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EPISODE 77: From Secular Humanism to Christianity - Susan Leonard's Story
Former skeptic Susan Leonard was a secular humanist and worked as a successful professional on Capitol Hill. She saw no need for faith until she encountered Jesus Christ in a way she couldn’t ignore.
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 our stories at our Side B Stories website at www.sidebstories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page. You can also email us at [email protected]. We love hearing from you!
Our lives tell a story. We can look at someone's life and get an idea of who they are, what they believe, what they pursue, what seems important to them. But more than that, our individual lives are usually lived within a bigger story, a worldview has a storyline all its own, a view of the world that says what is real, why we’re here, who we are, and where we’re going. Religions tell stories, creating narratives that answer those big questions. With so many religions in the world, though, it begs the question: Are religions only merely stories? Are they invented to help people get along in life? Is there one that's more true than another? In today's culture, many people want to create their own story, create themselves, and create their own answers. But even that self-created narrative is housed within a larger story, the worldview of postmodernism or relativism or secularism, where there is no absolute truth but only truth decided upon by a person, or by a group. It’s a matter of power or survival.
In today's story, former skeptic Susan Leonard rejected all the religious stories of her youth to embrace the worldview of a secular humanist who did not believe in religious stories. Now she's a strong defender of the Christian worldview, a story of reality she is convinced is more than merely a story, but is objectively true. I hope you'll come along to listen to her journey from skepticism to belief.
Welcome to Side B Stories podcast, Susan. It’s so great to have you with me today.
Thank you so much. It's a privilege. And thanks for having me.
Susan, as we're getting started, I'd love to know a little bit about you and who you are now, your interests, your academic studies, both past and present. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm married for 27 years this July. I have two young adult children. I'm a Christian educator. I've taught middle school for about seven years, high school, and substituted at the elementary school level. So pretty involved in the K-12 education sphere. But I didn't start out in education. I started out in politics, worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House actually for President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, 41. Later, when I moved to The Hill, I met my husband, but then I had a conversion, and everything changed. The entire trajectory of my life changed after that moment.
Yes. And you're even pursuing a doctoral degree right now, aren't you?
I am getting my PhD in educational studies at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, and I do think that it will be very helpful to have more PhDs at the K-12 level, so I'm hoping to have impact there, but if there's anything I’ve learned that's different as a converted Christian, I do not control the future. God does. And obedience is not necessarily a straight line, as I like to say. So we'll see where He takes me. I'm open to that.
Yeah. Well, you have certainly piqued my curiosity. Certainly having spent a lot of time in DC, but let's go back to your childhood. Tell me where you were born and your family of origin. Was religion a part of your home? What did that look like?
So I have, I think, an unusual background. I come from a family that's quite pluralistic. No one religion held a privileged status in my family, and that was considered virtuous. My grandmother on my mother's side grew up in the hills of Virginia, in Appalachia. Very poor. She was baptized in the Jackson River. Fully dunked. Advent Christian. My grandfather is a Jew from East Liberty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they have two children, one obviously my mom.
And so my mother—this is fascinating! My mother starts going back for two weeks every summer, going back to Appalachia with her mother to help on the farm, while she's a child. And so my mother starts to go to vacation Bible school for those two weeks each summer, from about the age of 7 to 15. And she gets baptized, fully dunked, in the Jackson River during vacation Bible school! But why I tell the story is because what fascinates me is, back in the Washington, DC, area where she was raised throughout the year, her mother, Advent Christian grandmother, started to help out at B’nai B’rith, a Jewish foundation, and she becomes president of that organization. My Advent Christian grandmother even has a stint doing that. And my mom starts helping out, and my mom starts helping out at the Hillel Foundation, which was a foundation set up at the University of Maryland to help to Jewish students who didn't go home So my mother is getting formed…. As she likes to describe it, she describes it as quite unusual. And so what she will say is that she was taught that no religion was more superior than any other religion. And that she was taught religious tolerance and to not be bigoted towards anyone, which is why she counted it as virtuous.
I can see that. Right.
So then she gives birth to me and my sister. And she marries—get this: Now, my mom marries a man, my father, from the Bible Belt, a Baptist from North Carolina. So now I have a Jewish grandfather, who—by the way, I didn't mention this: His brother, my Uncle Leon, married an Orthodox Jew. My Advent Christian grandmother from the hills of Appalachia, And now my mother marries a Baptist from the Bible Belt.
