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EPISODE 50: Pursuit of the True and Beautiful
Psychiatrist Andrew Parker's pursuit of the true and beautiful led him to consider the possibility of God, but his personal life hindered belief. After a long philosophical journey, he decided the cost of conversion was worth any personal sacrifice and gave him life beyond what he once imagined possible.
Resources mentioned by Andrew:
- New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
- Philosophers: Keith Ward, John Cottingham, Richard Swinburne
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been a skeptic but who became a Christian against all odds.
All of us want to make sense of reality, to understand our lives, the world around us and our place in it. We want to know who we are, why we’re here, how to live, where we’re going, and how we’re supposed to think about these bigger issues in our world. We wonder what is truth? What is beauty and goodness? Does God exist? Is there more than just the natural world? Are we really no more than merely physical beings? Is there more to us? How do we make sense of our minds and consciousness? And what of our desires? What should we be pursuing? And how can we know?
Although we all want to make sense of all of those things, some of us think more deeply about those questions than others. They’re drawn and driven by a seeking, a searching out for answers, seriously so. For they know that the answers to those questions have great implications for how they understand themselves and others, how they live life.
Today’s guest, psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Parker, is one of those few who have been contemplating those larger questions for most of his life. As a skeptic, they led him on a quest to consider the reality of God and Jesus Christ. I hope you’ll come along to hear his fascinating, inspiring, and in many ways, surprising journey. I hope you’ll stay to hear his advice to curious skeptics on searching for truth, for God, as well as advice to Christians on how they can best engage with those who don’t believe.
Welcome to Side B Stories, Andrew. It’s so great to have you with me today.
Thank you, Jana. I’m really excited to be here. Thank you.
Wonderful, wonderful! Before we start your story, I would love to know more about who you are now, perhaps your profession, where you live. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Yes. Well, I live in southeast London, England, and I’m 49 and single. Living the celibate, chaste life now, in fact, and I work as a psychiatrist in private practice in central London. General adult psychiatry with a specialty in addictions, and in fact, I got into working in addiction because of my own earlier brief addiction, but it was very serious, and I went through treatment myself at that time. And that part is also very important for my spiritual journey, which we’ll get onto a bit later. So I’m very settled in this life now and very happy in this path now as a Christian, but that wasn’t always the way. And I enjoy something of the solitary contemplative life.
You have piqued my curiosity, Andrew, in terms of it sounds like you’ve got some very interesting pieces and parts of your journey. So why don’t we start in your childhood and your earliest rememberings of your family life and community life in terms of how did religion fall into your world? Were you born in the London area? Talk to me about all of that.
Yeah. Well, I was brought up in Kent, a semi-rural, really lovely village, and I feel as if I had quite an idyllic childhood. Very happy, stable, loving family. Large extended family. Lots of fun. Lots of family things together. Very simple family in many respects. Not wealthy. In fact, quite a struggle financially at times. There were four children, and my father worked. My mother was a busy mother of four and housewife, and then she trained as a primary school teacher later, so they all had a lot on their plates, but they gave us a wonderful upbringing. There was no spirituality in the home, though, at least explicitly. We were not a religious family, although we did go to the local church family service a few times for a brief period. But it just wasn’t part of our life, religion and spirituality. That’s not to say it was totally absent, however. I do remember, in fact, my father teaching me once to pray. At a very young age. And I did have enormous curiosity about the beyond, which manifested in various ways, and I did pray, in fact, at times of distress, at several key moments in my childhood and adolescence, but they were very isolated events. So really mainly it was a very secular life but a happy one.
But as I grew older, I think I realized I was very drawn by the deep philosophical questions. What does lie beyond the sensory perceptual world? What is reality ultimately? What am I? What are we? Are we just material things that fizzle away to dust? Is there’s something more substantial? I got increasingly drawn by these questions in my adolescence.
How did you pursue the answers to those questions? Was it just independent study? Did you start reading philosophers or spiritual material?
