Let me begin by thanking you most sincerely for the invitation to speak at this joint Evangelical Fellowship/Affirm Autumn Conference. You have asked me to give two related talks in close succession on the general topic: “Why I am still an evangelical Christian”. I should confess that much of the material I plan to share in the first of these was presented at a talk with the same title that I gave in London for Courage a couple of years ago. So if one or two of you are experience an elusive sense of déjà vu this morning, let me reassure you— you are not psychic—you have heard me say these things before!
It is worth perhaps pointing out, as I did on that former occasion, that my title can be interpreted in several ways, depending on where you put the sentence stress.
For instance, I am tempted to put the stress on the third word: “Why I am still an evangelical Christian”. The point being that there are many today who insist that I cannot possibly be one. I am a gay man, in a sexually-active relationship with a partner. Such a person, in the minds of many, is by definition an apostate and cannot possibly be a Christian, evangelical or otherwise. I doubt there is anyone of that opinion at this particular conference, but if by chance there is, I can only say we must agree to differ on that.
Having decided to avoid that interpretation of my title, it occurs to me that, alternatively, I could focus on that first-person pronoun: “Why I am still an evangelical Christian”—the point being this time that many of my gay friends who were evangelical Christians are so no longer. Some have drifted towards being Catholic Christians; some towards being liberal Christians. A few now dignify themselves with the rather bizarre adjective “post-evangelical Christians”. In the US a new group has sprung up wishing to be known as “red-letter” Christians. Saddest of all, I have seen a number of enthusiastic gay Christians abandon their faith altogether.
I am not without sympathy for the disillusionment that underlies that defection from the ranks of evangelicalism by so many honest men and women. In many respects, I share their exasperation. The evangelical wing of the church has been guilty of the most appalling blunder in the last 25 years. Theologically, they have veered towards precisely the kind of barren legalism that Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees and Paul in the Galatian Judaisers. Strategically, they have positioned themselves so ineptly that it is now almost impossible for them to evangelise Western culture successfully. Ask the man in the street today what he associates with the word “evangelical” and, if he can make any sense of it at all, you will hear synonyms like intolerant, old-fashioned, narrow-minded, killjoy and (most common of all) homophobic.
Having spent many years of my life endeavouring to enhance the reputation of evangelical Christianity among intelligent young students in Cambridge, I cannot find words to express the vexation of spirit I feel at this totally unnecessary loss of credibility—for it is entirely self-inflicted.
Nevertheless, call me a blinkered stick-in-the-mud if you must, I am still an evangelical Christian. In fact, my testimony is that the essential content and basis of my faith has not significantly changed since I first formulated it in my early twenties. If I am now disowned by the evangelical establishment, it is because the goalposts have been moved—the term “evangelical Christian” has been hijacked and redefined.
I hope to say a few things in my second talk in response to those Christians who are now understandably embarrassed by the title “evangelical” and wish to distance themselves from it. But I don’t want these talks to be entirely characterised by defensive polemic. I have decided therefore in the first talk to put the stress on the final word of my title: why I am still a Christian. So this will essentially be a personal testimony; my hope is that it will be a source of spiritual encouragement to some of you. In the second talk, I will put the stress on the penultimate word and try to explain outline why I still wish to call myself an evangelical Christian. This will be less a testimony and more (what John Henry Newman famously called) an “apologia”—a defence of my theological opinions—but more about that anon.
Let me waste no more time playing the overture. Why am I still a Christian?
The answer is, I am still a Christian for two reasons:
The first reason is that nothing, absolutely nothing in my life compares in importance to the discovery I made 50 years ago that God is not (as I had supposed until that time) a superstitious hangover from mankind’s intellectual infancy, but that he is real, he is a personal, and most extraordinary of all, he is interested in me.
The second reason is that, though I am now half a century older, absolutely nothing has changed on that score. I still believe passionately and unequivocally in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
Before I tell you a little about how that faith was awoken and why it is still alive in me, let me issue a couple of disclaimers.
First, I am not a Christian because it makes life easier for me. I entertained the opinion in my unconverted days that Christians were a lot of pathetic psychological cripples who were incapable of staggering through life without the crutch of faith to support them. There was a small company of well-meaning Christians among my student friends—we called them “the God-squad”—and frankly, the things they said to me did nothing to disarm my thinly-disguised contempt for their lack of mental robustness.
