Today I’m returning to my series on Carolyn Weber’s spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Oxford, and finding her at a pivotal point in her story of coming to faith.
When last we heard from Weber, she was back home in Canada for a difficult Christmas: breaking things off with her would-be fiancé, who wished that he could share her desire to find faith in God (“Marriage is a trap anyway,” says a woman at the pub where Weber is telling her friends back in Oxford); talking about her growing interest in Christianity to her siblings, her often-absent father, and (most difficult) her mother. As I reflected on last time, and as her friend Rachel observes in the first chapter in this week’s section of the book (“Hilary Term”), “Sometimes I think the good news is almost easier to share with strangers… maybe because so much isn’t on the line, relatively speaking (if you pardon the pun)” (p. 185).
Back in Oxford as classes resume, Weber relates several interesting anecdotes, including a rumination on feminism and Christianity and a couple of telling encounters with a senior scholar who espouses a particularly hard relativism. But “Hilary Term” is where we come to the story of Weber’s conversion.
For many Christian readers, this will be the heart of the memoir. But it’s important to stress that we’ll end today with about 170 pages left to go, suggesting — rightly, I’m sure — that conversion is not a moment, but an extended experience. To get at that idea, let me digress for a few paragraphs…
Last night I sat in on our church’s Inquirers’ class, a chance for those looking to join Salem or just (as one young couple put it) “try us on.” At one point the question came from a couple who were thinking of leaving a Lutheran church to join our Covenant congregation, “Do you become a member when you’re baptized or confirmed?” In the Covenant tradition, membership is a voluntary choice of someone who can profess faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior; in addition to attending a class like the one last night, we expect new members to share their story of coming to faith. (One of the many examples of how our church and its denomination continue to be influenced by Pietism, I should add.)
While for some people that step is no challenge at all, there are others who fear it. Those like me.
Not so much in my case because I hesitate to talk about my faith. (Though that would have been true earlier in my adult life, and I’m sure it describes many devout followers of Jesus Christ who cherish that relationship but aren’t accustomed to displaying it for strangers to see.) No, in my case I hesitated because of an odd kind of spiritual envy: that I don’t have a great conversion story to tell.
No blinding light on the road to Damascus (in my Midwestern case, it would have been Des Moines, I suppose); no children’s choir telling me to “take up and read“; no altar call or Moment of Decision; my heart wasn’t strangely warmed on any evening that I can recall. I was nurtured in the church by devout Christians and can’t remember a single moment of not feeling loved by God and of desiring to love Him back. I dimly see myself as a four- or five-year old, kneeling next to my mother, and praying that Jesus would enter my heart. That’s about it.
And intellectually, I know that that’s not just sufficient, but like any reconciliation of sinner to Lord, a miracle of God’s redeeming grace. And I’ve come to treasure the knowledge that I first encountered Christ by experiencing the love of parents and other family members (those related to me by genetics and those I inherited through my church) honoring the vows they made at my baptism.
But it’s still good to hear what our executive pastor shared last night, reassuring words I’ve heard her say several times: “We don’t remember when we were born, but we know that we’re alive.” Like me, Kay grew up in a Christian home and doesn’t have an epiphany experience to share. She and I don’t remember our new births, but we know that we have new life in Christ.
Seen from that perspective, conversion is more of a process than a moment: the life-long turning from love of sin to love of God, bound up with the transformation of all that we are into all that we’re meant to be.
Then at the same time, it’s still specially inspiring to hear the testimony of those like Carolyn Weber who have more dramatic stories to tell, stories of being surprised by God (in Oxford or elsewhere).
I don’t want to spoil everything in this part of the book, so some of you may wish to stop reading now and simply enjoy the entire story in its proper context.
But I’ll close with Weber’s luminous description of her conversion, after first doing a bit to frame it.
As I’ve noted before, there are clear echoes of C.S. Lewis in this book, starting with a title that evokes Lewis’ own memoir, Surprised by Joy. The echo becomes much clearer on this leg of Weber’s journey, as the chapter immediately before the description of her conversion experience finds her attending a discussion of The Screwtape Letters at a meeting of the C.S. Lewis Society. (First she gets some help from a very different kind of senior scholar than the moral relativist in explaining why a “dead white guy” like Lewis remains relevant.) Appropriate to Lewis’ life and thought, the speaker that night emphasized that Christians, as “recipients of grace… have much to be joyful about” (p. 247). “Dare I believe in the joy?”, wondered the not-quite-yet-converted Weber.
And lest the story become entirely one of personal conversion, Weber also experiences the joy of Christian fellowship in the aftermath of the talk:
When I’d first arrived I had felt like Eeyore in a roomful of Tiggers. No one seemed to notice the dark cloud of judgment raining over my head, or if they did, they did not give it any notice or gravity. Slowly it dissipated and lifted. To my surprise the ambience among such soulful conversation felt, well, merry. People embraced each other warmly and welcomed any hesitant newcomers into their circles with a hand on an arm, or with a strategic cup of tea or glass of sherry. In addition to lecture format, discussion was encouraged in small groups. Eventually, in spite of my prejudices again (believe it or not) white men and those whom I believed must be naive social recluses, I was enjoying myself, stimulated intellectually and spiritually, and, most of all, in community. (pp. 249-50)
It’s a nice snapshot of the Church outside of a church. And earlier Weber notes that it’s a surprisingly diverse group: “…visiting scholars from as far away as Japan, missionaries from Africa to Iceland, a group of girls from a school established for the poor in Haiti, a conference of pastors from Australia, two very prominent U.S. politicians, the usual Lewis pilgrims (largely Americans), and then, finally, handfuls of students as curious as I” (p. 246).
But on to Weber’s conversion experience, which is almost totally unlike Lewis’. To be sure, both converted in Oxford, but Lewis remembered himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England,” thankful in retrospect for the “Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms” (Surprised by Joy, p. 221). Weber’s conversion does not happen alone on her knees, feeling worn down into intellectual agreement. Instead, it happens on an unusually reflective morning run that begins and ends with Christ Church in early spring, “its stone-walled majesty wearing a cloak of greenery.” After Lewis’ story comes to mind once again, she turns a corner (really) and… Well, I’ll let her tell it:
Just then I broke around the corner and was almost blinded by a final field ablaze in frost-defying flowers of every color. Phoenixlike, Christ Church rose up from the floral flames, and behind her lay the gate.
The last stretch.
It was then that I began to breathe more deeply.
To breathe Him in, and to breathe me out.
And then, I began, ever so slowly, to transform.
I did not have to carry everything on my shoulders. I did not have to be everything to everyone. I did not have to know all the answers. Could it be that sometimes glorifying God involves negatives?
My legs ached now, carrying me almost on autopilot to the end of the path. Ahead a flock of small birds pecked among the gravel. They flew up as handfuls of confetti as I ran along, settling back to their meal after I passed. Everything scatters from us but will come back, I thought. We are connected to everything, so the Fall affected everything. In a restored and truly brave new world, at the wiping away of tears and the removal of fear, the thaw will not trick, the birds will not flee, I will not run. I get it. I get it. I get all the old clichés. The lion will lie down with the lamb. (pp. 259-60)
Amen. Next time we’ll wrap up Surprised by Oxford with Weber’s post-conversion experiences.