My testamoney,

It was Easter 1979--born again experience

Early Days of Atheism.

I was born in Dallas Texas, in the mid 1950's, and raised in a clean, white, southern middle class setting, complete with old civil war sentimentality and country values. Our family had been staunch members of a certain fundamentalist sect, as far as I can tell, from before the civil war. They were probably in on the founding of the group and may have been based in Barton W. Stone's Kaine Ridge Revival, in the Kentucky of that period known as "The Second Great Awakening." It was a very exclucivistic group called "the Church of Christ." They were almost cult-like in that they believed they were the only true Church, and all others were going to hell, (even the baptists and Catholics-- especially the Catholics). They were so self-righteous they didn't even use instrumental music because they thought that made them more holy. In the 1960s, when I hit the upper grades of elementary school, I began opposing the war in Vietnam (age 12). I identified with the anti-war movement (especially SDS), the hippies, Bob Dylan and the Byrds. I had a childhood crush on Joan Baez (that never really ended). I couldn't wait until I grew up and went to college so I could join SDS and protest the war (which I was sure would still be going--and I only missed it by a couple of years).I began to question the truth of the Christian religion when I was 13 in rebellion against the strictness of a private school I was sent to which was ran by the Church of Christ.  I went to public high school, having continued to believe in God but in more of an eastern vein.

However at 15 or 16 I decided that I was an atheist.It seemed outmoded and childish to believe in God. After all, we didn't need God to explain the existence of the world, we had evolution and the Big bang. I knew there were mistakes in the Bible and found them every time I looked for them. And it was a fact that the world was filled with pain, suffering, injustice. How could there be a loving God? Above all else I resented injustice! I was curious about thought and about the world, I began to read history, psychology, literature, and to study about other world religions (I had actually began doing this in 6th grade but about the age of 15 I made a big big push to learn as much as I could).

In my Junior year of High school, I began missing church, and abstaining from the classes. One Wednesday night my parents asked me to go with them, so I did. I even attended the class. They showed a film about the decline of the Incan empire, and the film concluded that the Inca's fell because they weren't Christians and didn't know God . It was a very ethnocentric, simplistic and extremely badly done bit of fundamentalist propaganda. Angered at this one-sided rendition of history, I asked if I could get up and do a bit of film criticism. They allowed me to do this, the youth director was really not a bad guy. And I lambasted the Bible and all of belief after giving a little lecture on history, the rise and fall of empires and how racist their film was. It ended in a shouting match and I determined never to go back.In fact I never did. My parents were horrified. We had several shouting matches about it. But they couldn't force me to go to church. They tried the "as long as you live in my house..." Line and I threatened to quite school and move out. They gave in. I know it hurt them terribly, I could see real pain in their eyes every time they came home from church and found me watching tv or just waking up. But I didn't care. I had to be independent. I had to shape my own beliefs, and I couldn't see the importance of going just to please them. I would do that today If I had it to do over just because I know it hurt them and it wouldn't hurt me to go. In any case, that shouting match set me on a course for the next several years. I became determined to disprove Christianity and to demonstrate it's falsehood to the world. I usually spent Saturday nights and Sunday morning from then on reading skeptical books and doing research to disprove the Bible.

Summer of highschool graduation.

The summer I graduated from high school, I was invited by the old youth directer to go on a trip with the seniors to the grand canyon. I hadn't seen them in a long time, a couple of years, and the bitterness of the last meeting had gone. We had a wonderful trip. They were all fun and nice and I enjoyed playing chess on the bus and getting to know them again. I was almost sorry I hadn't gone to church in those years for my parent's sake. But it seemed more important to be true to my beliefs. I read Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth on that trip, while I wasn't playing chess on the bus. At the grand Canyon the youth directer let me make a little speech to the group talking about my beliefs. I don't think he really knew what I was going to say. I think it was hard for him to believe that I was really an atheist. Again I really gave it to them.

