How I Became a Christian – Part 3


Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb of Christ

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In my last post I talked about my conversion from atheism to theism. My lifestyle didn’t change; I was still acting pretty wild, but I also started to get more serious about getting passing grades under the threat of failing to graduate high school.

I didn’t know who God really was, and I wasn’t sure anyone did. In our pluralistic world, there are countless different religions, denominations, sects making exclusive truth claims. How could I tell who was telling the truth? My gut told me that the truth about God had to be objective, not subjective. The truth about God couldn’t be reduced to something like picking what baseball team to root for, or what kind of soda you prefer. The relativistic, politically correct attitude of “whatever works for you” seemed like a patronizing way of saying “I don’t believe anything you’re saying, but whatever floats your boat, just so long as you leave me alone”.

For a short while, I tinkered with the idea of deism, but that view presents God as some sort of deadbeat dad. A god who does not have anything to do with people has no real purpose for existing in to being with. God by necessity would have to care about his creation, or he is not a god worth our time, so I quickly ditched that idea.

From there, perhaps strangely enough, I moved my attention to Islam. Why exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the inclusive portrayal of Islam  towards the end of the movie Malcolm X. I liked the idea that he was willing to die for what he thought was right, and the 5 Pillars of Islam seemed noble enough. Then I started reading the Qur’an. I didn’t get far. Allah struck me as an impersonal God with strict demands of obedience with no real promise of salvation. I know that paints a very broad picture and there are disagreements among Muslims;  I’m just giving you my basic understanding at the time.

I was now coming full-circle back to my childhood. I dug up the bible that was given me when I was confirmed as a catholic and started to go through it. It was partly illustrated, and I got a good chuckle from the different pictures of lions laying with lambs and apostate Jews singing to pieces of wood. What was I getting myself into?

I didn’t accept the bible as God’s word, but I was giving the bible its day in court. Like most people, I got started in Genesis but I didn’t make it very far. I’m probably opening a can of worms, but talking serpents, forbidden fruit, the mystery of Cain’s wife and giant flood made my head swim, if I’m being honest. I now feel I have a better understanding of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, but then it was just confusing and didn’t seem credible.

Going forward, I just opened the bible to a random spot and started to read. The Psalms poetry was beautiful, and as a “suburban gangsta-ite” I liked the psalmists’ fearlessness. Take for instance the 56th Psalm:

In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?

I found the transparency of the wide range of emotions of the psalmist refreshing, and I enjoyed the quick-hits of morality and wisdom found in the proverbs, but I struggled to get into the new testament. At the time I think I would have really been happy if I had a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Like Jefferson, I found the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man”, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, but the miracles were a tough sell. Like Jefferson, I felt like tearing them out of my bible. The other side of Jesus, the “magician side” of turning water to wine, healing the sick, casting out demons and his grand finale – rising from the dead – fell on deaf ears.

But then I had a hard time dealing with the simple fact that the church grew out of the basis of Jesus’ alleged resurrection. And historically, these men who were spreading this message believed what they preached so much they were willing to be chased halfway across the world, and many of them died some of the most gruesome sorts of deaths without recanting this belief. Why would they do this? In the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, a former persecutor of the church declares that a little over 500 people had testified to seeing a risen Jesus. In other words Paul was saying “if you don’t believe my testimony, ask around. There are plenty of others who saw him.”

Jesus’ own brother James disbelieved and thought that Jesus was nuts (John 7:5, Mark 3:21), but then later he became a pastor, apostle and martyr. The disciples went from cowering in fear to boldly accusing the Sanhedrin for the death of Christ, and the Jews didn’t even dispute that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Instead they came up with a cockamamie  story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body, but again, that doesn’t explain the conversion of skeptics – James, Paul, or again, the willingness of the early church to be persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, beheaded, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. Usually a good hoax leads to some sort of gain, this certainly wasn’t the case with the early church.

The astonishing personality and moral teachings of Jesus convinced me that he was an exceptional human being. But that his followers were willing to die before revoking their claim as eyewitnesses of his resurrection was something that made me think there was more to this Jesus person besides being a good, moral teacher. The other question that being begged to be asked – “what did Jesus gain by dying in such a horrible way?” If it was as the bible teaches, that his death was to reconcile me to God,  that would more sense than him dying as some sort of martyr. It would also give proof that God was not some deadbeat dad in the sky, or some lawgiver standing completely aloof from his creation. It would demonstrate that He is a God of amazing love.

