Van’s Faith Story
It took a nudge, a surprise, and a hillbilly for me to leave behind the atheism of my entire adult life, accept the God of the Bible as my personal Savior and Redeemer, and begin to build a relationship with this God. My story illustrates not only the mysterious ways in which God summons each of us, but also the mysterious ways in which we respond to the summons.
The nudge was a desire that came over me several years ago to study philosophy. Pretty quickly I came upon the metaphysical question of materialism, that is whether everything in the universe is ultimately explainable only in terms of the interaction of objects. Eventually, I decided that materialism could not be the foundation for the moral order which, even as an atheist, I wanted to believe in and did assume in my everyday life. However, without materialism, I would have to believe in something immaterial, something higher than matter as the foundation. My options at that point seemed to be either belief in a formal faith tradition, or belief in some kind of vague and structure-less spirituality that, for these reasons, was not intellectually satisfying. In retrospect, the nudge of philosophy took me to the door of faith but did not open the door.
The surprise was what I experienced next, in reading about a study conducted by a Harvard professor on religious conversion experiences of Harvard undergraduates. The study focused on what the students and those who knew them best reported about the students’ lives before and after their conversions to Christianity. The study’s hypothesis was that, if religious faith is a Big Lie, then, when a person organizes his or her life around that Big Lie, dysfunction should set in–measurable dysfunction. The surprise was that the study showed just the opposite. The students and those who knew them best reported that the students experienced improved relationships, better work performance, more confidence, and greater resilience when things went wrong. For me, the results of the study opened the door of faith.
Before I tell you about the hillbilly, I have to talk about temptation. I think each of us experiences many temptations in life. Then one day there may come desperate temptation, the kind that feels like something deep within you has been unlocked and must have its way. I found myself in the grip of desperate temptation and had to admit to myself that my will to resist and my resources to resist were simply not going to save me. Each day brought greater dread and greater terror, as, against my will-and against my reason–I would move further toward my own ruin. In seeing up close each day my terrible weakness and pitiful limitations, I was finally ready to stop being the god of my own life.
The hillbilly appeared and took me through the door of faith. It happened one day, while I was walking my dog in a field under a huge sky. A face came to mind. It was the face of the late actor Buddy Ebsen playing his character Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies. Buddy Ebsen had died not long before, and I’d read a remarkable piece in the paper about him, one that recast Jed Clampett not as a foolish bumpkin, but as a kind, patient, loving, honorable figure. It was then that the thought came to me: if God exists, might He not act something like and mayyyyyyyybe even look a bit like Jed Clampett?
I looked up at the sky, addressed Him as “Jed,” and poured it all out—my story of desperate temptation, my crumbling resistance, and my awful need for help. At the end of the outpouring I felt like Jethro after a talk with Uncle Jed—cleansed by the mere act of confession, bolstered by contact with a higher moral authority, affirmed for my will to resist, prepared for the struggle to come. Of course, the rewards of talking with “Jed” caused these talks to become a regular feature of my life and my temptation eventually subsided.
In conclusion, at least for me, the conversion experience was a gradual process full of strange twists and turns that culminated in an intense, emotional, transforming moment.