I explained evolution and talked about other religions and how absurd it was to think that all those other people are going to hell just because of the time and place in which they were born. I answered all their objections, shot them to pieces, answered all their arguments and left it with them saying things like "someday God will open your eyes," "Jesus loves you," "think with your heart," which I took to be a total victory. The Youth director's face was so crest fallen.He clearly wasn't expecting this and was probably saddened to see how far gone I was.A couple of weeks after we got back, the youth director came to my home with a man who taught at the Chruch of Christ's "School of preaching." He had a doctorate in Biblical studies and was clearly far more knowledgeable than I. His wife was there too, and she wasn't a bad apologist either. Together the three of them shot me to pieces. They even brought a couple of others along to give themselves an audience. I was outraged but covered it up pretty well.

It amazed me that there really were good answers and that the Bible really could be defended, but that only made me all the more determined to disprove it.That was a remarkable summer, the summer I graduated form high school. The previous summer I had spent about a month researching the Bible and thought I had it disproven. This summer (graduation) I went to the Grand Canyon, read 100 books, sometimes four a day! I read great literature, such as James Joyce, Saul Bellow, Herman Hesse, and not to forget the Mark Twain atheist stuff. I finished out that summer doing more Biblical research and that practice would become a habit which I still practice to this day (well over 20 years) of concentrating on Biblical studies in the summers. But for the rest of my time as an atheist I would pursue my project of research to debunk the Bible every summer and I had huge files demonstrating the weaknesses of the inerrency position. Unfortunately, what I didn't realize was that the Church of Christ had biased my outlook to such an extent that I just ruled out the true greatness of the Christian tradition. I assumed that if the C /C was wrong surely the rest of it was even worse.

So what I took for anti-Christian works were largely made up of liberal scholarship, much of it believing. People such as B.H. Streeter made up the bulk of my research. Streeter was a true scholar, the canon reader at Cambridge, but also a true believer and very devout. Every so often I would come accorss one of his statements of faith and devotion and would be totally puzzled as to how he say such a thing when he could surely see that all the evidence he gave pointed to a Bible full of mistakes and far less than perfect (see the Revelation and Canon page). Once college began, however, I discovered Jean Paul Satre and existentialism. That became the center of my thought life throughout college. In my freshman philosophy class someone asked the professor if there were really people who didn't believe in God. I said that I really didn't' believe in God, and called myself an atheist, and the whole class began shouting at me! Some even threatened to beat me up! But held my ground and argued against the whole class of about 100 people. That was before the big hate Christianity fad, and it was in Texas, so the majority were raised in the Bible belt and raised not to think.

First step toward belief and
formation of atheistic world view.

There I was in college, I was still an atheist but my zeal for arguing about it waned as I got into more of college life; debate, traveling to debate trounements and lots of research, sociology, gaining some understanding of literature and philosophy, which I read in high school and loved, but in college I was actually learning something about it. I really got into existentialism. It was the late '70s and that was a hold over from the early 60s at least on Texas campuses. And Dope. Dope was a huge part of my college experience. Watching the original Saturday Night live with Bellushi and Chase and Laraine Newman ect. stoned and at a college debate tournament, that was a huge part of my college experience. But every summer I was still doing my anti-Bible research.In the summer of '79 my parents had their 40th wedding anaversary (my brother and I were born to them late in life).

My sister's friend came to town with her family. She was an older woman, married, at first I dismissed her as one my my sister's "crazy Jesus freak friends.". My sister and brother-in-law had been missionaries in Latin America. They were Chruch of Christ missionaries, but it was in Latin America that they encountered the charismatic movement in the form of the dreaded Catholics, and they became "filled with the Spirit." In the early 70's they drove me crazy with their wild "Jesus freak" stuff and their miracle stories. I was determined to ignore her friend, but as we talked at the anneversary shindig, held in a chruch of Christ, I discovered that this woman was really pretty bright and well read. My bother invited her to join us, and our best friend, in a discussion back at the house after the party. So latter at my parent's house we sat in my old room and talked.