I hadn’t made the leap quite yet, but as it turned out, Christianity looked more reasonable than I had imagined it could have.

to be continued

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8 thoughts on “How I Became a Christian – Part 3

  1. Hey, Erik–

    Just wanted to follow up on what I said on Twitter. I don’t necessarily believe that people shouldn’t believe in god, or that it’s a bad thing if they do. I’m essentially in favor of people believing what they want. I’m a pretty serious subjectivist/skeptic, and it’s my personal belief that nothing at all can be verified, because the only two methods we have to verify truth–that is, our sense data and our logical deduction–are inherently flawed.

    That being said, I make a series of assumptions in order to function in the environment I find myself in–namely, the world I experience. I make the assumption that I exist, that the world exists, and that I’m actually affecting anything when I act. I take the “leap of faith” to believe in the scientific process because it’s what I can justify to myself, but I am aware that it is, indeed, unverifiable and probably not true. I don’t even think I believe in truth.

    So all I try and get people to do–and this has gone a long way from my original stuff about morality, but whatever–is to be aware of that fallibility.

    As for morality/religion, are you familiar with Nietzsche’s writing about morality? Check it out here: http://www.handprint.com/SC/NIE/GotDamer.html#sect5

    Read #6 closest, it’s the passage I draw the most from.

    ((Note: Nietzsche is pretty hostile to the Church, but I feel fairly confident in saying you can substitute any sort of organized religion for that. The Church was just the best example of his time.))

    -D

    • Thanks for dropping by, I appreciate the comments. I share your fascination with the way people form beliefs and I enjoy most talking to people who have thought out their beliefs no matter what conclusion they’ve come to. We’re all still learning.

      The statement that you don’t even believe in truth begs the question “is what you’re saying the true”? 🙂 It seems rather self-defeating, but I think I understand your reasoning.

      If everything about man can be explained in scientific, evolutionary terms, our belief that we’re exploring truth is merely the result of our physical wiring over which we have no control. So you’re being consistent when you say you believe our ability to us logic is flawed. If our logic is flawed, our moralizing is flawed, and we’re left with our best inferences of what morality should be. I think morality is more transcendent than that, that it defies just some sort of survival mechanism. There’s an “oughtness” we feel that proceeds behavior – where does that come from? If the moral element is prior to the behavior, then it can’t be the behavior itself that makes up morality.

      I haven’t read much of Nietzsche yet, although I do find him fascinating and I am familiar with his famous “god is dead” poem. My basic problem with Nietzsche is that if god were just a human invention, wouldn’t we have come up with someone more like us? Instead of being our own person Santa, He defies manipulation. He says the weak and humble shall be exalted and the last become first. The bible paints him in such a way that it defies human invention. We would create a much tamer god if left to ourselves.

      • Erik–

        First off, thanks for indulging my philosophical rambling. xD I’ve always loved to analyze the thought process behind beliefs and choices perhaps even more than the choices themselves.

        I definitely understand the sentiment that it may seem self-defeating to assert my lack of knowledge about anything–and yes, that would mean being open to the idea that the statement “Nothing is really true” might not be true, which is a crazy metaphilosophical can of worms. As for why I follow the thought process, well, I’ll defer to Martin Buber, who I’ve been reading recently.

        “Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.”

        That is, I can convince myself intellectually of the very real possibility of nothing existing or being true, but I choose to function in my everyday life as if certain assumptions–gravity, logic, etc.–are true. And I feel like that’s a personal decision much akin to that of faith in God; it takes belief without proof, and it allows one to live one’s life in the manner one wishes to.

        On morality: Well, at least part of the “oughtness” you speak of is indeed coded in us genetically, if you believe such things. For example, there are physiological imperatives for a mother to care for her child. Similar instincts are littered through our genetic heritage, in what seems to me to be the interest of preservation of the species.

        If the purely scientific explanation doesn’t satisfy, I would suggest a lot of the “ought” in morality comes from societal pressures. We are raised to think a certain way, and in a large part our thought process either runs in lockstep with this or is defined by opposition to it. So too, I would argue, with morality.

