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