Sure enough, she had a lot of really amazing miracle stories and I thought she was insane. But she was too "together" to be insane. In many ways she just seemed like the "neatest" person I'd ever met. She had a great personality and somehow made us feel that she really cared. And she was fairly bright and yet she cliamed to have experienced amazing things; healings, demons; God's presence, ect. That got my attention. When I went back to my apartment and resumed preperations for school in the coming year, I thought quite a bit about that talk, and determined that that year I would seek out how it was that all the liberal scholars I'd been quoting against the Bible could actually be Christians (I had noticed that many of them made great statements of faith,and yet to my Chruch of Christ mind they were debuncking the Bible because they didn't accept inerrancy). I couldn't see how they could be aware of so many "anti-Bible" facts and yet have faith in God. During that year I read the four Gospels sparadically, and compared them to Eastern Religion, studying that with a friend who had approached me with the proposal that we two figure out "the religion thing." Everyday after class he would come over, listen to Ravi Shankar albums, drink Miller highlife beer, get stoned and read from the Tao te Ching and the Bahagavod Gita..

It's too hard to give a rundown on the intellectual issues that I had to work through at that time. I fancied myself an existentialist, but it was probably just an undergraduate thing. My knowledge of it was pretty superficial. That's what's so funny about many skeptics who make all these claims about Christians not thinking, because even though I read and thought avidly before, I learned a lot more about philsophy and gained more of a dedication to getting it right and being scholarly after--but that may be due to age more than religion.I guess the three main issues that I was concerned about at that time were:

1) the historicity of the Bible, especially in light of my researches.

2) the justice of God; hell and pain in life, ect.

3) and the hypocracy of the Chruch; all the devilment it has caused throughout history.

These were not mere excuses not to believe they were real impediments to belief. I had stated on a number of occasions that I could never be a Chrsitian because of these things. And of course all of this against the background of the sheer existance of God in the first place. I couldn't see how God could exist when there was 'no proof' but more importnaly, we didn't need God as an explaination of anything. Science demonstrates the workings of the world, the evolution of life, and the regularity of scinetific law argues against the probablity of any supernatural realm beyond this one; maybe such a realm exists I argued but it serves no purpose for us, and how can it intrude into this realm when we are constantly witnessing a regular universe that opporates by cause and effect and never observe violations that can't be explained by psychology and so on. (Hume's argument agaisnt miracles essentially).

Now I'm going to do a part II because my browswer sux and I can't load really long posts, but its almost finnished.I think some of the major objections, such as the evil doings of the Instituttional chruch in the middle ages, were answered by my sister's friend, and largely jsut because she took the problem seriously, but pointed out that that was not the Gosple and that historical accidents placed the reigns of the chruch in the hands of unscroupulous men via institutionalization. But I think taking the problem seriously made a lot of difference. Too often in witnessing Chrsitians think they must disown the proper values of human dignity and the sanctaty of life and to defend the chruch at all costs. We dont' have to do this. The Chruch has gon off track many times. We can admitt this, and until we do the learned atheists will never take the Gospel seriously.
Second step to belief,
reading the Gospels Critically
but not skeptically;
examination of Jesus himself.
As I read the Gospels I began to feel that Jesus was a really the coolest person. I began to really admire him. He was always focussed on the individual, the one in need, always oppossing hypocracy, and undermining the authority of the powersturcture. He was full of compassion, but wasn't weepy. It makes a big difference not to read it just to find contradictions. But I was still bothered by the three Issues I'd mentioned. I couldn't figure why B.H. Streeter was a Christian when he constantly gave evidence that the Bible was not divinly inspired. IT would be years and years before I fully worked that out, and I had to go to seminary to do it. But gradually I began to realize that the Chruch of Christ had brianwashed me against other forms of Christianity so that it never dawned on me that there was this wider tradition of which the C of C was only a small part.The historicity of the Bible: I'd done enough research to see that a good case could be made for it. There's too much on that to get into here, but I did realize that even though the Bible is not inerrant, it can be trusted at least in the sense that the four Gospels are probably the only turstworthy account of what Jesus said and did, and that the likelyhood is that he said and did very similar things to those recorded in the NT. i also began to admire his ethical teachings so much it seemed like those things didn't matter. so what if he didn't give the whole sermon on the mount at one time, he must have said; otherwise it's like saying Sartre didn't really write Roads to Freedom Trillogy (well maybe not but whoever did is one of my favorite novelists and it couldn't have been made up by just anyone). If Jesus followers somehow made up his charcter and teching than they were litterary geniuses and maybe that in itself is reason enough to be at least a liberal nominal Christian.

