Saturday, September 17, 2016

Journeys of faith

At Harvard I encountered serious non-Christian thought for the first time–for the first time in the flesh, that is; I had read animadversions on Christianity and theism by Bertrand Russell (Why I am Not a Christian) and others. I was struck by the enormous variety of intellectual and spiritual opinion at Harvard, and spent a great deal of time arguing about whether there was such a person as God, whether Christianity as opposed to Judaism (my roommate Herbert Jacobs was the son of a St. Louis rabbi) was right and so on. I began to wonder whether what I had always believed could really be true. At Harvard, after all, there was such an enormous diversity of opinions about these matters, some of them held by highly intelligent and accomplished people who had little but contempt for what I believed. On the one hand I began to think it questionable that what I had been taught and had always believed could be right, given that there were all these others who thought so differently (and were so much more intellectually accomplished than I). On the other hand, I thought to myself, what really is so great about these people? Why should I believe them? True, they know much more than I and have though much longer: but what, precisely, is the substance of their objections to Christianity? Or to theism? Do these objections really have much by way of substance? And if, as I strongly suspected, not, why should their taking the views they did be relevant to what I thought. The doubts (in that form anyway) didn't last long, but something like the bravado, I suppose, has remained.

The two events that resolved these doubts and ambivalences for me occurred during my second semester. One gloomy evening (in January, perhaps) I was returning from dinner, walking past Widenar Library to my fifth-floor room in Thayer (there weren't any elevators, and scholarship boys occupied the cheaper rooms at the top of the building). It was dark, windy, raining, nasty. But suddenly it was as if the heavens opened; I heard, so it seemed, music of overwhelming power and grandeur and sweetness; there was light of unimaginable splendor and beauty; it seemed I could see into heaven itself; and I suddenly saw or perhaps felt with great clarity and persuasion and conviction that the Lord was really there and was all I had thought. The effects of this experience lingered for a long time; I was still caught up in arguments about the existence of God, but they often seemed to me merely academic, of little existential concern, as if one were to argue about whether there has really been a past, for example, or whether there really were other people, as opposed to cleverly constructed robots.

Such events have not been common subsequently, and there has been only one other occasion on which I felt the presence of God with as much immediacy and strength. That was then I once foolishly went hiking alone off-trail in really rugged country south of Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades, getting lost when rain, snow and fog obscured all the peaks and landmarks. That night, while shivering under a stunted tree in a cold mixture of snow and rain, I felt as close to God as I ever have, before or since. Alvin Plantinga, "A Christian Life Partly Lived," K. Clark, ed. Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers (IVP, 1993), 50-52.

I don’t have a radically different assessment of all that in my revivified state than I did when I was wandering in the wilderness. The main bar to faith was rather the Freudian idea that religious faith is a wish fulfillment–more specifically, an attempt to cling to childish modes of relating to the world, with the omnipotent daddy there presiding over everything. A powerful case can be made for the view, which is not necessarily tied to the complete Freudian package, that the most important psychological root of religious belief is the need that everyone has for such a childish relationship with a father figure. Be that as it may, I had been psyched into feeling that I was chickening out, was betraying my adult status, if I sought God in Christ, or sought to relate myself to an ultimate source and disposer of things in any way whatever. The crucial moment in my return to the faith came quite early in that year’s leave, before I had reexposed myself to the church or the Bible, or even thought seriously about the possibility of becoming a Christian. I was walking one afternoon in the country outside Oxford, wrestling with the problem, when I suddenly said to myself, "Why should I allow myself to be cribbed, cabined, and confined by these Freudian ghosts? Why should I be so afraid of not being adult? What am I trying to prove? Whom am I trying to impress? Whose approval am I trying to secure? What is more important: to struggle to conform my life to the tenets of some highly speculative system of psychology or to recognize and come to terms with my own real needs? Why should I hold back from opening myself to a transcendent dimension of reality, if such there be, just from fear of being branded as childish in some quarters?" (Or words to that effect.) These questions answered themselves as soon as they were squarely posed. I had, by the grace of God, finally found the courage to look the specter in the face and tell him to go away. I had been given the courage to face the human situation, with its radical need for a proper relation to the source of all being. William Alston, "A Philosopher's Way Back to Faith," T. Morris, ed. God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason (Oxford, 1996), 22. 


  1. For people's information, I was listening to the Ben Shapiro Show (podcast 181) and at 42 min. 30 seconds Ben briefly discussed Andrew Klavan's new memoir "The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ."

    Klavan discusses a little bit about his Christian faith at this YouTube video HERE.

    1. Klavan, of course, is a fellow The Daily Wire podcaster with Ben Shapiro. I don't know how serious his Christian faith is, but it's interesting that he turned to Christianity rather than returning to Judaism.