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EPISODE 57: Philosophy Professor Explores Both Sides
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 an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories on our Side B Stories website at www.sidebstories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page.
How do we know what is really real? Can we know that God exists? How do we know that what we believe about the world around us, much less what we believe about our own lives, is even true? We may not be able to hold to our beliefs with 100% certainty, but can we at least hold to a level of confidence that our beliefs are true? And how can we know? And what exactly is faith? Where does knowledge end and faith began? Is faith simply blind? Or is it grounded upon what we can know? Do only religious people have faith? Or is some kind of faith inevitable to anyone who does not know everything about everything?
These big questions about how we know things, religious or not, are important ones, especially for those who are deep thinkers, who are philosophically minded, who are intently searching for answers to the mysteries of knowledge and life. These kinds of questions can lead towards skepticism, towards deconstruction of faith and rejection of belief in God. But these questions can also be the ones that lead towards a faith and belief in God.
In today's story, philosopher and former atheist Dr. John Wise once rejected his Christian beliefs for agnosticism and then full-blown atheism. After 25 years of disbelief, he rejected atheism through a journeying back to the reality and the truth of God. After all those years, what was so compelling to convince him to return? I hope you'll come along to find out.
Welcome to Side B Stories podcast, John. It's great to have you with me today.
I'm really glad to be here.
So tell me a little bit about your life right now, kind of in a nutshell, and then we'll walk back into your story.
Perfect. Right now, I am teaching philosophy at the University of Arizona Global Campus, online. So I got my PhD from the University of California, Irvine, in 2004.
while I'm teaching philosophy at University of Arizona Global Campus, my wife and I podcast together, and she does all the technical stuff. And we began a podcast called The Christian Atheist, telling my story of how I converted from 25 years as an atheist professor of philosophy back to Christ. And in that podcast, which we've been doing now for about two years, we do some pretty heavy philosophical lifting. And so Jenny and I do a sort of subsidiary podcast on the same channel called No Compromise, in which she and I talk together, and hopefully she's able to soften some of my hard edges and make clear some of the deep and difficult things that I try to elucidate on The Christian Atheist. And we have one other podcast called Simple Gifts, in which I try to make the point that everything in the Western world points to God.
I really, truly believe that there is no truth that does not point to God. And so therefore, I try, in that podcast—I never preach on it. All I do is read literature, poetry, whatever it is, and I invite everyone to come and listen. And hopefully, as C.S. Lewis said, all of the books, if you're an atheist, will turn against you, and they will point you to God.
Wow! It sounds like you're very busy and that you have some incredibly substantive and intriguing things that you're talking about. And we'll put all of those links in the episode notes. Before you were 25 years an atheist, you were a Christian. So that gives me some indication that you grew up in a home where Christianity was present. Why don't you take us back to your boyhood, your childhood? Talk to us about your family, your community.
My mother was definitely an evangelical Christian. She had Christian radio on 24/7, and so I grew up hearing people like Charles Stanley and Charles Swindoll, Through the Bible, all of those things I grew up with. And I made a decision for Christ myself when I was five or six. It was very real to me and kept me going all through my early adulthood. But my father was—I guess I would classify my father as an agnostic. A very brilliant man. He fought in World War II. He was at Pearl Harbor when it was hit. I lost him in ‘95. But I loved my father deeply. He loved my mother deeply. And I used to tell people when I was growing up that I got my faith from my mother and my ethics from my father.
So I grew up in a traditional home, in the sense that we embraced all the traditional values that would have shaped the Western world. And my father was a big believer in discussions, and so every night when we would come home and share dinner together, we would discuss topics ranging the entire, from politics to literature. So we discussed everything, and I guess that laid the foundation for me to become deeply interested in philosophy later in life.
So, yeah, my home was, in that sense, a divided home, between the Christianity of my mother and the agnosticism of my father.
Was that challenging for you as a young child growing up? You had an expressed belief in God, but did you ever question Christianity growing up in a home where your father was not a believer? Did he attend church with you all or any of that?
