From Militant Atheism to Christian Community
By Ed Watson
Download more of Ed's writing in the Saint Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.
Father Robert Hendrickson recently wrote a post about his journey from atheism to priesthood. Reading it had a powerful effect on me, not just because of the amazing honesty of Father Robert's writing, but also because of the similarities and differences between my story and his. In the hope that doing so might be of similar help to someone else, I figured that I'd try and write an account of my own journey from militant atheism to living in Christian community. I hope it proves worth reading.
I did not grow up with a belief in God. I did not believe in God as a teenager. I didn't have a residual sense of God which I tried to shut out. I didn't reject God out of anger. I just didn't believe. And then, one day in early February 2010, I did.
The thing that strikes me most about my experience of conversion was the lack any experience. I went to sleep one night, slept well, and woke up with a distinct and palpable belief that God existed. There was no flash of light and I wasn't going through a personal crisis. I hadn't spoken to anyone about God beforehand, and I hadn't knowingly wrestled with faith at any time in my life. As such I can't really say much about what actually happened. I can, however, say a little bit about what happened before and what happened after.
Before: Studying at Oxford softened my attitude towards Christian faith: I went from thinking that belief in God logically entailed stupidity and irresponsibility to thinking that it was just a false belief.
Part of this shift was caused by my exposure to proper Christian scholarship. I had quite a low view of atheist writing going into university, primarily because I thought it often tried to make positive cases for atheism when no such positive case was needed (or, indeed, could actually be made): it still shocked me, however, that at the level I was being taught most of the best Christian writing was careful, thoughtful, and meticulous in its self-assessment, whereas most of the best atheist writing (with the notable exception of William Rowe) was bullish, poorly thought out, and showed little self awareness of possible flaws in its own argumentation. This is, of course, a very broad generalisation, but this impression definitely shifted my view on the validity of Christian faith.
The second is that I actually met and spoke at length with a couple of Christians at Oxford (for American readers, it is worth emphasising just how uncommon Christianity is in the UK). They did not effect an intellectual conversion in me: I can very clearly remember that I was thoroughly unconvinced by their beliefs when conversation turned to God. I can also remember, however, being utterly convinced by them: they were people of great integrity on just about every level, as far as I could see, and as far away as possible from the pejorative atheist stereotype of blinkered and brainwashed believers. They impressed upon me the fact that, irrespective of the truth of Christian belief, the idea that believing in the Christian God entailed stupidity or irresponsibility was a non-starter.
Both of these factors helped to remove my basic prejudice against Christian belief. Neither of them changed my mind about the truth of Christianity, however. I still saw no reason to believe in God, and I saw every reason not to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. I don't think anything could have convinced me otherwise, either: I don't think there's any argument or any demonstration of power that could have been provided which I could not have chosen to doubt, given just how proud I was of my intellectual stance. And perhaps this goes some way to suggesting why I came to believe the way I did; why there was no argument, why there was no event. Perhaps God knew that I would have tried to doubt even the marks on Jesus' wrists, and so decided not to give me any choice in the matter. Perhaps He simply decided that one day I would wake up believing in Him and that there would be nothing I could do to change this.
After: To say that I woke up believing in God is not, of course, to say that I therefore woke up believing in the Nicene Creed. Neither is it to say that I have never doubted since that day. Whatever my faith is, it is certainly not the kind which precludes doubting what I believe on a frequent basis, whether in particular or on a slightly more systematic level. The next couple of years were spent trying to reconcile the atheist intellectual values I had with my new found conviction. I bought very heavily into a hodge-podge of Bultmann's demythologising and Tillichian pantheism, believing that they provided a framework within which one could say 'he rose again from the dead' without saying anything which might scandalise contemporary intellectual sensibilities.
In line with this, my attitudes towards Scripture and the Church were also (and in many ways remain) highly sceptical. The more common story at university is of Christians studying religion and finding it difficult to read scripture from an historical-critical viewpoint or to learn about the historical contingency (and frequent straight up awfulness) that has characterised our churches and church doctrine over time. I had the opposite problem: I found it difficult (to the point of near impossibility) to read scripture as a genuinely religious document, and any mention of 'the Church' as a human entity still tends to send alarm bells ringing in my head.
My beliefs have, however, gone on to be shaped and reshaped by my situation, as have I. The morning I woke up believing was also the morning I woke up and abandoned my immediate hopes of becoming an academic. Instead I felt called (not that I would have dreamt of putting it that way at the time!) to train to become a teacher, with an eye to eventual school chaplaincy. I became a Bible Clerk in the Oriel College chapel, finished my degree, and then stayed on at Oriel to do my year of teacher training. During that year my college Chaplain told me about St. Hilda's House, an intentional Christian community in America. On the basis that it seemed like a good idea at the time, I applied to the programme and accepted a place. And so for two and a half years I have lived in New Haven, working with St. Martin de Porres Academy and being shaped by a community I am blessed to be a part of.
If I were to go through every way St. Hilda's and the people in it have changed me, this post would be much longer and much much more self indulgent than it already is. What I can say, briefly, is that it has been in community that my academic interests have actually become alive; that it was only in the context of constant encounter with others that philosophy seemed to start actually saying something*. I can say that it was in community that Scripture began to force itself into my life, such that I now read the prophets along with the Gospels with a view to also listening for God, as opposed to just looking for the results of source-criticism. I can say that it is in community that I have started praying, and that it has been in community that I have come to think of the Church as something we are called to be, as well as the complete mess it so often is. Above all, it has been in community that those two commandments to love God and neighbour have stopped sounding like a lovely set of words to remind myself of every now and again, and instead become two constant and concrete demands to be faced anew in different and ever more difficult ways in each new person who encounters me.
And so, four and a half years after waking up in Oriel College, Oxford, I'm writing about life in Christian community in New Haven, CT. Life has not been perfect in those four and a half years, and I've been very far from perfect. The only certainty I've had on any given day is that I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow. There have been struggles, conflicts, mistakes, and all the rest. In all this, however, there has been God, working through those conflicts and infusing those necessary imperfections with the possibility of love. Five years ago, I would not have dreamt that I'd ever be writing these words. I have absolutely no idea where I'll be or what I'll be doing five years from now. What I can say for certain, however, is that as I write these words I write with a sense I would not have written with before: an overwhelming sense of gratitude, for all the people who have shown me so much grace all my life, and for the God who makes all things possible.
*Perhaps it's no coincidence that this eventually lead to a complete flip in my theological interests, from Tillich to Barth, and that it was with this flip that my attempted readings of Wittgenstein began to make something like proper sense. For the record, I should say that I still don't think belief in the Christian God can be supported by argument of any sort.