Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of my Conversion

[excerpted from The Six Pillars of Biblical Power by John C. Rankin, see]

From age seven, I grew up in a church in the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA), and there I was taught to be a skeptic of the Bible. My father had moved from a Presbyterian church where he was affronted by judgmentalness, then from a Congregational church where he was dismayed by serious hypocrisy, and wound up in the UUA because the minister was intelligent and faithful to his wife.

My upbringing was healthy, where my father as a physician loved to care for people, loved and respected my mother (who died just after I finished college), loved the five of us children. My early years were not polluted by poverty, fratricide, divorce or one of a number of other toxins that assault children. Thus, I was free to wonder about the universe. When I was reading an early manuscript of this book to my father, then 90 with failing eyesight, and I came to this juncture, he mused with laughter, and said, “You know John, as a young boy you were always thinking.” The gift of thinking – so very precious, and something I have always pursued.

As an eight-year old, in the fall of 1961, our Sunday School teacher read to us the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand men (plus women and children). She said up front, “And of course, we know that miracles cannot occur.” I thought to myself, Why not? I was skeptical. She continued to explain how what really happened was that Jesus inspired thousands of selfish people to unstuff their tunics, which were full of bread and fish, and share them with each other, all because Jesus inspired one little boy to bring forth his five small barley loaves and two small fish.

I thought she was explaining too much, even though I had yet to learn of the social impossibility of such in first-century Jewish life, where modern individualism is a foreign concept. The people are away from the town spontaneously, it is late, no provisions have been made, and whatever food they have they naturally share with one another, beginning with the needs of the children.

Then, in the winter of 1962, our teacher turned to the Old Testament, starting with Genesis. She gave a detailed explanation of how Genesis was a primitive myth among primitive people who did not know science or other modern means of knowledge. So I thought, If it is a myth, why bother? I was again skeptical.

Skepticism is good if used in pursuit of the truth. The goal is to test everything equally to see what proves true and what does not. That which proves true can be embraced with confidence, along with the freedom for the risk-taking nature of faith that follows. But skepticism employed to avoid the truth does not serve the good, nor true power. Thus, to be skeptical of the Bible is fine; it is a question of why, and to what end. Truth proves itself to the honest skeptic – and the truth of the six pillars of biblical power proves satisfying.

In reading this portion of the manuscript to my father, he again laughed heartedly and in agreement, quoting the Latin for being “skeptical of skepticism.”

In my skepticism of skepticism at this early age, I was rooted in a prior amazement at my existence in the face of an awesome universe. I remember wondering where space ended. To find out, I hitched a ride with Flash Gordon (that will date me and define my reference) and traveled to the end of the universe. And do you know what we found? A brick wall with the words posted on it, “End of Universe.” Now it was a little comforting that in the age of Sputnik that the sign was in English and not Russian. But it was also unsatisfying. What was on the other side? And what was on the other side of the next wall?

Then there are the questions about time and number. What happens one minute after time ends, or what is the biggest number? What is the biggest number plus one? And on and on. No one can deny the reality that this known universe, in which we can measure our existence, is bounded by the necessary and helpful concepts of space, time and number. And we all acknowledge that since we can describe the limitations of these measurement devices, there must be something greater. And yet we cannot wrap ourselves around that which is greater, for we are finite and limited. Where does such a trajectory take us?

In the face of this trajectory, I was nonetheless a self-conscious agnostic by age 14. An “agnostic” is usually a term for someone who does not know if there is a God (from the Greek roots a + gnosis, “to be without knowledge”). But it was an open-ended and positive agnosticism, which is to say I was always impressed by the beauty of the universe and amazed by my own existence and self-awareness. I was open to whatever truth proved to be, open to the idea of God. But I did not know one way or the other in the summer of 1967.

I was in Boy Scout camp, and each Sunday we were required to attend chapel service. One Sunday morning, as I was getting dressed, one of my tent mates was resting on his bunk bed. I asked him why he was not getting ready. He answered, “I am an atheist.” So I asked him, “What is an atheist?” He said that it meant he does not believe in God, and all I had to do to get out of chapel was to tell the scoutmaster that I was an atheist. I said, “But I don’t know.” So I went to chapel.

That September, I began ninth grade (“third form”) at South Kent School, a small prep boarding school for boys in the Housatonic highlands of western Connecticut. South Kent had a daily chapel schedule rooted in the Episcopal liturgy.

It was required, but I determined not to participate, saying to myself, I don’t believe this stuff. So I did not sing, recite, pray, genuflect or take communion. But that proved a “dangerous” thing to do. For while other students were participating at one level or another, I ended up occupying my mind reading the words of the liturgy and hymns, as they were recited and sung. I was interested in the possible existence of God.

On November 1, 1967, All Saints Day in the Anglican calendar, I was standing outside the chapel in the interlude before walking down the hill to dinner. As the air pricked my spine, I felt alive. It was delightfully cold, and in those rural hills the Milky Way was exceptionally clear that evening – like a white paint stroke against a black canvas. I considered its awesome grandeur and beauty, and then I posed to myself this sequence of thought:

If there is a God, then he must have made all this for a purpose, and that purpose must include my existence, and it must include the reason I am asking this question. And if this is true, then I need to get plugged into him.

I wanted to know either way, and I was convinced that if there were a God, then it would be most natural to become rooted in my origins. To be radical before I knew what radical meant. But I wanted verification. The “if” clauses were real.

This was a commitment to myself, in the sight of the universe, in the sight of a possible God. It was in fact a prayer to an unknown God.

The next evening, November 2, All Souls Day in the Anglican calendar, I was the first student into chapel, taking my assigned seating in the small balcony. As I sat down and looked forward in the empty sanctuary, I said under my breath, “Good evening God.” Immediately I retorted to myself, “Wait a minute John. You don’t even know if there is a God. How can you say ‘good evening’ to him?”

But also immediately, I became aware of a reality that was prior to and deeper than the intellect, of a truth that held the answer to any and all of my questions. There was a God, I knew deep within me, and I knew that I had just lied to myself by saying I did not know, even though it was only now that I knew I knew. My heart knew before my mind knew, but as part of the whole that my mind was now grasping. I had yet to speak it (see Romans 10:9-10). Thus, I mark my conversion from the night before when I posed the question of God’s existence in the face of his beautiful universe.

In this moment, God’s presence ratified the reality of my belief as I simultaneously discerned a Presence literally hovering over me, filling the entire balcony. And, critically, this Presence was hovering and waiting for my response. It was powerful, inviting and embracing. This all happened within a moment’s time, and I realized that I did believe. No sooner had I exhaled my agnostic retort, did I then inhale and say, “Yes I do (believe).” As I did, this literal presence of God descended upon and filled my entire being – heart, soul, mind and body.

Now I knew nothing at the time of the divine name and nature of Yahweh’s presence and glory, as experienced by the Israelites in the exodus community with the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple. Nor did I know anything of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet the grace of God came into my life that November evening, as he but gently crossed my path with a touch of his Presence. I asked an intellectual question in view of an awesome universe, and was answered by the Presence of the awesome Creator.

1 comment:

Michael J. Dowling said...

Thanks for sharing your powerful testimony, John. What a joyous privilege it is when God opens the eyes of our heart and lets us know that He knows us and cares for us. Your experience reminds me of the words of King David in Psalm 8. I thank God that he created you and claimed you!