Initital conversion experience

The justice of God issue; i began to peice togather my own free will defense the more I read of the Bible. And as I think just being able to stop and think about it without trying to poke holes in it all made a lot of difference. I began to have a growing feeling that there must be something to it all, religious belief and the Gospel.One night a friend came to my door, and he was in dire shape. He was having a bad reaction to some medication. He said he felt like demons were running through his body. He was freaking out. (do they still say that?). I went back to his apartment with him and he kept getting worse. I wanted to take him to a hospital but he had a certain reason not to want to go and refussed. I didn't know what to do. HE was writhing around on the floor and screaming, I was going to call an ambulance but he kept screaming at me not to. I didn't know what to do. In despiration I actually prayed and said "OK, Jesus, God, if you are really there pelase make him stop!" I had just enough time to think "what if it doesn't work?" when I noticed that he began to settale down. He just wound down and went to sleep in about 30 seconds. I just stared at him sleeping peacefully and thought "what just happened?" I kept thinking I said "If you are there..." and the condidtion was met.Well I wans't goign to break down that easily.IT was obviously a coincidence. But it stuck in my mind that the condition was met. So wasn't it incumbant upon me to think even more deeply about it all.
One night I was reading the Bible and I decided to get high and than perhaps I would really see the deep spiritual truths (ho hoho right?) I lit up the old bong and toaked the best Columbian my roommate could buy, and after reding for about five minutes was as un-stoned as before. So I smoked another bowl, flying, read some more, and each time I reapated this process I'd be as sober as a...Christian. But I did find the passages extremely moving that time. I decided I didn't need dope and never touched it again, after about 6 years of smoking heavily.Not long after that I saw a special on PBS done back than with Jacob Needleman whom I had read in my sociology of religion class and knew to be non-Christian and scholarly. That had a pretty profound affect upon my thinking about religion. IT was positive to religion but universalist in prespective; Christianity presented as just one in a number of approaches to God, all of which reflect some aspect of truth. But then the Eastern guy (the guy I was studying with) steped in. He was tyring to prove to me that Jesus was an Eastern guru and everything in the Bible was really Toaism ala Rom Dos (or Hinduism really I guess). But in the middle of all that it hit me that verse in Romans 2:7 about the Pagans not born under the law are a law unto themselves and it occurred to me that this universalism could work in reverse too. What if these Eastern guys are getting glimpses of the truth and that doens't say who Jesus is.

So I began to study the claims he made about himself. it was clear to me that he was claiming to be the Jewish Messiah and not the "song of god"in some eastern sense (we are all sons of god because we are all god ect). That verse "ye are all gods" I found a study Bible my mother gave me that year and talked to my sister's friend about it when I saw her at Christmas, so learned the word Elohim doens't necessarily mean divine, it can mean many things, ect. So it looked to me like he was making unique claims about himself "I am the way the truth and the life no one comes to the Father but by me." So the old C.S. Lewis thing hit. If this guy is so great to be such a wonderful teacher and so together that hey could not have been insane, and yet says he's the only way to God, maybe he had some insight no one else does?

Born Again!

