The Convert Series: Leah Libresco -The Toast

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I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Laurence Dumortier.

Leah Libresco is a news writer for FiveThirtyEight and the author of Arriving At Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer, which is about her experience learning to pray as an atheist-turned-Catholic. She writes about religion at Unequally Yoked, and, in her spare time, she dragoons people into dramatic readings.

Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up? Did your parents talk much about their own faith, or take you to any religious services? When do you first remember being aware of the concept of God, and what did you think of it?

Both my parents don’t believe in God, so I was raised as an atheist. We had a Christmas tree, but my parents were definitely upfront about the fact that they thought religions weren’t true. I was the kid in high school who worked to get us to stop doing a toy drive for Samaritan’s Purse (which uses the toys to evangelize to poor children). And, post-conversion, I still think that’s a wildly inappropriate charity for a public school to partner with.

I grew up on Long Island, where the vast majority of my classmates were secular Jews, so between that and my family, I thought of religion as something that was not only wrong, but wrong enough to be below the level of hypothesis that deserve attention. Most of the time, when I encountered religion, it was in the news, when some religiously-informed policy intruded on the lives of people like me (like evangelicals fighting evolution in public schools).

College was the first place I encountered a Christianity I couldn’t casually dismiss. I joined the Political Union as a freshman (a debating group where you only argue what you actually believe and there are no points and no judges – you “win” by changing other people’s minds or your own). I tended to gravitate to the most interesting “wrong” people I could find, and that was definitely the Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

A lot of the counter-apologetics I knew were of the Dawkins-God Delusion type – targeted toward biblical literalists, God-of-the-Gaps people.  And they didn’t apply to my new friends.

So, I didn’t think they were right, but I knew I had to do more reading to convince them they were wrong, and that’s how I actually starting reading people like Chesterton and Lewis.

Oh, I would hope that people of any and all and no religions could get behind thinking Samaritan’s Purse is not an appropriate charity for children, and that using the bait of gifts to sell your worldview to poor kids is manipulative and wrong. 

“The most interesting wrong people I could find” is maybe my new favorite category of person I can think of. And you’re right in that Orthodox/Catholic Christianity can produce some really great, robust, wonderful thinkers to argue with. I’d give my arm to fight with Hilaire Belloc for a week, although I still want to kick C.S. Lewis in the shins, at least a bit. 

At this point, did you find yourself responding to what you were reading, whether emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually? Was it still primarily a mental exercise, or did you find yourself compelled by what you saw?

There were four books I’d single out as most important, as I was reading and thinking, and they all did kind of different things for me.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis was a book I got because one of the campus ministries had a table that was set up that said “Free Books” which obviously sucked me in. I’d heard good things about this, so I grabbed it, and the first few bits (on how we assume that there is objective morality and why we should trust that assumption) was one of those jarring moments of recognition, where someone’s written down what you’ve been thinking the whole time, but put it better than you have. I didn’t buy the “and therefore God!” but it still felt a bit like homecoming to read the beginning. And the rest of the apologetics there helped me see Christianity as an internally-reasonable thing, not self-refuting for lack of coherency/consistency.

Orthodoxy – Chesterton I read this after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, and Chresterton really does a magnificent job of making the possibility of Christianity feel like a high-stakes question. And something a lot more vivid/nuts than “Try being basically nice to others.” Reading this kind of got me thinking of Christianity as a portal world – not true where I lived, but a really interesting world to think about (and one I wanted to steal some things from).

The Moral Landscape – Sam Harris was one I preordered, looking for contemporary atheist writers who would make moral realist arguments like Lewis, without the “and then God!” coda.  I was looking for a book I could offer back for my side, while people offered me apologetics, and this was a total disappointment. The focus is on subjective happiness, looking forward to the days when we can use brain-scans to check what makes us happy, which was way too much trust in ourselves for my taste. Being good might make us happy, but pleasure/pain was too crude a way to check on what was good.

After Virtue – Alasdair MacIntyre was huge for me. Again, like with Lewis, I had the sense of being somewhere I recognized. MacIntyre’s discussion of virtue ethics helped me let go of some of the selfish, fearful, competitive bits of my Kantianism/Stoicism (I was happy when people were mean to me in high school, because it meant that my being nice to them wasn’t tainted by self-interest or affection). This was the book I wound up bringing back to my Catholic boyfriend, in lieu of The Moral Landscape to say I’d found a non-Christian writer who could stand for my side.

And then my boyfriend told me that MacIntyre later converted to Catholicism, because he didn’t think his system worked without it. And I was kinda pissed at him for letting the side down.

Since religion was a foreign language to me, I did a lot of coming to understanding through weird metaphors, e.g:

  • wrestling with sin in Confession — sort of like the story of Janet and Tam Lin!
  • repetitiveness of the Rosary — a bit like the basic in ballroom dance!
  • the Eucharist — kinda like this legend about people who turned into honey!

