I have been reading Dr Holly Ordway’s Not God’s Type: an Atheist Academic Lays Down her Arms (Ignatius Press, or Gracewing in the UK). It is always uplifting to read books like this, not in a triumphalist way but because it is a reminder that underneath all the glaring human weaknesses in the Church as an institution, which we all know so well, there are still people out there who are searching for answers to fundamental questions and then finding them in the Church.
Ordway, a professor of English and director of the MA in cultural apologetics at Houston Baptist University in the US, provides a very telling description of the atheist mindset (as opposed to those who drift along in agnostic indifference). There is a kind of fierce pride in telling yourself that you are “the product of blind chance”. The author saw herself, with all her rational self-sufficiency, as “standing on my lonely precipice, able to recognise my identity as a meaningless speck in an uncaring universe”. She notes her sense of superiority to people of faith, her cynicism about the myths they believed in; she even sensed her heart hardening, in her determination to quell any doubts in her dogmatic insistence on atheism.
But, as she explains in this fascinating intellectual and spiritual journey, the doubts were always there in the background. She avoided questions on the nature of personhood or the moral dilemmas raised by abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. A lover of imaginative literature, she instinctively invested it with a transcendent meaning that rationally she did not believe it possessed. She absorbed the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert and John Donne, as well as the writings of Tolkien, CS Lewis and Chesterton, recognising that they moved her in ways she could not rationally account for. When she finally converted, at first to evangelical Christianity, she realised that her imagination had already been “baptised” by the literature she had been reading, even as she rebelled against the possibility of faith.
Her book, which I highly recommend, particularly to those inside the Church who have forgotten why they are there in the first place, as well as to those loitering on the brink of belief but who are held back by the same unwillingness to let go of intellectual vanity, charts her discovery of and assent to the Christian faith – “mere Christianity” – rather than her life as a Catholic today. So I asked Dr Ordway if she planned to write a sequel about her experience within the Church. She told me that “becoming a Catholic is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done and I’ve already seen how being rooted in the fullness of the faith and the sacramental life has deepened my devotional life and given me a groundedness that I never had before”. She thinks it will be a few years before she tackles such a book, although she would love to “help readers to grow in their Catholic faith or encourage people to be reconciled to the Church”.
Thinking of her academic role, I then ask her what “cultural apologetics” means. Ordway explains that “if we know why people believe what they believe, and what false ideas they hold that lead them to reject Christianity, then we can present the Gospel in a way that is more meaningful”. Cultural apologetics also means taking an integrated approach to sharing the truth: “Not just through philosophic arguments and debates but also through literature and the arts, and through personal witness and works of mercy.”
Ordway recognises the serious problems with our western culture, such as widespread acceptance of the evil of abortion; “As apologists, if we just treat the symptoms of cultural disorder but don’t address the root causes, we won’t be very effective. We need to ask: why has atheism become so entrenched in modern culture? What are the false ideas that have taken root in this culture, that are bearing such poisoned fruit?” She adds that “imaginative apologetics – harnessing the imagination to communicate truth” is something she is passionate about. She and her colleagues hope to train a new generation of apologists who will be much more effective in communicating the faith in today’s world where people simply don’t connect with the language of Christianity.
I am interested in how her approach to teaching English literature might have changed since her conversion. Ordway tells me that she has come to “an ever deeper appreciation of the importance of literature and indeed language in general”, adding “When we use our words to speak or show truth, beauty and goodness, we are ‘imitators of Christ’ in a special way.” She finds this profoundly inspiring and humbling. Currently she is working on a book about Tolkien and fantasy literature, focusing on his essay “On Fairy Stories” “where he makes a strong connection between the work of God as the ultimate Author, and our own work as ‘sub-creators’”.
I quote from her book: “After baptism I was the same ‘me’ as before, only becoming more fully myself” and ask her to expand on this. She explains that it does not mean you become an entirely different person: “What I discovered, with great joy, is that there’s a reason Scripture also uses phrases like ‘a refiner’s fire’ to talk about God. To refine something is to remove impurities and flaws and make it more fully what it is. I realised that God was working in me to make me more fully me, as He intended me to be: with my own unique personality, not like anyone else, but purified and made fully beautiful (it will take a long time, of course!”)
I note that Dr Ordway’s book was first published in 2010. She tells me that for the 2014 Ignatius edition she has restructured, revised and polished it, so that it is now nearly twice as long as the original. Now, she says, it has much more about the role of the imagination and literature in her journey of faith: “In particular, I write about how I was influenced by CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, the poet Hopkins and above all by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.” Her favourite chapters, she tells me, are the last three that describe her journey home to the Church.
Ordway emphasises how she continues to be “astonished and filled with joy at the depth and richness of life in the Church”. She has discovered “what a treasure Mary is for the whole Church” and has developed a Marian devotion “which is rather amusing, considering that Mary was one of the reasons I used to give for not becoming Catholic!” Saints, such as St Margaret of Scotland and St Gianna Molla, have become personal friends. She has also come to see “the great gift of the sacrament of Reconciliation and above all the Eucharist”. She attends daily Mass and finds it “tremendously strengthening.”
Ordway’s book is only 184 pages, yet it is packed with themes worth discussing and developing; it is intellectually stimulating as well as a story of the inexplicable workings of grace.