by Adam Lindahl
I remember exactly what I was doing the first time the thought crept into my head: There is no God. The depth and darkness of the cold Montanan winter surrounded me in the middle of my senior year of college while I sat in my room working on a difficult assignment. I don’t know precisely what was happening in my head that led me to that stray thought: there is no God, but there it was, laid out in front of me for consideration for the first time. I fought with the idea. I struggled against it, but it was persistent.
What on earth led me to this point? I grew up a Christian just like many of my millennial peers; I never struggled believing. Why would I suddenly change my mind and ponder the idea that God is a piece of fiction?
To start from the beginning, my childhood did not consist of very much church. We were Christians, just not specifically church-goers. Holidays, funerals, and weddings were about the extent of our church attendance. My education of God came primarily from my parents, a children’s bible I owned, a Christian study class at my public elementary school, a short stint at a private Catholic school, and contact with other peers who went to church more frequently than I.
Things changed a bit in early high school when my grandmother’s death put many big questions in front of me, and I began to be more interested in learning about God. I remember my mom’s pleasant surprise when I asked her if we could start going to church on Sundays. After all, how many teenage boys actually want to spend their Sundays at church? And so, we started attending my grandfather’s Lutheran church. I definitely enjoyed this, my first consistent church experience, at first. I learned a lot about Christianity and the Bible and was soon baptized, which was an important event for me. However, I was definitely craving a more engaging church experience—something that felt more like real worship, something more spiritual, and something that made me think on higher levels.
At this point a new church was making headlines in our area and my friends enthusiastically talked about it. This new church was an Evangelical, energized, youth oriented, rock-music infused place of worship like nothing I had seen in our small town. I started going whenever I got the chance. People would raise and clap their hands during services, close their eyes and sway, and “speak in tongues” on occasion. It was highly emotional which led me to feel far more engaged than I felt in the Lutheran church. It felt more like worship than what I had experienced before, and I certainly began to feel myself developing a personal relationship with Christ.
I still had some issues with this church though when I eventually I realized that it seemed completely centered on the oratorical genius of the pastor, and while virtuous Christian living was preached, I rarely saw it followed by my fellow church goers. This church felt centered on increasing numbers and not on leading people to true salvation. I never understood how one could say a simple prayer and then be “saved”, especially when that prayer was said at the height of an emotional church experience where one is bound to feel passion for God. What next? What happens when you return to one’s difficult and mundane life? It was too easy to simply forget about God until the next service.
I started to supplement my church experiences by dabbling with other forms of spirituality. The shortcomings I saw with church led me to consider other forms of connecting with God. So led by books like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, I tried meditation, inducing lucid dreams, attempting to have “out-of-body” experiences, and self-hypnosis. I really felt like there was nothing wrong with such things, especially since they made me feel directly connected with God.
So from these experiences, how did I start struggling with belief in God? In college my worldview began to change. I was exposed to many different religions, many different types of Christian beliefs, and the general liberalness of university life. It took a little while, but I began to develop a Relativist viewpoint where I saw everyone’s life experiences as part of a greater whole. I felt that we are all given a little bit of the “whole truth” and that whole truth is God. It was the only way I could reconcile with the different religions that I saw—the countless number of Christian denominations, alternative spiritualties, along with the flaws I saw in my past Christian experiences. But this viewpoint came with consequences. I began to think that no one can have true contact with God if we are all allotted only a small portion of truth. I also began to live a more world-centered life. What was the point of going to church and connecting with God if it was going to be so limited?
It was at this point that the doubts of God’s existence started to germinate. Religion began to seem arbitrary and pointless. I lost moral bearing and failed to see how religion and God played any part in my life. I had an affinity for Christianity through all of this, but under my exterior it began to seem no different than other religions. And thus I began to think that perhaps, there is no God at all.
I will never be able to adequately describe what I felt at this time. Emptiness, sadness, loneliness, and then: terror. It was like standing at the edge of an abyss and peering over into the chasm. If there was no God, then there was no point of life. Of what use is humanity’s seemingly vast intelligence if it cannot be used to contemplate God? Of what point is our endeavors in this life if it is all only for mere survival and propagation of the species? Does not every human feel this call to something more than the food we put into our mouths? It was like staring into a black hole; staring into infinite space and being lost in its outer reaches. It was like feeling one’s heart stop beating.
