How an atheist became a Christian Pastor (or my life up to now)

* Originally delivered in a series of evening talks for students at the English Camp in Pastviny, CZ, 2015.

When I graduated from college in 2005 I was an avowed atheist. I had studied English & Philosophy, and was ready and able to argue my position. I was especially proud of the fact that I had persuaded my roommate in college to abandon his Christian faith, and instead adopt my position on life.

You could summarize my position as philosophical materialism. This is different from what people usually call “materialism” in my country when they are talking about an unhealthy preoccupation with money and with the things they own. I would call that something more like “consumerism.”

The kind of materialism I am talking about has been the dominant assumption in Western life for at least the last 200 years. Philosophical materialism says that the world we live in is, at bottom, matter. Matter is all there is. In other words, if you were to strip away the world as we experience it, in all of its colors and relationships and thoughts, what you would have is simply smaller and smaller molecules, and nothing more.

It means very obviously that there is no spiritual world, there is no reason for existence, and especially there is no God. It means that creatures are simply a bunch of molecules bouncing back and forth that randomly seem to have developed something we call consciousness in animals, and that have developed, in humans, into beings that are self-conscious—aware not only of our surroundings but intensely aware of our own individuality.

This way of thinking about life & reality permeates the culture of my country and, I would imagine, the culture of the Czech Republic.

 

Here is how I have traced the development of my own thinking:

I can remember a conversation in my 2nd grade in school about the existence of God (ca. 1991). We somehow started talking about the question: Is there a God? I don’t remember what I said, but I remember siding with the kids who reasoned like this: people all over the world have very often explained what they don’t understand through things called “gods”. For example, in ancient Greece it thundered because Zeus threw lightning down. Therefore, all gods are human inventions.

That was my working hypothesis about God and the world, although at the time I failed to recognize how flawed the logic is. The fact that there are a variety of opinions held about something does not mean that they are all false. 

I went to church with my mom, but I understood it mainly as a social thing.

 

In 2001, my last year of high school, I discovered that my world might be very small.

I learned this in my course on philosophy, when we read the ancient philosopher Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, which is written as a Socratic dialogue. In it, Socrates portrays the world as a bunch of people locked in a cave, bound together in chains, and who are only allowed to look in one direction, at a wall. As they look at the wall, their captors stand behind them and hold things up in front of a fire to make shadows on the wall of the cave that is visible to the captives. This, Socrates says, is a description of all human life: looking at reality through chains and shadows.

Socrates then imagines that one of the captives is freed from his chains. He is then led up a path toward the mouth of the cave. As he gets nearer to sunlight, he finds it difficult to bear. He has to shut his eyes. He is blinded by the light. The grass underneath his feet is painful because he has never touched anything but smooth stone.

Slowly he begins to see the world around him more clearly, and begins to discover how beautiful it is, and reflects that what he has always thought of as reality was really nothing but a shadow of reality compared to the world outside the cave. He then goes back into the cave, and is locked up again, facing the wall of shadows with everyone else. But he begins to speak about this other world, which he calls the real world, and tries to convince people that the cave is only a poor reflection of the life they could experience if they left the cave.

Socrates imagines that in the end, the people chained up in the cave would rise up against the man and kill him for upsetting the order, and causing civil unrest. The story goes that Socrates himself was killed in similar circumstances in ancient Athens.

This story left me with the haunting realization that I might be living in a world of shadows. The things that I called real might be as far from reality as shadows on the wall of a cave. So I dedicated myself to philosophy, in the attempt to escape the world of shadows, and find the world of true colors, beauty, and life.

 

When I finished college in 2005, I believed that I had left the cave of shadows in the embrace of philosophical materialism. It was essentially the world of Friedrich Nietzsche, with his assessment of power and strength as ultimate things—meaning, of course, that there are no ultimate things.

It was a world where everything and everyone I encountered had value based solely on whether or not they furthered my goals. And I will be the first to admit that for a while it was quite a fun place to exist. I did whatever I wanted, I had lots of fun and lively conversations, met a lot of interesting people.

I had no problem breaking up with a girl if she wasn’t quite what I was looking for, or leaving one party for a better party if it came along, or seeking new friends who were more interesting and giving up my old ones. And when you start to behave this way, you soon come to meet a lot of people who are basically of the same mindset as you—playing the same game. The game goes like this: "I will use you as long as it is to my advantage, and when it's not, well... see you later."