“Oh Roy,” they would say, “You’re not very happy are you?”
“No,” I would say, “I’m feeling a bit depressed this week.”
“Well, you should be a Christian. Christians have joy!”
“Roy, you’re looking worried.”
“Yes, I am a bit anxious.”
“You should become a Christian. Christians have peace!”
“Roy, you don’t know where you’re going in your life, do you?”
“Well, I am a bit confused, that’s true.”
“You should become a Christian. Christians have purpose!”
And so it went on. They made faith sound like some kind of psychotherapeutic panacea. Whatever your emotional problem was, come to Jesus and he would dispel it for you. I told them flat out I wasn’t interested in that.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to be happy—maybe the world is an unhappy place.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to find peace—maybe the world is a disturbing place.
I wasn’t going to become a Christian just to find purpose—maybe the world is a meaningless place.
“Natural scientists,” I said with a superior air (for that’s what I was in those days), “are committed to the pursuit of truth. We don’t believe in things just because they are convenient. We believe in things because they are true.”
Those of you who have read anything about the philosophy of science will immediately detect that I was a very naive science student in those days and at least twenty years behind the time even then in the 1960’s. Few scientists these days would claim that their theories, even when soundly based on empirical evidence, are “true” in the absolute sense I intended the word. These days, scientists are content to regard their theories merely as descriptive models that fit the observable evidence and leave all talk about ultimate explanations and metaphysical truth to the philosophers. However, my intellectual arrogance did at least preserve me from turning to religion simply as a relief from my adolescent insecurities. I didn’t become a Christian then, and I don’t continue to be one now, because it makes life easier for me. Quite the contrary: I can assure you that, while my life has been immeasurably richer for having welcomed Christ into it, it has also been considerably more difficult than it would have been without him.
Having said that, let me immediately voice another disclaimer lest you run away with the wrong idea as a result of this vaunted scientific integrity I used to boast about so childishly. I am not a Christian because I think that I can prove scientifically that God exists or that the Christian message is true.
In my unconverted days that kind of conclusive demonstration was what I often said I was looking for. “You want me to believe? Prove it to me. Let’s see the logical argument laid out on paper. You tell me there’s an invisible God, and I tell you there are invisible fairies at the bottom of the garden. Now show me how your assertion about an invisible God has any more claim to be true than my assertion about invisible fairies.” And the God-squad couldn’t do so.
I began life therefore as a precocious atheist. I gave up believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, God, and Father Christmas all at the same time—when I was 8 years old according to my now departed mother—and I remained in that state of adamant unbelief until my late teens.
Why did things change? It’s simple—I read the Bible. A Baptist minister, patiently door-knocking on the terraced houses of my East London home, put it to me that if I read the Bible I’d be in a much better position to critique the Christian superstition. I would find all the errors and contradictions in it and be able even more effectively to pull the rug from under the feet of the God squad. It sounded such a good strategy; but, you see, I had no idea then what subversive dynamite the Bible is.
C.S Lewis comments of his own spiritual journey:
“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
Too true! I began reading the Gospel of John, and within a few pages I was totally hooked. It blew my mind! There was I thinking I was going to take the Bible to pieces, and instead I found I was the one under ruthless interrogation. This man Jesus that John was presenting just mesmerised me. Even when I was bewildered by what he was saying and doing, he captured my attention. Some deep intuition within me reverberated uncannily whenever I engaged with him.
It felt rather like a scene from a horror movie. I had entered the darkened room convinced that all this talk about it being haunted was nonsense and determined to shine my flash-lamp into every corner to prove it so, only to be halted in my tracks by the sound of heavy breathing beside me and touch of an icy hand on my shoulder.
Jesus intrigued me. He just wasn’t what I was expecting. In fact, as I read on in John’s Gospel, I discovered that the inner questionings of my heart were being addressed in a way I had never experienced before.
You remember my riposte to the God squad: “We natural scientists are committed to the pursuit of truth. We don’t believe in things just because they are convenient. We believe in things because they’re true.”
Imagine my surprise then when I discovered this word “truth” kept on appearing on Jesus’ lips.