        “The bible paints him in such a way that it defies human invention.”

        I think you underestimate human invention here. We’re a resourceful, clever people, and, after all, the idea of god is rather simple. The same way we can conceive of infinity without ever experiencing it by saying X+1, we can conceive of God by taking all the qualities we wished we had in leaders and exaggerating them. As for his exaltation and protection of the humble and weak, remember that the first Christians were oppressed, reviled, and persecuted. If you were developing the idea of a deity in the middle of all that, wouldn’t you have him sympathize with the downtrodden of whom you were, after all, a member?

        -D

  2. It’s my pleasure to indulge your philosophical meanderings and I thank you for taking the time to entertain mine.

    First of all I appreciate your refreshing honesty about the faith position that you have. Most atheists say they are just accepting the facts, the evidence and can get rather tenacious about it. It is indeed a faith position, and not without reason, but a faith position nonetheless.

    If I’m hearing Buber correct, what I get out of what he is saying is… well, he’s not really saying anything. :). Basically he’s just denying any standard whereby morality is measured, so we are to make things up as you go along. But what a frightful world that would create.

    If all the internal oughtness we feel is just society’s pressure, we’re free to disregard it. But it would also seem impossible to ever have true moral reformers. To quote JP Moreland:

    “If normative relativism is true, then it is logically impossible to have a virtuous, moral reformer like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? Moral reformers are members of a society who stand outside that society’s code and pronounce a need for reform and change in the code. However, if an act is right if and only if it is in keeping with a given society’s code, then the moral reformer himself is by definition an immoral person, for his views are at odds with those of his society. But any view that implies that moral reformers are impossible is defective because we all know that moral reformers have actually existed!”

    Also, with the early church I believe you are getting the proverbial cart in front of the horse. Historically, experts from the secular and religious side agree that Jesus existed, was believed be a miracle worker, had 12 apostles – as if to say Israel was restarting with him -, that he was baptized by John, that he was reviled by the religious for the company he kept with sinners, that he cleansed the temple, was crucified, buried and his tomb was found empty. It’s hard for me to believe that if even secular historians agree to these facts that Jesus was just a creation of the early, persecuted church. It would be more correct for you to say he’s the type of deity they would hope would embody God, or the Messiah.

    Now these were men that lived with him for years and got to know him quite well. If anyone had a view “behind the curtain” for those 3 years, it would be them. They would have seen him hungry, tired, on his worst days etc. Yet they proclaimed him to be God incarnate, perfection embodied. Correct me if I’m missing something, but what other man have we as a human race deified and had the success of that the early church in spreading that message? It’s one thing to believe a lie so much you’d die for it, but I’m talking about those who were early eyewitnesses.

    Were these men and women experiencing “misfires of evolution” or is there more to it than that?

    • Erik–

      Buber was actually speaking a lot more of the nature of reality itself, not morality. The reason I brought the quote up was to talk about how faith of any sort is a choice, and that at some point in everyone’s logical process, they have to make that choice–be it conscious or no–to believe something without proof.

      I disagree pretty strongly with you and Moreland on this one. First off, I’m not saying all of the “oughtness” comes from society; I think it is rather a blend of societal and genetically-ingrained responses to situations. And as for the assertion that cultural relativism precludes the exitence of moral reform? That view is narrow and overly rigid. First of all, you seem to be implying that a society is monolithic and constant, when truly societies and cultures are not so. would you say that all of America is a single moral society? Or would you think it more accurate to say that it is a society made up of sub-societies with differing values? Because under that view, which I believe to be more valid, a moral reformer would be one who attempted to convince the majority, or other societies, of a moral belief held in his or her society. Secondly, please remember that I’m not speaking normatively here. I’m speaking in terms of meta-ethics. That is, I’m not making a value judgement about whether something is wrong if it goes against its society; instead, I’m tracing the root of our moral beliefs, at least in part, to our societal influences. So simply because a reformer went against the values of the society he was raised in doesn’t make him “wrong”. Thirdly, this sentence is ridiculous:

      “But any view that implies that moral reformers are impossible is defective because we all know that moral reformers have actually existed!”

      That’s like saying that Jesus’ life as a historical preacher proves christianity. Just because people like Ghandi and MLK have existed who have changed the culture of their times does not mean that there is some objective moral code they were bringing us closer to. All it means is that they disagreed with the values of the day, and that in today’s society we side with them.

