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? 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
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 age 18-21 I was heavily into alcohol and drugs. I flunked out of college. A lot of things were getting ruined in my life as a result of my addictions. I was in a deep hole dug by myself. I was afflicted, and didn’t know where to turn. Actually, 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.” That was the last day I did drugs.
This happened. My worldview was rocked. I attribute it to Jesus.
I see similarities between my conversion 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.
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 would not have become a Jesus-follower. I needed something experiential that could change 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 experiential belief had an evidential quality for me, and propelled me to go after an understanding of what had happened. 47 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 current writings of James K.A. Smith. See also Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga's chapter of faith as knowledge, in Knowledge and Christian Belief.)
- 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 recent 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 will have. (See, e.g., philosophers like William P. Alston.)
My studies confirmed my initial act of faith. Here are some things I believe to be academically sound.
- Good reasons can be given to believe in God. I have, since 1970, studied and taught the arguments for and against the existence of God. I believe it is more rational to believe in God than to disbelieve.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- Miracles - I have seen many, by means of inference to the best explanation. That is, I have seen and written of events that are best explained supernaturally, not naturally.
- 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 I became a follower of Jesus and remain one.
I describe my ongoing experience with God in two books:
Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God
Leading the Presence-Driven Church