by Darrin Thomas Rasberry
This arrived in our comments section, and it was too long and too good to leave as a comment. Thanks Darrin!
I’m an old atheist convert, arriving at Orthodoxy after following the above pattern of a long study. I spent 15 years as an active nonbeliever, drifting from American Atheists to Objectivism to the Dan Dennett side of the “Four Horsemen” and ending my stint after a long, exhausting war with Protestant apologetics in the Debunking Christianity blogosphere. Following personal failures in my career and some deep losses in the family, I started to seriously reconsider the “God issue” after being initially romanced by academic defenses of God that I thought had long been refuted by flippant dismissals from Bertrand Russell. Within three years of engaging the debate with a mind of taking it down, I found myself sneaking into the local Disciples of Christ and enjoying the encouragement from the pastor every time I decided to cast a shadow on the church’s front door.
Throughout that time, I obsessively followed the debate circuit, watching William Lane Craig hammer unprepared atheist opponents, having a blast studying the fiery Calvinist James White’s interplay with Catholics, laughing at J.P. Holding’s insult-raddled historical cases for the Resurrection. I found a group that loved to make a case for something I had, in the decade and a half following my leaving the Southern Baptist convention, thought indefensible on its face.
The big A’s in theology followed: Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine. I found myself seeking counsel with my pastor more and more often, surprising myself with what I admitted and taking in his advice. I was still utterly confused by my wife’s Catholicism, but, I guess, the quasi-believing place I was in was enough to get me through the door to a wedding.
In the well-tended Plato’s Cave of Conservative Protestantism known as the South, the Catholic Church was a superstitious place, a Mexican and (like my stepfather) Italian’s religion. But I am a born and bred white Texan male; ours was the Baptist church, the place where you go to sing How Great Thou Art and the rest of your grandmother’s hymns before listening to a weekly political-themed pep talk that always had you checking your watch and looking forward to a fried chicken lunch with all the gang at Carrow’s. Occasionally, if you felt “in the spirit,” the Pentecostal church would always welcome you in; a lot of friends wanted me to come to their Church of Christ, but we didn’t want to go to a place who
“believed they were the only ones going to Heaven.”
That would have been against the Bible we never read.
It should be no surprise, then, the complete confusion I felt when I wandered into the Greek Orthodox Church here in Des Moines under the recommendation of my friend and now godfather, Seraphim Hamilton. I had assumed I’d stop an organist or a priest dead in their tracks in the middle of service and figured I’d be heading out the door under the pressure of a hundred Greek stares. I was more surprised than that, though – the beautiful, if somewhat cartoonish icons, the incense, the stunning view of an empty church with only two chanters who went on and on as if all the empty rows were full (who are they singing to, I thought? Nobody showed up!).
I sat in the back of the pew, looked for a Bible, found none, and then looked around everywhere at all the pictures of the Saints in a frozen state of eternal worship toward the mysteriously covered back of the room – everywhere, that is, but at the icon of Mary, which seemed to be staring straight into me, a reality somewhat more unsettling in experience than the army of interrupted angry Greeks were in my imagination. I later came to realize this was a typical Orthros, and people of all types – Greek, African, Arabian, Russian, Serbian, even a few other white Americans – began to fill the pews. The liturgy was engaging, long, beautiful, and all in song. I found myself wanting to sing in a church for the first time.
I braved the priest, expecting a strong accent and getting none. He welcomed me to come back, and to speak with him one on one if I wanted, an opportunity which I took.
By this time, the spell that intellectual arguments for God had over me had broken, and I wanted to look for any presence of like experiences in the members of the ancient Churches before I succumbed to the inevitable pull of atheism once again. I found that presence in the very basis of the mystic tradition of the Christian East, something I had never known previously, something that felt more Buddhist than Baptist. I had been absorbing Scholastic theology with some indigestion, and desperately wondered if an analog lay in Eastern Christian thought; I found Maximus the Confessor and Palamas in return. Suddenly, I had a lot more than Tillich as a theological lifeline to my existential worldview.
I knew this is what I would embrace.
I began classes at the Greek Orthodox Church at the same time I started RCIA at my wife’s local parish. I gobbled Coptic and Assyrian theology voraciously, pouring through the Councils and pushing my brain to high gear.
The choices over the following year turned intellectual again – I eventually gave up on joining the Coptic church over Miaphysitism, and Assyrians over the quasi-Nestorian basis and subsequent neglect of images. The last six months was an intense battle deciding between Orthodoxy or an Eastern church in union with Rome; the latter was a far easier choice, as it would have united my family in one communion, but Filioque, the determinism in scholastic simplicity, and, finally, a perusing of the Vatican I documents led to a commitment to the Orthodox Church. The strange land of the Greeks and funny wooden pictures people kissed that I walked into two years ago has now become my home.
Since then, I’ve grown more peaceful (I’m still a rageaholic on the outside, as there’s much work yet to do), more mindful of my inner dialog and motives in treating others, and I have even started to at least irregularly pray – the last thing I ever would have thought I’d eventually do.
Although I’ve leaned more conservative theologically, I found myself drifting off, oddly enough, to the left end of the political spectrum, leaving all but my pro-life beliefs on the right side of the isle. And, most of all, the experience of and participation in the mystery of God and the uncreated love shared and spread in the ideal operation of His bride has kept me more firm in the faith than I ever was when fully immersed in apologetics – sometimes I quip that aside from a deep faith in Orthodoxy, I’m a much stronger atheist than I was before – and I am grateful for the rest I am receiving in Christ.