Two atheist Professors

May 14th, 2016

This page in brief ….

Two English Professors were atheists until they opened themselves to the possibility that God might exist after all. Both eventually come to believe in Jesus, and both changed their jobs because of it.

One found God via poetry and literature, and by logic and rational argument. The other experienced God’s love and conviction through a caring friend and christian minister. These are their stories.

Holly Ordway

God wasn’t part of Holly Ordway’s early life. Her family weren’t believers and they didn’t go to church. The closest she came to religion was singing Christmas carols and setting up a nativity scene at home. And, though she didn’t recognise it at the time, an appreciation of the fantasy writing of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.

By the time she went to college to study English, she was mildly dismissive of christianity, though she had a strong sense of right and wrong and a longing for meaning.

From scepticism to atheism

College strengthened her disdain for christianity (she thought that people who believed in any form of God were seriously self-deluded) and that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was just a historical curiosity, and that science could explain everything. But college also introduced her to christian poets, notably the power and beauty …. the absolute emotional honesty of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose Windhover made a deep impression.

But her prevailing scepticism about religion won out over the lessons the Hopkins and others showed her, so by her mid-twenties she identified as an atheist.

Teaching and learning

In her early thirties, Holly was teaching English literature at college. She was firmly convinced that atheism was true – christians were ignorant, plastic Jesus stereotypes and atheists were smarter than Christians. But English poetry was full of christian poets, and she found that her favourite authors were christians – C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all; and then the poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne.

A poem by John Donne particularly moved her, even though she didn’t believe what it was saying:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

She came to the conclusion she had to learn more about the faith that motivated these authors and poets.

Crossing swords

Holly was also a competitive fencer, and her new coach at this time was a christian who didn’t press his beliefs on her. But when she began to ask questions, it was to him that she turned. She felt his answers had truth and substance, but he urged her to do her own reading and research.

As an English Professor with a PhD degree, she knew how to research, so she began reading – CS Lewis, philosophers JP Moreland and WL Craig, and New Testament scholar NT Wright were among those she turned to.

Imagination and reason

She came to the point where it all started to add up. CS Lewis and the philosophers convinced her that God existed, and Wright’s monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God convinced her that Jesus’ resurrection was historical fact – and that Jesus really was the son of God.

Yet something was missing. It was all true, she believed, but somehow she couldn’t grasp it and imagine it. So she turned to the Chronicles of Narnia and found there the pictures she needed, so her imagination could connect with what her reason had already concluded, and she could fully accept christian belief.

Higher up and further in

Holly subsequently went back to university to study apologetics, eventually became a Catholic, and is now the head of the Apologetics Department at Houston Baptist University, where she is particularly interested in “cultural apologetics”, which includes reason and imagination, intellect and heart, reasoned arguments and artistic engagement. The second edition of her book Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms was released last October.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I know nothing of Rosaria’s early life except that she was a gymnast and marathon runner. But by her mid thirties, she was a university professor of English and Women’s Studies, specialising in 19th century literature, postmodernism and Queer Theory. She was radical politically, a feminist and a gay activist.

She was a lesbian, and she and her partner, another professor, were active in many causes – AIDS activism, children’s health and literacy, gay and lesbian activism, sexual abuse healing, disability activism and animal activism. They were both members of a Unitarian Universalist Church, a pluralist church that allows any belief or none and encourages the individual search for truth. Many of its members are humanists, and Rosaria identified as an atheist.

Reaction to the religious right

Her experience of christians was very negative – hateful attidues to the LGBTI community and feminists, and anti-intellectual attitudes by christian students – so she was scornful of christians, especially the religious right. An admittedly ridiculous anti-feminist statement by Republican Presidential contender and media mogul Pat Robertson particularly riled her.

She began to research the religious right and their politics of hatred against queers like me, which included studying the Bible to understand the source of conservative christian belief. Then in 1997 she wrote an article in the local newspaper about the christian organisation Promise Keepers.

Feedback

She received many responses, which she quickly assessed as either fan mail or hate mail and placed them in a box set aside for each. One response stood out as not belonging to either category – a friendly and inquiring letter from a Reformed Presbyterian pastor who simply asked her why she thought as she did, and encouraged her to consider the basis of her opinions. It was, she says the kindest letter of opposition I had ever received.

Her first response was to throw the letter away, but subsequently she spent days considering the challenges it posed. She saw that her historical materialist worldview was quite different to the supernatural worldview of christianity – and both were presuppositions. And, surprisingly, she had never considered such questions before.

Dialogue

After a week of pondering, she decided to take the pastor up on his offer to discuss further. She went to dinner with the pastor and his wife, eager to meet a real born again Christian, to see how he lived and why he believed such silly ideas.

Ken and Floy didn’t debate or evangelise; they listened and shared what made them tick, and were interested in what motivated her. Their conversation stimulated Rosaria to ask questions about God – did he exist, how could she know, what might he require of her? And so began a two year friendship and discussion.

Ken and his wife, Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. They did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. ….. And because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church, I knew it was safe to be friends.

The hound of heaven?

Rosaria began to read the Bible intensively, hours at a time, and several times over. She was a Professor of English literature, and she wanted to understand it. Ken came over one night and gave her a lecture on how the Bible, all 66 books, fitted together. It was a long talk, and at the end she felt infuriated – if what he said was true, then everything she believed was false. She knew the question was – was it true?

The Bible seemed to her to get bigger and overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. One night she confided in a friend: what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?

One day, she went to church to confront this God. She felt overwhelmed, sick, she didn’t want to be there, she felt conspicuous. But she kept going. And slowly her confidence in herself and her world view crumbled.

A train wreck

Finally there came a day when she was willing to give in, and accept what she still didn’t like. I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang a sanguine love song in the rubble of my world. And she found rest.

Metamorphosis

Her life totally changed. She stopped considering herself a lesbian, and chose to define herself as a christian. She left academia, married a Minister in the Reformed Church and they adoped four children and fostered others. For a decade she said little publically about her former life, but in 2012 she published her story and began to speak and write about her experiences.

Rosaria has copped flak from the LGBTI community and some fellow christians. But she refuses to be pigeon-holed. She is still critical of the religious right, she eschews the label “ex-gay” and I haven’t seen her take sides in the debate over whether same sex attraction is genetic and unalterable or not – she seems rather to critique all “sides”. She doesn’t seem to generalise from her own experience.

Read more

Holly Ordway

Rosaria Butterfield

Photos: Amazon and Wikipedia.

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