Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Philosopher's Conversion

Robert Koons is a contemporary philosopher at the University of Texas. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate in Oklahoma, I remember hearing of Koons; he’s a big name in philosophy. Austin has a stellar reputation for philosophy, due in part to Dr. Koons. The professors at my undergraduate program highly recommended a few of us to look into further study at UT.

He was also a LCMS Lutheran, and apparently devout and pious–a rarity among academics, and almost unheard of among philosophers. A few of my former professors, hoping to nudge me into philosophy, admitted that my confessional Christianity would definitely be a hindrance in many programs. Apparently they were not aware that someone of Koons’ stature shared communion fellowship with me.

But no longer. Koons has converted to Roman Catholicism. Such things seem to be happening more and more often these days. Recently there have been a number of ELCA pastors and academics who have converted to Rome, just as there have been a number of LCMS pastors and laymen (not many from academia, though) who have likewise converted to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of these have received a good amount of press in the blogosphere and elsewhere. There are more that have quietly left their vocations without much fanfare or publicity. The numbers of such conversions are small–around 1% of the 8000-some LCMS pastors in the last five to ten years. There is no mass exodus, by any means.

However, conversion stories sell copies (or garner website hits). It makes good drama. We all know how difficult it is for humans to change. At times we wonder if it is even possible, and have cliches to prove it. So when someone deliberately and actually “changes their spots” we take notice.

But with these conversions to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, the reasons and rationale are not often easy to come by. The detractors often dismiss such conversions as “seduction”–seduction by aesthetics (smells and bells), authority, or history. Those who convert do so for many reasons, and sometimes they are unwilling or unable to discuss it fully.

Here is where Koons may give us some insight. He’s a professional thinker, after all, and has written a 95-page essay on his rationale. To be fair, he calls them “notes” and has published them online–not in a journal. He writes:

The essay began as a set of private notes written as a purely intellectual exercise: an attempt to exorcise my doubts about Lutheranism by putting them to paper and exposing them to critique (both on my part and on that of others). As it turned out, the more I wrote, the more reasons I found for changing my outlook…

One more thing about my notes: they were written with an audience of one (myself) in mind. In writing them, I gave no thought to being diplomatic or irenic. My only point was to try to sort out which of the two traditions was more likely to be the fullest expression of the Gospel. They are deliberately one-sided: there is much that I could have said about the virtues of the Lutheran tradition and the need for the reformation of the 16th century Church not included here.

I’ve not read the full essay, but plan to. The full essay may be found here.

For Rev. Paul McCain’s sake: I cannot say that converting to the Roman Catholic Church is a good thing. In fact, if you find it persuasive please contact me offline and let’s discuss it (and if you’re a member of my congregation, really, really, let’s talk about it!!).

I share this essay with you for what it is: a rare, reasoned account of a man’s conversion–and a brilliant man at that.