This story is shared by Peter Schaefer.
Like many Southerners, I grew up in a Christian home. Unlike most Southerners, our home was not just ‘socially’ Christian. That is, church wasn’t just something you did on Sundays as a matter of rote. My parents and my brother genuinely believed in classic Christianity.
I was saturated with it. I even attended a strict (Bob Jones affiliated) private school from second grade up until my sophomore year in high school. (It was eventually decided, via mutual agreement wit the school principal and my parents, that I would not return for my junior and senior years. Nothing too shocking, but I was definitely the bete noir of the principal and teachers).
By the time I was seventeen, I was what can perhaps be best termed as a functioning agnostic. To the extent I thought about it, I judged it highly improbable that if there was a God he would have revealed himself to the toothless hicks that I saw at our church. So, I stopped attending. And I was open about why I was no longer going—I did not find truth in the walls of the church. My father wisely ‘gave me space’, perhaps understanding me well enough to know that it wasn’t worth driving me further away from faith by spending my last year under his roof forcing religion down my very unwilling throat.
Was I an atheist, though? No. I was more certain that God wouldn’t reveal himself to such hillbillies than I was that there was no God. So perhaps I was a Deist—if someone asked me if I believed in God, I would have said yes. But I never really pondered the issue on my own—not then. In any case, God certainly made little to no difference in my life. (Or so I thought at the time.)
So I spent my early twenties doing what a lot of males do—carousing, skirt-chasing, partying. Eventually, however, time caught up with me. I entered a doctoral program in the social sciences…..and gradually became aware of two things, more or less simultaneously. First, that my vaunted moral standards were not up to snuff. I fell, and fell badly. And I could not shake the feeling that I had failed not just myself or another human person, but someone whose standards I had already been failing, and for quite a long time. It was just no longer deniable.
Secondly, as I proceeded in my studies in psychology, I became more and more aware of the mystery that is human consciousness. So many things about myself and my fellow human beings seemed to scream out for a transcendent cause. (Reading C. S. Lewis’s chapter ‘The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism’ in Miracles was a real eye-opener, now further buttressed by more sophisticated arguments from Swinburne, Plantinga, and Victor Reppert).
About halfway through graduate school, my grandmother passed away. While I loved her, I did not know her very well at all, as my father is an Argentine German and my grandparents were therefore always very very far away. I recall overhearing my father and brother talking as my father was leaving to be by her bedside. They seemed to be at peace with her passing, with my father saying “She might be before the Great Throne by the end of the day.”
My mind immediately leapt to Pascal’s Wager. Not as a sheer, mercenary bid for salvation, but a simple, prudential acknowledgement: the decisions we make matter, the kind of world we live in matters. Why is it that the two men whom I have so much respect for both believe? Have I really thought about this most important of matters? What evidence is there both for and against the existence of God? And what evidence is there that, if God exists, the Christian one is the most likely to be true?
Well, let me say at this point that C. S. Lewis was very accurate when he said that an atheist cannot be too clever about what books he reads. I started at the deep end, reading Plantinga, Swinburne, Draper, Rowe, Russell, Mackie, Ruse….and understood precious little of what I was reading. So I backed off a little and read more popular material, including C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and others.
As I read more and more, I began to realize that even if I assigned only a slight edge to the theistic hypothesis over the naturalistic one, so *many* aspects of our universe cried out for explanation in terms of a transcendent, personal cause. It was not long at all before I realized that I was believing in a Creator and Designer of the cosmos. And yet, why think that the Christian God was the correct one?
With more philosophical terminology under my belt, I returned to the thick stack of books I had initially failed to understand. As I began to read and (this time) comprehend the work of Richard Swinburne, the die was cast. Noting that the epistemological principles used in science in determining what explains leads, in metaphysical inquiry, to monotheism—and a monotheism of a sort which might lead us to expect incarnation and atonement–plus the historical evidence that the event had actually happened—I was reborn.
My conversion—the point when I placed my trust in God—did not happen until a year or more after I believed *that* God existed. But the former would not have taken place without the latter. While no doubt religious belief is ‘properly basic’ for some individuals, that is not the route the Holy Spirit took with me. For that reason, I fully believe that engaging in natural theology is a soteriological calling.
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