Yes, we did. We went to a mainline denomination church, United Church of Christ. My mother thought it was important for us to go to church as a family, and my father would go to that church, whereas he wouldn't have gone to a more conservative one. But I don't think I felt it ever as a super deep tension. I guess that might be a result of the psychology of children. It was what I knew, and it was a nice mix, actually, because my father and my mother were both very open people in terms of intellect. They were interested in everything. And so, although my father, I think, was an agnostic, I wouldn't say he was exactly hostile to faith. He never certainly gave me any difficulties about my growing up with faith and was very open to talk about things like that. So I don't think it was a hostile environment, but it certainly left things open for me, I think, for later, for sure.
Yeah, I would imagine so. But it's good at least there was some sense of consensus, going to church together, and a sense of, I guess, community in that way, that that hostility wasn't there. So you grew up with a very evangelical mother, a mainline church, and an agnostic father. That's quite a mix.
That is a mix.
But evidently you maintained your faith through childhood, through adolescence. How long did you hang on to this expressed belief in Christ and Christianity?
Up through high school graduation, and then I went to four years of Bible college.
Okay, so this was pretty solid belief for you.
Oh, yeah. I was planning on being a pastor.
And so I spent four years in Bible college, became interested in philosophy in the midst of that, and studied it with one of the most brilliant men I've ever met in my entire life. Bob Willey. If you're out there, Bob, still today, I adore you. You're a fantastic man. You taught me a lot, and I hope I wasn't a disappointment in walking away from God. So he was amazing.
But Bible college was a double-edged sword for me, because when I got there, I was used to my family's sort of freewheeling notions, and Bible college presented me with a community of faith that was much more rigid in its understanding of things than I think I was ready to deal with. And it became overwhelming for me. And what I tend to tell people is that that community of faith gave me a vision of Christianity that I tried to live up to, and it felt utterly impossible to live up to. And so I began to question its validity, and by the time I graduated from Bible college, I was probably well on my way to agnosticism, maybe already there. And it wasn't until graduate school that I actually pulled the plug, but I was certainly deeply questioning by the end of my Bible college career.
So when you say you were deeply questioning, obviously you mentioned that it was a hard standard to live up to. And of course, the biblical standard is quite high. It's perfection. Hard to reach that. But I know that there are certain expressions of Christianity that really promote that kind of works-oriented, earn your way kind of acceptance with God, and that can be very daunting. But when you say questioning, especially as you were studying philosophy, and probably that was opening up some intellectual doors and questions about another aspect, probably the truth or the validity of the belief, much less living up to it. Were there both kinds of pushing back against the Christian faith by the time you left? How would you describe it?
It wasn't a sense of trying to live up to the perfection of God and failing to do that. I was okay with that. I'm still okay with that today, fortunately, because that's a higher standard than I'll ever reach. And trust me, I'm not a good man. I don't think of myself as a good man. And there's plenty of evidence that I'm not. That I'm a Christian now, it really isn’t a reflection on my Bible college days on that score. What it was was a sense in which I was doing a lot of evangelistic work while I was in Bible college, and I began to think to myself, “Am I selling the right product here? There seems to be holes in this,” and the more I thought about it, the less certain I was that it was the right answer to the questions that were being asked by the world. Science seemed to have more certainty than I could find in Christianity.
And I think when I say I couldn't live up to it, I think I mean more that the Christian message, the Christian story that I was being given, seemed to have holes that I couldn't plug up. And because I couldn't plug them up, I began to think what Christianity was for me was an attempt to convince myself of the truth of these things. And I think what set me free ultimately to come back was the recognition—and we're anticipating things here, but—was the recognition that all of those doubts don't need to be answered and that you'll never get to certainty. And that’s why we call it faith. And that was, I think, the huge lesson that I needed to learn. And it took me 25 years to get there.
