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Holy Ship of Theseus!

July 29th, 2013by Sean Ater

I do not remember much of my Metaphysics 101 class from my undergraduate days at the University of Dayton. I would describe the class as a giant mind trip in all honesty. One particular mind trip, though, has stuck with me through the years because I think it is a very good analogy for the process of conversion in our Christian life.

The thought experiment is called the Theseus’s Paradox and it goes something like this:

shipTheseus has a ship. Over time Theseus replaces parts of that ship as they wear out or break. The old parts go in the garbage dump and new parts are added. The process goes on and on until each and every part of Theseus’ ship has been replaced. The Question: Is Theseus’ ship the same ship that he had when he began replacing all of the pieces? Or is the real ship the jumble of pieces tossed in the garbage dump? If Theseus does have a brand new ship, when did his new ship stop being his old ship? When the first piece was replaced? When the last piece was replaced? I told you – mind trip!

I do not know if there is a real answer to this, although it may have something to do with the 4th dimension. When I think about this paradox, though, I think that it is a great way to think about our own personal journey of conversion.

Have you ever been asked “Are you born-again?” I know many Protestant brothers and sisters who could tell you exactly when they were “born again” down to the day, the hour, even the pew they were sitting in!

The answer to that question, of course, is that we are born again in Baptism. Paragraph 1213 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls Baptism the “sacrament of regeneration through water and word.” It is through our Baptism that we are “reborn as sons of God.” Yet the same paragraph points out that Baptism is the “gateway to life in the Spirit…and a door which gives access to the other sacraments.” So while we are born-again in Baptism, it is only the gateway – the door – to a journey of lifelong conversion.

While God does work dramatically in people’s lives, no one becomes a saint overnight. We are all like Theseus’s ship. God is slowly replacing the broken pieces of our old lives and replacing them with the new. You might say that in Baptism God gives us all of the new pieces for our Ship, and he is patient enough to give us our entire lives to work on replacing the old.

Sean Ater

Sean Ater is the Director of the Office of the New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He is married with 3 children and a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Milford