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Why did I become a Christian?

(Text as at 18/09/2007 23:48:29)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

Why did you become a Christian in the first place?

This is a very complex question. It’s also a psychological question, and as I’ve claimed elsewhere, I’m very distrustful of psychological motivations for belief. How one came to believe something is just a datum. Whether one should continue to believe it is the important question, together with what the evidence constraining the particular belief-set is. My core tenet (unremarkable were it not that no one fully practices it) is that one should believe all and only those propositions that one has reason to think true.

This principle works both ways. One can come to believe truths or falsehoods for sound or unsound reasons (just as there is a whole matrix of sound or unsound argument-forms exemplified with true or false premises and conclusions). The difficult cases are where a falsehood is believed in for good reasons (ie. because of a valid but unsound argument where one of the premises is, in fact, false, though the evidence at the time the belief was acquired implied its truth), or a truth for bad reasons.

Nevertheless, psychology is good fun. There would be few novels without it, and most people’s lives are centred on it. Also, there are some “professions” or “pursuits” that one would usually correctly sign up for mainly for psychological reasons, though even in those cases there could be constraints (the activity is not vicious, you are suitably qualified to succeed, if success is a goal). You can join a bridge club for no other reason than that you enjoy playing bridge. Maybe Jesus’ first disciples “joined up” for no other reason that they thought he spoke the truth – he had “the words of eternal life”, whatever they might be.

However, Christianity in post-Gospel times is both a way of life and a set of beliefs, and the evangelical insistence on salvation by grace through faith (equating faith in some sense with belief), puts especial emphasis on belief. Indeed, if the beliefs are false, a lot of what evangelical Christians do (“good works” apart) is a waste of time (though no more so than the average life spent doing this or that).

I’d also add that when I became a Christian, I didn’t believe that any of (what I understood to be) its tenets were actually false, but probably had a lot of unresolved questions that I expected would be resolved in due course (or else would be agreed to be insoluble in this life, but relatively unimportant). I imagine this is usually the case. I probably expected theistic evolution to be viable, and that the (allegedly) Biblical focus on resurrection rather than disembodied existence would avoid the need for mind/body dualism, though I can’t clearly remember.

It’s difficult to look back on one’s own motivations from a long time ago. I did give my “testimony” on a number of occasions. My monastic activities and evangelical conversion “in cell” were in principle a crowd-puller in the world of rather small crowds in which I then moved; but it’s the way you tell ‘em, and my telling was never very slick.

It’s also a dangerous activity. Not only is it difficult not to project back your present self into the past, but there’s also the chance of some gimlet-eyed inquisitor saying “Aha! Those was the reasons – thought so – not really “saved” in the first place!”. And maybe so, but I doubt I’m the only one to fall under post hoc strictures of the inquisitor’s own devising; including the inquisitor. Additionally, publishing these things is dangerous. People don’t, in general, become Christians because they feel fine about themselves, but because they think of themselves as falling below some standard, and as needing forgiveness or acceptance. This opens them up to the perennial charge that Christianity is a religion of the weak, and that they are a particularly feeble specimen. In a sense this is so, but only in an absolute rather than a relative sense. The Christian “bad news” is that we’re all like this, however we compare against one another. The classic example is the Apostle Paul – blameless as far as law-keeping was concerned, and one of the brightest and boldest sparks who ever lived; but that didn’t stop him claiming to be “the chief of sinners”.

We must start with “Religion”. There were a number of reasons I got interested in “Religion” – maybe a necessary first step to “becoming a Christian”. This was partly due to my background, though this was hardly promising; the Catholicism of my youth was dull and incomprehensible, but it’s difficult to shake off the teachings of one’s infancy if these have been inculcated with sufficient vigour, and especially if dire penalties for declension are part of the package. However, I also had one Christian friend at school, and several more at King’s – obviously Pete (though this was … er … not exactly obvious all the time), and there was another friend, Bruce, who was something of a mentor who helped me a lot. I understand that he has now “fallen away”, as has the other leading light of the KCCU. At King’s I went along to the RC chaplaincy on occasion, noticing a few rather surprising attendees whose piety wasn’t altogether obvious on weekdays.