I did start reading philosophy later, but I was a very latecomer to reading. I was quite lazy with reading, and instead, I would think a lot. Now you could say it was just daydreaming, but I like to think there was more serious thought going on. I was becoming, I guess, something of an armchair philosopher, but around the age of 18, I discovered Plato and read Plato’s Republic and then The Symposium, and I was really blown away by this. And soon after I came across books on the mind/brain problem, the problem of consciousness. Is the mind just the brain ultimately or not? And this again caught my attention and set me on a lifelong interest in philosophy of mind.
Nothing terribly spiritual at that point, no.
Okay. So you were obviously a contemplative child, a contemplative adolescent. You were a deep thinker who really looked at these really large questions. As you began to think in this deep way, was it leading you away from the concept of God as the transcendent source of the answer to these questions? Or were you finding substantive answers for you that were satisfying among the philosophers, among Plato and others? And even with the problem of consciousness, it is a tremendous problem in terms of how to explain our consciousness apart from a material being. So how were you working through those issues?
Well, I need to go back a step, which I sort of hopped over, and this was something of a personal existential mini crisis. Not a really troubling crisis but just an internal, “My goodness! What do I do?” situation. Around age 15 or 16, and this was due to my increasing realization that I was of same-sex attraction. That had become apparent from early teens. I’d kept it completely private. But by 16, it was very clear indeed. And, of course, being a young person, I was craving for experience, but I saw that as being somewhat far off. I just had to be patient. But there was this other question: Is it okay? Is it okay to have same-sex sexual experience? I knew what the church said. I knew what the Bible said in very basic form. No one drummed it into me, but I had grown up with that knowledge. And I was troubled by it concerning my desires. And I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and on one particular occasion, I made a very extended prayer, even on my knees, which is a bit extraordinary for someone in such a secular environment at that age. I went on my knees to pray to God for an answer to this. Is it okay or is it wrong? Do gay people go to hell? It just didn’t make sense to me that they would.
But it just seemed natural, as I think is the case for most people with same-sex attraction. It just seems to be who they are naturally. It doesn’t feel like you’re transgressing. Although you’re aware that it’s taboo. Now, I thought, during that prayer, “If God is real, if God answers me, how would I know that it’s really from God?” So that began a philosophical train of thought, then, about how to identify some apparent revelation as really being from God. And I realized that just a sensory vision would not be enough, and I wasn’t quite sure what would be. Nevertheless, I made the prayer, and there was no answer, it seemed. And that was that.
But it, I think, ignited the question in my mind is God real? And how do we ever know, how does anyone know? How can we distinguish true revelation from false revelation? And that set of questions, which kind of roughly falls into the scoop of philosophy of religion, became an interest alongside the philosophy of mind. In fact, I saw the two as really quite tightly linked, but I decided to focus on philosophy of mind as sort of firmer, more certain ground. Less controversial, I thought. And I was very attracted to becoming a medical doctor, and I thought I could explore that through my medical studies as well.
It sounds like you were moving through a lot of things. So when you were really submissive in a sense, the body posturing of prayer, you were in earnest to know more about whether or not your desires were okay. And it put you into a very deep form of thought, I guess, in terms of really looking for what is true and what is real.
Yes. Now, here’s something interesting. Because I was praying to God, but the image of God that I had was of Jesus. I was brought up in England, a vaguely Christian culture, and had learned a bit about Jesus. So I thought He is our model, our role model if you like, for how to relate to God. And so I thought, in that prayer, if I knew that Jesus and God were real, my sexuality would no longer be of any great significance, because I would want to be a disciple for Christ, and I think that was a very interesting turn around, that I began by praying around sexuality and end up by thinking I would want to be a disciple of Christ if He’s real. But knowledge of that reality only came much later.
But still, to understand the seriousness of the commitment if there is a God, that to live in the way of Christ is not something that’s just superficial or flippant, that it is something that requires something of you in a substantive way. That’s amazing that you considered that, but then I guess… Did you receive any answers to your prayer?