OH, LEWIS. He is so many things. I find most of his apologetics to be maddening, but every time I want to throw him into the sun I find a phrase or a way of looking at things that’s quite sound and lovely and practical, and then I want to not throw him into the sun, for a while.

I love the idea you bring up of a Christianity “that couldn’t be casually dismissed,” that you were looking for reasons not to like it, and instead found yourself compelled to engage with it. Did it feel like a primarily intellectual exercise at that point?

It was definitely a mostly intellectual exercise for most of the time for me. That’s one reason why, after I converted, it was hard work learning to pray (I talk about how I did find my way into it in Arriving At Amen), because I’d been thinking about God, not with God. What a lot of this felt like was the same kind of delightful puzzling I did freshman year in my linear algebra theory class, where I’d be reading over my problem sets and then just lie back on my bed and mentally float matrices above me, and move them around in a playful way, until I suddenly noticed I had a way to prove the theorem I was supposed to write up. Religious reading and arguments had the same fiddly feel, once I got in deep enough.

At what point did that change for you? I know there are some spiritual experiences that can be very stop-and-start, but was there ever a moment where you went from “I’m really thinking a lot about this” to “Hm, I think I might have become a Christian”?

To be honest, it only really moved past being an intellectual thing after I decided to convert. But your “Hm, I think I might have become a Christian” idea is pretty close to what was happening. Here’s the weird experience I had:

I was back up at my alma mater for an alumni debate, and, even thought the topic wasn’t about religion, I had such a strong feeling during the debate that I belonged with the Catholics. It felt like, if you walked into the room, and didn’t even know religion was a category, but were just trying to do cluster analysis based on the speeches (and the values/aesthetics therein), you would obviously come up with some natural groupings, and one would be all the Catholics, the Orthodox Christians, and me.

I kind of just wanted to put a pin in that thought, and come back to it when I wasn’t in the middle of a debate, but it kept niggling at me. After the debate, we have toasting, where we pass a cup around and offer serious and silly toasts, and I just had the thought kind of come into my head, “I could toast the Nicene creed and just convert now.” And it felt like an alien thought! I hadn’t been looking for an opportunity to convert – I still didn’t actually believe in God!

So I didn’t (I have no idea what I did toast, I was kind of shaken), but the whole experience made me feel like I needed to work harder on resolving whatever was going on. Then, three months later, I came up for another alum debate, and pretty much the whole thing happened again. That’s when I skipped toasting, grabbed a Lutheran friend in the debate group, and said, “Look, whenever I come up for these, I’m having the impulse to convert” and we had the conversation that ended in me actually changing sides.

HOW VERY INEFFABLE! There is, I think, a certain point in most conversion processes when your internal orientation of the heart shifts. Up until (and after!) that point, you can engage in research and question and debate, but there’s often a moment where you sort of think, okay, do I feel like I belong in this camp, regardless of whether or not I’m 100% certain all the time, and you sort of…find yourself pledging an allegiance!

It’s funny that you mention being shaken by it, because I think it’s easy to think of conversion as being something that’s very affirming or at least very intentional. But sometimes it can surprise and unsettle us! How did your conversation with your Lutheran friend go? Did you find yourself primarily excited afterwards? Anxious? Doubtful? Peaceful?

My friend and I wound up having a big conversation about all the questions that were pulling at me from both sides. Basically, I thought atheism was patchy and incomplete, but said nothing untrue (the parsimonious option), but Catholicism was internally consistent and answered questions for me that atheism couldn’t, but wasn’t clearly trustworthy.

The big question I was worried atheism wasn’t going to handle was how I had access to moral law. If eyes respond to light, ears to sound, etc, what is it that conscience responds to? I didn’t think the answer was “nothing in particular” or “cultural norms, which are themselves arbitrary” or something like that. I’d been a moral realist for a long time, thinking of it as being something like math: transcendent, true, beautiful. And no one really goes after mathematicians, demanding they explain how they come to know math! (But math is much more obviously extractable from the physical world that ethics are).

So I kept going round and round the tensions with my Lutheran friend, until he told me to stop summarizing the answers I’d discarded and to try to think about what the answer might be – to think something new, instead of continuing to pick over older ideas.

And that’s when I blurted out, “I don’t know, I guess Morality just loves me or something.”

And that was pretty much the answer I stuck with (though there was a fair amount of pausing and reexamination, because, as I told my friend “Just because I say something doesn’t mean it’s true”). I didn’t see how I managed to reach something transcendent, so the movement had to be coming from the other side. And that meant I wasn’t just talking about morality as some kind of big, floating rulebook, but as an agent, and one that offered itself to me.

What it felt like was a lot like when I was working on a proof or a computer program, and there’s a bit before I know what the solution is that I know I have the shape of the solution (and I’ll get the details as I write it). That kind on falling-into-placeness, plus a kind of joy/grace that was different from my usual enjoyment of a puzzle.

So, naturally, once I felt relatively settled on my flip, we prayed Night Office together and then danced around to Mumford and Sons.

Well, of course.

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