Radio talk-show host to tell compelling conversion story
April 18, 2019
A devout evangelical, David Anders set out to prove John Calvin and Martin Luther were right – and ended up Catholic.
Anders, host of the EWTN Radio talk show “Called to Communion,” will describe his spiritual and intellectual journey from his Presbyterian childhood on Monday, Feb. 5, at Spirit Catholic Radio’s annual Celebration Dinner. The $50-per-plate event at Omaha’s Hotel by RL, at 3321 S. 72nd St., opens with a 6 p.m. social hour, followed by dinner and Anders’ program at 7 p.m.
Anders, 47, was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., where he lives with his wife, Jill, and their five children.
The couple met at Tulane University in New Orleans before transferring together to Wheaton (Ill.) College and marrying after getting their bachelor’s degrees in French.
Intending to become a theology professor, Anders received his master’s degree in 1995 from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. His study of the Reformation at the University of Iowa, where he received his doctorate in 2002, led him to become Catholic a year later.
In a phone interview with the Catholic Voice, Anders said he hopes to draw Catholics and non-Catholics closer to Christ through “Called to Communion,” which airs on Spirit Catholic Radio from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays.
“Communion,” he said, refers both to reception of Christ’s sacraments and “fellowship with his body, the church.” In addressing non-Catholic listeners, he said, the show asks, “If you’re not a Catholic, why aren’t you in full communion with the Catholic Church? Tell us why.”
Anders answers listeners’ questions “in as deep a context as I can, given my talent and given the time we have on the show,” he said. “I didn’t just read these doctrines in the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) and believe them. I researched them down through history.”
In his interview with the Voice, Anders responded to questions about some key developments along his intellectual and spiritual journey.
Q. Why did you stop practicing your Protestant faith in high school? Were you content with this decision? What led you back to the faith in college?
I grew up in a devout evangelical Christian family, and so I intellectually believed the content of the Christian faith as it had been presented to me. But my experience of the faith was, I’d say, morally and spiritually anemic. You pray to invite Christ into your heart and so forth. You learn the intellectual content of the Christian faith and how we’re not saved by our works or by the quality of our moral life, but by trusting in Christ.
I went to a boarding school in a very secular, areligious kind of environment, and there just wasn’t enough moral, spiritual teeth in my experience of a very gnostic, dualistic, evangelical Protestantism. So I did what a lot of students do. I went after Eddie Van Halen, the Grateful Dead, and chased girls and did what most high school people do. It was never a conscious decision to not be Christian. It was just that my life became occupied with worldly matters.
But when I got to college and I saw everybody going off the ledge into hedonism, it was sort of like, “Well, I’ve been there and done that. Isn’t there more to life than this?” I did not know how to connect what I was experiencing to my Christian faith, but I figured that there had to be a connection. And I remember thinking that if God exists and I believe that he does, somehow or another it ought to be relevant to my daily life and it hadn’t been for quite some time.
The “Aha!” moment was kind of just waking up out of a fog one day and realizing that I had treated God like an item in a physics textbook – that God had been intellectually present in the background of my thinking but was existentially absent, and that somehow or another all of the angst and anxiety and loneliness and depression that young people feel, especially in the modern age, needed to be solved somehow in reference to God. Because, otherwise, life had no point.
I met my wife in the second semester of my freshman year in a French class. Interestingly, she also had kind of a tumultuous childhood, more tumultuous than me by far. I also saw pretty quickly that the depths of her emotional need were greater than mine and that I was not capable as a mere man of meeting the profound longing that she had for significance and that if anybody could meet it, the only person that could meet it would be God. I began to talk to her about the Christian faith, though I myself knew next to nothing. And somehow or another, we got on the same path and she and I started worshiping together at a local Presbyterian church and she kind of bought it.
Q. You have commented that your Protestantism led you to an intellectual view of the Christian faith and Christian duty. How has your conversion to Catholicism modified that?
I live between my own ears, right? And as a Protestant, I could stay between my own ears. What the abstract dogma of Catholicism tells me is that I cannot live in the abstract – that the drama of redemption is lived in the realm of human action. And that means that I’ve got to get down into the nitty-gritty of life. And I’ve got to love my wife and I have to love my children and I have to love my neighbor. And that I have to live through suffering and problems and make a living. And I’ve obtained salvation through my primary vocation, which is marriage. And marriage is a very fleshy, dirty human thing. You’ve got kids puking on you and dogs pooing on your floor. That’s where salvation comes. And what Catholicism does is it takes all that stuff and it baptizes it with grace. And it makes the mundane into the sublime.