Well, I didn’t, and I would want to emphasize that all this was over 30 or 40 minutes in my bedroom at age 16, and there was absolutely zero putting into practice at the time of anything like a Christian life. So you could say perhaps this was more fantasy thinking than a reality, but it was, in some sense, a very serious prayer, but there was a lot of, I think, idealization of what I would be if I met, encountered Christ, an heroic ideal, which of course we don’t quite live up to.
So at that point, you were actually, in some ways, willing to entertain the possibility of a real God, but then you moved towards philosophy, and I wondered if God faded in the distance, particularly in the background of your same-sex attractions and the taboo, you said, associated with that and things of the church. So guide us on from there, yes.
So what Plato gave me, which has proved to be of great lasting value, is the focus on the three transcendentals of truth, beauty, goodness. Reading The Republic gave me a very profound sense that those three things are the most important values, if you like, and if you follow those three, you will reach God if He exists. And I remember a little bit whimsically saying to myself, probably around the age of 20 or so, “Well, I’ll seek truth as hard as I can through science and philosophy, and I’ll engage with beauty as much as I can through art and music and the beauty of the human form. For goodness, well, I’m not so sure about that. I’m quite attached to my pleasures, so we’ll leave goodness aside. But if I can at least do two of those three reasonably well, then by triangulation, I might get there.”
And that was a sort of personal philosophy for a while.
Right. And how did that work for you?
Well, that’s interesting. Because I think now that the Lord gave me a long leash to explore some of those areas. I perhaps did better on the truth side. I certainly did engage quite seriously with philosophy and also science of the mind. Beauty really went off track. I mean, I certainly developed a deep and enduring interest in classical music which got progressively more sacred, actually, and earlier and early to sort of fifteenth, sixteenth century sacred choral music. But I would rather bask in this in a sensual way, but I found it enormously, immensely beautiful. Same with art. I made a sort of progression from a very diverse taste down to more and more sacred art, Renaissance, early Renaissance paintings and sculpture. But. The big but is I was also exploring hedonistic pleasures, the beauties of the flesh, and I guess that’s the part that I refer to when I say I went off course. That got a bit excessive.
So it sounds like perhaps you were torn a little bit because you’re pursuing these values of truth and beauty, which are, I guess as Lewis would say, pointers towards the transcendent.
Yes. Although I wouldn’t say I felt very conflicted at the time, actually. I’m not someone that has felt a lot of guilt. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I think what I took from Jesus was the great importance of integrity and treating people well. I think my family also gave me that. I’m very grateful. So whoever I was with, wherever I would be, I would try to treat people well, even if I was crossing taboos, and I think the Lord is with you when you’re exploring because you don’t really know if doctrine is true or not, you don’t know if the church teaching is true. You’ve heard about it, but it doesn’t make sense to you, so you’re exploring, but you’re exploring with attention to the heart and to loving one’s neighbor, et cetera.
So I’m really taken by your love for these things, love for truth, love for art, love for music, and engaging in those and appreciating those things. Did you ever look or think about the grounding for beauty or not? I wondered if, in any sense, they pointed you towards God or not.
I certainly had this sense that there was something beyond the material world and pointing towards a unity. And I very much enjoyed mathematics at school. And this was another area, actually, which I felt pointed towards the transcendent, beyond material forms. But around the same time that I was exploring those kinds of thoughts, I was also coming to think that perhaps the mind is totally explained by the brain. I was quite impressed by some of the philosophy of mind I had read, Daniel Dennett in particular. When his book came out, Consciousness Explained, I read that and a series of other books along similar lines, and I was increasingly thinking that perhaps the mind is just explained by the brain, and there isn’t anything truly transcendent. So there were these different ideas going around. I never closed the door to the transcendent completely. I never concluded that the mind is the brain. I never became atheist proper. I was always agnostic and open. And seeking, actually. But what I was seeking was something solid, some kind of solid grounding, philosophical or scientific, to answer that question. And always hovering in the background for me was the question around sexuality. If it looked more likely that God was real, I knew that, at some point, I was going to have to confront the question around sexuality again.
