On the Road to Rome, With Twists and Turns
Studies show the number of Americans who switch religious affiliation more than once is on the rise.
BY STEPHEN BEALE
| Posted 4/3/13 at 10:09 AM
An avowed atheist, Devin Rose entertained thoughts of suicide before turning to God.
Rose was out of options in his battle against severe social anxiety and depression. He saw a therapist. He tried breathing exercises. He blocked out negative thoughts. None of it worked.
“When I hit the low point in college and was considering suicide, I thought of God because I had good Christian friends who showed me through their lives that they had hope and joy — two virtues I was completely missing,” Rose said. “So God presented himself to me as an alternative, even though it seemed like a long shot that he was real.”
Rose’s search for a virtuous life of faith would lead to Catholicism. But, in retrospect, the road to Rome had an unexpected detour through a Baptist church.
Today, Rose speaks to two conversions: from atheism to Christianity and from Protestantism to Catholicism. His story is emblematic of a small-but-perhaps-growing group of Catholics: those who have had more than one conversion experience.
The data is limited, but what is available hints that Americans repeatedly change their religious affiliation. A 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report offered a narrow window into the trend: Among those who started out with no religious affiliation — a catch-all encompassing atheists and non-practicing believers — 21% had made three or more religious changes.
Such findings are echoed in the 2008-2009 "U.S. Congregational Life Survey" by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., which found that 22% of practicing Catholics, Protestants, other Christians and Jews switch faith communities at least once. “Serial switching” — the phenomenon of those who change more than once — is on the rise, according to the companion report, "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations."
“Switching has become more common in the United States, with larger numbers of people engaging in ‘serial switching’ — participation in three or more different faith communities during adulthood,” write the authors of the "Field Guide."
Catholics who experienced several conversions describe their journeys as earnest searches for the truth guided by the grace of God.
“I can only say that grace tipped the scales. It was not any reasoned argument for God’s existence or intellectual reason. Rather, I felt something from outside of myself moving me toward belief in God, as I continued to pray and read the Scriptures,” Rose said of his initial conversion to Christianity.
He continued searching the Scriptures after being baptized in a Baptist church. One passage led him to question his newfound Protestant worldview: John 17, where Christ prays that all of his followers would be one. Near his church, there was a Presbyterian church, which drove home for Rose the problem of Christian disunity.
He also realized Catholics had seven more books in their Bible than his Protestant one did. “The Holy Spirit would only lead Christians to the same canon, so one of the two groups must not have listened correctly,” Rose said. “This fact led me to dig into the reasons why Protestants had the canon that they did and also whether the Catholic Church had stronger support for its canon.”
Rose’s probe into the authority of Catholicism broadened into a full exploration of its theological claims. Two things won him over: the theology of the body and the lives of the saints. St. Francis of Assisi struck Rose as a saint who had lived his life “radically for Christ,” with extraordinary humility and love, and he was “blown away” by the great faith of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
“These two saints in particular confirmed for me that I needed to seriously investigate the Catholic Church’s claims,” Rose said.
For another Catholic convert, Greta Ernst, the search for a spiritual home led her around the world.
Apart from attendance at a Protestant church that was cut short when her family moved from Boston to New Hampshire, Ernst had little religious formation as a child. As a teenager, she cultivated a roaming interest in other cultures, especially their religious foundations. She studied Sufism, Hinduism, Wicca and Druidism on her own in high school.
“I wanted to travel eventually,” Ernst recalls. “I thought it was a good way to learn about other cultures: to look at their language and religion.”
Her interest in Eastern religion eventually surpassed the others. But her spiritual journey was put on hold while Ernst moved on with the rest of her life, starting a career as a police dispatcher.
Her interest in Eastern spirituality was rekindled when a newspaper ad for a tai chi class caught her eye. Ernst decided to go and was immediately hooked by the calming effect of the ancient martial art. She thought she had found the “piece of the puzzle that was missing” in her life.
At the invitation of the class instructor, Ernst traveled to China to study under a tai chi master. “I felt a great sense of peace there — more than I had ever felt in my entire life,” Ernst said.
After a few years, she went back. “I realized that I was being called to settle into a spiritual path,” Ernst said. That path was Taoism, a Chinese philosophical and religious tradition that has many similarities with Buddhism. (Fittingly, the “Tao” is often translated “way” or “path.”)
