Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My Exodus

I often tell people that I argued myself into Christianity. This is true, but it leaves enough out that it could be misleading. So here is a rough sketch of how I became a Christian. Please forgive the vanity and the length.

I was baptized Catholic. My mother was a Catholic and my father was a devout agnostic, as far as I could tell. I have no memory of going to church as a child. They divorced when I was about eight years old, and it absolutely devastated me. Not that they were good together -- they fought like cats and dogs. But for kids (I think) parents are their foundation. When you take that away, they don't have any solid ground to stand on.

After the divorce, my mother started taking me to an Episcopalian church (which I sometimes refer to as "Catholic Lite" or "Catholicism for divorcées"). I only attended for a few years and it didn't take. I remember taking umbrage at a song that asked God to mould, fill, and use us, and refusing to sing it. I did learn how to smoke in Sunday school, however.

As an adult I suffered from depression and low self-esteem. Ignoring the fact that I suffered from these as a child too, even before my parents' divorce, I assumed it was due to my few years of church-going; that the sermons I never listened to and the songs I didn't remember must have made me feel guilty -- thinking guilt was what Christianity is all about. I would have described myself at this point as an agnostic: I suspected God existed, but I wouldn't have bet on it, and I certainly didn't think it was the God of Christianity. To combat my psychological problems, I read self-help books. They would work for a short while, but eventually I would fall back into depression and low self-esteem.

After a couple of years of college I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I figured if I did the toughest thing I could think of, my self-esteem would rise, and the depression would go away. If I buried myself in manure for a few years, I'd come out smelling like roses. In fact, it did help to some extent, but not nearly enough. After boot camp they sent me to language school to become an Arabic linguist -- if they had asked me, I would have told them that I suck at languages. The course was a year long, and it was one of the most stressful times of my life, much more so than boot camp. This was largely self-imposed: I kept telling myself that I would fail and imagined the very worst possible outcomes. I very nearly had a nervous breakdown. My refusal to give up these destructive thought patterns ruined what might have been a very good friendship with one of the sailors in my class. But that was how I thought about everything: I was a pessimist and thought about the worst things I could. It was the pattern I had trained myself to think in, and while it wasn't pleasant, it was familiar.

Much to my amazement -- and that of some of my teachers as well -- I passed. After the course in Modern Standard Arabic was over, I had to take a course in Syrian dialect, but that didn't start for several weeks. In the meantime, I was on some kind of duty (I forget what it was called) which was basically sitting around and sometimes mowing a lawn somewhere. I remember I had some new dogtags made about this time, and under religious preference I put "Druid."

About ten days (I think) after I finished the first Arabic course, I was sitting in the chow hall eating. I experienced a flash: it was like I had been squinting my whole life, and for just a moment my eyes were open. Information had been directly downloaded into my mind. The information was: "I exist, and I carried you for the last year." It impressed itself upon me more than the physical world does when I experience pain.

This absolutely blew me away. Now I was no longer an agnostic in the strict sense: I was very confident that God exists. However, I didn't know which, if any, religion was true. I was pretty confident that it wasn't Christianity, but that was all. It was also extremely humbling: as I said above, my overwhelming stress of the previous year had been largely self-imposed. My intense sorrow wasn't caused by the actual experiences I went through, I caused it myself. It was my own fault, my own demand to expect the very worst outcome I could imagine. And yet, here was God telling me that he had carried me through this self-imposed misery. He wasn't just willing to carry me through hard times, but through times that I chose to make hard and forced upon myself. I also found it interesting that I had no sense of his presence during that year, and yet he was powerfully present nonetheless.

The only religious activity I began to participate in at that point was saying a short grace before meals. I had some friends suggest that I go to a church, but I told them I couldn't, because I was waiting for more information from God. Think about that for a minute.

After I finished the Syrian dialect course, I was shipped to an Air Force base to learn the "top secret" portion of my job (which was a joke, by the way). While there, a friend of mine who was permanently stationed there and I talked about getting together every Sunday to have our own private "church" meeting, since we both agreed that God exists but Christianity is false. We talked about it a lot, in fact, but we never actually did it. When I finished my training there, I was sent to Hawaii.

I was still reading self-help books, and in a used bookstore in Honolulu I bought a couple by Norman Vincent Peale. When I read them, however, I was very disappointed that he tied "positive thinking" to Christianity, as several of the other self-help books I'd read did. Beyond my reading those two books, Peale had no influence on me. I'm mentioning it because I remember it, probably because it happened not long before a significant event.

A friend of mine named Troy had invited me to church a few times, but I kept telling him that I couldn't go because I was waiting for a sign from God. Finally, I relented; largely because I was willing to go anywhere there would be a lot of women. In a school gymnasium they gave a sermon, and then started doing communion. As they were handing out the bread and juice, I experienced another flash, another direct download. This time the information was: "I want you to participate in this." It was just as powerful as the first one, it imposed itself on me in the same way, much stronger than the physical world does via my senses.