And how did that happen?
Well, it didn’t really happen for quite a long time. What happened was that I went through medical school, did well, started work as a junior doctor, which was very hard, long hours and a huge amount of stress, and then we’re coming to my late twenties now, a time that I thought would be the best time in my life, but in fact I had a physical health scare and took a sabbatical year from work because of that, and during that year, my hedonistic streak took over, and instead of doing what I ought to have done, I went down a path of escapism and got addicted to cocaine. And that period lasted just over a year. It was extremely serious, and I was in hospital several times because of it and eventually went to rehab, and since that time, I’ve not had any problems with addiction.
But I’d like to tell you about how I got into recovery, because something extraordinary happened which initiated that, or was one of the initiators of it. I had been refusing help. It had been about one year since this started, and at that point, something prompted me to pray and basically to repent, to say sorry to God for everything that had happened. Now one of the prompts for this was a picture that I had on my wall at home of St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Albrecht Dürer. It’s a very famous picture, and St. Jerome is kneeling in the wilderness, at peace, with a lion beside him, at one with nature. And he’s gently beating his breast in repentance for the wrongs in his life. And his countenance is really sublimely peaceful, not one of despair, and his eyes are looking towards a tiny, makeshift cross that he had made.
And this image really struck me. I thought, “There’s nothing to fear about repentance, about saying sorry to God for wrongs. In fact, it appears to bring peace.” And I felt this picture was saying something important to me at this time, so what I embarked upon in the midst of my addiction was, over a period of many days, possibly weeks, to go through my whole life like a piece of string chronologically, and each time I came across, in my mind, a knot, that knot would represent a time when I hadn’t been the best version of myself. What I was seeking was not just the immediate reasons for the addiction but actually all of the much earlier precursors, all the earlier faults in my character that built up and built up, that made me go my own way so foolishly, that made me so stubborn against advice, that made me so hedonistic, seeking selfish pleasures and so forth.
So I was seeking the roots, and so I did actually imagine my life as a thread and these knots along the way, and I would pause in these knots and imaginatively go into that scene using memory and immerse myself in that and look at it from different perspectives and say sorry. And try to feel genuine remorse, even for what might seem quite trivial things, like telling a fib as a child or evading responsibility for something. I saw these as the precursors to what came later with the addiction, so I felt I had to get to the root of it all.
So I did this over a series of weeks, inspired, as I said, by St. Jerome, and at some point, having completed that, I decided to make my own makeshift cross out of a couple of pieces of cardboard, and I fixed that to the wall, and a day or two later, I looked at this cross, and I just felt overwhelmed and dropped to my knees. It was automatic. I dropped to my knees, and tears were streaming down my face, and I was full of joy. Now, this sounds very extraordinary, but there was something like a beam of light coming down on me, and I was in tears of joy, and I remember thinking, “I need to stay here and just let this light come in, because it’s purifying my heart,” and I felt forgiven, and I felt accepted, and I wanted to stay there for as long as possible to make sure that every last corner had been cleansed. And I just felt in the presence of God at that point. I had a vision of Jesus standing there whilst all this was happening. It was quite faint, but it was definitely Jesus.
And, after some time, I got up, and I still had a sense of this light. It said to me God loves me, God accepts me, God is forgiving me and letting me know that if I take the right path now, He will be with me all the way. And that was of massive benefit, because I had lost all hope of getting into recovery at that point. I thought I had wrecked my career completely. So many people who knew about the addiction and its effects, senior colleagues at work. So I thought there was no way I could get back to working as a doctor, but after this encounter, I knew that I had to get well, I had to take the right path, and that God would be with me.
That sounds like a very, very powerful, palpable encounter, obviously life changing for you. It came on the heels of your repentance, almost a protracted, very honest, transparent repentance over a period of weeks. That’s really quite amazing, Andrew, and obviously, you were able to turn the corner. You found hope and somehow through, as you say, you felt the presence of God with you, so that you were able to let go of your addiction, I presume, you said after a period of time?