That's quite a mix.
So by the time it gets to my sister and I—I said to my mom recently, “Did you and Dad ever talk about raising us in one particular tradition?” and she said, “No, never.” So I would say my father was a nominal Christian at this point, stopped going to church probably around the time of college, which is not unusual. And then I even remember, as a child—and this really does sum up my life—hanging in my grandmother's kitchen was a sign, a little tiled sign, and it read, “Shalom, y’all.” Y apostrophe A-L-L.
But that was my life. And so, what's fascinating about that, Jana, is that I was learning the exact same ideal or principle from the culture, where the culture was teaching me the exact same thing, that no one religion had a privileged status. And being influenced by that philosophy in my community and culture. And again, that was counted as virtuous.
Wow. So when you were being raised, these different voices of these different religious traditions, how did that look? Did you actually attend any kind of church or synagogue? Was there any active kind of movement within these religious traditions? Or was it just something that you held ideologically?
The simple answer to that is things came at me sort of in episodes, episodically. So I remember my Mom saying once… The pastor of the local Methodist church walked down a dirt road to our home, and was knocking on the door asking us to go to church, so we ended up going, my sister and I, when we were little, for maybe a year or two, to Sunday school. So I have faint memories of that, at the local Methodist church, but then I became a competitive gymnast and actually started to compete at the national level, and so we were traveling all over the East Coast as early as age seven or eight, and so we stopped going.
And I say it's episodic because sometimes there would be somebody in my Jewish side of the family that would die, and so I would not know this because no one really talked about it, but I would show up at my grandparents' house, and there would be candles burning. And not just a candle burning. I mean, it was actually a ceremonial candle burning. And I remember once walking over to it to blow it out, being a little kid, and someone screaming, “Don't do that!” But of course, that was something that you would do, you would light a candle when someone passed.
But you don't always, as a child, ask why. You are really just going through the motions of being raised, and you're looking at your authority and the elders and sort of just following, and you're just taking it all in. And in some ways, if I look back at it, I really kind of felt like a pinball in a pinball machine. I mean, it was just kind of being bounced to and fro from ideas. And you have a certain body of knowledge to be able to ask a good question. And so, as a child, I didn't know enough to ask rightly. And so it just started to become part of this mosaic in me, a sort of mismatched ideology, where I was confused.
Yeah. I can see where that would be very confusing, because the religious traditions all have different claims about what is true and what is real. So I would imagine it would be confusing when you're being bounced back and forth between different religious ideas. Yeah. So did you have even a sense that, “Well, I believe in God,” or did you pray to God? I'm just not sure… the Jewish God or the Christian God. Or did they all kind of go to the same God? How was that forming in your little mind?
Right. In my little mind, God was the same God for all of them. So there was no distinction. I think you said that well. It was the same God. And I would use words like universe, very cultural words to describe the universe. Like I would say, “The universe is forming today.” “I feel at one with the universe.” If I prayed to God, and there were times that I did, it was just this… God was not a person. God was more of a... I guess in some ways was a mishmash, sort of pantheistic. I mean, God was more just an energy or force. But I had no sense that God was a person.
So then, as you were getting a little bit older, Did you start to think more distinctly about that or clearly about that? Or is it something that you started to embrace more and more? Or is it something that you stepped away from as you started growing up?
You know, I guess as I started to grow up, I was really just formed by… I believed this cultural reinforcement of a secular worldview and the culture of the time. I grew up in the ‘80s. I know now we're created to worship. We all worship something. I worshiped my country, patriotism., I mean it was the time of Ronald Reagan. Capitalism, consumerism. That was all the object of my worship. As a young girl in the ‘80s, I cared about the way I looked, how I dressed. I was probably a feminist. I know I was pro-choice. And just like the secular worldview we know, which is such an important tenet of it, God is, or was, for me irrelevant. I was in charge of my own destiny, and as far as I was concerned, I was very opinionated and very independent and very self centered. And so, because of that, I would drive down the road, I'd see signs for churches, I'd see different denominations. I knew nothing about that, which is really phenomenal now, considering how much I’ve learned about it and all the education that I’ve had.