Instead of participating, I got up and walked out.

Troy followed me out. I told him what happened, and he said I should stay, since God was obviously telling me something. I refused. The gymnasium was a few miles away from where I lived (off-base), but I walked home anyway. The whole way I was apologizing to God. "I'm sorry, I'm not ready." I just could not bring myself to believe Christianity. I thought Christianity was on the same intellectual level as believing that the earth is flat. Literally. I thought I had just received the equivalent of a divine revelation telling me that the earth is flat. I simply couldn't believe it. I couldn't deny the experience; if I did, I'd have to deny the physical world and my daily life as well, since they impose themselves upon me to a much lesser extent. But how could I seriously believe the equivalent of a flat earth? Of course, I could have drawn the conclusion that my assessment of Christianity was faulty, but that simply didn't occur to me.

After that, however, I started calling myself a Christian, even though I really wasn't. I looked for a way that I could do this (call myself a Christian) without believing the insane things I assumed Christianity taught. I didn't really look actively -- that would have taken effort on my part -- but that's what I was hoping I would find. In retrospect, I was looking for liberal theology. Fortunately, I didn't find it.

I got out of the Marines and returned to school to study. For most of the time I spent finishing up my first Bachelors degree, I continued to call myself a Christian, even though I got drunk a lot and cavorted with as many women as would let me (which was awfully close to zero). I felt I should do something with Christianity though, so I looked up non-denominational churches in the phone book, and started attending one. One thing I hated, and still hate, is when a church has the congregants stand up and greet each other. This seems to me to be the pinnacle of phoniness. "Stand up and pretend you give a crap about the people sitting around you." I couldn't have told you what I was hoping to get out of church, but I absolutely did not want to meet people or socialize. So I would wait outside the church until I heard the music starting up, and then go inside and sit in the back pew, away from everyone else. When they had the "greet your neighbor" ritual, I would lie down in the pew so no one could see me. Then when the service was winding up, I'd leave while they were playing the last song.

Several weeks later, while walking away from the church, I heard the sound of someone running after me. The pastor, still in his robes, had followed me out, and caught up to me about a block away. He had seen me in church for weeks, and had wanted to welcome me, but hadn't been able to because of the way I came and left.

I really have no idea, but I suspect that at some point in this period of church-going, someone suggested to me that I start reading C. S. Lewis. I did, and was absolutely amazed by him. It wasn't the specific arguments he gave for Christianity that impressed me, it was just that he made it sound so reasonable. I finally started thinking that maybe Christianity wasn't as ridiculous as I'd assumed. I read and re-read as many of his books as I could get a hold of. This was a little weird on my part, since I very strongly did not want to be a Christian, if that referred to the position Lewis was defending. But I was drawn to his writing.

In many ways, I grew into my acceptance of Christianity. When I was a young Christian, I would tell people that I couldn't give a date that I accepted Christ, or even a year. It was a gradual process. Since then, however, a moment has stood out in my memory, but this might just be me remembering wrong, or trying to fit my experience into a more standard pattern.

First, some background. After I graduated, I went to Japan to be an English teacher. My primary motivation was that I'd been told Japanese women found Western men attractive, and so I wanted to take as much advantage of this as possible. I stayed at first with the brother of a friend from the Marines, an ex-Christian who was very hostile towards it, and who I didn't really know that well. While there, I sent a letter to a Christian friend of mine where I detailed multiple errors, contradictions, etc. in the Bible. He never wrote back. However, this was really an attempt to lash out at Christianity with him as its unfortunate mediator. C. S. Lewis had argued that the Bible had errors in it, and even (in The Problem of Pain) that Jesus probably held false beliefs. So I knew this wasn't a good enough reason to reject Christianity.

One night, while laying in bed, I was thinking about C. S. Lewis's books, and was just overwhelmed with how reasonable Christianity appeared. He hadn't necessarily convinced me that Christianity was true, but I was no longer able to say that it was stupid. However, since my only real reason for rejecting Christianity was that it was stupid, this took away my only justification for rejecting Christianity. The barrier preventing me from becoming a Christian revealed itself to be a smoke screen.

So I prayed to God. Specifically I told him that he could have me, but he'd have to keep the women away from me, because I had no resistance in that area. Again, in retrospect, this was me turning toward God and turning away from the idol I had been worshiping up till then: sex. This is proof, by the way, that a poor person can be just as infatuated with money as a rich person. I had always lived in abject poverty in terms of sex, but my every thought was bent in that direction.

