Many of my fellow bloggers, some friends, some more like protagonists, have written up the story of their spiritual journeys, mostly from christian belief or a christian upbringing to disbelief or atheism.
I decided it was time I did the same thing.
So here it is, a reflection on 69 years of life and more than half a century of grappling with the question of God and what he requires of us. It’s longer than usual, but I hope it is of some interest.
I was born at a very early age …
I was born in 1945, right at the end of World War 2, the second of four sons. We lived an ordinary, frugal life in Sydney as Australia moved from post war austerity to mid 50’s boom. The high points of my young life were undoubtedly our camping holidays. Three times a year (because my dad was a teacher) we packed the car, drove to an out-of-the-way spot on the NSW coastline, crammed into a tent, explored the waterways and bush and enjoyed the freedom.
Not much spiritual here
We weren’t a christian family – God was almost never mentioned – but we were all sent to Sunday School, perhaps because mum thought it was the right thing to do. I must have been a trusting soul in those days, and I seemed to just accept all I was taught as true without really thinking about it.
I continued on into the church youth group, and here I was confronted with a more insistent form of christianity – would I give in to God, accept the offer of forgiveness available in Jesus, and live for him? I held out for about a year, thinking it was true but not wanting to give over any degree of control over my life to a God who might, well, might do anything.
The circumstances of finally making that decisions probably say a lot about me. An evangelistic crusade was coming to Sydney, a follow up to a Billy Graham crusade a couple of years earlier that had had an enormous impact on Sydney. The youth group was going, and I was afraid that I might be so overwhelmed by spirital emotion that I’d embarrass myself and have to “go forward” and make a public display of myself. To avoid that, I gave into God quietly – like CS Lewis, a most reluctant convert.
Boots and all
Once I’d made the choice, at 17 years of age and at the end of my first year at university avoiding studying Civil Engineering, I started to live with it, in two ways.
Firstly, I took the commands to live for Jesus seriously – the first passage I underlined in my Bible was Jesus’ command to take up our cross daily. Of course I did this very poorly, but I at least knew what I ought to be doing if I was to be consistent.
My other choice was quite far reaching. I didn’t want to be believing something that wasn’t true, and I wanted to be able to give other people reasons to believe too, so I started reading books that would help me understand what was true. My first choices presaged my life-long interests:
- My first love was CS Lewis. Mere Christianity was like a shaft of pure sunlight, and I quickly followed it with the more challenging Miracles and some of his essays and talks. Lewis was, for me, deep (much more so than the mild reformed theology I received at church), sensible (not too much embarrassing emotion or devotion) and persuasive.
- Frank Morison’s Who moved the stone? also made a deep impression, because he began writing more or less as a non-believer, and assumed only what a secular historian would endorse, yet found good evidence that Jesus was really resurrected.
- I was also interested in whether the Bible was to be trusted, and FF Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable? gave me scholarly reassurance on that (though I later came to think he claimed a little too much).
Other influences – the good the bad and the ugly
The other big influences on me were perhaps a little unusual. For my 18th birthday a perceptive older friend gave me my first Bob Dylan album, The Times They Are A-Changing. Hardly anyone else could get past that nasal voice, but I just loved the passion, perception and the sense of justice. Suddenly music was no longer trite teen love and angst, but something much more gripping, and I felt the pull of living for a cause, and the attraction of thinking outside a fairly conservative mindset.
Another influence which led me to feed my inner rebel was the series of Saint books by Leslie Charteris – not about a christian hero but a fictional debonair modern day Robin Hood who used illegal methods to vanquish villains, rescue damsels, right wrongs and make a lot of money on the way. Somehow, while living the most normal suburban existence, I came to think that challenging authority and the status quo were ideals I could sometimes embrace.
It seemed in those days that there were two types of christians – those who made sure their doctrine was right and seemed to be averse to showing any religious emotion, and those who seemed much less concerned about doctrine but who were quite overt in their love for God. I was quite firmly in the doctrinal camp in those days, but I retained an interest in those strangers in the emotional camp, which later led me to (metaphorically) dancing with the Pentecostals for a time.