Then there was Pearson, the rather rotund cox / coach of one of the college boats in which I rowed, who somewhat resembled a pumped up version of the pugnacious dwarf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After a first degree at King’s he’d enrolled as a theology student at Westcott House. Unfortunately, he was also a world-champion Guiness-drinker, and was eventually sent down for generally disreputable behaviour. He had a good heart, though, and I did him no favours later by “giving him the Gospel” and explaining how he’d never been a Christian and needed to repent and believe the Gospel; we’ve not met since. Pearson was responsible for persuading me to go on a “bridge-building” weekend to an open borstal (what would now be called a “young offenders’ institution”) on the coast of East Anglia. This was an attempt to do good – as Person said, a lot of the inmates had been banged up for doing no worse than we did after a boat-club dinner - so the idea was to show that some people in the outside world cared for them. It was a bit of a fiasco from my perspective – they seemed to have grown up a bit faster then I had. It was somewhat unsettling to be shown photos of girlfriend and young child by a fifteen-year-old in for the standard crime of TDA (“taking and driving away”). The experience may have done me some good, but I’m not sure what good it did them, or what they thought of a collection of Cambridge eccentrics trying to befriend them. I suppose it showed on our part a rather reluctant willingness to “engage”, rather incompetently exemplified.

The “official” way in to Christianity is supposed to be a deep sense of sin and a need for forgiveness. I suppose what I needed was more acceptance and a role. To cut a long story short, I’d been (by normal standards) a “good boy” at school and a “naughty boy” at college, though there were doubtless more extreme cases of either. When I get around to it, the naughtiness will be related here1.

I’d been quite successful at school in a lonely kind of way, and had obtained the best academic results in my year (and in the county from what I could discern from the local papers, which used to publish “A” Level results in the days when rather few people took them). I had completely unrealistic expectations and had hardly thought I’d need to apply to Cambridge – I half expected them to be talent-spotting and to ask me. When disabused of this illusion I found that I’d have to take the Scholarship exam rather than be given an unconditional entrance. By the time of the entrance exam I’d gone off the boil a bit academically (too much time spent playing speed-chess in the prefect’s room; we had no assistance preparing for Cambridge entrance), and didn’t do as well as I thought I ought, getting an Exhibition (only a minor Scholarship) in Natural Sciences.

The rot had set in, and things were made worse by a series of tedious jobs to fill in the time and earn some cash before going up in October.

I’d rather arrogantly and foolishly changed my subject from Chemistry (which I thought unworthy of my immense talents) to Mathematics (which I was to find comparatively difficult). Maybe this over-optimism is a common problem for clever boys from obscure parts of the country going up to Cambridge. Or maybe I’m just weird. Anyway, I thought I was the cleverest person I’d met bar one, who’ll feature a bit later in this narrative. As I’d only developed a real enthusiasm for Chemistry in my final couple of terms, and had done well in the exams by refusing to attend lessons and studying on my own, I thought I could switch with success to whatever I liked. The idea of studying mathematics appealed to me firstly because I was already inclined to ontological reduction: biology to chemistry to physics, and then on to mathematics, the essential tool for a physicist. Secondly, I liked the idea that in mathematics, a theorem was certain and eternally true. Finally, I was also thrilled by some probability theory I’d read (by the Russian mathematicians Kolmogorov and Kinchine) and by the beauty of the new mathematical ideas I was encountering.

Sadly, I just couldn’t hack it. From a mathematical perspective there’s something wrong with the way I attack problems – which from a different perspective may ultimately be why I’ve a bent for philosophy. I don’t like to attack problems directly, but to think about them for a while until an idea will pop into my head (which can then be checked for cogency). Also, I don’t seem to be able to (or don’t want to) break problems into a series of sub-problems, but want to see the answer holistically. Finally, I like to think about lots of problems simultaneously. This certainly isn’t the way to pass maths exams (though those at “A” Level can be solved trivially by trotting out the standard routines). Additionally, the Cambridge mathematics Tripos is conducted at such a cracking pace that all but the brightest are soon completely at sea – I would reckon that the bulk of the work required for most mathematics degrees is covered in the first term. But I liked the kudos of studying the top subject in one of the top colleges in the top university; and I was glad there was no need to turn up to the lab for tedious practical work. Finally, I hoped that somehow everything would click; after all, mathematical theorems are analytic truths – all you need to know are the rules and everything else follows. This idea isn’t a recommended exam technique. I did improve marginally as time went by (which is mildly remarkable given the cumulative nature of mathematics), but all in all it was a complete disaster.