After praying this, what followed was the longest dry spell of my life. I couldn't get a woman to look at me for two years. I was only in Japan for three months, having achieved the distinction of being the first native English speaker in Japan's history to be unable to get a job teaching English. I returned to the States and began attending what would become my home church. I was definitely a Christian at this point, but I still desperately wanted it not to be true. I would tell people openly that becoming a Christian was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I fanatically (religiously?) read atheist and anti-Christian literature trying to find a way out. Actually, I had been doing this ever since discovering C. S. Lewis. But their arguments just didn't hold a candle to the pro-Christian literature I was reading. I remember finding a book in the church's library (who knows how it got there) arguing that Jesus' disciples had stolen his corpse and made up the resurrection. I was frustrated that I was able to refute this silly conspiracy theory so easily. Everything in me was screaming, "Christianity is insane! It's not true! It can't be true!" but I could not find any wiggle room to deny it. I believed in Christianity in the same way that someone believes their political views, even if they don't like them. It was purely intellectual.

Several months later, maybe a year or more, I'm not sure, I discovered that I was actually getting excited about reading books and articles that defended Christianity. I was starting to like them. Of course, I read plenty of books that I thought defended Christianity poorly, giving bogus arguments that I could refute, like Bible codes or young-earth creationism. This disturbed me (and still does) but didn't dissuade me for two reasons. First, a bad argument for a position doesn't do anything to negate the good arguments for that position. Second, there are plenty of people who will use bad arguments to defend a valid position. This is true for virtually everything.

After a couple of years, I reached another point. I had accepted that the Bible had contradictions and errors in it, but over and over again I found resolutions to these problems. Of course, I didn't find resolutions to all of them, and plenty of the resolutions seemed completely ad hoc to me. But this was not the case for the majority of them. Essentially, I reached a point where I was willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt. The problems I found in the Bible were more likely a problem with me rather than it.

I tried to get my friends and family to read the good pro-Christian books I was reading, but they weren't interested. I eventually realized that if I wrote a book for them myself, explaining the arguments and evidences that convinced me, they would be more willing to read it. I put it off for a while, because it seemed to me that there was much more that I'd want to study before undertaking such an endeavor. However, I eventually received a very strong impression that I should start it. In retrospect (again) I realize that these impressions -- to write the book and then to start it sooner than I wanted to -- were from God. They weren't, however, like the flashes I had experienced previously; it was just a strong impression.

So I started writing the book. I organized it into three chapters: logic (i.e. philosophy), science, and history. I also included two appendices on Bible prophecy and Bible inerrancy, the latter of which went over many of the alleged contradictions in the Bible. I would write the book by hand and then go to my dad's house to type up what I'd written that day on his computer. I told him what I was doing, but apparently he just assumed I was playing video games or something.

I had also told my boss, a Christian, what I was doing, and he offered to print up all the copies I needed and bind them. So when I finished, I gave him the book on a floppy disc, and he printed up 30 copies, complete with a cover and everything. The book was over 150 pages long, so this was a considerable expense for him. He kept one himself, and the guy who had made all the copies and bound them (and designed the cover), who wasn't a Christian, asked if he could have one too.

I really had less than ten people that I had planned to give the book to: my immediate family and several friends. Their responses were not what I expected. My dad, who was immensely impressed that I had been writing a book on his computer all this time, read the whole thing, but didn't want to talk about it. One person said she couldn't understand it. Another insisted that the cosmological argument was completely moronic. When I told her that Plato and Aristotle had defended versions of it, as did many of the greatest thinkers in human history, she said she was going to rip up the book with her notes proving it false and send them back to me.

One friend e-mailed me and said he was also very impressed with it and suggested I try publishing it. We started going through it in detail, and I was very pleased with this response. Unfortunately, a common friend of ours immediately skipped to the appendix on errors and contradictions in the Bible, and convinced the first friend to focus on this instead of the main body of the book. They found some of those lists online that give dozens of contradictions in the Bible and sent it to me, challenging me to resolve them. I e-mailed them back on a Friday and told them I was writing a refutation of all of them, and would e-mail it to them on Sunday; but I encouraged them to do it themselves as well. It was a pretty silly list, taking verses completely out of context in order to conjure up contradictions between them. So I told them to read the entire chapter of each verse that was given on the list, and see how the verses in question weren't really contradictory at all. I only remember a few of them; the best was, "Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), but he says 'I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.' (Matt. 10:34-36)" The obvious resolution to this is that the second text clearly refers to the fact that Jesus creates hostility between people who accept him and people who don't -- something not only made clear by the context, but also by what was going on with the three of us at that moment. The first text does not have this context, so it obviously doesn't mean the same thing: Jesus brings peace in one sense, and brings a sword in a completely different sense. Another one was, "After his baptism, the Gospels of Matthew (4:1-2), Mark (1:9-13), and Luke (4:1-2) say Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days, but the Gospel of John (2:1) says he went to the wedding in Cana on the third day after his baptism." Again, anyone who reads the texts will immediately be able to resolve this: John's Gospel never mentions Jesus' baptism. Obviously it's not referring to the third day after an event that it never narrates. Most of the list was on this level, with completely contrived problems.

