go of old beliefs followed by an uneasy trust in a new account of reality. St. Augustine sought out a knowledge of God as certain as 7 + 3 = 10, but St. Ambrose instead offered allegorical teaching and holy mysteries. As a result of St. Ambrose’s teaching, St. Augustine began to prefer the teachings of the Church before his conversion. Further, Faustus, the Manichean bishop, could not satisfy St. Augustine’s probing questions. St. Augustine’s doubt concerning Manichaeism led him to a new kind of knowledge, not of the variety of 7 + 3 = 10, yet capable of providing rest for his restless desires. As I reflect on Book VI, I realize that St. Augustine’s metanoia (change of mind) is analogous to the heartbreak and rebirth of romantic love. This analogy is useful in exploring the experience of doubt and faith, which is as much a matter of the heart as of the mind.
Anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak knows its effects. One person begins to pull away from the relationship for any number of reasons. This withdrawing of love leads to confusion, fear, worry, anger, denial, and finally a wound. The wounded heart longs for the absent beloved who cannot be restored. In time, the wound may heal, but only if the heart forgives, lets go of unfulfilled desire, and grieves the loss. Scars may remain that cause distrust and make new love more difficult, but such an experience may be necessary to foster a more mature love.
Like the loss of romantic love, loss of faith frequently involves a gradual process of mending the wounded heart. St. Augustine’s account of metanoia illustrates how learning that what you believe about God and yourself is mistaken can be as painful as losing a lover. Anyone contemplating a conversion is contemplating a loss. They must leave old ways, old loves. In order for the wound of conversion to heal, love must be reordered, and St. Augustine shows the loss of an old love, even when it makes way for a better love is nevertheless painful. Indeed, St. Augustine’s heart had to be broken to be remade, which accounts for all of the grieving tears of the Confessions. Furthermore, St. Augustine’s honest doubt before God reveals the painful struggle he went through to believe anew. It a struggle akin to a wounded lover trying to learn to love again.
Scripture defines doubt as being double-minded (James 1:8). While James warns against the instability of doubt, his admonition is against those whose doubt leads to unbelief. St. Augustine shows us that doubt can also be a friend against false faith. Double-mindedness, like heartbreak, may be necessary to disabuse us of false accounts of reality. St. Augustine had to wrestle with the conflict between Mani and Christ, but the loss was met with a more beautiful and true supply of grace.
When I am confronted by an unbeliever, I must not forget St. Augustine. The inner struggle to surrender false faith, the conflict of will, the fear of loss—these are often the most formidable obstacles to metanoia. For this reason, the best witness I can offer is a changed heart.