I like to collect stories, especially stories of people finding God. (He wasn’t lost of course, just lost to them! 🙂 )
I enjoy reading (or hearing in conversation) people’s stories simply to get to know them better, but also because I like to learn from others’ experiences.
These two stories both concern Professors of English, both atheists in their thirties, who walked paths that led them to God over a period of time. The start and end points had some similarities, but the paths between were quite different …. and illuminating.
Meet the professors
Holly Ordway loved the fantasy writers JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and the poets John Donne, George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. She recognised they were all Christians, but this didn’t influence her, and by the time she left college she was an atheist.
But later, as a professor, she decided to learn more about the faith of these writers who meant so much to her imagination. With the help of a christian friend and a lot of reading of philosophy and history, she finally decided the evidence pointed to God existing and Jesus really having risen from the dead. She went on to commit to being a christian, studied apologetics and now heads up an apologetics department at a university.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield completed her university study of English literature as a committed feminist, lesbian activist, and taught English and Women’s Studies at a major university. She was scornful of christians, especially the religious right in the US.
But following a kind letter written by an older Pastor, she developed an unlikely friendship with the pastor and his wife, that led over two years to each sharing their worlds and worldviews with the other. She read the Bible over and over to understand this strange thing called christian faith, and eventually found God to be an unexpected reality intruding into her life. She married a Minister and now has four (adopted) children.
Reflecting on these stories
You can read Holly and Rosaria’s stories at more length in Two atheist professors. I want to look here at some lessons we may find in these two stories.
People believe for different reasons
These two stories have similarities, but many differences. For Holly, imagination was the beginning and culmination of her journey to God, but in between was some hard thinking, solid reading, evidence and reason.
But for Rosaria, it was probing questions from a sensitive christian who became a friend that exposed the weak foundation for her former life, and voracious reading of the Bible and the revelation of God’s Spirit which led to her “train wreck conversion”.
I guess people who stop believing in God do so for a similar range of reasons and after following many different paths to that point.
This is why I try to include different aspects on this website – evidence and reason, but also people’s stories, humour and (hopefully in the future) visual art and cartoon.
There are different kinds of critical thinkers
Both of these women had PhD degrees and had proved themselves to be critical and original thinkers. But their thinking processes seem to be different to each other, and different again to many scientific thinkers.
Holly has the ability to reason and assess arguments like any scientist or philosopher should be able to do, but is also much influenced by imagination and poetry. Rosaria has an incisive, sometimes even biting, way of thinking. It led to to be a committed feminist and LGBTI activist and a strong critic of christians, and then enabled her to see how God had deconstructed her worldview and how she needed to respond in a strong and committed way.
For each of them, as atheists and then as christians, critical thinking was the basis of their beliefs, but they seem to think in very different ways.
Not everyone is a critical thinker
Not everyone is like that – in fact most people are not like these two professors. Many people make choices, both for and against belief in God, based on uncritical thinking.
Despite what we may think, studies show that, for some decisions which can be checked against expert opinion, people who made choices intuitively generally made better choices than those who were analytical. (This is apparently because many choices involve too many complex factors to properly analyse.)
Converts are the same people – but different
Both women exhibit similar characteristics before and after their conversions. It wasn’t as if their atheism was logical and their christianity was subjective. Holly was motivated by imagination and then analysed evidence to become a christian, and now does the same in her teaching. The toughness of Rosaria’s thinking as a feminist activist is seen just as much now in her writing about christian belief.
Their gifts and characters haven’t changed, but they are now directed to different results.
Be nice to each other
Both of these intelligent and literate women were influenced by thoughtful and sensitive christians who knew when to speak and when to be silent. Both make it clear they would have run from christians who “preached” at them, or were angry, prejudiced or uncompassionate.
There’s a lesson there for christians who argue, get angry, make derogatory comments or fail to be a friend. These are problems that the internet makes easy, so we should be on our guard.