So things came together, interestingly, all at one, by my sister… One of my sisters found an excellent rehab center in South Africa for me. Around the same time, I got to see, for the first time, an addictions consultant, who was excellent and took a thorough history and gave me good advice. So I had the courage, then, to enter treatment, which I did thoroughly and properly, and then through NA, the 12 steps, and so forth. I don’t know that I would ever have done that without that encounter with God.
But even after that encounter, I did not join the church. I do remember thinking whether I should. And that thought was very, very brief. And the reason I didn’t is, again, because of my sexual orientation. I thought joining the church would bring too much conflict, and also I felt I had encountered God outside the church, so why was church necessary? I already had a community of friends, so I thought, “Well, maybe I need to improve my community a bit. Community, I think, would be very advantageous for my recovery.” So I had a think about what kind of new community I could find. So instead of joining a church, I joined a rugby club. In fact, the world’s first gay-inclusive rugby club, in London, called the Kings Cross Steelers. And that was a wonderful community to be part of for something like nine years following my addiction treatment.
So you were… Just to clarify again, you were convinced, at this point in your life, you were perhaps more of a theist? Or would you consider yourself someone who believed in the transcendent reality of God? In the Person of Christ but-
I think my mind was rather split, actually. With the different parts not talking to each other too much. There was a part of me that was still pursuing this, that the mind is just the brain, scientific material will show that God is just a figment of the imagination of some kind. There was another part that was very open to something more, but after that encounter, I did think God was real, but I was also open to nonreligious concepts of spirituality, as a vague spiritual ether, and Jesus is some kind of archetypal figure. And because I was English, a Christian country, it was Jesus I saw. If I had been brought up in a different culture, it might have been some other religious figure. But I didn’t think about those kinds of questions too much for a long time. I just got on with my work, playing rugby, having a fun social life, still with a hedonistic streak, but without cocaine addiction.
But I knew at some point I was going to have to address these questions more thoroughly. And a few years after being in recovery—in fact reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion was one of the prompts in fact. I enjoyed that book, and it made me laugh, but he’s not very theologically or philosophically minded. And I slammed the book shut and thought, “No, he’s wrong. He’s ridiculing God. He doesn’t understand.” And I thought, “I need to go back and examine my experience and see what do I really believe?” I wanted to write a book to help others of my journey, but I thought, “How can I talk about that experience to others if I’m not certain what it was?” And, “How would they be convinced given it all happened in the midst of an addiction?” Quite rightly, they would be highly skeptical.
So I decided that I had to be clear from a rational point of view what the evidence says, scientific and philosophical, concerning theism versus atheism, and in particular, the soundness of the worldview of scientific materialism, which says everything basically is physical material, including the mind, which means that all apparent mystical experience would be ultimately explained by brain states and would not mean anything, any ontological realm transcendent to the material.
So slowly, over something like seven, eight years, I read many more books, and gradually this came together, and I realized that there were far more pointers towards theism than atheism. And not only that, these scientific and philosophical pointers tended to work in synergy with each other, so they related to each other and supported each other. I also saw very pervasive bias in a lot of the literature that many inquirers just couldn’t take seriously the possibility that God is real, and so every bit of evidence pointing that direction has to be taken apart. Rather than following the pointers to where it may lead and thinking carefully about that possibility on its own terms, I saw that many popular writers were dismantling every bit of evidence and never stepping into the realm to consider, “Actually, this could be truth, and what implications might that have for oneself and the differences of opinion.”
So this was gradual work over several years, and it was leading me to make a decision. “Am I going to take God more seriously, religion more seriously, Jesus more seriously, the church more seriously?” And yet, because of my sexual orientation, this was such a massive thing, because I knew I would have to confront that question. As you may have gathered, I’m not someone that does things by halves if I’m interested in them.
