This week I was asked an extremely difficult question, “Would you be a Christian today if you had not been raised one?”
The easy answer is for me to say, “of course, because I have made my faith my own”. But I do not want to give the easy answer and I must say, “I don’t know.” And if I am especially honesty my reply would be, “If I was raised in a secular household probably not.” But that does not falsify Christianity, rather it points to an intellectual honesty within the Christian home I was raised in which is not always present within Christian homes and is seemingly less present within secular an atheist belief structures. I think the best way for me to elaborate on this point is to tell my story; to explain why I am a Christian. Up front anyone who reads this must understand that I am presenting my thoughts in a straight line in reality this process was very messy and took me years to resolve in my own mind (and indeed I am still wrestling with and clarifying my own understanding of God, the Bible, and the ultimate meaning of creation).
To begin with I was raised with a somewhat conflicted notion of Christianity, my household and extended family often ask and ponder deep philosophical concepts for fun (and that’s what it was fun with most of the group enjoying playing Devil’s Advocate rather than hashing out real answers). But this established a curiosity within me for some of life’s deepest questions. Coupled with this my personality type is INTJ- though I don’t put a world of stock in these, they are useful jumping off points and for those who are not familiar with Myers-Briggs think Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I was also being exposed to concepts such as “All truth is God’s truth”, which helped me to understand that God must be a rational God. At the same time I was also in an environment which was heavily influenced by an almost militant anti-intellectual fundamentalism. Here I was slightly confused by the very deep questions of life to which I was just beginning to be exposed and at the same time walled off from much intellectual pursuit of these questions because those teachers I was closest to where not willing to confront these questions with me.
During and after college I would have to say I was going through the motions of Christian practice with little binding me to the faith other than family obligations because in my mind I was confronting the questions which are so often rehearsed about whether one can know truth, how can we believe in the supernatural, how does suffering persist, life after death, etc. etc. etc.. My college major was American history and I intended to focus on the Revolutionary period and the early Republic. But as I read more into the subject I became much more engrossed with American religious history. I found it intriguing to read about genuine Christian experience, wacky cults, and the abuse of theology to promote American civil religion (and I still do). (least anyone think this strange many agnostics and atheists go into religious history for a variety of reasons). So through my early and mid 20’s I still in some ways practiced Christianity but the intellectual problems I saw in it continued to mount and I became increasingly convinced that it was intellectually fraudulent for me to claim it as truth. I had come to the conclusion that God or perhaps better god probably exists (though I did allow the atheists could be right) and so I would read the primary sources and interpreters to see which one made the most sense. So I began to read, I read the Buddha and his followers, the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu writers, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Qur’an and Islamic authors, as well as philosophers like Bertrand Russell, David Hume, and modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
I cannot even remember enough of all of these works off-hand to begin to thoroughly treat each of them in this post and if I did I doubt I would even care enough to read it so here’s the gist. I found Hinduism to be a muddled mess with no coherent logic, and since I see a rational world around me I rejected it first. of the three remaining Eastern religions/philosophies I found Buddhism to be the most superior. In many ways the ethics of Buddha are not far from that of Christianity, where he finally failed was in the fact that the Buddha does not recognize beauty or joy in the world, things I have experienced. What sealed my rejection of the Eastern ways of thought was Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; when love an emptiness are said to be one and the same I realized that in Buddhism one never truly experiences love, because anyone who has seen love understands they are not the same.
The Qur’an and Islam were much easier for me to reject because it read like an inferior version of the fundamentalist view of the Bible I had been taught in school. I had been down that road with the Bible and was not going to go down it with the Qur’an. Also, within my academic studies I had realized that while cultures within the “Christian” sphere of influence grew and thrived, other than in military Islamic cultures stopped developing around the 11th century. This told me something about the adherents to the religion.
So there I was back at the beginning with the same doubts about Christianity its intellectual integrity and the truth to its system and the only option left to me was atheism. I had read people like Russell, Nietzsche, and Hitchens in small doses to intermediate doses, and they made some valid points about human suffering and the natural world and the absence of miracles. The biggest name in the New Atheist circles (as far as i knew) was Richard Dawkins and his work The God Delusion, and so I decided to read it. I can still remember the nervousness I had starting the book because I knew Dawkins was going to completely debunk Christianity and leave me an atheist. And then he didn’t.