One weekend I went to my parents house and was studying for test at 3;00am I began to think about my life, my motives, ect. all that had been going through my mind. I thought about Sartre and self authentication--then it hit me--Irregardless, Christian existentialism. Merely reverse Sartre and you get Kierkegaard. And why do that? Self authentication. How could Sartre think any less of me if I made a Sk's leap of faith as my form of self authentication? That would be My unique authenticating act. who could complain? And why do it? God made my friend settle down, and I ask him to, ect. but more than that the long search people, the human nature of religious faith--it is the ultimate authentication.So I laid on the couch and prayed. I don't remember my payer except i said "I want to change and find the truth, I wont to find the self fulfillment of these people who know you and I want to know Jesus, so please born me again." And at that moment I began to feel a presence, it was fait at first, just a sense of something, then stronger--clean, it was looking at me, it loved me, and it was love. I felt it totally washing over me and in me. I did feel born again. For the first time in since childhood I felt love for myself and that God loved me, this presence loved me. And I remembers it from childhood. This was the feeling of goodness I had as a kid. The next two months I just glided around. I'd stay up all night reading the Bible and the next day go look at the sun rise and feel like I'd stumbled on to some really amazing thing no one knew about. The Eastern guy came over and I told him about it and he said "I knew you'd say that! I knew you'd cave in and sell out to the Christians!" I said, but we agreed to stick with whatever we discovered the truth to be, no pre-set conclusions." "But you are arriving at pre set conclusions," he said. The last time I saw him he was shouting at me and going 'can God make a rock so big he can' lift it?" I swear the he tried to pull that.That sense of the presence continued. IT grew stronger every time I prayed. I was beginning the happiest phase of my life.

One night I felt something hitting my bed and turned on the light and there was nothing there. So I prayed and it stopped. I wondered if I was going insane, but somehow it didn't work like insanity because rather than tearing my life down it was building it up. I began apologizing to people I had hurt, I was renewing old friendships, feeling love for my parents, feeling self acceptance for the first time since childhood and so on.After that point the objections I had amassed for years melted away very quickly. The mass of xrox copies from all manner of scholarly books and articles demonstrating the inadequacy of the Bible some how seemed hollow and inconclusive. I began to think about Streeter's faith and how he was able to believe and use what he knew to back that belief despite it's seeming sketpical nature. I also knew that the Christians had good answers to most of it and it seemed that all one needed was a reason to take up one set of assumptions or the other. With one set of basic assumptions all the counter evidence disappeared, and vice versa. But which assumptions to make? These experiences gave me the push I needed to take up the Christian assumptions, and faith began to pile up almost in a qumulative process; or so it seemed. I also suddenly began to think of new answers or to look at the evidence in a new way. For example, one author used Streeter's account of the conversion of an Indian mystic name Sadu Sundar Sing as proof that St.Paul's conversion was based on psychological guilt.The evidence; Sing had a similar Damascus Road experience, after hating and mocking Christians. But in light of my own experience I was more willing to believe that maybe Sing's experience really was like Paul's, maybe it was a revelation from God and that doens't prove anything either way.And maybe the guilt release thing came into it just because God is in the business of forgiveness?

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

That summer I found the charismatics. I prayed for baptism of the Holy Spirit, my sister's fiend was a Charismatic so I thought that was the thing to do.I was alone in my room, moved back home that summer, and as I prayed nothing happened. Two hours of praying and nothing. So I just raised my hands as I'd seen Charismatics do and thanked God for the 'gifts' just taking on faith that they had been bestowed. Suddenly I felt my arms raising as though I wasn't doing it. A sort of magnetic like force was raising them. I felt an energy pouring over me. It was like electricity, I could physically feel it, but it didn't hurt, it felt good, and in a strange way it felt like love. I felt as though my palms were on fire, and It was so strong I was knocked standing out of my chair. I felt this "electricity" pour over me for about two hours and I praised God and felt great, peace, love, joy, and an amazement as if watching myself from afar and wondering if it was happening. Eventually I found it hard to move my mouth and found my self saying words that didn't make sense. Latter that summer I would find those words in a national Geographic; they were Myan place names. Why? I haven't the foggiest.I can't prove ot Although I would like to explore the notion that even though the Myan religious was idolatrous and seems brutal, it also made a great deal of the notion of the King shedding his blood on behalf of the people. I don't know if that figures in to it or how.

Reflections on faith and
personal relationship with God.

