Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion

by Abigail Rine Favale
Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2018.
220 pp, $20.00, ISBN: 9781532605017.

A review essay by Kendra Weddle

Into the Deep Book CoverFew joys compare to those of a teacher seeing her former undergraduate student achieve a Ph.D. in a related field, take an academic post, and publish a book with prose so beautiful the imagery, page after page, far surpasses most memoirs. This is my experience as a former professor of Dr. Abigail Rine Favale, the director of the William Penn Honors Program at George Fox University, in Newberg, Oregon. As a young and newly emerging feminist, she took one of my classes when I was an assistant professor of religion at George Fox University, the lone female in an otherwise male department.

In some ways, Favale and I shared a heady and emotionally charged free-fall into the depths of feminism. As a young student, she was waking up to oppression against women, especially as it was expressed through evangelical Christian culture. As her teacher, I was experiencing anti-feminist backlash by students and feeling acutely my outsider status as the new feminist faculty member. In my first semester at George Fox, while teaching a feminist biblical hermeneutics class for the first time, Favale’s feminist journey intersected with mine.

Later, when Favale went abroad to study feminist philosophy, I was thrilled. I had played a small part in lighting her feminist fire. Through Facebook and mutual friends, I’ve watched her career from afar, since I am no longer at George Fox University. Yet, what she reveals in her engaging memoir came as a surprise.

Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion reveals the intensely felt and clearly articulated path of one woman’s experience: a beginning born of evangelical Protestant roots, a ten-year period of questioning—her foray into feminism and a subsequent faith crisis—and her arrival now, in her mid-thirties, a Catholic who stakes her conversion on rejecting previous feminist convictions and critiquing Protestantism. The book is arranged in three parts and based on Peter’s “conversion” in Luke 5—The Shallows, The Storm, and Into the Deep. Favale explores the contours of her faith through exquisite sketches that create a special space where reader and author can place the everyday world on hold and relish the goodness and holiness of life lived in awareness of the presence of God. This is a deeply personal narrative, rich in detail, both theological and descriptive, and a testament to the power of sacramental life.

Framing her experience as an echo of the church father Augustine, Favale traces her testimony through a “somewhat lusty adolescence,” where she says she accepted the “distortion” of “a hodgepodge” of good and evil consisting of a combination of postmodernism, Christianity, and feminism (p. 68). In their late twenties, she and Augustine both read Plato, resulting for Augustine in a call to celibacy, whereas Favale tuned in more fully to her life as a wife and mother. By their late twenties, each was poised to move more fully toward the church and then, at the age of thirty-one, both fully embraced their “wrenching inner conversions” (p. 68). This was, for Favale, during her second year of nesting in Catholicism, and she says it “was a kind of enlightenment, yes, but not a slow, painless dawn; rather, intermittent flares so bright and sudden they obliterated the way I used to see” (p. 70).

In her descriptions of deepening convictions, Favale carefully explores many key elements of her newfound faith: the Mass, the liturgical calendar, the role of Mary and the saints, the church as the bride of Christ, the place of absolution. In true academic style, she adeptly teaches as she weaves her narrative. To read her book is to feel the pulse of the church, to be drawn to its sacramental center.

One of the most interesting facets of Favale’s conversion is her rejection of feminism. She describes it this way: “When I finally encountered the totality of the Christian sacramental cosmos, and pitched my tent under its sacred canopy, my feminist angst faded away—as did my need for feminism itself” (p. 122). Favale is not the first feminist to turn her back on the movement that made her academic life possible. In 1999, Rosaria Butterfield, then a professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University, had a conversion experience that resulted in her rejection of feminism. Her memoir, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Faith (reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott here), surely was in Favale’s mind when she titled her book, and she probably drew inspiration from Butterfield as a sister academic who subsequently embraced a faith worldview, one she, also, saw to be at odds with her prior feminist identity.

Like Butterfield, not only does Favale reject feminism, she embraces the most conservative aspects of Catholicism. From veiling herself to following prohibitions against artificial birth control to believing her husband should be the head of their household, Favale carefully traces her reasoning for each. A scholar at heart, she is a gifted apostle—ironically so, since, given her new worldview about women, she can never be one.

Favale’s evangelistic zeal, however, blinds her to a glaring omission. Favale, Butterfield, and other feminists-turned-anti-feminists are in positions to make their decisions only because of the feminist movement. Favale’s “spiritual odyssey” was made possible because of women before her who hewed the hitherto hidden path she now walks with ease. Women—feminists—spent their lives breaking down barriers so Favale could go to college and graduate school, so she could use her time, ability, and skills to think deeply. They sacrificed having families and children so she would have options, choices she has freely made.

This privilege (something all academics possess) can sometimes be forgotten, especially when one is so convinced of her or his experiences that they believe they should be embraced by all. At points in Favale’s narrative, this forgetfulness rises to the surface, especially when she constructs her new worldview as against Protestantism and feminism. She writes, for example, “I see the problem of authority as the Achilles heel of Protestantism” (p. 104) and “perhaps that was part of it, a desire to live a fully Catholic life, to step off the pick-and-choose Protestant carousel” (p. 140). Or, maybe even more disturbing, when she shares a recurring dream where she views those outside her faith as on the “yawning edge” of the abyss (p. 172).

While her assessment of Protestantism is not fairly drawn, her denigration of feminism contains more serious ramifications. She writes, for example, “that modern American feminism, at its core, valorizes the masculine, affirming the key virtues of autonomy, success, and power” (p. 116). Of course there are some feminists who are open to such a critique, but to reject the movement as a whole reveals, unfortunately, Favale’s willingness to paint an entire movement with one broad stroke. More pointedly, however, without courageous voices speaking truth to power—voices feminism has birthed—ugly realities within her newfound faith would go unchallenged and continue to be ignored, veiled behind patriarchal hierarchies. Sexual violence at the hands of priests, bishops, and other authorities and promotions and reassignments of predators all stem, in part, from silencing minority voices, including, especially, women’s voices. Mary Daly’s diagnosis that “if God is male, male is God” continues to confront any church tradition failing to take seriously the problem of patriarchal power, a problem Favale does not address in her rejection of feminism.

One of the difficulties of writing a memoir is to avoid revising past events in light of who we are becoming. How do we step out of our present way of seeing the world to remember how we experienced it earlier? For me, I am much more adept in teaching my feminist hermeneutics course now, after having taught for several years, whereas, when Favale took my class, it was my very first time. From my vantage point, Favale’s version of the class and her assessment of my theological and hermeneutical methods bear no resemblance to mine.

Feminist Nelle Morton coined the phrase, “hearing to speech.” For her, this idea captured a guiding principle of the need for listeners to create silent space where another gains confidence to speak, learning to trust that she has something worth saying. While I disagree with many of Favale’s perspectives, Morton is right that the phenomenon of women hearing and being heard into speech is, in her words, “powerfully spiritual,” and this can be true whether one is hearing or being heard. We can find much to learn even from diverging perspectives. It is in this spirit that readers might want to approach this moving memoir.

While my joy as Favale’s former professor is mitigated by her zeal to construct her Catholic conversion in opposition to earlier identities as a Protestant feminist, I still want to rejoice in her journey. As a professor working in the field of religious studies and as a person of faith who has been nourished by Roman Catholic resources, I trust this tradition—one among many—to contain effective tools to assist people in reconnecting with God. Conservative Roman Catholicism is serving that role for Favale at this point in her “spiritual odyssey.” She was listened into speaking and subsequently found her voice. In that, I will celebrate with gladness.

 

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