About two weeks ago, I decided that I need to stop defining myself as ‘someone who used to be an atheist’. I felt that, in some way, it stopped me fully identifying with Christianity, and gave me an escape clause to avoid fully investing myself. Using my history, or thought patterns, or whatever, as an excuse for not necessarily embracing everything about the faith. And being known as ‘the one who used to be an atheist’ is also a handy way to keep myself a little apart from other people too and maybe it does alter the way people perceive me, and how seriously they take me as a Christian? I decided that I would separate myself from that part of my life and not use it, as I have done here mainly but also in other areas, as a way to define myself.
So obviously three days after I made that decision, I was asked to tell my conversion story at church. So essentially anyone who didn’t know I was an atheist at church now does. Ha. I’m assuming that there is some sort of divine timing link between these two things but hey, it could be an absolute coincidence.
Here is my little talk. It’s very different writing something to be spoken as opposed to something to be read. I have put off actually writing a concise version of my story because it just seemed too hard, but being given a two day lead time and a 5 minute limit meant that I couldn’t be too particular or finicky; I just had to get something down on paper eventually. Anyway, I’m not unhappy with it; anything it lacks in nuance was made up for by laughs so lets call that a win.
Occasionally I’ll see someone that I haven’t seen for 5 or 10 years, and, during the catch up, I might mention that I’m a Christian now. After the person has laughed nervously and assumed that I’m joking, they will inevitably say ‘oh my God’ (and then they will apologise for saying oh my god) How did that happen?? And I don’t really know what to say except ‘God happened’.
The story of how I became a Christian doesn’t involve a sudden Road to Damascus revelation. And it doesn’t involve getting saved from a life of debauchery or anything interesting like that. It just involves a small quiet persistent voice that wouldn’t leave me alone or give up on me.
See, I was an atheist. And not a nice, breezy atheist who doesn’t believe in God but it completely happy for those who do, like my husband. I was an angry opinionated atheist, and I really didn’t like religion. Especially Christians. The God Delusion was my bible, and I was about as intolerant and fundamentalist as you can get. This started early; in Grade 3 my best friend and I staged a revolt and refused to attend Scripture, where a nice elderly volunteer woman got us to colour in pictures of Jesus every week. We sat outside and felt superior and enlightened. And I’m sorry to say that that is a pattern that continued for the next 30 or so years.
I can’t exactly remember how things started to change, but I do know that, over time, something began to happen. Everything in my life was going along nicely, but something certainly shifted. I started to wonder ‘what if?’ What if there is something more than what we see around us. What if we are more than just our body? Could all the beliefs that I have built my life on, been wrong? Probably not, but what if?
So I decided to buy a Bible. The only familiarity I had with the Bible was from the bits that are quoted in the Life of Brian and I didn’t even know where to find one. I finally did, in Ellison Hawker. It was pink fake snakeskin, which would not have been my first choice, but I smuggled it home in a brown paper bag.
Now I’d love to say that I opened it to some significant passage and the heavens opened and it all became clear to me, but that didn’t happen. I think I read a bit of it, was quite bored by what I found, then put it on the shelf. I remember thinking ‘Well that’s the end of that then. That’s not for me. I tried though.
But that wasn’t the end of it, of course. I know now that God spent the next few years slowly working on me, breaking down my judgements and preconceptions and stereotypes. I found myself moving from atheism to a kind of hopeful agnosticism; I didn’t know if there was a God or not but I was doing my best to find out. What I needed, in order to believe, I told God, was a divine revelation. Some kind of vision or Jesus moment that would leave me in no doubt. Then I’d become a Christian. I tried to boss God around a fair bit at that stage. It didn’t work, surprisingly enough.
5 years ago I decided to step things up a bit. I would go to church. Now those of you who have grown up in the church may find that being stressed about buying a Bible or attending a church a bit silly, but you need to understand that I knew no Christians. My family were and are all solid atheists and I didn’t have any Christian friends. I had absolutely no idea where to go. I knew that the Uniting Church had female ministers and was big on social justice and didn’t think they spoke in tongues, so here I came.
My conversion experience was long and convoluted; it went forwards and it went back ward and involved much more swearing and throwing things that is probably appropriate to talk about here. I fought God really hard. I continued to put all sorts of demands and expectations on the way things should be, and the way God should help me to believe. I made it very difficult and for a long time I refused to believe things unless I understood them and could explain them neatly with a flow chart. But God waited patiently for me; every time I packed my bible and my books away in a box and swore that this was all ridiculous and just wasn’t going to work, I’d sulkily get them out again a week later, grumbling about how I didn’t know why I was bothering, and how it was a complete waste of time, God would smile at me and said ‘but you’re doing it, aren’t you?’
It was when I realised that I needed to move beyond knowing about God, and concentrate instead on actually knowing God that things really began to change. I still don’t know how prayer works. And I still don’t understand why there is so much suffering in the world. And I still probably don’t agree with the perspectives that most well-known Christian apologists have on these topics. But while these were once reasons to keep me away from belief, I now know that not having all the answers is completely alright. It’s not a weapon to disprove faith. I’m fairly sure that I’m not going to have much clarity on those issues during this lifetime. I don’t really need to. What I do need to do is read the words of Jesus and love unconditionally and sit with the knowledge that mystery and unknowing are just part of the fact that, at the moment, we see through a glass, darkly.
And that’s good enough for me now.