My self-esteem wasn’t helped by the fact that all my strengths outside mathematics were trumped. I’d been something of a chess-player at school, captaining the county juniors; but the British under-21 champion was in my year at King’s, and almost the entire national team was at Trinity. I wasn’t quite in the top flight as a Bridge-player either, but I was certainly “county standard” a year after learning the rules. However my partner in the King’s team was a mathematical prodigy who captained the England Under-26 Bridge team. He’s the “bar one” referred to above. As well as the usual skills to be expected of a crack mathematician, he had an extraordinary “digital” memory. He’d be able to answer exam questions on a topic he wasn’t interested in based on memory of a lecture, and had once got 7 “alphas” – a perfect score - in a Tripos paper. He’d pop up weeks after bridge events saying … “you held … blah blah blah” … down to the last 7 of diamonds. “Just a computer”, Bruce said. But it dawned on me that if there were people with a facility like that, what had I to offer?

Things were made worse by the fact that all my eggs were in the academic basket – that very basket I’d just found to be empty. On entry to Cambridge I was very socially inept (no change there then), and thinner than a rake (some improvement). So, I decided to give up on the intellectual side of things (with the exception of bridge) and spent my time rowing (to improve my physical well-being, but also for the silent comradeship) and boozing (required to shake off my social inhibitions). Very enjoyable, but not really much use for advancing my life goals (not that I had any) once the halcyon days of Cambridge were over.

I’ve a bent for computer programming, so on leaving Cambridge I joined a stockbroker with an enterprising computer department. Unfortunately, there was a market crash in 1976 and the broker sold its computer department to a software consultancy. I found the work desperately dull, and could scarcely bring myself to turn up to work. This brief sentence doesn’t do justice to the slough of despond I found myself in.

Thankfully, all things considered, I couldn’t jack it all in and fall back on my family, which was a complete disaster. My mother was a manic depressive who’d made a serious suicide attempt soon after I went up to Cambridge and had periods of incarceration and ECT in the local psychiatric hospital. My father had had a stroke in his early 40s and lost his power of speech, and though he eventually regained it his career was ruined, leaving the family somewhat impecunious. My brother and I were chalk and cheese and my sister had run off with a greaser when she was 16.

So, basically, I was in a mess. And, one way or another, my adherence to Christianity sorted things out. It gave me acceptance, a family, hope and a meaningful life to live, together with a wife and family. Superficially, I merit the charge of gross ingratitude, but things are more complex than that; and that’s to jump ahead a bit.

I can’t remember who introduced me to retreats at Ampleforth Abbey, but there was an established regular group who went there most vacations; students, though not from Cambridge. I started to pray, and I enjoyed the psalms and the stillness of the “divine office”, though at this stage there was not much of a cognitive element to my faith, such as it was. Ampleforth was very different from the tackiness of my childhood Catholicism (not altogether surprising as Ampleforth, whose Abbot had just been made a Cardinal, is also the top English Catholic Public School). I also started attending crack-of-dawn services at Westminster Cathedral. About this time Pete and Nev had started the “young people’s” group at the Chapel of the Opened Book. I wasn’t a “died in the wool” Catholic, and it struck me that all Christian denominations at least claimed to be Scripturally-based, so that it would do no harm trying to get to grips with the Bible. But at the time, I wanted a complete life-package, and Chapel Christianity seemed just to be a bit of Bible-study tacked onto the side.

So, I hit on the idea of becoming a monk. I’ve always been a bit of an all-or-nothing person. If I couldn’t win, I wouldn’t play. Rowing was probably the first thing I did purely for the doing of it, winning being completely out of the question given the likely quality of any crew willing to let me join. So, I signed up as a novice at Ampleforth, but wanted to look around for something more all-embracing, and after a couple of false starts found the Carthusians at Parkminster.

I’ve written, or am writing, up this episode elsewhere2 (though not yet completely), so won’t repeat things here.

I’d begun to study the Bible seriously with the young people’s group at the Chapel, inspired by the expositions of Charles H Welch, and attempted (somewhat without much realistic hope) of forming some sort of reconciliation between the two most extreme forms of Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. I suppose a compromise between extremes is more rational than a straight choice between the two, but any compromise, while probabilistically being more likely to be closer to the truth than either extreme, is unlikely to be the absolute truth. And in those days that’s what I was after.

