"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, March 25, 2018

From Islam to Christ by Derya Little, Part 2

Part 1 of my posts on Derya Little’s From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God, can be found here.  I had gone through her conversion from Islam to atheism, but her spiritual development continued..

The conversion from atheist to Christianity happened several years later when in University.  It started by getting a job tutoring Turkish to an American woman who had moved to Turkey with her family.  As it happened, Therese and her family lived only a few streets down the block from her apartment.  She recalls walking in for the first time:

As far as I could see from the front door, the only thing one would not find in a typical Turkish household was the framed cross-stitched work, right across from the entrance.  It appeared to be a verse from the New Testament:

And there is no salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  Acts 4:12  

As a now “militant atheist” for quite a number of years, the quote caught her attention and now could place Therese into a context, though she didn’t really know what the quote meant, but she could tell it had a religious context.  As a twenty-something who had “figured out the secrets of the universe…by reading about the cosmos and the theory of evolution” she decided that through their interactions she would bring Therese over to the atheist side.  But Therese was more than an intellectual match for her.

Since I was an atheist, and I had no qualms about spreading my own "faith", I was the one who brought up the subject of religion with Therese.  The Lord knew I needed a woman who was as intellectual and stubborn as I was.  We didn't have the tentative and gentle relationship of two women.  If someone had observed one of our heated discussions, he would have thought of two grouchy rams fighting with their horns, neither of them willing to yield.  In many ways these discussions were refreshing.  Over the years, I had surrounded myself with people who thought and believed what I thought and believed.  We enjoyed making fun of Islam and Muslims and reading about evolution and quantum physics.  There's nothing like being smarter than everyone else.  Thankfully God knows me better than I know myself, and He sent me someone who would not hesitate to put me in my place.  

Therese was not your run-of-the mill Christian who just listens in church.  She knew her faith and was a strong evangelist.  So the college student atheist who thought she knew it all came in direct debate with someone who was as sharp and contentious as she was. 

The major difference of opinion between Therese and me boiled down to what we believed in regard to human nature.  I believed that people are inherently good and that there is no such thing as sin.  People act the way they do because of the way they were raised or because of society's unjust treatment and expectations of them.  If people were freed from unnecessary rules and laws, we would all live in peace and harmony, I thought.  All the expectations of living together as social beings and the supposed wisdom of generations put undue pressure on otherwise good people and made them go astray.  Add income inequality and poverty, and there was the recipe for crime and war.  The only solution was to remove all this baggage.  It would take some time and effort to eliminate all traces of organized religion, government, and capitalism, but I was hopeful.  

But of course that view couldn’t explain real human nature.  Why were there murderers?  Why was there divorce? Why are people greedy? 

Christianity, on the other hand, is based on the fact that people are flawed and weak—sinful, in other words.  If they were not, there would be no need for Christ's sacrifice...According to Therese's Christian faith, we sinners need a savior.  

Their debates became heated, became intense.  Slowly Derya began to get some new insight.

Over the years, I had come to worship modern, atheistic science, which claims that there is no proof for an all-powerful, benevolent God, and that the universe is only matter.  Everything in it could be explained with the scientific method, I thought.  There was no room for God in the tightly woven tapestry of material causes and effects.  Not until I met Therese, and began searching for answers to her questions, did I begin to discover the weaknesses in my view of the world.

I came to see that my basic problem was a matter of perception.  Science has demonstrated that everything in the universe is finely tuned, particularly for life to be sustained on earth.  Rather than being the grounds for atheism, could not the discoveries of science point toward a Creator, who values life and therefore designed the conditions for its existence?

Finally there was breakthrough

Day in and day out, Therese and I talked about God and Christ and the necessity for His sacrifice.  I was not ready to hear about Christ at first, but it became harder and harder at first to insist there was no God.  Slowly, the realization dawned that evolution, and God, science and religion, were not mutually exclusive.

There’s more of course.  Derya works through arguments of beauty, from the sanctity of life, from reading Dostoyevsky, and from witnessing the home dynamics and childrearing of Therese’s Christian home, and the home of another Christian family.  I don’t have the space to go through it all, you’ll have to get the book.  Once her heart felt full conversion, she was baptized and volunteered for whatever few Christian events and outings were available in Turkey.  She describes her new being so well, it should be quoted.

With this new resolution in my heart, it was a brand-new day for me even as I went about doing what I ordinarily did.  I experienced a lightness of being, and the things that would normally have caused me anxiety failed to pull me down.  Classes were less stressful, friends less overwhelming, rain less annoying.  The irksome things in daily life shrank as the truly wonderful things expanded.  The world appeared more colorful, just as Knight Rider did the first time I watched it in color instead of in black and white.  Everything around me seemed to have more depth, as if I were watching Knight Rider in 3-D.  Behold, God was making everything new (see Rev 21:5)!

But she had one more conversion to make, and that involved the nature of Christianity.  It started when one of her friends, Anthony, sheepishly told her he had become Roman Catholic.

By this time, Anthony and I had known each other for about four years.  We stayed in regular communication because we had shared responsibilities for the teen camps.  As we talked about skits, improve sessions, and other activities, we became kindred spirits.  This friendship was probably why he was a little hesitant about sharing his life-changing news at the little family restaurant where we had lunch.  After the small talk, Anthony said, “I have something to tell you, but don’t be upset.”

I graciously replied, “As long as you’re not pregnant, I’ll be alright.”

Thankfully he was not pregnant.  He smiled and continued with a mixture of reluctance and hesitation.

“I’ve become Catholic,” he said.

I wished he were pregnant.