As you were experiencing the doubts, and you're deciding, “There are too many holes. I can't seem to fill the holes or find the answers, ” Was it just a gradual deterioration or a disintegration of your faith or belief? Was it a sudden kind of process? And were you going through this alone? Were you asking, say, your philosophy professor? Were you asking the questions, or to a science professor or anyone to help you fill up those holes?
The process of education for me… I'm deeply introverted. I don't know if you know some of the psychological tests that evaluate your personality. On introversion, I am like all the way down. I am such a deep introvert that I almost can't get out of it. I'm close to being zero in extroversion. So I lived inside my head, and so helping other people, okay, I would maybe talk to other people a little bit, but not much. Almost everything was done inside my head. I always tell people that I learned in spite of school, never because of school. So school might help me, point me to a direction that I could explore myself, but I lived in books, and I lived in my mind. And so I searched to try to find the answers, to plug them up for myself, and this was probably very arrogant, because I didn't really trust anybody else to answer those questions.
Certainly the questions that I asked of the evangelical leaders, the answers I got and still get to this day when I ask those same questions, don't… I get this dogma instead of serious thought about what it is you're asking. And they return to these pat answers. And I've learned that pat answers are almost always wrong at some level. And for me, getting to the point of being able to allow those extra strings to fly off and recognizing that those extra strings are never going to be tied up because I am, as Socrates says, a human who has fundamental limitations, and the only Person who knows everything is the Person that I stopped believing in, God. And so any human being is fundamentally ignorant. It's unavoidable, and it's okay to be there.
So this was, in a sense, an epistemological… I wouldn't call it a crisis of sorts, but almost an awakening of your own, like you say, our own human, what they call a finitude or limitations. You’re telling me, “No, we can't find certainty, but it's not so lost that we can't know anything,” right? So in a way, you're pushing away from God because of a lack of knowledge, of being able to know for certain that God exists because of some holes that were coming. So I guess my question is: Did you move from your lack of confidence in the absolute certainty of knowledge to not a total run to relativism or postmodernism? I presume that you landed somewhere in between?
I don't look at faith as a leap in the dark. I think of it as stepping out on what you have found to work most plausibly and moving forward with it, being willing to say, “I don't know, but this seems to be the best way forward,” and then moving forward with that.
So that's rational. I think getting to that point and every step along the way is rational. But there comes a point where you're at a fork in the road, and you've got to choose. In fact, I was just reading just today, because I knew I was coming on with you, and C.S. Lewis talks, in Surprised by Joy, about the moment of his conversion, and he says something there that I found absolutely profound. It’s about a paragraph long, but he thinks that that perhaps was the one really free choice in his life. He stood there, and there were no requirements to go one way or the other, but he knew that choosing at that moment was the most momentous choice you could make.
And that's exactly what it was like for me when I came back to Christ, because I told people, Christians who had talked to me, that I would never come back because I'd thrown the switch, and I didn't know how to come back. And yet there was a moment where—and it came with my relationship with Jenny—where that switch opened up again, and I was standing there and it was, in a way, dispassionate, and it felt like a moment of freedom. Like you choose one way or the other and everything hangs on the choice, but you've got no… I hate to say you don't have any rational reason, but in a sense you don't. It's like the rationality comes from the choice, rather than the other way around, and you're stuck with a value choice instead of a rational choice, because both sides have a rational story that's compelling. And this time I had a reason to choose Christ.
As you were leaving the whole idea of Christianity behind, and you said that you were an atheist for 25 years. You taught philosophy as an atheist philosopher, which means, of course, that you embraced a different worldview, a non-theistic, non-God, non-supernatural worldview, which, as a thinker, a deep thinker that you are, it makes me wonder how much you embraced the naturalistic worldview, took that on in terms of even your own rationality. You speak of Lewis and how, in the naturalistic worldview, it's hard to have grounds for trusting your own rationality, even to make rational choices. So I'm wondering, as an atheist, how much did you consider these implications and these losses that you had in the Christian worldview that you no longer had at your access?