So, the first roll of the dice went to Parkminster. But at the time we’d had the “young people’s breakaway holiday party” down in Seaton, Devon. I was challenged by such zealous souls as Nev to “come out from amongst them”, but I was then reluctant so to do. I’d been for a six-week “retreat in cell” at Parkminster, liked the life, and was greatly impressed by the warmth and spirituality of Fr. Bernard O’Donovan, the Novice Master and subsequent Prior. He was at the time energised by Greek Orthodox spirituality (the Philokalia), and Russian Orthodoxy (eg. The Way of a Pilgrim). I think this openness led me to hope that the thorny issue of doctrine would not be raised, and it would just be a matter of the heart, of prayer and one’s secret relationship with God, to whom one could say whatever one thought without having to conform to any particular orthodoxy of doctrine.

I’d had a bit of a crisis earlier during my long retreat. I’d taken my copy of the Companion Bible in with me, and used to look up what it had to say on the various passages of Scripture that came up in the daily office (which read through the whole Bible once per year, though the Psalms were read through each week). I can’t remember the precise passage, but I think it had something to do with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We’d had a reading from the Church Fathers that added some “spiritual” (but probably nonsensical) gloss on the passage. The Companion Bible would have nothing of it, and I got unreasonably annoyed.

Each cell had its own garden. Mine had been let run to seed and was a wilderness. As a way of letting off steam, I set about it with a machete, but failed to notice that a bird had nested in the brambles, and I inadvertently destroyed the nest and an egg. This filled me with guilt and remorse, and made me thing that the cognitive approach of trying to sort things out intellectually would lead to no good. So, I parked my Companion Bible in a bottom cupboard and didn’t look at it again. While I ignored it, I was at peace.

But the peace was disturbed by the rudeness of the practical world. Firstly, as I’ve related elsewhere3, the Vicar phoned me at home to check that I was going to come back as a postulant, saying that I was the Novice Master’s “blue eyed boy”. This shattered my illusions somewhat – a ridiculous thing to say about a life where individual pride is supposed to be eliminated. Secondly, it became apparent (as I always ought to have realised), that since all Carthusian Fathers (as I would become) had to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood, as such I would have to study and assent to Thomist philosophy. Now Thomas Aquinas was a great philosopher, but that’s no reason to assent to any of his arguments. I suspect almost all philosophers have almost always being wrong almost all the time, if the highest standards of correctness are applied – and of course no-one knows what are the right answers to the difficult questions philosophers struggle with – only that the attempted solutions seem to fall short.

So, I couldn’t live a life that involved assenting to plain falsehoods – but I’d have probably stuck it out for a while to see whether some sort of accommodation could be achieved (most Church of England ministers seem to manage OK). However, one morning I saw, or thought I saw, the issue plainly. All Christian denominations claim to respect the Scriptures, though in practise all add something and (probably, though they might not admit it) take bits away (in the form of weaseling out of doctrines they don’t like by finding suitable but stretched interpretations). So, why not have done with all adulterations and adopt a Sola Scriptura approach?

Then, there was the difficulty of the justification of the Carthusian life and of what it was supposed to achieve. It certainly wasn’t a “salvation by works”. Catholic theology on salvation is too complex for me to fathom; it is by grace but seems to involve the cooperation of the believer. I discussed the matter at length with Father Bernard after I left Parkminster in a series of letters4. I expect the evangelical analysis that claims that Catholicism, in addition to its many other iniquities, muddles up salvation with the “worthy walk” following salvation is probably close to the mark (but even the evangelicals claim that while they believe in the persistence of the saints, it’s the saints that persist, and non-persistence is symptomatic of non-sainthood). Nothing is as simple as it seems.

The Carthusians think of their life as a great privilege, similar to that of the angels, their job being to praise God and act as the heart of the Church, the body of Christ. Most “jobs” have some sort of side benefit, some form of self-fulfilment, some feeling that you’re doing some good. This one would be utterly pointless if its fundamental premises proved false – either if there was no God to hear the prayer, or if God exists, but had no interest in this form of life. As such, it was primarily a walk of faith, and the monks knew well the “dark night of the soul”, namely the times at which, as they saw it, God tested their faith by withdrawing his favours (the feeling of joy and well-being that seems to accompany the start of the journey). I’d been worried by Thomas Merton’s interest in non-Christian monasticism, particularly Buddhism, wherein the techniques become as important as what they are supposed to be for. As far as I could tell (though Fr. Bernard seemed to have an interest in Eastern Orthodox mysticism and the Jesus Prayer) such was not the case with the Carthusians. The austerities were to remove distractions not to achieve merit or to be ends in themselves.