I don’t like to compromise. And I knew what the orthodox teaching was on sexual orientation. I didn’t know if it was true, but I knew I would have to confront it. And that delayed me. But my hedonistic streak was also delaying me. I was still having fun, playing rugby, socializing, and I was in my late thirties, but I was increasingly coming to realize that after the encounter that I had had at age thirty, I wasn’t perhaps living with complete integrity, given I had gratitude for this encounter, but I was doing very little else about it. And I was increasingly wanting to serve in some way, to bring to others what I had been given, to mature as well, to develop spiritually. But I had to be sure. I had to be more sure about what I really believed and why.
So this intellectual search was just really about finding a foundation or testing a foundation for the earlier encounter. Eventually, I decided that the evidence for theism is far greater than that of atheism, and I would therefore be a fool not to take that earlier encounter very seriously. So I decided that I would be joining a Christian church, and I didn’t know which denomination. I had no idea. But I was reaching that decision around the summer of 2012. I was also retiring from rugby that season. So I anticipated some change of life, that I would enter a Christian community, learn through this more virtuous group. I would face struggles around sexuality. I didn’t know which way that would go. And I certainly didn’t expect anything extraordinary to happen. I just thought I would be learning through a community gradually.
But this is what in fact did happen: After a holiday in Italy, looking at sacred art, I returned to London, and there had been for some time these sublime intrusions in my awareness occurring, often during my periods of reading and contemplation, and they would stop me in my tracks. They were so deeply peaceful. And I felt the presence, I felt a communal presence, but it was very mysterious, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I came to identify these as encouragements, and they speeded up my decision making. And around the same time as these were increasing, I had a very profound dream, so vivid that I wrote it down, which I’d never done before. The whole theme of the dream was purity, and also in the dream was a figure of Mary, with Jesus, having come down from the cross, in her arms. And this was extraordinary because, although I’d looked at a lot of sacred art, the Blessed Virgin Mary had not played any significance for me in my imagination, and yet, in this dream, I kneeled in front of her in adoration. And then another figure appeared, and that was St. Paul. And St. Paul and I, in the dream, clasped each others’ arms. Now, Paul was significant for me because it is his words in the New Testament that the teaching against same-sex sexuality is often drawn from. And so there was a bit of hostility in my mind with St. Paul, but in this dream, we are reconciled in a very warm way. And I took that as meaning, the whole dream together, as being a call to purity, but an acknowledgment that maybe the church has not dealt with these matters in a very sensitive way sometimes.
So that was just a dream. And I didn’t want to make too much of it. It was just a dream. But two weeks later, I decided to go to a homeless shelter to volunteer my services near Victoria Station, but on the way, I got a bit lost and found myself in front of the Roman Catholic cathedral, Westminster Cathedral, and I stood in the square in front of the doors, and I felt very, very drawn to go in, so I went in, and just after I arrived, a bell went, and a priest arrived, and Mass was beginning, and I thought, “Well, I decided to try the different denominations. Here I am now in a Catholic church, so let me try this.” And I stood up and sat down dutifully like everybody else and followed the Mass as closely as I could, but in the middle of the Gospel reading, something miraculous happened. First, I saw a set of lights high above, and one of these lights shot down to me and seemed to enter me, and from that point, I felt all my sins fall away. I felt completely released from chains and completely forgiven. And I was full of joy. It was a bit like the earlier encounter, but this time with greater fullness. It felt more profound. The word salvation was in my mind. And all around seemed to be a holy presence. And I remember thinking, “That holiness is not me. It’s the presence of God.”
I was completely full of joy, and I felt released and that I had become better in my nature. I felt more able to be good, and it was all instant. And I came out of the cathedral that day and looked up to the skies and thanked God and felt that I was completely in the palm of His hand. I had no doubt at all about the reality of God at that point, and I knew at that point that I was changed very profoundly that that would be permanent, that this wasn’t just a transitory thing, and that I was on a new path. And that has been borne out.