Before Sunday, they wrote back saying that I was stalling for time, that I was engaging in fallacies by telling them to try to resolve the "contradictions" themselves, that the list they had sent me was obviously valid and I wasn't taking it seriously enough, etc. I had, after all, suggested in the book I wrote that my readers try to find problems in the Bible and send them to me so we could try to resolve them. This was very true; I also wrote that I wasn't claiming that I would be able to resolve them, at least not right away, but that I was confident there would be a resolution.

I now think that by putting this appendix on Bible problems in the book, I made it possible for them to take an issue that wasn't really central and inflate it into the main point. After all, I hadn't accepted inerrancy when I first became a Christian, and C. S. Lewis apparently never did. It's not a good enough reason to not be a Christian. But I had assumed that other people's problems would be the same as mine, and therefore that their journeys would be as well. I assumed that by going over numerous contradictions and finding them not to be contradictions after all, other people would eventually come to the same point I did, where they would be willing to give the Bible the benefit of doubt.

What disturbed me the most, however, was the vitriol of their e-mails. They were accusing me of some really nasty things, things I would never say to a friend. It seemed to me that if I continued going over this issue with them it would destroy our friendships, although I may very well have been mistaken. So on Sunday I e-mailed them the resolutions of their list, but also said that they were very close friends of mine and I didn't want this to ruin it. I was perfectly willing to go over alleged contradictions like this, but not if it got in the way of our friendships. So we stayed friends, but we did not continue the discussion.

I think I'll stop here. You can see how it is very true that I argued myself into Christianity: I didn't want it to be true, I read quite a bit of material trying to prove it false, etc. But saying "I argued myself into it" could suggest to some people that I approached it from a completely neutral standpoint with no bias one way or the other. This is obviously not the case. I had experienced the two flashes or downloads that showed me that God exists and that he wanted me to accept Jesus Christ. Admittedly, I rebelled against them, but regardless I didn't approach the issue in a disinterested manner. I was trying to reconcile my experiences of God with my belief that Christianity could not really be true. Ultimately, I argued myself out of this belief and into the belief that it is true.

I haven't had any more divine downloads since those first two. This has two consequences for me. First, I compared those experiences to my experience of the physical world, and stated that the former imposed themselves on me much more powerfully than the latter does through my senses. However, it has to be taken into account that the flashes were both momentary experiences, while my experience of the physical world is constant. I'm not really sure if the two can ultimately be compared: brief experiences that impose themselves powerfully vs. constant experiences that impose themselves (comparatively) weakly. Fortunately, I don't have to compare them, since I accept the testimony of both.

The second point is that I sometimes worry about the fact that I haven't had further flashes from God. I'm afraid that by rejecting the second one I turned away from his grace in a final way. A friend recently comforted me by saying that I didn't turn away from him, I wrestled with him, and that puts me in very good company. I also remind myself that the year that he was carrying me through my self-imposed hell, I had no sense that he was there at all. So even though I haven't had other experiences, I nevertheless have very good reasons to think that he's there, carrying me still. Plus, he has blessed me with a wife who teaches me who God is every day. I call her my own personal theistic argument.

Despite this, I want a close interactive relationship with God, not just the knowledge that he exists because of some experiences I had in the past. To this end, I have read many times (and will continue to read) Hearing God by Dallas Willard. Willard isn't really addressing the divine flashes I experienced, but of how God is with us in our own minds, closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our inner monologue is actually a dialogue; some of the thoughts we have do not originate with us, but with him, and the point is to develop an awareness of when it's God and when it's our own subconscious. I find it difficult to put into action, but I'm trying.

Incidentally, that song that asks God to mould, fill, and use us -- now that's one of my favorites.

3 comments:

Tyson said...

I promise, promise to read this. I'm currently in the office at the end of a long day and procrastinating getting stuff final and done. God bless you, Jim.

Tyson said...

Ok, I read the whole post. I am very grateful for God's grace and mercy. It's very obvious in your story. I am also encouraged that some very skeptical people I know could eventually argue themselves into being Christians, although they'd need God's grace along the way as you did. Thanks so much.

R. Sherman said...

Greetings.

I've been poking around since I came over from the Sunday Book Thread at AoS and happened onto this post.

I believe that those who diligently search for Truth, whether or not they realize they are searching, will find it in the person of Jesus Christ. The discovery may take different forms: a missionary or friend at the right time with the right word or an internal struggle. But God will honor that search. We just have to allow ourselves to be led to where He wants us to be.

Cheers.