Wednesday 19 June 2019

Why did I take so long to become a Christian? What was the intellectual block?

I did not become a Christian until my 49th year - yet I have been very interested in the possibility for at least 25 years - when I was reading a fair bit of Christian theology. It a sense I wanted to become a Christian. It is interesting to understand why it took me such a long time; what blocked me - and how I overcame that block.

The answer is that there was more than one thing that needed to happen - but one intellectual block, was that I felt compelled to take-on a package of beliefs; a package that had been predefined by a church - whichever church of which I would then become a member and obedient adherent.

That was certainly what I got from reading about Christianity and conversion - for example in GK Chesterton, who always presented Catholicism as a coherent and complete body of mandatory beliefs and practices. To become a Christin would, therefore, be to take on some such complete package as - in effect - all and equally true.

That presented a problem for me. I was being asked to accept all or nothing, the whole package or none of it; and, in converting, solemnly swear to my acceptance). Yet I could not accept all of any church I knew about. - as a lifelong scientist that would have been impossible, it would have been starkly dishonest.

I had never subordinated by truth-judgement to any other person or a group on a permanent basis, and I knew in my heart that for me to do so would be wrong - for me, truth, personally established, was a bottom line. 

I needed to find a way-out from this impasse; and it came in my drawing a comparison between science and Christianity - or more exactly between science and the actuality of any-particular-Christian-church.

I realised that for me to believe the truth of a scientific theory, I was not required to believe the theory in every particular - indeed, to be an active and practising scientist entailed believing in the error and incompleteness of an already-existing scientific theory (or in an error in the evidence and its interpretation).

After all that is what scientists do; they work on the errors within a system that they regard as overall-true.

I realised that I could become a Christian on the same basis - that in fact I believed it was overall true, but not true in all details; exactly like I believed for science. I could be as confident of the overall truth of Christianity as I was in any overall truth of science.

That was what unblocked Christianity for me; and so I became a Christian 'in my head', privately; but felt that I could not announce the fact until I had decided which church I would join; since I (then, not now) felt that Christianity could only exist within a church - a valid church (of which there seemed to be several, although I didn't know much about their current situation).

In practice, the only church I could join, or re-join, was the Church of England into-which I was baptised as an infant - because converting to any other church would mean swearing to the truth of many specifics that I did not believe were true (all churches require far more affirmation and promising from adult converts than of infants and children; far more of new converts than of already members).

So I 'reactivated' my Church of England membership, and announced that I was A Christian.

This was only the beginning, and indeed the phase lasted only a few months. But it was how I overcame the intellectual block.


Jonathan said...

A very useful post.

Some day I hope you will write an essay putting together this with many other things you have written about your conversion experience, especially the details about the metaphysical assumptions you had to drop and the ones you had to adopt. (I've learned a huge amount from your metaphysics posts, but they're still all bits and pieces in my mind and I haven't been able to put them together into a big picture yet, though I'm trying.)

I think there are agnostics and seculars out there who might reconsider Christianity if you gave them a large, coherent roadmap to arriving at a new metaphysics/belief system/system of doubt that other scientifically-minded people can follow to see a plausible Christian worldview. As you have pointed out multiple times, it doesn't seem to be possible to get there incrementally; there are too many assumptions that have to change simultaneously, and that's part of why moderns are so trapped in their worldview. (Motivation is another extremely difficult issue, of course, but that can't really be addressed until there's a clear map to a new worldview that one can motivate.) Having the whole roadmap written down in one place to help the intelligent reader make the leap would be sooooo useful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - It would have been much easier for me to become a Christian if I had recognised that it is primarily an individual decision and only secondarily (or not at all) a matter of joining a church. I held a peculiarly incoherent, but maybe fairly common, belief that Christianity was defined and controlled by The Church (who had the authority to define or exclude me as a Christian) - but I was very unclear as to the nature of this Church.

I failed to notice that because I was the one who had to decide which Church was true, and for me, that this undermined any Church's claim to define Christianity (and salvation).

(This is something people ought to be able to gather from reading and believing the Fourth Gospel, but of course they just regard it as one of many books of the Bible, and the Bible is read through a very prejudicial framework, and read the IV Gospel in context of that framework; and anyway there is no reason to believe scripture until *after* one is a Christian!)

If I had recognised earlier that I would (sooner or later) have to do the work myself, including discerning who are the valid authorities; then it would have made Christianity even more analogous to being an active scientist.

Francis Berger said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am certain it will prove helpful for many. The reasons why you found it difficulty to become a Christian are likely the same reasons why so many abandon the faith. More Christians need to know about the "individual decision" you mention here and embrace it rather than dismiss it.

I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. As I grew older, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the RC Church's corruption and I eventually turned my back on it all. (I still cannot ignore the corruption today, especially with the current Pope, who, unfortunately, shares my name).

In the end, my path is somewhat similar to yours. I had to become an "independent" Christian after I became disillusioned with Catholicism. After I "made an individual decision" as you put it, I found I could start attending Mass again. I attend Mass most Sundays now with my family, but I regard this as mostly a complementary activity rather than the core of my Christian faith.

Anonymous said...

The average Christian being a stumbling block to others coming to Christianity...

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

As quoted by William Rees-Mogg in "The Times", April 4, 2005.

Other good quotes at that link.


Kreeft touches on it in his "How to Win the Culture War."

Answer: become Saints.


-Book Slinger.

Jack said...

“The true Christian does not cling to any particular sect. He may participate in the ceremonial service of every sect, and still belong to none. He has only one science, which is Christ within him; he has only one desire, namely, to do good." - Jacob Boehme