From Atheism to Declaring Spiritual Warfare

An Interview with Dr. Paul Thigpen

I recently had the delight of hearing from world-renowned Catholic theologian Dr. Paul Thigpen. In what follows, you will be inspired by his life journey (which includes forays from the desolation of atheism into his home in Catholicism).

1) What role does faith play in your life?

I was raised Presbyterian, and in my grade-school years, my faith was so important to me that I wanted to become an ordained minister. But when I was twelve, through a series of intellectual influences, I became an atheist. I remained without faith for six years, but after my reconversion to Jesus Christ, my faith became all-important to me again. I earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in religion, and I was ordained as an associate pastor in a non-denominational congregation. All forty-nine of the books I’ve published have been focused on matters of faith. After I became Catholic nearly twenty-five years ago, even though I can no longer serve as a pastor, I’ve been deeply engaged in ministry of various sorts in Catholic parishes, colleges, and other settings. In short, the Lord is my life. I remember what it was like to be without faith, and I can’t imagine ever going back to a life without Christian faith, hope, and love.

2) How did you come to the Catholic faith?

My first conversion (at the age of eighteen) was from atheism back to Christian faith, and a number of factors played a role: intellectual growth that allowed me to understand more fully the relationship of human reason and divine revelation; close friends who modeled for me lives of deep devotion, charity, and joy; experiments in prayer through which God showed himself to be real; and encounters with demonic powers that shattered my tidy materialistic worldview, which had excluded even the possibility of such realities.

My second conversion, to the Catholic faith, was largely spurred by three intellectually challenging academic degrees that plunged me deeply into Church history. As with so many other converts I know, our lives demonstrated Cardinal John Henry Newman’s dictum: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” At the same time, I found an intellectual depth and richness in Catholic thought and experience for which I had hungered, and I became acquainted with Catholics whose faith and example transformed my notions of what it means to be Christian. In the end, I came to realize that as I had been seeking the Truth, Truth himself had been seeking me, and he invited me to embrace his Church. Anyone interested in in more details of my conversion testimony can find it in “His Open Arms Welcomed Me,” the first chapter of Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic, edited by Patrick Madrid.

 

3) What have been your most fulfilling ministries over the years?

As much as I enjoy writing, teaching, and public speaking about all things Catholic, I find most satisfying the one-on-one ministry that allows me to fight in the spiritual trenches: to go deep with people who are seeking, struggling, or hurting. I’m not a counselor; I’ve never been trained for that role. And I’m certainly not a spiritual director. But people come to me almost daily in my work on the staff of a large and lively parish to talk about their lives, their struggles, their pain, their questions, and sometimes their joys and triumphs as well. They allow me the high privilege of listening to them, sharing their burdens, and praying with them. And if it seems right for their situation, I point them toward a priest or counselor for the kind of help that only priests and trained counselors can give. What could be more deeply satisfying than that?

4) Why is the Spiritual Warfare Bible, for which you provided extensive commentary, particularly needed in an era such as this?

As I wrote in the opening words of my Manual for Spiritual Warfare (TAN Books, 2014): “Like it or not, you are at war. … It’s a spiritual war with crucial consequences in your everyday life. And the outcome of that war will determine your eternal destiny.” This battle has been raging since the beginning of human history. But we need only read the daily news headlines, or see up close the spiritual, psychological, moral, and social wreckage of our day, to realize that books such as the Spiritual Warfare Bible are desperately needed in our time.

5) What is your favorite scriptural passage, and why?

So many favorites, but here’s one of them: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Despite my failures, which are many, I cling to that promise.

6) In the midst of challenging times faced by humanity around the globe, how can disciples of Jesus Christ find joy in following him?

My first book for adults was actually about this subject, called A Reason for Joy (NavPress, 1988). So much could be said. But the main point of that book is this: If we pursue joy, we’ll never find it. Joy is the consequence of living close to the One who loves us beyond all telling. So if we want to find joy, we must go looking for the Lord, in whose “presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

7) Do you have any parting words for your readers?

Those who read and think deeply about spiritual warfare are often tempted to anxiety and fear. I would simply remind them that we must place all our trust in God. As Saint John told us so long ago: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

***

I thank Dr. Thigpen for sharing his wise insights with us. On a personal note, having received a copy of the Spiritual Warfare Bible, I encourage you to acquire your own copy, particularly in light of these challenging times in society. Of course, you are encouraged to read Dr. Thigpen’s numerous other titles, which you can find here.

Justin McClain

By

Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their children live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

MENU