That is a fantastic question, and it is something that I look back on now and see the blindnesses that you live in once you accept that worldview. There are very few real atheists, because being an atheist means you abandon completely the sense of any transcendent truth or value. And you can't live like that as a human being. You just can't. Because living as a human being means that you're valuing things at a level beyond simply being able to explain it away. And so you're right, my position was undermining itself. And that's why I think ultimately I came back. And by the time by the time I actually made my conversion back, I was wanting desperately to come back but found no way, because I saw how empty it had all become.
And also, I guess, one of the things that helped keep me tied in is that I knew the Christian worldview as well as any Christian did. I rejected it. And yet I had deep respect and love for Christians and for Christ. And one of the verses that kept haunting me—was Hebrews 11:6: “He who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Now, I had no problem with the second part of that verse, all through my atheism. It's like, “If there's a God, He’s a good God, and He rewards those who seek Him.” And I found that to be true throughout my life. Whenever I was looking for things, it seemed as though things came together to help me find the truth. And so that was the easy part for me. The hard part was believing that there was a God behind all of that.
You speak to trying to find the god behind the universe, were not any of those philosophical arguments, like Aristotle's, the argument for first cause, any of those kinds of things that you need….
Oddly enough, though, I did not find them at all compelling.
Nothing was compelling from a rational sense, so that's what I hear you telling me. So if a Christian would have come up to you during your atheism and said, “Here, I have these arguments for God from a philosophical point of view, from a scientific point of view. There has to be something outside the natural world,” et cetera, all of that, would any of that ever have made a difference to you?
No. Not a bit. I knew them better than most of the Christians who presented them to me, and so they had no effect whatsoever. I knew them.
But they were not convincing for you?
I think this is probably one of the hugest—is that a word—issues in the apologetics world. Is that we have these compelling arguments, but somehow they just seem to bounce off, as if they have no effect at all, why then do you think that this evidence that's presented to you would have had no effect? Why do you suppose that was?
Because when you make the fundamental choice at the beginning, you are shaping also what you mean by evidence. And so when you choose to believe that the world has no fundamental value at the base, essentially what you do is you abandon transcendence. We talked about the materialist worldview. So materialism is essentially abandoning any notion of transcendence. So any value is value within the imminent structure of the world, and therefore nothing can point outside of the world. And therefore, you'll never find evidence for God because it doesn't exist. By your very starting point, it doesn't exist. So unless you're willing to entertain… and I talked with atheists about this, too. It's like unless you're willing to entertain the notion that something would be evidence for God, then why are you looking for evidence for God? Because if it can't possibly exist, you've decided the question in advance, and nothing that I give you is going to provide evidence for God. And I was there. I understand it.
That's why I say, at the end of every one of my podcasts, I know both sides of the looking glass, and I know them with open eyes. I recognize that, when you're an atheist, you've made a choice, a fundamental choice, and you've concealed it from yourself as a fundamental choice. You think of yourself as an open person who's willing to entertain any evidence that will come to them. But you've decided what counts as evidence in advance, and therefore there is no evidence that will point to God, none. No matter what it is. And I believe that is true of those who say things like, “If I could only go back and witness the miracles of Jesus, then I could believe.” No, you couldn't. You've already decided the question. And just being present there at a miracle would not do it. You would explain the miracle away, because that's what I did.
Yeah. I think that, if anybody looks at any feeds on Twitter, that's oftentimes what you'll see, are those just carte blanche dismissals of God. That there’s no evidence. There couldn't be any evidence. it's the million dollar question: So if someone is just so…. Their starting point is dismissive of God, of anything supernatural, anything miraculous, there's no way, then what is it that breaches that? What is it that causes the shift, the change, the movement from closed to open? So back to your story. You were saying that there were holes, through which you entered towards atheism, but yet there were holes in atheism that brought you back towards faith. So talk us through what allows someone who is—you said you saw no way back.
So walk us through that. Just because I'm on the edge of my seat here.