The foremost thought in my mind was that God was irrelevant, did not need any of my attention. I was fine on my own. And so if there was this thing called the church—and I knew people that went to church—that’s just something they did. It was part of their story. It was one story among many other stories but didn't require any commitment.
So I can imagine it would be phenomenal growing up in the shadow of the Capitol Building there. I mean, just in the DC area, and the influences in politics, and it seems like the center of the universe there in the United States, everything coming and going there, and it would be somewhat exciting and I guess, again, the word you used was secular and it sounds like that's how you started defining yourself. You said making your own choices. Did you develop this strong sense of self without God? I mean it sounds like you were a confident young woman who was finding her way.
Yeah. And of course we know that behind that confidence was really a lack of confidence. I mean, it wasn't true confidence. Because we know what that looks like post-conversion and with a Christian identity. But without that identity, it was standing on my own stilts that I had created. My own stilts that I had created, my own strength that I was walking on. Which God, of course, would pull out from underneath me in my conversion. But yes, I think that—and we can talk about that, but just to answer your question, that in the shadow of the capitol in Washington, DC. I mean, we used to drive by the White House, My father actually grew up in the Capitol Hill area. My grandparents, all four, lived in that area. So those were the roads that I traveled, and so those buildings… I mentioned this before, we're created to worship, and we all worship something and then seek to achieve something great, right? In the Christian story, we’re worshiping, obviously, Christ, and we seek to give God the glory. What I did was to worship myself and to place that glory in something. It had to go somewhere. What did I want to glorify? Because that actually exists. It's not something that I re-create. It’s just what we are created to do and for. And so, in my life, if I could get into those buildings and work in them, I would then create this strong self, right? I would achieve glory. I'd be working at the pinnacle of the nation, right? I would be at the top. And so that's what I did and that's what I pursued, and then I met my husband.
Yeah. So you pursued that path, and it sounds like you didn't need God. You didn't need God, like those who went to church who needed God. When you looked at other people, it sounds like, when you considered religious people, it’s not like you had disdain or hostility towards them at all. It was just something that you didn't need. Is that right?
Yeah. And I think the culture has and had successfully divorced the intellect from faith. And so, when that happens, it's not just something we study academically now and say, “Okay, that's what happened,” and we can study that academically. When you're growing up like I did, it's entrenched in everything. It's in the water we drink. And so, as far as I was concerned, there were people who had an intellect and they were living their lives and doing their own thing. And then there were people who had faith, and they needed it, like you said, and I didn't need it. Until I did.
Because I would start to ask questions, because the other thing that's so interesting about human beings is that you can't get away from the questions. I remember going to a funeral… no, a viewing. And I'm standing, looking at the body of a close dear friend of ours at a viewing. This was an open viewing, open casket, and I'm standing there staring at this body and skin, and it's not moving, and it's just a shell, and I'm haunted, and I'm alone, and people are milling about, and someone I remember distinctly who came up next to me, a close friend of the person who had died and a close friend of our families, and she said, “Susan, are you okay?” and I said, “Where did he go?” And she said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Where did he go? It's just a shell. Where did he go?” And so I would have been 25, 26 years old. Well, that continued to sort of sit in the back of my head, kind of like, “What does happen to us? How am I a body? Where’s the self?” And all of a sudden, there are questions of, “What about my past? What about my own memories? What about my life? Who's going to remember those?” Then if you ask that question and there's no real person of God, then, “What’s it for? Does it matter?” And if nobody remembers it, “What difference does it make?” So then there's an existential crisis that really begins to ensue that you can't escape. You can push that down as much as you want, but you can't escape it. You can find ways, and I found ways. A highly confident young woman in Washington, DC? I was a partier. I mean not crazy. I didn’t do drugs and stuff like that, but we went out drinking. It’s what we did. I had fun, and you can push it aside. You can escape it. You can find ways to ignore it. But it's there, and it's always going to be there. And you can either choose to confront it or ignore it. And my advice to your listeners would be don't ignore it. Don’t ignore it.
Right. And it is easy to ignore, isn't it? I mean, you had goals and ambitions, and you were obviously pursuing those with success, and it's not often that we step back and actually look at those big questions, pull them out, see what they mean and how to answer them, until something like that, a death occurs, or something sobering or disrupting happens, and it causes you to step back and perhaps look a little bit more closely at your own worldview. I'm curious: Before we go to where you met your husband. Had you really looked at this secularized worldview, what it meant, what the implications of those ideas were?