But one day you realize that everyone you know is a user, and so are you, and your old values like “friendship” exist only as a caricature of what they used to be like. You realize that you are shallow, and that shallow is a lonely thing to be, and it’s especially lonely if you ever meet a real crisis.

 

Here is how the crisis happened to me:

After college, I took a job with a staffing company where I recruited people to fill different roles. My company would work with our clients, businesses, to identify what positions they needed to fill, and I would try to find the people for those positions.

It was similar to a hard-core sales job: lots of time on the phone with people you’ve never met, trying to persuade them that you would be a good guy to work with, and then trying to persuade your boss that you had found the candidate that we were looking for. I would get a chunk of money for the time that the people worked in the job I found for them, and occasionally I had to manage performance.

It was high energy, fast paced, high aggression. 

We were supposed to be a team, but it was very often “every man for himself.” Co-workers would “steal” job candidates from each other. The people trying to find jobs were the commodity, and so you traded them like you might trade horses. You were encouraged to string them along by telling them that you were sure something would come along soon, even though you had no way of knowing that. It was messy.

In Minneapolis, where I worked, there is a massive population of Somali refugees. Minneapolis actually has the second largest population of Somalis in the world (Mogadishu is #1). As you can imagine there were a lot of Somalis who needed jobs. Some had very good skills and our company had hired them for medical assembly positions. But by the time I got there, there were a lot of companies would no longer take Somalis.

What happened was that one Somali would start on a job and everything was great. But then a few more would get hired on, and all of a sudden the cultural code started to creep into the workplace. People started to call in sick on Fridays, because Friday is the Muslim Sabbath. And there are certain types of ritual washing that must be done with still water (so I'm told), so they would start washing their hands in the toilet bowl.

Obviously these things are incompatible with normal Western workplaces, and need to be dealt with. But the way it came down to us at the staffing firm was: No Somalis, Ever.

Now this is against all legal and ethical hiring practices because it specifically discriminates against people based on their religion and ethnicity. I started to realize that the company I worked for was specifically there to bypass the laws in a way that was quasi-legal. 

People were commodities, and they were completely reducible to a dollar value.

 

After a few months on the job I was growing more and more depressed and anxious by the day. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I would brush my teeth and then throw up whatever I had been able to eat. My roommates wanted me to come out to the bar and blow off the stress, but every time I did I felt even emptier. 

On the drive to work I shuddered when my building come into view. I would go into the bathroom in the office, get down on my knees in front of the toiled bowl, and throw up again. 

I knew that this was not life, and that I was not free. My philosophical materialism was collapsing.

I was plagued by the need for justice in the world. I felt a desperate need for love & real friendship. The problem was that my worldview said, “justice is a myth, beauty is subjective, and love is a feeling produced by a certain combination of neural synapses.”

But in my despair I could no longer believe it.

I longed so badly for a justice, love, and beauty, that I began to consider that maybe my inner longings were smarter than my philosophical convictions. I began to wonder if instead of coming out into the light of the real world, I had actually gone further into the darkness of the cave.

I began to think about a Kierkegaard book I had read in college, called The Sickness Unto Death.  He suggests that if humans are made by another being who has created in such a way we must truly relate to him in order to rightly relate to ourselves, then the individual self cannot rightly relate even to itself if it does not rightly relate to that other being.

Maybe it was true?

 

It was on the bathroom floor in that office building that I prayed to God. My prayer went something like this: God, I don't know if you exist. If you do, you certainly don't owe me anything. But please help me. 

And the interesting thing was that God did help. I started to see a therapist. I applied for a couple of jobs, and was hired very quickly for a position as an analyst. I wanted a job where I could just focus on something other than people, and could just do mental work and heal for a while. And that was basically what I got. I later found out that the company that hired me usually takes a very long time to offer anyone a job, which made me very grateful.

 

I was hired in February 2006. In the summer a friend invited me to church. Things had gotten better, but I was still pretty depressed. I went to church with him and found out the church was about to offer a theology course. 

It fell within the range of my “philosophy” interests, and I was more open than I had been before to the possibility of God, so I took the class. The course went through a book which presented the Christian worldview as a system of thought.

It was my good fortune that most Christians never bother to study the theology of their faith, with the result that only very serious Christians would ever sign up for such a class, which meant that nobody bothered to ask me whether or not I was a Christian. I was very happy in my anonymity.