So T.S. Elliott, who’s one of my favorite poets, says, at the end of Four Quartets, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” And that's exactly what happened to me. Over those 25 years, I circled again all of those things that made me leave belief in God and came to recognize, when I got to the end of it, that I made the wrong choice back when I threw that switch. And the wrong choice in the sense of I threw away everything that mattered to me. I have always been deeply, deeply in love with meaning and therefore with literature, with science, and I came to see that, if I really wanted to believe in those things and their value and the value of the people around me as sparks of God, as something that has inherent value, if I wanted to believe in those things, that human beings are inherently valuable and that all of those pursuits that we as human beings engage in are valuable, then I needed to also believe in a transcendent notion of value. And if I'm going to do that, I believe in God already.
And that's kind of where I was in 2019, when I first met Jenny, and she was talking to the people in the church. She said one day, “I walked past everybody as they were all sitting in a room praying for the church atheist John Wise to come to Christ,” and I walked past, totally blasé, had no idea what was going on.” And she said she wanted to tell them, “You don't understand. He already believes. He just doesn't know it himself. He's deceived himself about it.” And she was right.
Interesting. Yeah. It sounds a bit like C.S. Lewis, doesn't it? All the things that he valued—joy, meaning, beauty—all the things that he really valued were illusory in a naturalistic worldview, and they were not anything that he could hold on to in any substantive way because they, for him in that worldview, weren't real. But the things that he could believe in were mundane.
Yeah. Oddly enough, the reason I walked away was that I didn't have confidence in the faith. And when I come back, I come back recognizing how incredibly ignorant I am, that I don't have all the answers, that I'm not even certain there's a God, but I believe it now at a level that I believe my presence here in my house. That’s as certain as we ever get about anything, I think. And so I left the faith to find certainty and then wandered about in this area where I was looking for it, and when I finally came back to faith, I found the level of certainty that human beings can find about anything in faith. I've got no reason ever to leave again, because my belief in God is as solid now as the fact that I'm sitting here talking to you right at this moment. And that's not something I ever had before in my life. And if it took 25 years to get here, thank God for those 25 years.
You obviously seem very confident in your belief in God, that it is, in a sense, true that Christ is the truth. Oftentimes in apologetics, we'll be going after the rational arguments. But here what you're telling us is, again from C.S. Lewis, is it's almost like the argument for desire, that there are things in our own humanity that cry out for satisfaction, whether it's meaning, we're constantly searching for meaning. Like he says, if there's thirst, well, there's such a thing as water. If there's hunger, there's such a thing as food. And for us, as humans, we search for meaning, value, for dignity, for all of those things that make life worth living. If we crave those things, then they're probably real in some sense, not just make believe that they're actually there. And I know an atheist might be shaking his head on that one, but we're constantly craving to make sense of our own lives. And I think what you're telling us is that that really can only be found if the transcendent exists in the person of God. All of those things that we crave in our humanity. And so, in your atheism, you knew, at least you came to a place where you knew, that those things were not accessible. Really, they don't exist. Those values, those objective standards, again the things we crave in our humanity.
Yep. They’re real or they’re not. And if they're not real, if you go down that pathway, I think we end up in Auschwitz. I think that is the pathway that leads us to all of the horrors that we human beings are capable of. That's another reason that, after 25 years, I look at it, and I say, “There are two paths, fundamentally two paths, and you choose them at a level of value and not really at a level of rationality.” And I have to be careful there because I make all of the rational arguments. And what allowed me to come back to Christ was recognizing that belief in God is a completely rational thing to do, and that, in fact, there is no rationality outside of some notion of belief in… okay, if you don't want to call it God, in some sort of transcendent reality. And for me, we keep going back to C.S. Lewis. So I read C.S. Lewis’s probably Surprised by Joy back when I was in Bible college, but never during those 25 years. And I've read it several times since. And it's like I find my life followed that same pattern that Lewis talks about.
