When I was an atheist, proud of my unbelief and convinced that man must take hold of his own destiny, nothing shook my conviction more than the contrast between Christians and non-Christians.
My wife and I lived with our new baby boy in a mid-western college town, prosperous, middle-class, and clean. One Southern Baptist church served this community of 50,000. The church was young and vibrantly alive. Perhaps it was easier in those days, in that church, to grow in grace and in knowledge; in any case the people were doing so, responding joyfully to new challenges.
Nearby was the university, another growing institution. New dormitories were springing up every semester as the student body increased by hundreds, then by thousands. Here were large research laboratories, mountains of books, grandiose plans for future expansion. But something was wrong. Within my department, English, and within many others, I saw no evidence that any of my unbelieving acquaintances were growing better, happier, or more emotionally stable. On the contrary, all I could see was slow stagnation or rapid decline. Perhaps I was hypercritical, but I was looking for something to back up my belief in man’s power to control his own life.
Therefore I was dismayed when I witnessed a long departmental squabble ending in violent hatred and a much-publicized lawsuit. Several times I was embarrassed for both parties when I saw graduate students mercilessly browbeaten by professors for daring to debate minor issues in class. I was appalled as I watched brilliant scholars sinking deeper and deeper into an alcoholic daze until they hardly recognized their students or colleagues. I observed that every regrettable incident left scars on personalities, and that atheists and agnostics (a solid majority of the graduate students) often left worse persons than when they entered. Every intellectual gain seemed to be overbalanced by a spiritual loss.
Yet across town, in a modest building that the university would have been ashamed to use, men and women were changing in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to admit this, but the evidence was before my eyes. My wife, a faithful Christian with a quiet confidence that I would one day come to share her faith, wanted me by her side at church, so I went—to watch and criticize. Unfortunately for my atheism, I was committed to honesty.
The pastor, a young man recently out of seminary, occasionally misused or mispronounced a word, or hesitated in the middle of a sentence. But he seemed to improve every Sunday. Besides, he seemed better informed in a variety of fields than my professors were, and he certainly communicated better than most of them.
He and his wife seemed to keep growing closer together instead of further apart. His young son and daughter were the best behaved, yet seemingly the happiest children I had ever met. Gradually I began to await his messages eagerly, for I was learning about Christianity, learning from a man so careful with his facts, so scholarly in his approach, and yet so filled with enthusiasm for his subject that I felt I was in the presence of a real teacher for the first time. I hungered to know the secret of such growth, such awareness, such abundant life.
Much easier to criticize, at least at first, were my Sunday-school teachers. The class for young married couples was taught by a husband and wife about forty years old who had just stepped out of obscurity and rededicated their lives to Christ. To an ambitious graduate student like me, both seemed profoundly ignorant. But how they worked! Each Sunday one of them had a stack of notes drawn from several sources. Stumbling over every hard name, going always too fast or too slowly, clumsily attempting to use visual aids, they sweated through every presentation. I would often raise critical problems in class and laugh inwardly as they struggled for answers. Their simple, factual questions I would answer with arrogant ease, and I would criticize them to my wife afterward for not getting down to what I considered the important issues.
Yet before my eyes they were transformed, and criticism died on my lips. Through hard study and harder practice they became first-rate teachers, always prepared, always enthusiastic, always ready to listen as well as to speak. They looked more at the class, less at their notes. Their voices became firmer. They showed a loving concern for everyone in the class. Within one year they were conducting classes better than were many of my professors.
But others in the church were not growing. One member in particular became my target when I could no longer criticize my teachers. He was a slow-moving, gentle young man who seemed devoid of talent or real intelligence. He sang tenor in the choir and was usually off key. He tried to talk with me sometimes, and he seemed to have read all the wrong books and to have misinterpreted them besides. His enthusiasm for church struck me as childish. I suppose I was grasping at straws, trying to hold on to my belief that Christianity is a delusion and that Christians, however sincere, are nothing but ordinary people. Here, at least, was one person who showed every sign of being ordinary and staying that way.
But my attempts to protect my unbelief proved futile. Many factors, including the regular prayers of the very people I had been so harshly judging and the steadfast, loving witness of my wife, entered into my conversion, but at least on the surface nothing affected me more powerfully than watching Christians in action. If indeed any men or women seemed fit to take hold of their destiny and remake the world, these were the ones. Yet they had no such intention. Like little children, they knelt before God and asked his guidance. On April 23, 1967, I trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord.
That same year I took my family away to another community to accept a teaching position. Within the next year my wife and I felt an irresistible call to full-time Christian service, and we left our new community for theological seminary. Invited back to our first home church to preach an evening sermon and be licensed before departing for Texas, I was amazed to see on the platform the young man whom I had thought so unpromising, so unaffected by his Christianity. For several months now he had been performing every week as a featured soloist, accompanying himself on the guitar and singing hymns he had composed. His voice was now smooth and even, and he handled his guitar expertly. The words were simple but intense. As the last chord died away in the silence of the darkened church, and I rose to preach, I noticed in a side pew one of my former atheist friends, watching intently.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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