Here I’m going to insert a parallel story while I was reading these books I made a resolution that since Christianity was my home faith, and I was seeking to undermine it, I would read some serious books within Christianity to give it equal chance to defend itself. Most of the books I read impacted me for their sense of morality and devotion which made the authors better people. I was reading U.S. religious history, but I also read on John Wesley and St. Francis of Assisi, I read of early Methodist circuit riders and American theologians. But two books truly impacted my life St. Augustine’s Confessions with its brilliantly devotional moments and its stunningly intellectual ending. I saw in Augustine an intellectual Christianity or at least the rumblings of it (I’m still not sure I understand Augustine). The second book was C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy in particular chapter 14 “Checkmate” which describes his conversion from atheism to theism through a combination of studying & teaching both English and philosophy. I saw in Lewis a man who was asking all the same questions I was asking (even if they were not expressly written in the book). Lewis was obviously an extremely intelligent and well read individual and he made comments that all of the best authors were at least religious and most were Christians. This, it turns out was the perfect defense against Dawkins.
I read Surprised by Joy at least a year and possibly two before I read The God Delusion and so it was not fresh in my mind but it must have lingered somewhere in my mind because I had the same thoughts about Dawkins that Lewis had about Wells and others. The truth is Dawkins’ book is built on a straw-man argument. The caricature he uses of Christianity and in many ways destroys bore a strong resemblance to the fundamentalism I had also rejected but not to the Christian belief I was coming to understand existed. Dawkins tried to say Christianity was opposed to science; yet, I had recently learned that eminent scientists like John Polkinghorne, Denis Alexander, and now NIH director Francis Collins were Christians. So either these men were living a lie or Dawkins was wrong (after reading each of these men’s work it is easier to believe DAWKINS WAS WRONG). He claimed Christianity is a superstition with little intellectual merit and yet here I was reading his work thinking how shallow it seemed compared to the rich philosophy of Lewis and Augustine. Dawkins seemed to have a more infantile picture of Christianity in his mine than the one I had rejected, and my thought was if this is the best apologetic an atheist can muster they have nothing to offer. Because the one thing I understood was that whatever philosophy was true it would defend itself against the strongest representatives of other traditions, not the weakest.
Reading Dawkins narrowed my search for meaning in life further; like Lewis I was a committed theist with Christian leanings. But reading Dawkins did not alleviate the problems I had with Christianity. I did not understand how people could accept some of the things I was taught about the Bible. I had studied it but up to this point it was an intellectual curiosity, a historical treatise, or (in some places like Matthew 5-7) a source for high morality. (As I said at the beginning in writing this I’m straightening out a winding path with many false starts and continuing questions.) Much like Lewis in “Checkmate” I was realizing that there were Christians of surprising intellect who did not seem to have the struggles I had with the Bible, and so I began to read and truly plunge into the Christian witness. This is when I began to read Polkinghorne, Alexander, & Collins to see how they reconciled their faith with science. What I found was a richer development in their ideas than in atheists like Dawkins. Specifically, they saw in the cosmos beauty and meaning two concepts which atheists cannot allow. About the same time I was reading books on the Bible; though I (sadly) cannot recall exactly which books I read. This is largely because those books have pointed me to and prepared me for other books which have had a much more profound impact on my life. (Books like John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One , N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, Scripture and the Authority of God, & Eugene Peterson Eat This Book.)
This was my journey (abbreviated and straightened), often it was difficult and lonely. Many times I felt like I was the only one who was seeking truth, I was the only person asking questions and thinking through these issues. I have recognized that my journey was about finding the right teachers, listening to those individuals who truly had something to say. I realize few if any will follow a path similar to mine and many reach the end far easier and far quicker than I did. I also recognize I have not yet given the answer to the question which prompted this flight. I will answer it in the next post, but I thought that it was important for me provide some background to my life so my answer will make sense.