Now, I know that part of your story, too, was, when you think about the embodiment of value, the embodiment of, well, God through Christ. Of course, that's one thing. But when you actually see the embodiment of Christ through a person here, that it can actually help you imagine who God is and what Christianity is and who Christians are, at least in some sense, that is attractive in a way that perhaps it may not have been when you get other poor examples.
Talk us through that part of your journey, because I know that your wife, Jenny, was a big part of you really seeing how the transcendent can become incarnated, as Lewis says, that we can become like little Christs in a sense. Not God himself. We ourselves are not divine. It's just that Christ in us is being seen by those who don't know Him. And somehow, for you, it seems like that was the part of your journey, that you were drawn back towards God because of Jenny. Why don't you talk about that?
Yeah. Sure. It was the capstone, sort of the finishing touch that God crafted in that 25-year journey. So if you had asked me, while I was an atheist, what the process of education and experience amounts to, I would have said that everything is a process of disillusionment. And what I meant by that is, from the time you're a child, you're taught that the world is in such in such a way, and slowly, as you grow, all of those illusions, all of the magic is taken away from you. And at the end, you're down to the bare bones reality of the world. And it is just the sort of darkness that leads us into the ever-expanding universe, where all the lights go out and everything ceases to be, and there is no such thing as meaning. And so that's the path I was on for sure. And so, when I was getting to that point, it's like, “I can't take this anymore. I want to come back to Christ, but I can't.” I mean, I always respected Jesus. I loved Jesus. I would have come back in a second if I could by the end, maybe three, four, five years of my atheism. But Christians would talk to me, and I’d say, “I can't throw the switch. I can't just make myself believe.”
And what was missing, I guess, I guess I know, was a re-illusionment, a sense in which I could see that the ideal could be real. And I lived through a pretty tough marriage, and my first wife died in 2019 in not such great circumstances, and that was rather painful, but it was like, by the end of that, all I wanted was to be free of all of the things that had been keeping me in bondage. And I didn't realize how much that bondage was self-induced. And so, when I met Jenny, she had just gone through a lot of the same things that I did. Her husband died, and she had had a difficult marriage. And so she and I started texting back and forth as friends. And I thought to myself as my wife was passing, “I don't want to live alone.”
And so I started looking around, but Jenny is a Christian. I'm not a Christian. I know the Christian doctrine well enough that she's not even an option for me. I did not even allow myself to think in that vein. Of course, that's another way in which we can be self-deceptive, right? Whether I wanted to think in that vein or not, I was starting to think in that vein. But I started to date. But every woman I looked at, it came back to me, “She’s not Jenny.” And Jenny was kind of like, “That guy's weird.” She liked talking to me. She's my friend and stuff. But she also thought I was pretty weird. She's kind of fun to talk about what our relationship was before, because while I was falling for her, she's like, “Man, this guy is strange.”
But increasingly it became clear to me that all that I had missed all of my life was something she had. And that included the Christianity, of course, because her faith was unshakable. I saw it. And it was different from the evangelical community we were in. It was different from most other Christians that I'd met. It was settled in a way that I didn't quite understand. And she represented to me what I'd been searching for, not just personally, but ideally in how to relate to the world and how to think about things. And she became…. There's just no other way to say it, a mini incarnation for me. And she made it evident to me that, regardless of what our connection was, there could be a connection between the transcendent ideal, something that I held in my mind, right? From the time I was a kid, thinking, “Wow, if I could be with someone like that,” and suddenly, there she was. A real human being that instantiated a transcendent ideal. Now, she wasn't perfect. I don't mean it in that way, but she struck me as that. And frankly, the impression has just grown stronger after having been married for three years. I'm more in love with her now as an ideal than I was when I idealized her. And so she represented to me a realization of something that I thought was impossible, or that I'd convinced myself was impossible.
So Jenny was the real reason why you decided to say yes to God, why you chose again to move back into this world where all of the things that you valued were not illusory, that the Christian worldview had, in a sense, a way of providing the grounding or the source for rationality, for meaning, for purpose, for consciousness. For love, for virtue, for good and evil, all those things that we, in our humanity, desire. But yet you affirmed as well that there are good reasons beyond those even, but that she incarnated Christianity and Christ in a way that was so attractive to you that you turned in a way to say yes to Christ.
