• Bill Wichterman

Truth, Not Tribe

I was a Christian before I became an Atheist, and an Atheist before I became a Christian, which is what I am now. And both were inspired by my hot pursuit of truth.


I grew up in an Evangelical home. At age 16, I made the faith truly my own by choosing to break up with my non-Christian girlfriend. But the break-up was more than just a single act of obedience to God, but a commitment to do whatever he asked me to do for the rest of my life. The break-up was terrifying ahead of time – like jumping off the high dive as a kid. But I was convinced of the truth of Christianity and just needed to surrender my will to God.


Once I made the jump, I was elated. I knew that I belonged to God, heart, mind, and body. I was all in, come what may. And I quickly fell head over heels in love with God. I loved reading the Bible, praying, listening to Christian music, going to church -- all of it.


That elation lasted for a couple years, transforming my life. Other people readily noticed the change. I’m sure I was more than a little annoying to my friends who worried about their suddenly “very religious” friend who couldn’t keep his faith private. No doubt, some of their annoyance was justified. But my zeal was genuine, and I wanted to tell everyone about Jesus.


Then I began studying philosophy, sociology, and religion in college, and my faith wilted. Secular existentialism, in particular, struck me as true, and my growing number of questions about the reliability of scripture made my faith less and less plausible.


For me, this was awful news. Far from giving me permission to ditch the more onerous biblical restrictions, my eroding faith made me despair. My only question was whether or not to kill myself once I was convinced that there was no purpose to life and we were all just random accidents of blind material forces.


But I kept studying philosophy and the Bible, talking with every learned person I could find to get their views, and thinking intensely all the time. I remember walking across my college campus thinking about every objection to faith and non-faith, yearning to know the truth and follow wherever it led. Again, I was all in to know the truth and live by the truth.


Gradually, I moved from believing there was no God to believing there was a God. Once I realized that if there is no God there can be no evil but only personal preference, I backed my way into theism. In the words of alternative rocker Jon Foreman, “the shadow proves the sunshine.” I knew evil existed, so there must be an absolute, omnipotent, omniscient and good reference point, i.e. God.


Then I encountered Islam. I was a missionary to Turkish people, and I was obligated to read the Koran to weigh its truth claims. I was prepared to become a Muslim if it were true. I remember feeling the dread of what it would mean for a Christian missionary to be won over by the religion of those I was trying to convert, but I knew I had no choice but to follow wherever the truth led. But I didn’t find Islam convincing, and I remained a Christian.


When my daughter was 16 years old, she told me that she didn’t want to be a Christian just because I am, and I totally agreed with her. True faith can never be inherited but each person must decide for themselves. So together we visited as many religious institutions as we could find. We went to a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a synagogue, a Hindu temple, a Unitarian church, a Jehovah’s Witness temple, a Christian Scientist Church, and many others. I told my daughter that as soon as we found one which I believed to be truer than Christianity that I would convert. We would interview the leaders and the practitioners after the service to learn from them, not seeking to debate them or challenge them but to understand their faith.


Christianity has many problems for which I haven’t found satisfactory answers. Paraphrasing Churchill’s complaint about democracy, Christianity is the worst religion – except for all the others (including atheism). It is for me the most convincing and intellectually satisfying, despite what I regard as its shortcomings. But I live as an “all-in” Christian, notwithstanding my doubts. Could I be wrong? Yep. Maybe we are just random atoms mashed together. Or maybe Islam is the only true religion. Or Hinduism. Or fill in the blank.


Truth is my highest pursuit. I startle some of my fellow Christians when I tell them that if Christianity is not true, then I don’t want to be a Christian. But I challenge them to consider the inverse: what good is it to be a Christian if I don’t believe it’s true? And wouldn’t they be concerned if someone chose not to follow Christ, though they believed him to be God incarnate, because they had a prior religious commitment?


After becoming a Christian, C.S. Lewis was ashamed that he had allowed himself to be baptized out of social pressure as a youth when he didn’t really believe. And he was correct: God does not delight in religious observance divorced from inward conviction. Jesus himself said he wanted worshipers who would worship him “in spirit and in truth.”


Sticking with a religion you don’t believe to be true isn’t praiseworthy, it’s dishonest. That’s why I’m not discouraged when I see people leave Christianity because they think the truth is leading them elsewhere. Assuming they are sincerely pursuing truth, rather than just rebelling against God, then I’m confident that they will come back to Christianity, because I believe it’s true.


Could someone be led away from Christianity in pursuit of the truth since our reasoning is not perfect and our motives are always mixed? I think so. But I know the Lord wants us to follow him not because we’re loyal to our tribe but because he is “the way, the truth, and the life.”


My primary commitment is to truth, and out of that commitment comes my commitment to Christ. If I find a worldview that is truer than Christianity, I’ll be a former Christian. If you find that statement threatening, ask yourself what is your highest commitment: to truth or to your tribe?

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