The thoughts were more than I could bare and in fear I retreated from them with fervor. In my desperation I began reading my Bible again and went back to my evangelical church’s website and listened to sermons that they posted there. The atheistic thoughts didn’t completely leave, but they were kept at bay by returning to the connections to God that I knew. My dissatisfaction with my past Christian experiences still existed, but I tried to ignore them.
My roommate must have heard me listening to the various podcasts from time to time, because a couple months later, as our senior year was about to come to a close, he invited me to church. I said no. I hadn’t willingly chosen to go to church for a long time. I thought it was great that he asked, but it was the weekend and I wanted to sleep. Not to mention that it was the week before final exams, and I needed to study and prepare.
In the subsequent hour I realized that part of the reason he invited me was that it was Easter weekend. I hadn’t even remembered. Something mild came over me that called me to reconsider his offer. After all, it had been a very long time since I had been to a church AND it was Easter. I popped my head into his room and told him I decided to go.
My roommate was an Orthodox Christian, which to me meant that he had icons, that he didn’t eat meat whenever we wanted him to, and that he was at church constantly. The house we shared with a third roommate had many various philosophical discussions, and of course his faith had come up, but it never stuck out in my mind as anything different than what I had seen before. If anything, it seemed excessive. My Christian experiences had shown me that once one accepts Christ into his heart there is no more that needs to be done. His piety to me seemed pointless. Ironically enough, my greatest struggles had always been that my church experiences were too shallow, and yet I mocked the one I saw that went beyond sermons and emotion and into something deeper.
Up to that point the only knowledge of the Orthodox Church I had was in World History class in high school. It was during the section on the Great Schism. When we studied the Great Schism, our class focused entirely on the Roman Catholic Church and the later Reformation, and we never looked back to the Eastern Christians ever again. I specifically remember a student in the class asking,
“What happened to the Orthodox after the Great Schism?”
To which the teacher replied,
“Oh, they are still around, but they’re crazy.”
So I went with my roommate to church the following day. He didn’t tell me too much beforehand, nor did he tell me just how humble his church was. It was a tiny mission church that rented out a storefront space in a slightly industrial part of town. It shared the building with a pet grooming business. As we pulled up, I wondered what it was I had gotten myself into. Was this some sort of cult? Why was the church in this storefront? It didn’t help that as we approached the door, my roommate made pious bows and crossed himself as we entered. Looking in from the outside, it appeared to be just as humble on the inside as it was on the outside.
My Journey to the Orthodox Christian Church: Part One
Here on Planet Australia, sad to say, things are rather different…Help!
Fr. John says
Not entirely, Theodore. Not only does Australia have a growing number of inquirers and converts, but also a growing number of Churches and missions.
Philip Pughe-Morgan says
What a wonderful testimony to the emptiness of life without Christ. I’m sure that many of us will agree that gazing into the abyss of a universe without God is a terrifying experience, and that coming home to the Church is the best possible way of overcoming this.
I am also reminded of the search by Fr Peter Gillquist and his evangelical brethren for the authentic church to home their many new converts, rather than leaving them as destitute babes (in his words) on the doorstep without support. Wonderfully, they found their new home in the Orthodox Church in the ’80s, praise be to God!
Off topic somewhat: What does one do with someone who has been received into Orthodoxy, and then, due to various circumstances goes back to their former ‘church’, and then wishes to return to Orthodoxy? I would normally be dismissive of such a person, but this is someone who’s a very serious character, and was under enormous family pressure in the face of bereavement. Should I counsel her to simply go to confession? She’s very scared that she’ll be unceremoniously thrown out of the temple!
Adam L. says
Perhaps Fr. John will have more to say on this, but she won’t be thrown out! Her return to the Church would be a joyous thing. She will of course need to go to confession, but she will be welcomed back. She should return without fear. Praying for you and her.