From the Sandhills of Nebraska to the Universe Next Door
At several points, you refer to tensions between the fundamentalist and anti-intellectual elements of early Christian influences and your desire to pursue higher education. This is an experience common to many intellectually-motivated Christians. For many, this tension creates some bitterness about their background. I didn't detect that in your story. How did you avoid that?
I never rejected the basic beliefs I was taught when I was a kid. My mother, my father, my grandfather—they didn't teach me much individual doctrine. Even when we got into the church in Butte, a mildly fundamentalist church, that's where I was told how to believe in Christ. I was easily convinced that I was a sinner and needed salvation by Jesus.
But I resisted for a while, and one day I fainted instead of going forward in church. My dad and another elder carried me across the street to our house, and laid me down on the couch and left. They said, "He's fainted because it's hot." It was hot; it was August. But my mother leaned over to me and asked, "Was it something the preacher said?" And I said, "Yes, momma." She didn't say another word. But the next week, when the pastor gave the invitation to give your life to Christ, I walked forward and the beginning of the transformation occurred right then and there. I knew that I was never going to give that up.All this came about through ordinary, biblical teaching—fundamental teaching about God and Jesus. Why should I turn against anything like that?
You have given more than 1,700 lectures on college campuses over the decades, and your memoir often refers to Q&A sessions that went well past the lecture time. Have the questions college students ask about Christianity remained the same, or did you see a difference in your later years of lecturing?
I stopped lecturing to non-Christian groups to any great extent when I retired in 1998. The university has changed a lot since then in terms of the kinds of students and what they are doing. I experienced this change through a lecture that I was giving entitled "Is Christianity Rational?" I gave that lecture at Illinois State and again at the University of Rochester in New York. A few months later I was asked to lecture at Harvard, and since that lecture had gone well in those first two venues I used it there.
The Harvard students put out a whole list of questions on a brochure underneath the main title. One of those questions was "Why should anyone believe anything at all?" I looked at that and said, that is exactly the way I am doing the lecture. Why do people believe, and are these good reasons for belief? And I would ask the students that. While I didn't recognize this beforehand, I realized I was talking to students influenced by the idea that what you believe doesn't necessarily have to be true, and that's okay, especially when you were dealing with questions of religion. So I fixed my lecture so that we asked that question first. By the time the lecture was over, I think most of them had come to the conclusion that they don't want to believe something that isn't true. Then the question is how you find out whether what you believe is true or not. From there we went into ordinary apologetics.