That’s a great question. What immediately came to mind is, when I graduated from college, I remember saying to my mom, “I don't think I learned anything.” People were saying, “Congratulations!” and I said, “I don't think I learned anything.” And my family looked at me like I was weird. But in my mind, I thought, “What did I learn?” And so I actually started—this is interesting. I wanted to go back to school. So here I am, 21, 22 years old. Let’s see. I graduated college in 1988. So I wanted to go back to school, but I didn't want to go back to school, because who wants to go back to school when you’re a new college graduate. You want to go out into the world. And so I started to go to the bookstore and read classics. I said, “I want to study classic literature.” So I had a sense that there was a body of knowledge that maybe I had tapped in school but not truly, because by that time, we have a very different educational system. And so the humanities are no longer a large part of education. I hadn’t studied philosophy and logic, because that's been removed. Of course, religion, we know that has.
And so I somehow naturally gravitated to that and started picking up books. And so I remember picking up Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And that book was fascinating to me, because I later learned that Tolstoy wrote that book after he had a conversion. So that is something that fascinated me. But also, that story is about death. So yeah, to answer your question, there was something that I intuitively knew about the secular worldview that it was lacking.
And so I think we intuitively, or I intuitively grasped that right after college, knowing I had gone to school and learned all these things about life and had all these experiences. I grew up in a fascinating, religiously pluralistic home, where it was praised that no religion held a privileged status and that that was virtuous, and yet somehow something was lacking, because there wasn't anything to make sense of the world. It was just too big for the secular worldview, and the secular worldview was too small to explain it.
So there was some intuitive sensibility about it, and it rose to the surface from time to time. So after that experience you had getting a sobering reality check with the person who had died, and you said not… shortly thereafter or soon thereafter, you met your husband? Tell us about that.
So I met my husband on Capitol Hill. He been working as a chief of staff in a congressional office, ended up moving over to the office where I was. We were working for one of the congressional campaign committees. And we started dating and never discussed religion. In fact, I think I could say we never, never discussed religion. And then got married.
Okay. So he obviously didn't have…. He didn't have any kind of active faith or anything at the time, so it was just a non-issue.
So he grew up—this is interesting. So he grew up in a congregational church in New England. He grew up in New Hampshire. His best friend’s father was a pastor. So my husband was an acolyte in the Presbyterian Church USA later… Oh, no. Baptism in the Presbyterian Church USA. Later became an acolyte in the congregational church, grew up in a congregational church in New England, but by the time he came down to Washington, DC, and went through college, and he came down to DC, had abandoned religion like many do. And so it wasn't part of his formation at that time as well, as a young adult. And we never had conversations. “What do you think's going to happen when we die?” I mean my mom said the same thing. She didn't have any conversations with her new husband about faith necessarily and how they would raise kids, and neither did we. And so there we were. I was 30 years old when I got married. Dan was 33. And it would be within that first year of marriage that I had a conversion. A dramatic one.
So a number of things had been occurring, and the easiest way to describe it or to condense it: I had a miscarriage. This is so true to someone like me as well. When you're self absorbed and when you grow up with yourself as your identity, when something happens to you, suddenly it's like, “Wait a minute! I had a miscarriage. Why?” Like, “How could I not save this baby?” because I'm that big. In my mind, I'm that big. And so another existential crisis happens, where we say to ourselves, “Okay, this child inside me has died.” It was probably… I think it was 14 weeks old, “But I didn't. Why?” Because there's two of us, right? So this other being did, and I didn't. “So who gets to decide? Why did that happen?” And I didn't have an answer to it. I remember sitting at my desk and just writing over and over and over again, “Why wasn't I allowed to die? Why wasn't I allowed to die?” meaning why was this being in me taken and yet I wasn't. I mean how do you answer that question?
And there I am trying to answer the question, right? I have an Orthodox aunt, Jewish aunt, an Orthodox Jewish uncle, a Jewish grandfather, a mother who's been baptized, fully dunked, in the Jackson River in Appalachia and her mother, and everybody's just saying everything’s equal. All religions are equal, but they’re one story among many. No commitment and it is a horribly frightful place to be.
