|(Glen Arbor, Michigan)|
At the end of one of my Philosophy of Religion classes a student asked me why I am a Christian. Why, among the world religions, would I choose Christianity? Why be religious at all? My answer went like this (I'm expanding on it here).
My Christian faith is based on the following.
1. My Conversion Experience
2. My Subsequent Studies and Ongoing Experience
I came to believe because of a powerful experience that changed my life and worldview. The result of this experience included subsequent study and increasing experience. Credo (I believed); Intelligam (I grew in understanding).
Credo: My Conversion Experience
From ages 18-21 I was heavily into alcohol and drugs. I flunked out of college. A lot of things were falling apart as a result of my substance abuse. I was in a deep hole, dug by myself. I was afflicted, and didn’t know where to turn. And, I didn't think I needed help.
One day I hit a low. I thought, "I am screwed up." I prayed and said, “God if you are real and if Jesus is real, then help me. If you help me I’ll follow you.” Something unexpected happened: that was the last day I did drugs.
My worldview was rocked. My life has never been the same. This was my turning point. I attribute this to Jesus.
I see similarities between my conversion from godlessness to Christianity and C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity. Lewis wrote:
"As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel's, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its grave cloths, and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my "Spirit" differed in some way from "the God of popular religion." My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, "I am the Lord"; "I am that I am"; "I am." People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about "man's search for God." To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat." (From Surprised By Joy)
The cat found the mouse. God found me. I was receptive. God exists. God loves me. (My conversion story is written in more detail in chapter 1 of my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church. You should be able to read chapter 1 for free at Google books here.)
Intelligam: Understanding What Happened to Me
This didn't happen in a vacuum. The soil of my heart had been softening for some time. I was looking for help. Help came. My life forever changed. What shall I make of this?
- If this event had not happened, I don't know that I would have become a Jesus-follower. I needed something experiential that could waken me. It happened.
- I agree with William James who, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, writes: "A mystical experience is authoritative for the one who experiences it. But a mystical experience that happens to one person need not be authoritative for other people." I'm good with that. (With the exception that the mystical-religious experiences of certain other persons have carried authority with me because of, to me, their credibility.)
- My initial religious experience ripped me out of non-reflective deism into full-blown Christian theism. I now believed in God, and in Jesus. This experience-based belief had an evidential quality for me, propelling me to go after an understanding of what had happened. Now, forty-nine years later, this has not stopped. Today I am a deeper believer in God and Jesus than ever.
- True religion (not the jeans - they are too expensive) includes experience. Theory without experience is empty. Hebrew-Christianity is essentially about a relationship with God; a mutual indwelling experiential reality. This includes prayer-as-dialogue with God, the sense of God's presence, being-led by God, and so on. And worship. Worship is experiential and logical in the sense that: If God is love, and God is real, and love is about relationship (love has an "other"), then it follows that one will know and be known by God. ("Know," in Hebrew, means experiential intimacy, and not Cartesian subject-object distance. For more see, e.g., the writings of James K.A. Smith. See also Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga's chapter of faith as knowledge, in Knowledge and Christian Belief. See Craig Keener's Miracles, and his Spirit Hermeneutics.)
- I realize certain atheists claim to have no religious experience at all. John Allen Paulos, for example, in his Irreligion, claims not to have a religious bone in his body. I don't doubt this. This fact does not rationally deter me, just as I am certain C.S. Lewis's religious experiences don't budge Paulos from his atheism. (I'm now thinking of Antony Flew's conversion from atheism to deism. Flew was moved by the logic of the fine-tuning argument for God's existence. And, the case of the famous and brilliant British atheist A.J. Ayer who had a vision and began to be interested in God.)
- I keep returning to my initial God-encounter. It functions, for me, as a raison d-etre. Philosophically, it's one of a number of "properly basic" experiences I've had, still have, and expect to have. (See, e.g., philosophers like William P. Alston.)
My studies confirmed my initial act of faith. Here are some things I now believe to be cogent.
- Good reasons can be given to believe in God. I believe it is more rational to believe in God than to disbelieve. (As a philosophy professor I have examined nearly every argument for and against the existence of God. And, I have something to say about "rationality," having taught logic in our community college for seventeen years.)
- The New Testament documents are reliable in their witness to the historical person Jesus. (The recent minority Facebook claim that Jesus never existed is sheer unstudied goofiness.) (See, e.g., something like Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, or Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. And, I am looking forward to Craig's forthcoming book, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels.)
- A strong inductive argument can be made for the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (I shared briefly about this in my response to the student's question.)
- Christianity is qualitatively distinct from the other major world religions. Only Christianity tells us that God loves us not for what we do or where we live but for who we are. The Christian word for this is “grace” and, to me, this is huge. The other major world religions are rule-based; Christianity is grace-based. And, in distinction from other religious alternatives, Christianity's claim is that God has come to us. These kind of things make Christianity more plausible than the other alternatives.
For these reasons, and more I am sure, I became a follower of Jesus and remain one.