With your permission I’d like to share three of the most important of these occasions with you. They are in the reverse order from that in which they occur in the Gospel of John, but it is easier for me to explain their impact on me if we look at them this way round.
John 18: 37-38
Jesus is here standing before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, on trial for his life. Pilate tries to interrogate him in order to identify some evidence of seditious purpose.
Jesus answered, “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked.
I cannot tell you how disgusted I was by that response from Pilate. I hated it—for it smacked of the cynicism I saw in so many of my non-Christian friends and which sometimes, to my shame, I saw seeping into my own attitudes—the cynicism that had “given up”on finding anything really worth living for. The cynicism that had searched for truth, returned empty-handed, and so had decided it was going to shrug its shoulders and forget about the quest.
“All existing things are born for no reason” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre. “It is meaningless that we are born; it is meaningless that we die”
In the 1960’s his nihilistic existentialism was enormously influential among young people. Just do your own thing; enjoy yourself while you can; that’s all there is to do. For there’s no absolute purpose to pursue; there’s no absolute truth to discover. Science has shown that the world is just a vast colliding mass of random particles pursuing their own pointless and intrinsically unpredictable course. We human beings with our self-conscious questions about the meaning of life are just a sick joke in an absurd universe. Don’t look for meaning in it all. You’ll just be disillusioned. Just eat, drink and be merry—for tomorrow we die.
That I suspect was what lay behind this ironic rhetorical question of Pilate too. He had heard the waffle of the Greek and Latin philosophers and was unimpressed—political pragmatism was his philosophy—“Truth? What on earth is that?”
Something very deep inside of me was repulsed by that kind of indifference to a word that mattered so much to me. Everything inside me yearned for there to be a meaning to human existence. To say “What is truth?” in the kind of dismissive way that Pilate did was to relegate all human achievement and progress to an exercise in futility. In spite of myself, I couldn’t repress the gut feeling that there had to be truth. To abandon the quest for truth was to retreat back to the level of brute beasts and mindless plants. I wasn’t content merely to survive. I demanded to understand why I was alive.
And I couldn’t escape a thrill of excitement when I realised that this enigmatic man Jesus agreed with me about that. More than that, he regarded it as his mission to bring that truth to mankind. “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”.
It was an astonishing claim, and one of course that I did not immediately accept, but it was important nevertheless because it demolished an unacknowledged barrier to faith in my heart. Perhaps my deepest fear about becoming a Christian was that it would involve some kind of intellectual suicide on my part. Faith, I was sure, was a blind leap in the dark. It could not possibly be an act of reason. It was more like an act of desperation. As the schoolboy said in his religious education essay: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.”
People believe because they need a psychological prop, I said—they’re scared of dying or maybe of living—so they surround themselves with those emotionally comforting religious buzz words that the God-squad were always throwing at me—peace, joy, purpose.
It was an immense relief to me to discover that Jesus didn’t see it that way. He wasn’t asking me to give up the quest for truth and receive him instead. It was as the Truth that he wanted to be accepted—or not at all. He did not ask me to unscrew my brain and throw it away; he was as concerned as I was about intellectual integrity because he came to testify to the truth.
My testimony today, 50 years on, is that that discovery is as relevant and as compelling for me now as it was then. I am still not interested in comforting religious platitudes. I want my heart, my mind, my life to be compelled by the imperious constraint of the truth. That imperative goal has cost me much. But nothing else would do for me then, and nothing else will do for me now.
That leads me to the second statement on this key issue that I found in John’s Gospel:
John 14: 5-6
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
If you look it up you’ll find that as Jesus speaks these words, the bottom is just about to fall out of his disciples’ world. For three years they had followed him looking for the kingdom he’d often spoken about. All their hopes focused around this climactic victory toward which he seemed to be moving. But now, within a matter of hours he was going to be crucified. In this passage Jesus is trying to prepare them for this terrible shock. There is a sense of dark foreboding. “I’m going away,” he says. “But don’t be afraid about it. I’m going to prepare a place for you.”