And it was at that moment, to bring it full circle, that I went to bed, and I don't know the details necessarily of what led up to that particular evening. But I went to bed, and my husband and I went to sleep that night, and I don't know if I opened myself up to demonic influence, but I was definitely of the world and not safe, and I think I was on a downhill trajectory and spiral, not very far into my marriage. I went to sleep that night and had a powerful experience seeing a vision of someone, a person, tapping someone's shoulder to turn to look at me, and I heard a voice say, “Hold on to your husband. His faith will heal you. I threw my body up out of a dead sleep, wide awake, screaming. My husband woke up. I held on to him, and he said I was freezing cold, almost to the point where it was burning his fingers. So my pragmatic, even-keeled, steady New England husband is holding on to me as I'm freezing and literally, he said, feeling the warmth come back into my body. And when I said, “I need to go throw up,” he said, “No. Go back to sleep.”
We went back to sleep. I woke up in the morning, lying on my back with tears coming down my eyes, hitting the pillows and running down my ears. My husband got up, took a shower, came back to the bed, looked over me and said, “I don't know what happened last night, I don't know what happened to you, but I'm going to work.”
And I lie there still. And the tears just flowing. And I had no idea what happened to me, but I remember lying there and feeling a presence like I had never felt in my life. And I remember, for some reason, I believed that I had had some kind of an experience that was an experience of God. Now, when that happens, you think you're crazy, especially someone like me, having told you my history. So eventually I got up, and I took a shower, and I remember standing in the shower and saying, “Wow, I'm just being cleansed.” And I thought, “Why did I just think that?” And then I went out to get the mail. It was all a very slow motion kind of a day. Then I went out to get the mail, and the wind blew, and I heard a voice say, “This is my wind.” And then I went upstairs, and I sat down at my desk, and I thought, “I need to write this down. I need to write down what just happened.”
And so I started writing down all these words and explaining the situation that had just happened to me, and I heard a voice say, “This is my word.” And I remember later throwing that out, because what I came to learn later was that there was only one word. And it was capital-W Word, and it was God's Word. So I don't have that piece of paper anymore. But I had an experience of water, wind, and word, and I remember thinking, at the time, it didn't make sense but it made sense. Does that make sense?
There's something to us, where there was something about it that made sense, but there was a lot that did not. My husband comes home from work that day, and he looked at me and said, “Are you okay?” and I said, “I need to find a church.” And he said, “Excuse me?” I said, “We need to find a church, and it's a matter of life and death.”
He said, “Great.” The following Sunday, he took me to a Unitarian Universalist church.
That was an interesting choice.
That's a key part of this. But you know why that's so interesting? Because that's how he viewed me.
That's how I sounded. I sounded like a secular humanist. I was raised as a secular humanist. I told you before I talked about the universe. I mean the earth, nature. That was what I was into. And that's how I sounded. So he did exactly what he thought was right. He took me to a church, and this is what's fascinating: We are sitting at a Unitarian Universalist church, at the opening part of the service, and everybody's talking and sharing, like prayers of the people, I think it was called, something like that. And I can still see myself sitting there. I'm sitting there, and a woman stands up and starts talking about the fact that someone in her family—I don't remember who, because this is 25 years ago. Someone in her family has cancer, and she's crying, she’s weeping, and I turned to my husband and I said, “We need to get out of here.” He says, “Excuse me?” I said, “We need to leave.”
Now, my husband does not like to be late to anything, and he would never get up and cause a commotion and leave a room, because he find that to be rude, because he's so polite. I am viscerally angry. He says, “Why?” Are you ready for this? I said, “Because this church doesn't have Jesus Christ.”
My husband, I thought he was going to fall out of his chair. We go, and we get in the car, and I'm angry at him. I can still see us getting into this car, and I'm angry at my husband. And I say, “Why didn't you take me to a church with Jesus Christ? He says, “Excuse me?” I mean I had never uttered those two words before in my life to him. And that's what he said… that's right. Remember the yellow pages? We went home, opened up the yellow pages, and he's now scouring under churches and finding the equivalent to the congregational church in the DC area. He finds Presbyterian Church USA, pin points it, and that following Sunday we show up at a PCUSA church, which is how I started in the mainline Protestant church before I then later, about 10 years later, then made my way to the evangelical church.