That’s extraordinary. Yes. As I’m listening to you, I’m just picturing it in my own mind and wondering… Obviously, that was an encountering, as you say, a profound encountering with the Person of God that was, again, another life-changing experience in which you felt, not only known and seen but called to a certain way of living, I’m also struck, too, because, at the end of this, you were convinced, but it had come on the heels of, you say, seven to eight years of reading books, intellectually contemplating the reality of God, looking at the theistic worldview and how the components are synergistic in terms of they work together. They explain reality in a much better way than the naturalistic, materialistic worldview. I imagine, too, you, as a psychiatrist, just reaching back to childhood, when you were asking the big questions of life. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Those very deeply existential questions for us all have to be explained within a certain worldview or a view of reality, and I wonder, in that time of exploration intellectually, existentially, what you were finding that was so convincing and compelling that almost enabled you to experience this final encounter in a much more profound and almost convincing way. Because it’s like the pieces of you had come together in a way.
That your intellectual self… You had spoken of them being separate, that you had a sense of God, but you were living your own life, but you were exploring things intellectually, but somehow, after all this time, God pulls the pieces together in this one grand encountering with Him at a point at which then everything came together for you.
That’s right. I think that’s a very good image. Because at that point, feeling released from sin, released from chains which had held me down, and this sense of salvation and complete forgiveness, I also realized I had a soul. That the soul is not just a metaphor for some part of the mind but is very deep, perhaps reaching infinitely to God, but something opened. I just became aware of the depths of my being. But yes. This second encounter was a far fuller conversion. I talk about my conversion as if it was in two parts, but the first part kind of set me on the road for recovery from addiction. It did not pull me into the church. God allowed me to continue my own way and I think encouraged me to make that intellectual search, but when I was satisfied intellectually, I then commit myself to serving Christ out of gratitude for that earlier event.
And by that point, I was ready to surrender to Christ and offer myself in service. It was, again, repentance, actually, immediately before this second conversion event. Around sexuality. It was not that I… I never felt the need to repent for having same-sex attraction, but the way I’d lived that out, with some excess, I certainly did repent for. But I was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to remain celibate and chaste. I was not achieving it for more than a few days at a time.
But from the point of that conversion, I became celibate and chaste, and it has been rather permanent. There’s been a few brief periods in my life since then, over nine, ten years, where I deliberately broke that to test things during periods of difficulty, but 99% of the time, I’ve been on the celibate path. And the immediate sense was joy about it. I had just so much love for the Lord at this point. Love had been poured in. I felt I didn’t need any more. And the Holy Spirit gives you the ability. He gives you an extra strength. It opens up ways of being which you didn’t know before. That’s not to say there won’t be significant struggles at some point. Certainly, I have had those. But there was a sense of a gift being given on that day in Westminster Cathedral.
That’s amazing! It’s a really amazing story. It sounds as if your life has been completely transformed. It sounds deepened, expanded, in just amazing ways from a secular life, really pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty. But that you have found new realms, deeper realms. Like you say, you discovered your soul. And it sounds like you have found the source, the transcendent source of truth, goodness, and beauty this time, that you were exploring and appreciating all of those things and looking at them through the eyes, through the lens, of a theistic worldview, of a God who’s not only grand and transcendent but also it sounds like intimately personal to you and in your life. There’s no part of reality, it seems, that is untouched.
That’s right. It’s all encompassing. And what I’ve told you so far is simply what happened on that day of conversion in 2012. A lot more happened after that, in the following year. Specific occasions, specific events, and those further things drew me more towards the contemplative spiritual life, and in fact, I spent some time discerning possible vocation as a monk and did three months of postulancy in an enclosed, contemplative monastery in 2016 to test that out in a more serious way. Eventually, I decided not to stay. I found that age, in my early forties by that time, it’s quite difficult to adapt to that austere life. And in fact I was craving to be back in the world to proclaim the word of God in some form.
So I’m back, but I engage in my work, and I’m trying to develop some kind of a ministry, but I also try to protect my solitary time.