And at that point, Thomas speaks up—Thomas, of course, is disciple that we famously meet later complaining that he cannot believe that Jesus has risen from the dead—this is the original “doubting Thomas”—and in John 14 he confesses himself to be in a typically hopeless state of bewilderment.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
I have to say I find something just a trifle amusing about Thomas’ gloominess. He reminds me distinctly of A. A. Milne’s donkey, Eeyore. Thomas is so pessimistic about the possibility of unravelling the mysteries of which Jesus speaks, that he shrugs his shoulders in melancholic resignation. His enquiry is not so much a question as an affirmation that all questioning is pointless. ‘We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Far from seeking spiritual illumination, Thomas is in a mood only to exaggerate the hopelessness of the darkness.
In short he is an archetypal agnostic. He gains perhaps some perverse satisfaction from what he takes to be his irremediable ignorance. We cannot know, so what is the point of talking about it?
At least we must compliment Thomas on his honesty. There are some people who never admit to perplexity about anything. They always insist they understand. It would have been very easy for Thomas to have donned such a mask of super-spirituality and made fawning noises of agreement in this situation. “Oh, quite so, Jesus; of course we know the way you’re going.”
The church has more than its fair share of such spiritual yes-men, with their plastic piety and boring orthodoxy. I can tell you from personal experience, they make life very dull for a pastor. At least Thomas is candid enough to admit that he has got a problem. There is no stereotyped testimony of faith to which he feels he has to conform. If he does not know he will say so, with unrepressed candour. And we must conclude from Jesus’ sympathetic response to his remarks that he entertained a good deal of respect for that kind of integrity. Maybe there is, as the poet says, ‘more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds’. Certainly Jesus does not rebuke him as an unbeliever because he says he does not know. And, once again, that came as a great encouragement to me when I first read it; for, frankly, I had a lot of sympathy with Thomas’ scepticism.
This Christian idea of “going to heaven” and “meeting God” had always been problematic for me. I was a scientist. Things had to be to be made of energy and elementary particles for me—for that’s all the universe contains. Floating around on spiritual clouds in some numinous, “heavenly” world just wasn’t real somehow. I couldn’t help conjecturing that maybe Thomas’ thinking was a little like mine in this respect.
Perhaps he too was a hard-headed rationalist. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t believe in the resurrection at first. He wanted concrete realities, not mystical abstractions and abstruse metaphors.
“Where is this Father’s house you’re talking about, Jesus? How on earth can we know the way to it?” he asks. You might as well be Peter Pan inviting Wendy to go to Never Never Land, or Judy Garland singing about how wonderful it will be to visit the Wizard of Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.
Jesus’ answer is to redirect the conversation in a startlingly thought-provoking manner.
Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Once again, this wasn’t what I was expecting.
I was anticipating Jesus would say, “It’s all right, Thomas. If you don’t know the way, I’ll show you.” But he doesn’t say that. He says, “I am the way.”
I was expecting he’d say, “I’ll point you in the direction of eternal life.” No, he says, “I am the life.”
In short, I was expecting he’d set up a signpost to the truth. Instead, he says, “I am the truth.”
It is a remarkably disarming response. He is substituting a person for a place. Instead of talking about himself as a guide on the journey, he speaks of himself as the pathway itself. It’s as if he’s saying to Thomas, “Look, you’re taking my metaphors too literally. Don’t think of the road to heaven as some kind of mystical path you must discover; think of it as a personal relationship—a relationship with me.”
Someone in love might say: “I was just existing before I met him. I didn’t know what it was like to feel really alive.” In some much more profound and permanent way, Jesus here seems to be claiming something similar. A relationship with him puts us in touch with our true human destiny in a way that nothing else can. Life can have direction and meaning because we know him.
He tells Thomas he is like a man who complains he cannot get into the car when all the time the car keys are jangling in his pocket. Don’t you realise that the answer to your agnostic uncertainty is staring you in the face, Thomas? You do know the way, for you know me. Eternal life is not a location to which you must journey; it is a relationship with me which you have already begun.
This, as I say, was an enormously influential discovery for me.
It made me realise why mere intellectualism was so unsatisfying. I had been thinking of the truth as some kind of idea that I had to objectively conceptualize. But Jesus said I was on the wrong tack—the truth is actually a person to whom I must subjectively relate.