      I don’t disagree with the existence of Jesus the man and preacher–though I got in an arguement the other day in which someone was trying to tell me that there was more evidence for Jesus’ existence than for that of Julius Caesar–and I’m not asserting that the Church “created” him. What I mean by creating a deity is deifying him as the actual embodiment of God as a part of the Holy Trinity.

      I simply don’t buy the argument that because his loyal disciples–whose mental state we know nothing of, whose trustworthiness we cannot verify, and, quite frankly, whose word about Jesus’ godhood gives us nothing but the information that they adored him–thought he was an incarnation of diety, he was one. Innumerable times throughout history, people have shown themselves willing to blind themselves to the faults of one they wish to exalt.

      “success of that the early church in spreading that message”

      I certainly hope you don’t mistake widespread holding of a belief with its veracity. Because, if so–and believe me, I hate bringing this argument up–do you think that the Earth spent a lot of time being flat?

      I don’t know where the phrase “misfires of evolution” comes from, but no, that’s not what I think. What I think is that these were men who needed very much something to believe in who were given a particularily effective preacher with appealing ideas to follow, a man who served as an excellent martyr for their cause, and whose body apparently vanished. That only tells me that they used what they were given to strengthen their faith and spread it, not anything about a God.

      -D

      • Whew! I’m sure could go back and forth. I’ll respond to your objections when I get some more time (the earth is flat and the moon is made of cheese -duh!), but I’d like to pose this question to you – couldn’t atheism also be defined as your wish-fulfillment? No objective morals, no accountability to the Creator = autonomy? Can’t you just be rejecting God because that is what suits you?

  3. Despite–or perhaps because of–my automatic negative reaction, I must admit, yes, it is a possibility. It’s not one I’ve considered deeply, nor one I think explains all of my personal objections to religion, but it is possible that my wish to not be beholden to some higher power is what informs my atheism.

    However, if that were so, wouldn’t my innate wish to be autonomous lead me to reject things like government and societal norms, which I do not? I may not consider myself beholden to God, but I DO consider myself–and more importantly, act as if I am–beholden to my fellow man. I’m not sure it’s logical to say that I reject God to avoid falling under his authority and then submit fairly willingly to the authority of society and government.

    Here, I’m going to swing the question right back atcha: couldn’t your belief in God be your wish fulfillment? Objective morality and accountability to a creator = an ordered society and a way to say that any action is objectively and truly wrong, therefore justifying any aversion you may have to it? Can’t you just be accepting God because it’s what suits you? xD

    • Good question. To answer in a word – No. In many different ways I liked the idea of being free to live my life, not fearing some judgment in the afterlife. I really didn’t have a particular aversion to any sort of moral wrong, because my attitude was basically “screw it”. (Well, except maybe if I was wronged, then suddenly I wanted objective morality, but I can’t say was driven to faith because I felt wronged. My attitude was very much “live and let live” in many ways.)

      I honestly really didn’t like the idea of a personal God, I was very much in opposition to the notion for a long time.

      It was the nagging questions of “why are we here?” “why is our world so perfectly fit for human life?” “is there meaning, or a cause to this?” and that led me to ask “is there a God, and if there is, what system of belief can be rationally accepted?”

      I found the idea that we are all here by some sort of cosmic accident to be untenable, even if I wanted to believe it. I liked the idea of meaningless in many ways because it left me free to gratify myself without consequence. I wouldn’t describe myself as a psychopath, I was a nice person when I wanted to be. And I liked it that way. But, I admit that at the same time there was this contradiction – It just wasn’t satisfying. There was a gnawing inside that there had to be more to life, but I didn’t know what it really was. I believe now it was God drawing me to myself, but I was trying to drown it out by preoccupying my mind with other things. But once I started following the logical conclusions to my questions that I laid out, things started to fall into place.

      But it was more than just a mental thing, it was definitely also a “heart” thing that Jesus satisfied. There was a joy, peace, a love. God went from being an abstract concept to someone real to me. And that hasn’t left me, and it has only become more real to me for a variety of reasons; answered prayer being one them.

      I’ll be getting into it my next post as best I can as I finish my story on how I became a Christian.

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