But perhaps the biggest influence of all was the quite normal amount of teenage hormones and angst that I experienced through my late teens. While I felt confident of eternal life in the next world, I was far from confident about life right now. I suppose I gave the appearance of being rational and intelligent, if a little too talkative, but many a night I sat at the desk in my room, without the modern distractions of computer, TV or private phone, and brooded on life, the uncertain future, truth, justice and my own inadequacies. I was fortunate there was no Mr Tambourine Man in my life to
take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, and I found my way through.
I have written before about a defining moment, that occurred when I was considering the way evangelical christians perceived evangelism, and how few or none of the Bible passages supporting that approach came from the mouth of Jesus. The thought went through my mind:
Jesus wasn’t a very good evangelist. Immediately I thought it, I knew it must be wrong, by definition. If Jesus didn’t conform to our ideas of evangelism, then our ideas were wrong.
And so I began on a path to understand Jesus in his historical and cultural setting. Scottish theologian AM Hunter was the one who unlocked the door for me, showing me that Jesus was inaugurating the kingdom of God and showing us and telling us how we should live in that kingdom – a much ‘bigger’ and more exciting message than standard evangelical christianity of the time.
The other big defining moment was finding the most wonderful girl and marrying at age 21. She has taught me so much about living and relating. In time we had three children. Living in the same house as someone you love deeply, and trying to raise three very different children despite your own imperfections, is a most sobering experience – quickly I came to understand my weaknesses and failings and was constantly challenged to live up to the standards I claimed.
Growing up, growing away
In the ensuing years, I completed my Engineering degree, served for two years as a conscript in the Australian Army during the Vietnam war, completed a Theology degree by private study, worked as a water engineer and environmental manager, and tried to serve God in several different churches and denominations. And my religious beliefs changed because of my experiences and reading.
When their beliefs are challenged, people often respond by either giving up their belief because the problems seem to overwhelm their reasons to believe, or else crawl into their shell and refuse to think of possible change. For some reason, I found my faith and understanding growing but changing in a whole lot of ways.
It became clear to me very early on that the twentieth century western church was a very poor descendent of the first century church – they changed the world despite their imperfections, but we couldn’t even change ourselves. I came to believe that Jesus would be as critical of the church today as he was of the religious elite in his day – for a power-based rather than servant view of leadership, a lack of dependence on the Holy Spirit and the gifts he gives to all believers, and often a lack of compassion towards people’s needs, especially people not like us.
From wanting to defend the Bible against every attack to accepting it as it is, has been a long journey. Accepting the early Old Testament as legend (which CS Lewis taught me), and accepting what the scholars say about the New Testament, hasn’t changed what I can and do believe about Jesus very much, but has enabled me to understand him better and apply his teachings better to the present day. I have been through times when this wasn’t so clear, because I was reading (at that time) a few ultra sceptical scholars, but the consensus of secular scholarship has been a great help to my faith, and the way I now present it to others.
One by one, a few less important doctrines have dropped away:
- I found the New Testament, understood correctly, didn’t teach the conventional view of hell as everlasting punishment, but rather as the result of a choice we all make between this life and that’s all, or this life plus life in the age to come.
- For many years I accepted neither evolution nor the Genesis account as literal truth, but eventually came to accept the science of evolution.
- I have become much more aware of social justice issues – global poverty, climate change, assisting the marginalised in Australia – and no longer think evangelism is more important than any of them. God calls us to holistic ministry.
- I have never really believed that a patriarchal church, where women have a reduced role, was what God wanted today, but I feel clearer about that now. I am still unclear about God’s attitude to homosexuality, but I have an open mind.
- In fact, I care a lot less about doctrine than I used to. I still believe truth is important, but love and obedience are more important, and we need the humility to recognise we can’t understand as much as we’d like to think we do.