Many cosmologists dream that they will be the one to solve the mystery of the Big Bang. But suppose we did? Supposing our mathematics outdid even Stephen Hawking’s. Suppose we solved the fundamental problem of physics and formulated a Grand Unified Theory of everything. Would we really know the truth? Would the formula we discovered really satisfy our hearts as human beings?
Of course it would not. For as I said earlier, a scientific model that describes is not the same as an ultimate explanation. Jesus is saying that the ultimate truth behind this universe is not an equation at all, but a person. That, of course, is what makes people so significant. The only way we are going to make sense of the extraordinary phenomenon of human existence is by recognizing the ultimate person that stands behind our world.
This is why ordinary non-intellectual people who can barely recall their two times-table are often incomparably closer to “the truth” than great minds like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking.
There is no concealing of course the stupendous personal claim which is implicit in these words of Jesus when he says: “I am the truth”. But my testimony is that it is a claim I accept as fully and as unconditionally today as I did when I first embraced it 50 years ago.
It means of course I have to take Jesus immensely seriously. He insists upon it. Many people make the multiplicity of world religions an excuse for an agnostic lack of commitment to anything. There are so many different faiths. How can I be expected to know which is the truth?
Jesus will not permit that kind of evasiveness. He refuses to be damned with faint praise. He will not be relegated to the ranks of a mere prophet or philosopher. His claim is too momentous for that.
Please don’t misunderstand me. This does not mean of course that Jesus resolves every unanswered question on my mind. He does not offer solutions to all my scientific and philosophical queries; he offers himself. According to him, the ultimate truth which we need to make sense of our lives is not a system of propositions or a mathematical formula to be proven by logic and apprehended by intelligence. It is not something “intellectual” at all. The ultimate truth behind this universe is personal: it is him.
It is to be apprehended, therefore, in the only way a person can be apprehended: by trust, by love. Some may call this a gamble. But then all personal relationships are gambles, and without them we beggar ourselves as human beings. Jesus invited me to take a gamble on him. He did not demand that I switched off my brain. He did not insist that I should immediately believe everything that Christians are supposed to believe. He asked only that I believed in him; that I consciously left the ranks of the agnostic “don’t knows” and identified him personally as the route towards the answers I sought, irrespective of whether I could formulate those answers. He offered, not an encyclopaedia containing immediate solutions to every problem I raised, but a journey undertaken in the assurance that I was on the right road—‘I am the way, the truth, the life’ he told me. Hesitantly, even a little reluctantly, I found myself believing him—and I still do.
That brings me to the third statement about truth that I discovered in the Gospel of John. I’ve left it to last because for me it was the most influential.
John 8:31 – 36
To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
They answered him, “We … have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the impact these particular verses had on me when I first read them. I’m not saying I was converted on the spot. There was a lot more I had to learn, but it certainly opened my eyes in a most dramatic way. You see, I had always thought—rather arrogantly—that it was the Christians who needed liberating. They were the ones who were in bondage to all those do’s and don’ts. They were the ones who were tied up in all that church-going ritual. I was immeasurably freer than any of them.
Yet here was Jesus insisting it wasn’t the case. Like the Jews he was addressing, I felt like saying, “Who are you kidding, Jesus? I’m nobody’s slave. What do you mean, I shall be set free?” Jesus’ reply hit home, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
I knew what he meant by that and I knew he was right about it. My freedom was freedom in a meaningless universe: the freedom of a random particle without significance and purpose. Oh, sure, my actions were free but they were free because all choices were equally arbitrary as far as I was concerned. I could live as I please, but that was cold comfort in a world where there was nothing to live for.
I could see what Jesus was getting at. Real freedom isn’t a licence to do as you want. That’s the most miserable bondage of all. Real freedom is the knowledge that enables you to live a meaningful existence constrained by the truth.
Peter Berger in his book Rumour of Angels pictures a child waking up after a nightmare in the middle of the night and, finding himself surrounded by darkness, crying out in terror. The child’s mother rushes to him, comforts him and reassures him that everything’s okay. He doesn’t need to be afraid, everything is in order. But Berger mischievously asks if we are justified in communicating such assurances to children. Is the world really as beneficent and ordered as we like to pretend it is? My atheism could give me no such hope. Rather, the world was a dark and menacing place with no ultimate goodness, no ultimate love, no ultimate meaning at all and, like a frightened child, deep down I was crying out, longing for a voice to tell me that everything was under control and that I was safe after all.