Q. What was your attitude toward Catholics and Catholicism, especially as you started studying Scripture in seminary? How did this come into play as you began to see the truth of the Catholic faith later in graduate school?
The theology at Wheaton of course was anti-Catholic. If you spoke to the faculty personally about their attitudes towards Catholics, they were not vitriolic about Catholicism. But at seminary, I was as consistently, thoroughly and pervasively anti-Catholic as you could possibly imagine.
I conceived of the epitome of theology as the work of, say, John Calvin and thought that the ability to take apart Catholicism, to dismantle it and to revile it, was probably the apogee of the theological science. If for Thomas Aquinas the question was, “What is God?” for David Anders, the question was, ‘Why are Catholics wrong?”
So I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation on John Calvin. But what I learned, and it took me years to figure this out, was that our expression of Presbyterian faith in the 20th century was far removed from the Reformed faith of the 16th century in Geneva. When I actually bore into Calvin and began reading him assiduously, I discovered that my own church would have excommunicated him and that he would have returned the favor.
I confronted the awful, awful realization that Luther was an innovator. I was able to piece together Luther’s intellectual pedigree. And I could see how the positions he came to would be intelligible within a really, really narrow theological context – but certainly was not the mind of St. Paul. Certainly not the mind of St. Augustine. Just absolutely not the mind of Irenaeus or Ignatius of Antioch. Or of Clement of Alexandria or Basil or Gregory or Athanasius.
And so over 10 years, I figured out that the Catholic Church had the most profound conception of the human person and the spiritual organism, and the most profound answer to human spiritual need, and that it promised the kind of moral and spiritual transformation that would give my life the meaning that everyone desires. And I had to decide, “Well, am I going to go the way of full-blown nihilism, which is an intellectual possibility, or am I going to make an act of faith?” And if I do, there’s only one coherent act of faith that I could make. And that’s an act of faith in the divine authority of the Catholic Church. There’s no other place to go.
But along the way, my marriage fell apart. It was a bad, bad scene. And I did not come into the church with my wife’s enthusiastic blessing. I went through about a year after graduation when I basically gave up the faith. I mean, I stopped believing.
And God bless her, my wife actually helped push me out of it. I mean, she was mad as a snake at me, to be honest with you. But she also saw where my moral and spiritual energies were being depleted. And she basically said, “David, you’d better go become Catholic. Because if you don’t, you’re going to collapse. You’re going to become nothing.” She nominally came back to the Church when I joined. But she was powerfully converted in her own life in January 2008.
Q. How did your embrace of Catholic theology and apologetics produce positive fruit in the way you live your life?
Well, those are two very different things. I began to practice the faith and encounter Christ in the Eucharist and in the Sacrament of Matrimony and in the Sacrament of Penance. And I began to fit. It made me sane. I believe that the Catholic faith is a very sane religion and it separates the rational from the emotional, contrition from guilt, assurance from presumption. I mean, you can’t practice the Catholic faith and not clear up your head. And so it was just unbelievably beneficial in my psychology, in my moral life, in my marriage.
That’s the theology side. Now, the apologetics side is different. All right? I mean, nobody in the Catholic Church cared that I had become Catholic. I went seven years as a Catholic doing absolutely no apostolate at all. And that’s fine. I’m happy that it went that way.
My apologetics work started really in 2010. So that’s almost seven years after I became Catholic. That appearance on Marcus Grodi’s EWTN show “The Journey Home” (on Feb. 8, 2010) led to more and more engagements, speaking and writing and radio and television. I wasn’t looking for that. And this is now what I do full time.
I mean, I love talking about the faith. I love it more than anything else in the whole world. Every day, I’m so grateful that I get to do it. And it would not happen if I hadn’t moved five miles away from EWTN. And my house itself is five miles from the network. And I did not know it was here when I was growing up.
Q. How did you get the notion that teaching the faith is the highest calling for a Christian? Has your understanding about this evolved?
The reason I got that sense was because my father venerated theologians and apologists. He himself was not a theologian or a philosopher. He was an attorney. But his bookshelf was filled. He had the works of Jonathan Edwards. He had the works of Calvin. All the works of C.S. Lewis, the works of Francis Schaeffer, which didn’t fit very well with the works of C.S. Lewis, but he had them anyway.
But that worldview itself diminishes the significance of ethical, moral responsibility or spirituality. And it’s really heavily into sciences. Has my attitude changed? Has it ever changed. I see the highest calling for a Christian is the counsels of perfection, is chastity, poverty and obedience. That’s the highest calling for a Christian objectively.
Apologetics is something I do to make a living. But it’s not the highest calling in my life. I think contemplative union with God is the highest calling for a Christian.