Christians vs atheists
Almost a decade ago I joined the internet community and the discussion of religion. At first I was stunned by the vitriolic way some christians and unbelievers argued, and I tended to be polite but robust myself. I have learned and read a lot through these discussions, including learning to be less provocative and willing to walk away rather than step across an invisible line. I have considered the arguments presented to me, and what I think in reply, and learnt what makes sense (to me at least) and what doesn’t. I am a clearer thinker as a result.
There are things that other christians think that I cannot accept. There are things about the world that I find difficult to fit with the idea that it was created by a good God. But after half a century of grappling with these matters, I find that there are still many more things that don’t fit with the idea that there is no God. Believing in God and following Jesus still makes more sense to me than any alternative.
Been there, done that
Serving God, generally my wife and I together, has taken me into interesting areas. I’ve led youth groups and taught in Sunday School, including a group in our home for the kids in our street. I’ve been an evangelistic team leader, an elder and a preacher. I’ve helped churches develop strategic plans and I’ve edited newsletters and magazines. I’ve visited christian friends in gaol and psych ward, and sat in the gutter with a friend who may have overdosed and I had to work out what needed to be done. I have made friends with people on the fringes of our affluent society and led a cafe church for them. I’ve set up social justice programs in a church with no history or even much interest in them, and seen them thrive. I’ve been part of a long-running house church mostly comprising people 30 years younger than me, and joined in baptising five of them in the creek behind the house where we met.
In recent years I’ve set up this website and a separate blog, participated in internet forums discussing religion, made a few apparent enemies, but also scores of friends from all over the world.
And most of all, I’m aware I’ve made so many mistakes, learnt I am a flawed human being, and have had to try to change in many ways. I have questioned my faith, let people down and said things at the wrong time, in the wrong way – or sometimes they should never have been said at all. But through it all, somehow I’ve kept believing. No matter how often I re-assess the evidence, it always seems to stack up. God isn’t a certain reality in my life, but believing him makes easily the most sense for me. I don’t think my life would have taken this course if he wasn’t actually there.
In a few weeks I’ll be turning 69. Who knows how long I have left? But we are clear in our minds that we will keep on as we have for the last 50 years. Keeping an open mind, trying to learn new things, trying to keep in touch with what is happening in the world and what God is doing. Sharing what we have learnt with anyone interested, especially encouraging younger generations to settle for nothing less than the truth that will set them free.
I hope to keep this blog going for a long time yet. There is so much more to learn, and so much more I hope I can share with those who are interested.
Sometimes I feel like giving up, but really, I wouldn’t miss this life for quids!
I’d like to be the first to wish you happy 69th!
I’ve been grappling with the issues of creation, the original sin, suffering and evil for the past few years….and your blog / website has been very helpful.
Enjoy reading it, keep blogging, don’t give up….!
It has been a delight to have come across your blog and website. Thanks for sharing your story. I too found your first three books (Lewis, Morrison, Bruce) very helpful reading.
Bless you sir!
Hi Ernest, thanks for encouraging me in this way. They are big issues and I’m glad and honoured that this website has helped. May I recommend two writers that may assist you – Denis Lamoureux and Peter Enns. You can find them easily if you google them.
G’day Phil, thanks too for your encouragement. From reading your blog and book, it seems we have come to similar conclusions – you just got here quicker than I did!
Superb summary of your the religious aspect of your life. I love these sorts of post because I feel that before people discuss ideas, it is best to understand each other a bit. Great journey — thanx for sharing.
Hi Sabio, thanks for reading it, and for the positive comment.
I have enjoyed your articles and may quote you in a book I’m writing on miraculous healing; however, I cannot locate your full name, just ‘Uncle Ernest’, which I presume is one of your nephews.
So, what is your full name and are you still living in Australia?
Kind personal regards,
Hi Max, of course you are free to quote (as long as it is in context). Thanks for the encouragement. My name is Eric Hatfield, and the unkleE is just a nickname. Coincidentally, my grandfather’s name was Ernest. Kind regards to you, I hope you keep reading and commenting here.
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