Anyway, one morning I was forcibly struck by Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” More forcibly, I think, than I’ve ever been struck by anything before. Suddenly, everything seemed to be settled. This seemed to have everything the right way round; everything from God’s initiative, though presumably with our cooperation. I didn’t know what God wanted me to do, but knew that he knew, and also that it wasn’t likely to be to stay at Parkminster. Maybe, in retrospect, this is an oversimplification of what the verse means (does Paul really mean that our actual good works are foreordained, or only that the sort of woks that are acceptable are foreordained? I still incline towards the former interpretation as Paul’s likely meaning). I think if there is such a thing as “saving event”, then that was it. I certainly felt so at the time.

So, I then had to leave. I spoke to Fr. Bernard saying that it wasn’t God’s will that I stay, and on being gently pressed as to why, explained much as above. I can’t remember much of the ensuing conversation, except that it wasn’t in the least acrimonious. Fr. Bernard had (he said) supposed that my background was “more Catholic” than it in fact was. This was, I think, an important point, and one I’d vainly hoped wouldn’t matter. Though my mother’s cousin was Abbot of Prinknash, a Benedictine foundation near Gloucester, she herself in later life defected to high-church Anglicanism, mainly for aesthetic and social reasons, I suspect. Her brother had converted to Islam. My father was a C of E agnostic, though he’d attended Catholic church to avoid the wrath of my mother.

I’d thought that the Carthusian life, being so secret, would be the private communion of the soul with God (I think I believed in souls in those days). But the monastic vow of obedience applies as much to the intellect as to the body (to thought as much as action), and I would always have had to subject my opinions to those of the Catholic Church. Now all Christians have to subject their thoughts and ways to God’s thoughts and ways, but the Catholic claim (as is illustrated in my subsequent correspondence with Fr. Bernard) is that the ways of God have to be interpreted by the tradition of the Church (“tradition” being understood in the non-pejorative sense of a supposedly faithful handing down and explanation of the truth as revealed to the primitive church and mostly written down in the Scriptures). Any doubt about the faithfulness of this tradition will always lead to tension, and probably fatally undermines the validity of the Carthusian way of life (which, in itself, is admittedly a rather odd mode of existence and needs the “nihil obstat” of the Church to authenticate it.)

This really completes the answer to the question of why (and how) I became a Christian, insofar as I can now reconstruct my feelings, motivations and thoughts of nearly 30 years ago. As far as I remember, I felt profoundly at peace (with God and myself), and very happy. It’s true that I had no-where to live, no job and no money. I had 10p left from the train fare, which I used to phone Pete from a call-box to come and collect me from Waterloo station; at the time I was very grateful to God for this 10p and for ensuring that Pete was at his desk, otherwise I’d have had to walk across London to St. Mary’s Axe. I can’t remember quite why I had 10p left over, I’m sure there must be some non-miraculous explanation, but for a while this episode was a spiritual comfort to me. But of course I had friends (and, in extremis family) to fall back on, so I can’t claim any great virtue here.

I expect some aspects of the above tale are rather abject, and are grist to the mill of those who consider Christianity the religion of the weak and the opium of the people. This is why I think that it’s so important that the step of faith made primarily for psychological reasons at a time of great need by validated in the light of cold reason when the immediacy of that need has subsided (though if we’re all honest, the need remains).

The Grand Inquisitor (whose views I welcome, should s(he) ever read these pages), may find defects in it as a genuine “born again” experience. However, there are aspects of this rather tortuous path that are in some sense remarkable and worth remembering.

Table of the Previous 3 Versions of this Note:

Date Length Title
13/09/2007 20:25:26 21056 Why did I become a Christian?
08/09/2007 16:55:12 14267 Why did I become a Christian?
05/09/2007 09:24:29 11191 Why did I become a Christian?

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Carthusians - Hugh. T1H1T1 Carthusians - Main Text Fr. Bernard Correspondence King’s - Socialising  

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Carthusians - Main Text Carthusians - The Long Retreat Status: Philosophy of Religion (Summary of Progress to Date) Sylvia's Questions  

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