In this week's eSkeptic, Patrick Arnold reviews The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield
It is not hard to see why: besides being outright moving and beautifully written, Rosaria Butterfield's
memoir of her
journey from atheism to Reformed Christianity is as unlikely as one could imagine.
Yet it is Rosaria
that paints it as the collapse of one "worldview" and triumph of another: "In the normal course of life questions emerged that exceeded my secular feminist worldview" (11).
What exactly was Rosaria's long-held "worldview"?
Unfortunately, beyond vague labels she
never tells us.
Rosaria was a professor of English and Woman's Studies at Syracuse University, "working from a historical materialist worldview," and a lesbian activist involved in her community in every way, from AIDS and disability activism to sexual abuse counseling (16).
Yet we are also told she
was a "postmodernist who didn't believe in objectivity," with no explanation of what that means, or how or whether being a materialist conflicted with not believing in objectivity (22).
Perhaps the picture we are to get is of someone who had a promising academic life but lacked a worked-out worldview, and questions began to arise that she
could not answer.
So what were these "life questions" that exceeded her
secular and feminist philosophy?
We are never quite told what objections she
faced and could not answer.
Rosaria's conversion began with a project on the Religious Right in America and their view of women.
Coming into contact with a humble conservative Reformed pastor, she
struck an immediate and lasting friendship that increasingly challenged her
beliefs as the years progressed.
The friendship not only called into question her
assumption that Christians are anti-intellectual and judgmental, but prompted her
to rethink her
disbelief in God, driving her
to intensively study the Bible.
The conversation that seems to play the most pivotal role comes a few years after the beginning of her
friendship with the pastor.
Why not, he
asks, let him speak to some of her
classes about why the Bible is a foundation piece of literature?
dismisses the idea, but is intrigued enough to hear his
is impressed with his
sophisticated understanding of the interconnected themes throughout the books of the Bible, but not yet convinced this says much, if anything, about whether it is trustworthy.
"So it all comes down to how and why you claim that the Bible is true," she
replied, and they agreed that "next time he
would tell me how and why the Bible is true" (21).
One might well think this is a-if not the-key conversation Rosaria
and the pastor have (though others, such as what actually convinced her
that God-and the God of Christianity in particular-exist, are surely important as well).
But the explanation ends there as she
moves on to the reaction her
friends (and lesbian partner) were having to her
increasing openness to the religion she
once ridiculed and, shortly after, narrates her
conversion and then membership into the Reformed and Presbyterian Church of North America.
would later embrace the doctrine of sola scriptura-as she
puts it, "the belief that the Bible is authoritative, complete, perfect, and sufficient" (91).
The significance of this belief in the inerrancy of the Bible cannot be underestimated in her
narrative, since it is the only justification Rosaria
apparently has for her
many new beliefs, from her
eventual rejection of homosexuality to her
acceptance of submission to male authority.
It is strange, then, that this key debate with the pastor ends with his
agreement to tell Rosaria
"how and why the Bible is true.
We never get a glimpse of these reasons, just like we are never quite told what her
former worldview was, nor any other crucial step in her
intellectual transformation-all the things one would think would be behind an intellectual conversion involving a conscious rejection of one worldview for another.
Without these details it is hard to know why Rosaria
became a Reformed Christian (and stays one) as opposed to a convert of some other theological tradition, or a different religion altogether.