For the skeptic who's saying, “Oh, he just became a Christian because he fell in love with a woman.” I hear that a lot on feedback on social media, and I wondered if a skeptic said that to you, how you would respond.
Oh, I worried about that myself. And I do think others think that sometimes. But for me, and I think for Jenny as well, that ceased to be a problem some time ago. I don't even worry about it because it is God through Jenny, not Jenny. And there's nothing good about me. There's nothing good about her, except that which is given by God. And so I make no apologies. I have not tried to soften it for others who might want to think that way. They can think what they like, and I'm not going to be able to convince them one way or the other. But without a doubt, I absolutely adore my wife, and I would do anything for her. And she instantiates… because she instantiates Christ. It is because I see Christ through her that she has the value that she has, and hopefully the other way around as well. She's not perfect. I would never make that claim. She's perfect for me.
There's almost no other way to explain it, because she is my perfect complement. And if that's what it took for God to bring me back, then so be it. I praise God for that. He knew what it was that I needed to help me to throw that switch, because it really was odd. In the last few years of my atheism, I thought to myself, “If only I could go back, but I can't. And I never will.” I was convinced I never would. And I was convinced long after I met Jenny and was in love with her that I never would. In fact, that's one of the things I said to her. I said, “I don't know what to do, I'm desperately in love with you, but I can't ask you to violate your Christian commitment.” If she had, she would have lost so much of that value for me because, I mean, that was what was on the line, her own faith. And her faith was part of what appealed to me. And had she violated that faith, she would have destroyed her witness. And so there was one option left, and it wasn't an option on the table for me. And that process, and I try to explain it as well as I can, in the first eight episodes of The Christian Atheist. I try to explain that process whereby God made the moves to change my heart or my life or my reasoning or whatever it was that was necessary to open up that door again and allow me to flip the switch.
Yeah, I love that. It's a mystery, right? It's a mystery how and why sometimes we believe the way that we do, why we're closed off to certain things, open to others. But more than that, I think it really is a mystery of how God can soften our hearts and change our minds and change our lives and bring us to a point of seeing truth in a new and fresh way. And I praise God for the work that he's done in you and through you, and that you seem to be incredibly passionate now about your faith. And I love what you said at the beginning, too, where you and Jenny have a podcast, and that, in some sense—and I'm rephrasing—that all of reality points to God. So you've moved from a place where, that you're not just embracing God because you found a woman who embodied these beautiful Christian virtues. You actually see all of reality, philosophically, rationally, scientifically, whatever, existentially. Everything points to God, and so that whereas the evidence once was lost because your worldview didn't allow for that, like you say, you just don't even think it's possible. To now, everything can't help but be evidence for God. It feels like a very fully orbed transformation.
Yeah. I am utterly convinced that when, in Genesis, God says, “God saw that it was good,” that that is the foundation on which faith is built. You either start there or you go the other direction. And Hebrews 11:6 that I quoted earlier, that someone who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. If you start with the idea that the world has been created in a good way, that the world around us is good, you're on the path. And that is my goal, to put people on that path, because I think, as soon as you're on that path, you will find God. Ask, seek, and knock. And if you're not knocking at the right door, then you're not on the path. But if you're looking at the world around you, and you're seeking the truth, you really want to find the truth, then you will find God, and you'll find Him everywhere because that's how He set up His world.
It's like once you see it's hard to unsee.
And that is a really great word for the skeptic. Anything else you would advise? If somebody says, “John, I want to want that. I want to believe that. I want to choose that. But I just can't.” Is there any other way that you might advise them? Because I know you were in that position, right? You didn't think there was ever a possibility of you moving towards God again? Any other things that you might suggest for the skeptic?