And here was Jesus, offering me exactly the reassurance I sought:
“If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
It is a remarkable promise. Jesus is saying that, without reading vast tomes of philosophy or mastering mysterious algebra, without any intellectual achievement on our part at all, he can put us in touch with the ultimate reality behind the universe. He can make our lives meaningful and deliver us from the bondage of our sinful so-called freedom.
Somehow in the daily routine of living with Jesus, we will find our lives to be integrated—they will make sense. Instead of feeling we are going nowhere, we’ll find that we are going somewhere. Instead of feeling alienated and alone, we’ll feel at home. We will begin to understand what we’re in the world for. In short, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free.
What a fool I had been with all that talk of mine about “proving it true.” It can’t be done, can it? To say, “I’ll follow you, Jesus, if you prove to me that it’s true,” is putting the cart before the horse. Christianity can’t be proved first and practised afterward. According to Jesus, the proof is dependent on the practice. Notice the conditional clause: “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth.”
It was a gripping invitation—and I was tempted to give Jesus a chance to make his offer good.
However it has to be said, that one major problem remained for this adolescent in his pretentious quest for truth, namely pride.
I found the pejorative overtones in that phrase “a slave of sin” a decidedly unwelcome assault on my self-esteem. It had never occurred to me before that my atheistic self-determination could be regarded as reprehensible. I’d always defended it rather proudly, as evidence of my peerless, intellectual integrity.
As my reading in John continued, however, and the excuses for my unbelief began to unravel, it became more and more clear to me that Jesus was, as always, right when he implied that my real problem was not intellectual at all, but moral. My unbelief derived not from my logical mind but my sinful nature.
I’d always said that belief in God was unscientific. I was fond of quoting the famous example of the professors of Padua who refused to look down Galileo’s telescope at the moons of Jupiter for fear that their geocentric prejudices would be disproved. But now it was I who was clinging to my prejudices and fearful of doing the decisive experiment.
To my shame, I discovered the real reason I was an atheist was not because the evidence for faith was inadequate, or that Christianity was intellectually incoherent; No, the real reason I was an atheist was because I didn’t want God to exist. God was an undesired hindrance to my proud self-determination.
Some years later I found a passage in Aldous Huxley’s Ways and Means that spelled out this perversity with frightening honesty.
Huxley wrote, “I had a motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning and consequently assumed it had none and was able without difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The atheistic philosopher is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics: he’s also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he should not do as he wants to do. For myself, philosophy was simply an instrument for liberation. The liberation I desired was from a certain system of morality. I objected to the morality because it interfered with my sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed it embodied the Christian meaning of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying myself in my erotic revolt. I would deny the world had any meaning whatsoever.”
Like Huxley, my boasted scientific objectivity was in fact a fake. I began to see it in all its despicable sham. My rationalism was an idol I had erected to defend myself against the obligations which an encounter with the true and living God would inevitably place upon me.
So an inner struggle began—ironically, I who was so concerned about “truth” was now desperate for this not to be true.
I remember that for 18 months I lived in a state of denial, if anything more strident in my atheistic pronouncements than ever. But it could not go on like that. Eventually the relentless hound of heaven caught his prey.
There is a wonderful paragraph once again in C S Lewis’ autobiography in which he describes his moment of conversion in terms that resonate with my own experience perfectly:
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?” (Surprised by Joy)
That experience of the irresistible grace of God was much the same for me—it was not a decision, it was surrender. In fact, it felt a bit like coming out as gay—fearful and reluctant—but boy, after all those months of inner denial, what a relief!
And today, nearly half a century later, as I say, nothing has changed on that score.
I am still a Christian.
Weather-beaten perhaps, even a little battle-scarred—but essentially, nothing has changed. Fifty years of living as a Christian has not diminished for me the magic of the one who, through the Gospel of John, called me into a faith relationship with himself, and in doing so satisfied my heart’s quest for truth.
So much then for “Why I am a Christian”—in my next talk I’ll say something about why that qualifying adjective “evangelical” is needed.