Wow. I’m sitting here amazed because…. Just, first of all, for those who aren’t familiar with the Unitarian Universalist Church, can you describe just in a sentence or two what that is, so that people understand what you entered there in that first church experience?
I don't know if I can speak to it academically and well, but I think basically it's just what it says. Unitarian, like there's one universe, one world, and we're all one, right? And we're all one, and I think there's a lot of influence in the culture with that today. I mean there's really no distinctions, So a Unitarian Universalist is really just going to be, “We’re all one, but we really don't have answers to the full human experience.”
Yeah. But I do find it interesting, though, that the one thing that you absolutely noticed was absent was Jesus Christ. And that’s Who your, I guess your heart was longing for, that you even encountered something of Him, that you were searching for Him, and you knew it wasn't there. So did you find Jesus Christ as you were continuing to pursue Him through this church experience at the Presbyterian church that you attended? What happened?
So I showed up at a PCUSA church, and the pastor was talking about Mother Mary. Jesus’ mother, Mary. It was a right before Christmas, I remember, and I turned to my husband and said, “This is where we need to stay. We’re staying here. And I started to ask the pastor, “What are the Christian classics?” or these Christian books that I can kind of get my hands on and start to learn a little bit about the faith, and I will say this: I will say that people in the PCUSA church, I think, began to look at me rather with some skepticism. I had had a supernatural experience, and though I didn't use that word supernatural and I didn't go running around saying, “Guess what? I went to bed one night and woke up and saw Jesus Christ.” I was a person who was now 31 years old and not raised in the church and knew nothing about it, but was showing up with this passion for Jesus Christ. And so, in a mainline Protestant church, that's a little... There’s not necessarily continuity to that for historical reasons, but for your viewers who may not know, primarily because the mainline Protestant church will discard the supernatural over time, historically. And that's important, because Christianity then will become more the collection of human experiences of God, rather than revelation of God to human beings.
And so I went into a church with this experience with people who believed that religion is a collection of stories of human beings’ experiences of God. I come in with something that happened to me. So I don't have any constructivism, I haven't created anything, but I need explanation. And so it was a little bit of a... it was difficult. But it's fascinating that God led me, and I do believe I was led there first. I used to get angry later and say, “If I had only just showed up at an evangelical church and somebody had put in my hands Josh McDowell’s and Sean McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, I would have taken that book, and I would have been up all night long for months and scouring it.”
But God didn't. It's fascinating. So, once I accepted and got over the anger of that, because I didn't even know about that book for years later. But look back on what it was like to be in a mainline church and experience that. What began to happen over time is that I just kind of a little angrier, a little angrier, a little angrier because I couldn't make sense of this experience. There was no way, and it sat like an idol in my mind. And I did not have philosophy training. I had no logic in my background. I was a typical person who grew up in the ‘80s. Like I said before, without the background and education, with no formal religious training. So I had no way to make sense of this. None. So I'm either crazy. “And so maybe I am, and so maybe I’d better not say anything.”
So I'm going to church and just kind of running the script and learning all about denominations and serving.
So all of a sudden my life is taking on all of these different activities, which by the way is now making me very different than the person I used to be in my own family. I mean, I'm not going shopping on Saturday. I'm now building a house for Habitat for Humanity. So that's causing question marks in my own family, like, “What’s going on with Susan? What is she doing?” And I have a choir robe, and I'm singing in a choir at a church. So that's weird, right? But again, this experience sat in my head like an idol, and when I say idol, it actually became painful. I had to get it out. It needed explanation.
And it wasn't until I landed at a Christian school, because we ended up moving our children to a Christian school. And I started helping out, substituting and then teaching, and then students started to ask me, “Mrs. Leonard, why are you a Christian? You're so passionate.” And I’d say, “Oh, I… Oh. Well, because it's true.” And then they’d say, “Well how do you know?” “Well, I had this experience, but….” and then I’d realize, “I can't say that. Because if I say I had an experience and they don't have an experience, what makes me so special? I can't say that to them. That's actually mean.” And so I realized, “Wow, I can't talk about my experience, and yet I have this powerful experience that’s trapping me and making me feel like I'm crazy, because is it only subjective, or is it an objective experience?”
I think I was teetering somewhat on the edge of, as a Christian school teacher, just really in a space of cognitive dissonance, probably.