Ernst stayed in New Hampshire, becoming a tai chi instructor. Then, a second invitation turned her world upside down again. A friend asked if she would join him at a Stations of the Cross service at a local parish. Ernst, then in her early 40s, reluctantly agreed to accompany him.
At the service, a priest asked everyone there to express to Jesus in silent prayer why they had come. “I said, ‘You know what? I have absolutely no idea why I’m here, but I really hope you’re not offended by my presence,’” Ernst recalls.
She immediately felt a hand resting on her back — but no one was behind her.
That supportive hand gently pushed her to take a step forward: Her friend extended another invitation — to attend RCIA classes with him. Ernst went along, initially viewing the classes as little more than an educational exercise. “I kind of rode with it,” she said.
By the end — and to her great surprise — Ernst was ready to be received into the Church. Now she sees God’s purpose behind her lifelong spiritual wandering. Without Taoism, particularly its emphasis on letting go of anger and hatred towards others, she says she “never could have grasped unconditional love.”
Searching for Identity
Other journeys to the Church have more twists than turns in them. So it was for Steven Nelson, a graphic designer based in Los Angeles, who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. But his was not a simple one-time conversion. Instead, Nelson’s spiritual path was deeply shaped by his relationship with a third faith tradition: Judaism.
Nelson was raised in an evangelical Protestant family with a mother who was of Jewish descent. Her Jewish identity was something she instilled in her children, something that became a point of pride for him, Nelson said. From his earliest years, he recalls church attendance with the “added flavor of the occasional Jewish ritual.”
“I felt that I could identify with Jesus more than most people because I shared in the same ethnic heritage as he,” Nelson said. “I would consider myself a ‘fulfilled Jew,’ rather than a straight-up ‘Christian.’”
As he grew older, however, Nelson’s attachment to his Jewish identity intensified. He abandoned Sundays for observance of the Jewish Sabbath. He sported a yarmulke and the traditional tzitzit undershirt. He recited Hebrew prayers and marked Jewish feasts. He still believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but he rejected the mainstream Christian image of Jesus for not being “Jewish enough.”
“I was a disciple of Rabbi Yeshua Ha’Mashiach, not Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Nelson said, although, at the time, he says that he nonetheless would still have considered himself a Christian. (Ha’Mashiach means ‘the Anointed,’ the Hebrew counterpart to the Greek word christos, or Christ.)
This intensely Jewish blend of Christianity proved untenable. For Nelson, the problem became one of authority: Who had the “final say” on what was and was not “authentic Judaism”? In biblical times, such authority would have rested with the chair of Moses in the Sanhedrin, but nowadays, “every rabbi” has his own answer, Nelson said.
This question led to a second: Which elements of Judaism could he observe while “maintaining fidelity to Christ”?
“This left me in a confusion of sorts. I was looking for a Christianity that was in continuity with my Judaism, but I was getting mixed messages on all sides as to what that should look like,” Nelson said. “Catholicism provided the answer.”
He credits Mary with helping him to make the final step. “As soon as I encountered her in the Catholic Church, I knew I needed to become her child,” said Nelson, who now blogs about her at The Ever Blessed.
He says others can learn from his story, even if their circumstances are different.
“The sincere pursuit of truth, in my experience, seems to land us in places we never expected. This was scary for me because I had an image of a destination in my head that was very particular, and the Catholic Church was far from it,” Nelson said. “I created Christ in my own image, and I wrapped that image in pride. It took ‘denying myself’ and ‘taking up the cross’ to see that I was wrong and to see that the Catholic Church was the house of Truth himself.”
Rose, a software engineer from Austin, Texas, and the author of If Protestantism Is True: The Reformation Meets Rome, says the universal lesson of his conversion is that “reason can help us discover the truth in its fullness.”
“So, wherever you find yourself, whatever you believe, do not be afraid to examine the reasons behind your beliefs,” Rose said. “Test them, read both sides of the argument, and, above all, implore God to help you know him more and more deeply, in spirit and in truth. He will answer that prayer every time.”
Ernst encourages those hoping to learn from her story to be open to the miraculous in their lives. “Jesus still works miracles, and they’re all around us,” Ernst said. “And sometimes it’s us.”
She added, “It’s never too late for anyone.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
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