Uneasy grace: Meghan Sullivan shows that we need not see doubt as an impediment to faith.

Author:Sullivan, Meghan

The great crisis of faith for me came--as it does for so many--when I was in college. I arrived at the University of Virginia in 2001 as a bored atheist. I neither believed in God nor particularly cared about religion. I was, however, a very enthusiastic pre-law student, certain that I would major in political science, attend a great law school, and presumably get rich suing people.

Two events early in college changed the course of my life. First, I accidentally took an ethics course in my freshman year. It was love at first argument. I took some more classes, and soon found out that other branches of philosophy were even more interesting. By my sophomore year, I had declared a second major in philosophy. After a particularly awful pre-law summer program, I switched to philosophy as my primary major. Then my academic advisor told me that if I really liked philosophy, I could go to graduate school and eventually make a living writing and teaching it. That settled it. 1 never looked back.

That was the first big decision; then came the second. While in college, I became Catholic. I went to church for the first time on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I didn't have much of an idea what a weekday Catholic Mass entailed, but there was a church near my dorm, and for some reason I had it in my head that since it was the anniversary of the attacks, they would do some kind of special memorial. I was feeling very down thinking about all of the senseless death at the World Trade Center, and I wanted to talk to someone with moral gravitas about it. Church seemed liked a place where this would happen.

So I went to Mass, and it was very much an ordinary weekday Mass--no speeches, or 9/11 memorials, or anything. Instead it was me, the priest, four old ladies, one short reading, a lot of prayers I didn't understand, and a Communion that I happily had the inner wherewithal not to participate in. When I left, I remember thinking, "Well, that wasn't what I expected." But something about the experience felt absolutely right. I started going back during the week. Then I started going on Sundays. I began to pray. During my third year of college, I was received into the Church. At each step it felt exactly right--like God was leading me, like I could trust the people sharing the faith with me, like worshipping God was something I was meant to do.

At the time, the decisions to become a philosopher and to become Catholic had absolutely nothing to do with each other, other than the fact that they were major life decisions I was making behind my parents' backs. But as time passed, the two parts of my life--the philosophical part and the faith part--began to conflict. While I was in the process of joining the Church, I was very secretive about my Catholicism. I was a philosopher, to be sure, and I loved to argue. But I was very worried about having to defend my newfound faith to others.

And you have to admit, there are some hard questions for Christianity. You really believe that there is a being in heaven who knows all of our innermost thoughts and sees the future? You think his son (who happens also to be him) came to earth, turned water into wine, died, and then came back from the dead--and somehow his death and coming back is centrally important to repairing all of the evils in the world? If you take a step back, some of this sounds a little crazy. It gets much worse when you consider the problem of evil: If God really exists, and he is really all powerful, and really morally perfect, then why do so many horrible, senseless things happen? The magnitude of evil in the world seems like excellent evidence against God's existence. Matters get still more difficult when you add in some of the more striking Catholic elements of the Christian faith--transubstantiation, Mariology, papal infallibility ... Faith just did not seem philosophically respectable to me. So I treated it like my bad Sunday habit and worried that, when it came to what mattered most in my life, I was in fact a very unreasonable person.

I think this was the wrong conclusion to...

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