Reason, Conversion, and Plausibility

It is an odd thing to explain to other Christians why one moves from one theological tradition to another, since you know (or will eventually discover) that the reasons that seemed so compelling to you seem less than adequate to others. I believe that the reason for this is that each of us approaches these sorts of questions with a plausibility structure, about which we rarely reflect.

What do I mean by a “plausibility structure”? I mean by this those beliefs that we virtually never question but nevertheless help us to assess other beliefs that we are asked by others to entertain. That is, before we look at any controversial or contested issue – such as in politics, religion, ethics, etc. – we already have in our minds a bunch of other beliefs that we consider “obvious,” and it is those other beliefs that constitute our plausibility structure.

Consider this example:

Suppose you grow up in a family of committed atheists. Your parents tell you that God is a fairy tale and that people who believe in God are deluded. They teach you that all that exists is the material universe, and that things like souls, moral properties, and angels are pure fictions invented by weak-minded, pre-scientific, religious folks in primitive cultures. In fact, your parents send you to private primary and secondary schools committed to the inculcation and proliferation of atheist philosophy.

After graduating from the “Richard Dawkins College Preparatory School for the Gifted Who Don’t Believe in a Giver,” you go to college and while there you take a philosophy class taught by a professor who is a strong Christian believer. You soon learn that he believes in all the things that your parents and teachers claim are fictions. But according to what your parents and teachers taught you, such a professor is not supposed to exist. How do you account for this?

Well, given your atheistic plausibility structure, nurtured and honed in both home and school, you can speculate about your professor’s inner life in a variety of ways. You can, for example, maintain that, though your professor is obviously intelligent and well educated, he is deluded, uses religion as a crutch, or really does not believe it in his heart of hearts. It never occurs to you that perhaps your atheism should be doubted or, God forbid, abandoned.

And even when your professor offers you an argument for God’s existence or against materialism that some of your classmates find plausible, you reject it out of hand since you already know that atheism and materialism are true and that these other classmates, if they are not stupid, probably suffer from at least one of the mental vices from which you think your professor may suffer.

I think something like this goes on in the minds of those of us who are challenged when we hear of a friend, family member, or famous person moving from one Christian tradition to another. We tend to try to account for the change by appealing to something sub-rational or what we believe is tangential or inauthentic to a proper conversion. In my case, the theories for my reversion to Catholicism are plentiful, growing, and inconsistent with each other, even though they have been offered by their authors in reviews of my small memoir, Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.

One popular Reformed Baptist online personality claims I was never really a Protestant, since I was never the sort of Protestant he is.  On the other hand, a Calvin College philosophy professor  claims I never “really” became Catholic, since I am not the sort of Catholic he would become if he chose to become Catholic. This same professor says my reversion was overly rationalistic, since I had not consulted his favorite Catholic literary figures.

On the other hand, an Evangelical writer, noting my roots in the Charismatic movement, opines that my reversion was not rational enough, since it seems to be the result of a deep spiritual yearning. And just this past November, a former professor of mine told me in private conversation that he was upset that I had returned to the Catholic Church while in the middle of my service as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), arguing that my public reversion could have harmed ETS irreparably. Because it was a matter of conscience that forced me into the confessional earlier than I had planned (My nephew had asked me to be his Confirmation sponsor), I was tempted to respond like the founder of his denomination did at the Diet of Worms, “There I stood, I could do no other.”

It’s not news that each of us approaches theological questions differently. But we rarely consider the possibility that the theological conclusions we draw, and the judgments we make, are shaped significantly by our plausibility structures. For this reason, we often see in others’ conversions what we expect to see, as the above catalog of responses shows.

But for the convert, the reverse is the case. He often sees in his new tradition something he had not expected to see before he began to entertain it as a live option. And this is often the result of the convert undergoing a change in his plausibility structure, which usually happens slowly over time with the convert not fully aware that it is happening. This was the case with me. As a cradle Catholic who had become a committed Evangelical Protestant, I could not have returned to the Church of my youth until Catholicism had again become a live option for me.

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).