That Autumn of 2006 I started to read the Bible and go to my friend’s church. I began to try to pray more regularly, somewhere in those months I became a Christian.

 

It has taken me a long time since then to understand that Christianity was not about rules and systems of thought.

What Christianity is about a man, Jesus, who inaugurated the Kingdom of God in his life, death, and resurrection. It is about trusting Jesus and learning his new way of being human. It is a truer way of being human, one which looks forward to God’s future, and is shaped by it in the present. It is a way of being human which is about becoming what we are meant to be.

Imagine you had never heard of a smart phone and a distant relative gave one to you and told you how to charge it and turn it on, but never told you how to you use it. Once you charge it up, you press a button and see that it tells the time. You might think, “This is great, I have a new watch... although it is a bit large!” The next day is daylight savings, and when you look at the phone that morning you realize that the time has automatically adjusted by one hour. You think, “This is great! A timekeeping device that I never have to set.” And that’s how you use the phone, as a watch.

It would be clear to anyone who knew what the phone was for, that you were using it in a very narrow way. The device was made to do lots of things, but, because you have not been told how to use it or bothered to investigate, you just use it to keep time.

The point here is that there are many parts of our life which can be used in many ways. If you only use them the way you think they ought to be used without consulting someone who knows better, you will waste a lot of your own time, and quite possibly abuse yourself & others. In the example of the smart phone all that's lost is money and functionality, but for humans far more is at stake.

However, when we consider our own humanity, it is interesting to me that so many people believe that any way we choose to live our lives is equally valid. Nobody would say such a thing about a smart phone, or a car, or medicinal drugs, or if you wore your shoes on the wrong feet or wore shirts as your pants.

We don’t think it’s a good idea to use things any old way you please, because things have a specific purpose, and the effects of misuse can be completely disastrous. The only reason we do not apply the same standard to our humanity is because we have bought deeply into the myth that of self-creation. This myth was heralded in the Enlightenment most memorably in the words of our old friend Descartes who concluded, “I think, therefore I am.”

But God speaks about an entirely different way of being human, a way which anticipates the goal of the whole world. It is a way of being human which embodies love, justice, kindness, gentleness, and patience, and these things are embodied most fully in the life of Jesus Christ. This way of living is not so much about rules, as it is about training to become truly what we were meant to be. 

The Czech author and priest, Tomáš Halík, has defined Christian faith as “a certain attitude or disposition toward reality.” It is a disposition toward reality that is shaped by and directed toward the hope of resurrection. And as in the life of Jesus, the way toward resurrection is what Christians call the way of the cross. It involves rigorous training, self-denial, the practice of things which do not come naturally. In this way it is like training for a sport or musical instrument, because a Christian sacrifices a great deal in order to prepare for the life of resurrection.

 

Toward the end of the theology class I was taking, one of the leaders of the church asked me if I would consider leading a Bible study. I told him that I had only recently become a Christian, during the course. He was surprised, but after thinking it over he decided it would be alright as long as I was paired with some wise co-leaders. So I started leading. I got involved in different kinds of ministries, and I was very happy about the opportunity I had to teach ESL to Somalis so that they might be able to overcome some of their many obstacles.

The leaders of the church asked me if I would consider going to their seminary program, so I took a Greek class and went to a different seminary instead.

 

I don’t want to give you the impression that things became easy after I entrusted my life to God, or that I never had doubts or was depressed again. I had another bout with depression and anxiety shortly after I got married, when most of my hair fell out. Again, when I was in seminary I fell into a crippling and debilitating bout with anxiety. I almost quit seminary, and thought about killing myself.

I have had to fight a lot for hope against despair. Last year my father committed suicide, which unveiled the darkness of his own depression & fueled mine.

 

But I feel called somehow to be where I am, and to do what I do. I feel called as one who knows about darkness and about hopelessness, and about lots of ways of trying to make sense of life. I feel I called to speak about the strange and new world of Jesus Christ, of the God who is actively making all things new, and about the way of the cross, and the mystery of resurrection. About the possibility and coming reality of a world where truth and justice and love reign, and where pain and sorrow and evil are no more. Where people can be fully free, and fully who they were meant to be. This is why I am a pastor.

Mike Littell

English Camp 2015, Pastviny, CZ