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. Continue reading