Up to that experience, like a participant observer in my own conversion process (due to my sociology training) I had sort of been keeping tabs on things. Every new turn in the road I would examine form two perspectives. In one seance I would come to new insight and new levels of faith, and in another I would mark it and relate it to some theory of sociology I had learned as if watching myself in a process, or as if tricking myself into infiltrating a cult for sociological research. But at the same time I would find objections to the sociological theory and move on to the next plateau, yet somehow leaving a mental book mark "this is how the subject moved beyond this point." But after this experience which I call "baptism of the Holy Spirit," I stopped this somehow (though I was aware of doing it it wasn't planed) and just began moving on with faith, determined to know God as fully as possible at all costs!That experience I have never forgotten. I know it sounds crazy and I don't blame you for thinking that. I would have thought the same thing just a few months before it happened. But there is was and I couldn't explain it but I couldn't deny it.
I searched through all the sociological and psychological stuff I'd been studying in school to show myself I was being tricked by some hidden desire to believe, but for everything I found I could find an answer as well.I had actually been doing that sense that incident with my freaking out friend so I was pretty much through that phase by this time and after this my commitment was total. I didn't even care about philosophy I just wanted to pray form then on. And I did pray and I felt that presence every time i prayed, though never again that strong. And I had other similar experiences I can't deny them, I know they happened and I know they had manifestations that were not mere psychology. A few months latter I began reading philosophy again and this time the arguments for the exorbitance of God were opened to me. I could see they made perfect sense. I went on to learn more about philosophy than I ever knew and to harmonize my views with my faith.About 10 years latter I went to seminary and got a Masters in theology. I thought my way out of the Charismatics by that time and weathered the storms of Reganism (I was about the only charismatic that wasn't for him). But I still believe in the gifts and have seen many healing had many other miraculous things. The thing that makes my sister's friend so amazing is not just that she has seen many such miraculous things, but that she's a neat and strong woman who fought for her social conscience and didn't fit in with the Churches and was led by God to stand alone many times.

It is the life of a person that really speaks of the truth of God, not so much their ideas alone.Seminary was a leading liberal seminary and I wanted to be a theologian. I got my theology worked out, and changed it and worked it out again.But that game me a synthesis of the two ways of life, the intellectual and the spiritual so that they are not in conflict. I went to a secular doctoral program for my Ph.D. which I'm trying to finish now, in history of ideas. I began that to study postmodernism and did study it but got into history of science and the Enlightenment, which is what pisses me off so much with people like the glob fly because I do know what I'm talking about on that stuff.So I've been a Christian since April of 79, and I still feel God's presence and it is a satisfying and fulfilling and consistent way of life.What I find from all of this is that faith is self authenticating. I don't say self-validating because any sort of belief is self validating. What matters in terms of proof is falsifiyabillity. At least according to Karl Popper. But in any case, I'm a Kuhnian, and I say all our ideas take socially constructed form by the time we talk about them. The authenticity of first hand religious experience, however, cannot be reduced.To try and reduce it to counter causality to to dismiss it in any way is simply to lose the data and transform the experience into something else. Now it doens't really prove anything, because others have their own experiences too.

But in a different sense it is self "authenticating." It is an expression of our own decision making, and it is an authentic sense of what it is to be human to live in the world. IT is not reducible to anything else, despite the lack of proof, it must be taken on its own terms. And as such , to the extent that it cumulatively stacks up to a consistent way of life over time, has the same sort of validity that any of our big choices in life have. It is a leap of faith, it is a decision to believe, and to the extent that it forms a constant way of life is as real to the believer as the world of our daily experience is to all of us. To take the first step is to initiate a process whereby faith will confirm it's own validity as the "evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11).And after 20+ years I can say Jesus has not let me down. I'm not yet to the point of receiving the final reward of faith, eternal life, but I have been re-convinced countless times, and know with full assurance; God is there, Jesus is real, he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him, and hope in him does not disappoint.


JHobbs. said…
Thank you Joseph for your account of coming to the Christian Faith that I and I sure others who read it found interesting and inspiring to read! and your blog posts really help to educate/inspire the less well informed like myself!. James Hobbs. England.

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