I can imagine that even your practice as a psychiatrist, your perspectives, have changed in the way that you’re helping others through those large existential and experiential questions of life. As we are turning the corner here, Andrew, I can imagine that there are many out there who are searching and seeking and questioning whether or not God is real. You went through quite a journey intellectually. You did due diligence-
Yes, I did.
… not only to your mind, but also you were willing to look into your heart, which many of us would dare to go. It’s a very brave endeavor, even thinking back to your experience in cocaine addiction, your willingness to look at yourself. I wonder, for those who might be listening, how would you counsel someone to journey towards pursuing the reality of God, whether it’s intellectually or in their own life personally. How would you advise them
So now the spiritual dimension of mental health care is extremely important and often under emphasized, undervalued, and it is a big interest of mine, how to do that well.
So people need to go on their own interior journeys, and you can’t come to faith by just reading a book. Books can help. You’ve got to have your interior journey of deeper integrity, honesty with self, and some prayer. Talk to God. No one else is listening, if you’re in private. So have courage and trust.
If there is someone who says, “Yes, but I need to understand rationally, intellectually,” you obviously read, like you said, several books over a seven- to eight-year period. Is there any particular direction you might direct someone to find that synergy, the groundedness of theism or the Christian worldview? What helped you the most?
Well, there were different kinds of books that helped me a lot. Some of the authors I found most helpful on the philosophical side were Keith Ward, John Cottingham, Haldane, Swinburne, but when I got into matters of the heart, it was a different set of writers, people like Thomas Merton. I was very touched by his book The New Seeds of Contemplation.
Very good. Now, as someone who was a former skeptic, agnostic, and someone who really understands both sides, how would you encourage or advise Christians to best engage with those who, unlike your former self, was resistant to the Person of God for a while?
I think you have to love people where they’re at, even if you think they’re living in sin, that you should try to reach out to engage with them and make them part of your life. Of course, there may come a point where they’re just not interested and they’re maybe even combative, and you have to let things go, but you can always return. But it’s very important not to be judgmental because I don’t think sexual sins are the worst sins. I don’t think substance addictions are the worst sins.
I know that many of the people I work with in addiction have been through great traumas, and they are very good people with beautiful hearts. They’re just troubled and wounded hearts that have got into trouble with one thing or another. And, as humans, we can’t see the person’s heart fully. We just get glimpses of it. God sees that person’s heart fully. So we must not be judgmental about ways of life that are contrary to Orthodox Christian teaching. Through loving and just giving time and trying to impart something of the Gospel, not necessarily through words, I think is the most powerful thing. And of course also prayer. You can pray for everyone you meet, friends, family, and strangers, and that is very powerful. I really believe in that. Because I’ve noticed many times that the people I pray for who seem to be in desperate situations that I can’t help too much, suddenly they have turn-arounds. Everything comes together. And they come back and say thank you to me, but I’ve done very little, and I think, “Actually, it wasn’t me, but I did pray,” and so I do really believe in the power of prayer. It’s worked for me, and I think it works for others.
That’s a wonderful way to wrap this up. At the end of the day, it really is all about God reaching down and touching hearts and bringing all of us, as wounded, troubled people, to Himself and transforming us. And when I think about your story and I hear words like that you had tears of joy and that you were filled with the fullness, really, of what God has for you, I think that that is something that we all really seek for. You obviously have a very deep and intimate contemplative life with the Lord, obviously informed every part of you, and even the tone of your voice and the way that you speak, there is that peace that seems to reside in you, that I think is a beautiful living testimony of all of that that is possible with and through a surrendered life to God.
I am so privileged to have you on our podcast today, Andrew.
I feel so lucky to have been invited, Jana. Thank you so much.
Yes. It’s been wonderful. So thank you so much for your time.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Andrew Parker’s story. You can find out more about his recommendations for pursuing the truth and reality of God in the episode notes accompanied with this podcast. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our Side B Stories website at sidebstories.com. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.