It's not an easy answer. I've run across people like that, and I honestly don't know what makes the final step other than God. It really is a mystery. And I fully embrace the idea that God is the eternal mystery. We will never get to be able to plumb the depths of who He is and what He does and how it happens. And embracing that mystery is the only path forward. And when and how God does it, I don't know. It is a mystery. But what I tell others is keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, because He promises the door will be opened if you do that. That's the best I can do.
Yeah. It reminds me of a book by Esther Meek. I believe she's a philosopher, where she says it's a bit like looking at a hidden 3D image. You know those pictures? But you have to be intentional about finding the image inside of the picture. And so there has to be almost an intentionality towards searching, or towards looking, before you even see it, before you even begin to see it there. I think it comes back down to what you were saying: There has to, in some way, be a choice, a choice to be open and look.
I have a long series called “The Evidence and Faith,” in which I talk about the nature of evidence. And I do think that the world is the evidence. I think God has set up this world in which we live as filled with good, and all of that good points to Him. And we have to open our eyes and see it and embrace it and not reject it, not take the little bits that we see for the whole, but look to where all of the parts point us.
I think that's really excellent counsel, because I think sometimes we can look at one small thing or bad circumstance and throw the baby out with the bathwater, instead of looking at the whole. Look at the comprehensive. That's a discussion for another day. For those who really have a burden just like you do: You want others to see, to choose towards God. Or in thinking of Jenny in your life, even, and the beautiful example and the draw that the Lord used through her to Himself, how would you encourage Christians to engage or to live in front of atheists or skeptics or whomever they want to know God?
I would say, from my experience, be intensely human, and don't try too hard to be a Christian. Just live. Live as God calls you to live, do what He asks you to do, and don't get caught up in the notion of what you have to do as a Christian. I think Christianity is much more of a life than it is a series of words that we speak. We find that in church, too. It's like people walk in, and suddenly they have to be this certain type of thing, and instead of just being who God made them to be, with all the flaws, all the failings, just be you, be honestly you. Express your doubts, what you know, what you don't know, what you really feel, the things that make you question. Stop being afraid, Christians, to face the fact that we don't have all the answers, because we don't.
And we may have a hope that they don't have, but then live that hope. Just show the hope in your everyday existence.
Thinking of hope, I'm sure you saw it in Jenny as she was losing probably her first husband, but yet she had a hope eternal, right?
You saw her walk through just devastating circumstances, but yet with a faith that was unwavering, and there’s something very attractive about that, I think.
Yeah. Anything else you want to add about your journey today, John, that you want to include?
I am absolutely enthralled with the life God has given. This is an amazing world. It is an amazing chance to live and interact and try our best to serve our maker. I love living my life now, and it's not…. Before, it was this process of disillusionment. Well, now it's a process of re-illusionment because it keeps getting better and better. As you get to know God better, get to know others better, and try. You have this opportunity to correct all of the things that you've screwed up through your life, and trust me, I've had plenty of them, and thank God we have it.
Well, it sounds like a life worth living, and I'm sure that you're one of those who make the Christian life attractive to those who don't believe as well. I know that you have given us a lot of wisdom today, and I've been enthralled by your story. It's just so interesting and compelling and honest, I hope that our listeners will go and listen to your Christian Atheist podcast, as well as the other ones that you and Jenny have. You just obviously have so much to offer. So thank you so much for coming on today.
Thank you, Jana. Actually, I'm looking forward to reading your research, too, in any form that you are able to get it to me, because I'm fascinated about the ways in which atheists make the turn.
Thank you for the opportunity. God bless.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear John Wise's story. You can find out more about him and his wife, Jenny, where you can follow them on social media, as well as links to his Christian Atheist podcast in the episode notes below. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website at www.sidebstories.com. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist, and you would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, please contact us on Side B Stories website, and we'll get you connected. I hope you enjoyed this episode and that you'll follow our podcast, that you'll rate, review, and share it with your friends and social network. Again, we welcome your thoughts about this episode and our podcast on our Side B Stories Facebook page.
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 lives.