I could not believe my ears.  How could he do this?  How dare he side with those who believed in such weird and corrupted things as saints and purgatory?  How could he accept the infallibility of the pope, a mere man?  Also, what was all that idolatrous stuff about Mary?  How could I forget all the awful things the Catholic Church did, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition?  What was happening?

Needless to say I was hysterical.

I have to laugh at how some Protestants regard Catholics.  They really don’t see us as Christian, and yet, between all the commonality between Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, and other Apostolic Christian denominations, it’s clear that Protestants are the ones out of step with the general tenet of Christianity.  Obviously Derya’s reaction of hysteria was formulated from Protestant disparagement that she must have picked up in the “airwaves” around her.  So what does an intelligent girl do when she thinks her friend has made an intellectual error?  She goes on a mission to prove him wrong.  And, of course, that’s the hook, line, and sinker which brings Derya herself into the Catholic Church.  Derya goes on to find Roman Catholicism is not wrong, but as G. K. Chesterton, another famous convert, famously said, “The difficulty of explaining “why I am a Catholic” is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” 

The issue that persuaded Anthony was the lack of a central authority in Protestantism while the central authority within the Catholic Church held faith and morals stable.  He gave Derya a little book from another convert to Catholicism, Mark Shea, By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.  Derya dissected the book.

In his book, Shea points out the flaws in the Protestant idea of sola scriptura, that is, that the Bible is the sole authority for the Christian faith.  He demonstrates that many cherished beliefs of Evangelicals and Catholics alike cannot be found in the Bible.  The three major examples he gives are the sanctity of life as opposed to abortion, the exclusivity of marriage as opposed to polygamy, and the Trinitarian God as opposed to Arianism (an early heresy).  He argues that without Scripture and Tradition, that is, the teachings Jesus gave His apostles, Christians would have insufficient grounds for adopting these doctrines.  Shea explains that Christ Himself established the authority of His apostles over His Church, which He promised to protect to the end of time.

I learned from Shea that the Catholic Church’s teachings on faith and morals have been passed down to us through apostolic succession…To be honest, after reading Shea’s book, I was not suddenly convinced of the Catholic Church’s authority over all Christians, but I found a giant hole in my arguments against all things Catholic.

Giant holes in arguments have a way of opening larger gaps in one’s thinking, especially if you’re intelligent and honest with yourself.  Shea’s book presented answers to “nagging” questions Derya had since her conversion to Christianity. 

For a time, the rug I had swept my questions under was heavy enough to hold them down.  But as my faith matured and as more books on theology were added to my library, it became clear that Protestant teaching was not consistent on practical matters such as divorce and abortion or even on doctrinal matters such as the Trinity.  Also, I had been unable to find a satisfactory and convincing argument in favor of sola scriptura or against the Church’s Magisterium, the teaching authority composed of the pope and other bishops.  It was clear that the answers to my questions were to be found somewhere other than the Protestant churches, if they could be found at all.  I realized that three of the four matters that troubled me most were founding pillars of the Protestant movement; and I feared that if one crumbled, the whole thing would come tumbling down, and there would be nowhere else to go. 

And then Derya started looking inside herself and regarding the nature of her abilities.  Despite being incredibly intelligent, she realized that in no way could she on her own could fathom the fullness of the truth. 

Reading the Bible and relying on my own interpretation as the Holy Spirit led me did not inspire confidence.  Even though I believed I was saved, it was pretty obvious that I was still a sinner.  Especially in important matters of faith, how was it possible that every Christian could make up his own mind, when his intellect was not reliable?  In fact, the various Protestant churches were divided on these matters.  If the indwelling of the Holy Spirit were enough to guide every believer to the truth about Christ, wouldn’t every believer come to the same conclusions about Him?  Either there was something deficient in the Holy Spirit, or there was something deficient in our human nature, and it seemed more likely that the fault was ours and not God’s.  If so, that conclusion necessarily raises a question:  If human nature tends to get in the way of the truth, wouldn’t Christ have known that and provided His Church with something to counteract that tendency?

Besides sola scriptura, Derya explored other issues that she found lacking in the Protestant understanding of Christianity, such as “once saved, always saved,” the lack of necessity to do works when Christ Himself in parable after parable insists on it, the lack of a teaching Magisterium, and the sometimes incompatibility between science and faith while they seemed to complement each other so well in Catholicism.  Interestingly, it was not a long process.  She summarizes: “To be honest, the theological arguments for Catholicism were so strong that it did not take me very long to become convinced that my path was gently but surely leading to Rome.”  Finally, just as her father had been a letdown to her ideals, just as Mohammed, the father figure of Islam, had been a letdown for Islam, the father figure of Protestantism also let her down.

The last straw for me was reading about Martin Luther.  Just as Islam started to lose its appeal as I read the biography of Mohammad with an open mind, the warm glow of Protestantism began to grow dim as I read a biography of Martin Luther published by Penguin Press.  Being afraid of Catholic bias, I chose a title from a secular publisher that was not affiliated with any church.  The biography did not chronicle the life of a man who heroically stood up against the establishment but the life of a man who was used by those with political aspirations.  Luther had problems with some of the clergy and their practices that abused the faithful, but he had an unstable mind and chose the wrong way to deal with the grievances and problems.  Just like Muhammad, he was not a man I wanted to follow.  I was disappointed beyond measure with his life, and I was upset that no Christian had encouraged me to investigate this hero of Protestantism and the champion of sola scriptura.

There is so much more to the book.  I’ve left out most of the personal life.  You get some insight in what it’s like to live in Turkey, to live in a relative moderate form of Islam, and into her family.  Deya describes her life around the Christians who are on the margins of Turkish life, her trip to England for her doctoral studies, meeting what the person who would be her husband, breaking the news to her parents of her conversion, and of her new life with her husband and three children in the United States.  This is a gem of a book.

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