So you had moved into somewhat of a Christian worldview, but it didn't sound like a fully orbed kind of Christian worldview. It wasn't a shell, but and there were probably rooms being filled in the house of Christian thought, it sounds like, but not fully to explain, like you say, your spiritual experience. So what did you do with that dissonance?
Right. You know, it's interesting even though it was a partial worldview, it was an important infant’s step for me. And Bible says something about that. You can't feed meat to infants. And so it served a role and a purpose for me at that time, because you can't just take somebody out of the world and just throw them into…. I don't think you can throw them in the experience that I've now been living. It had to be taken slowly. Those steps had to be taken slowly, and so, again, there were just episodes over time and things that happened episodically that would move then to the evangelical church, one being my 12-year-old son at the time was sitting in the back of a mainline protestant Presbyterian church and turned to me and said, “Mommy, we need to leave this church.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “It’s just a feel-good community center.” So I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “It just feels like everybody's here just gathering to do good works, good things, and feel good about themselves.” So your children often say some pretty insightful things.
And so things like that would happen. Of course, I started getting my hands on different materials to read, and so you start reading. I started reading C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, again going back to some deep worldview questions. And then, of course, I'm standing in front of my students every day, and they're asking me questions about the Christian faith. And as I'm getting lodged these questions and I'm finding that I can't answer with my own experience, that I've got to now find a good answer. I was intrigued by the word “worldview” at the Christian school, and so I would start to ask my colleagues what that means. “What do you mean, worldview?”
So I started to ask questions, and that's when I went to my head of school and said, “If I wanted to study worldview and I wanted to study with the best, like the best in the nation. I don't want a book. Tell me who that is. I'm from Washington, DC, so I know, if I want to know something, I want to find the expert.” So he said, “Oh, you need to look up Josh and Sean McDowell.” This is so funny. When I think about this story now, I laugh so hard, because I actually said, “Who?” And then he said it again. I said, “Can you spell that?” I mean, is that crazy? I mean he's been my professor now and my teacher at Biola and I go home, and I start researching, and I'm like, “Wow!”
So I started listening to him talk about the resurrection on videos, and I thought, “What is he saying? There's evidence for the resurrection?” And all of a sudden I realized, “Wow! There are people talking about Christianity in a way that I have not heard from anyone, that I don't sound like,” and it makes sense to me, because I knew that I had an experience of a living Lord. I knew the resurrected Lord of the universe had shown up in my life. I knew it in my bones, but I had to have that externalized. I had to.
And so, ultimately, that was like a magnet draw, and it just drew me in. And I realized I had to go back to school. I didn't mention this to you, but I'd gone to seminary. In 2002, I entered. My daughter was two. So I guess I’d been a Christian for maybe five years, and so I entered a mainline seminary in Washington, DC, Wesley. I graduated with a master's in theological studies in 2009. I did it part time, and that was much to make sense of just…. That’s where I learned just basic theology. I just didn't have any of that in my upbringing, none of us did in schools, private or public.
But I knew I needed to go back at that point, I knew I needed to go back to seminary. I knew I needed to study apologetics, and I knew I needed to get a handle on how to talk about the Christian faith evidentially, because other people have to be having this experience like me. I can't be the only one. Colossians 1:13-14 says that He is transferring us to the kingdom of God. Well, that’s an active verb, transfer. If Jesus is alive—He is. We know He is—He is transferring people from darkness to the kingdom of God. That's active. That is happening. That happened to me.
So you use the word apologetics a lot, and some are unfamiliar with that term. Can you briefly just describe what apologetics is?
Apologetics is to have a defense, to be able to defend the faith with good reasons and evidence. And the word apologia comes right out of I Peter, when Peter, who is one of Jesus' disciples… on this rock, Peter—his name means rock—I will build my church. Peter writes a letter and says, “Always be prepared to give a defense for the faith that lies within you with gentleness and respect.” And there's a word in there, apologia, reasons and evidence. And defend it.
So what are reasons and evidence? Reasons and evidence can't simply be, “I had an experience.” Now I had a profound experience. It's an extraordinary story when I tell it in detail. But what does that do to move a needle for anybody else? And how do you actually explain that, so that you don't sound like, “Well, you know what? The Lord of the universe just showed up in my life. He didn't show up in yours.” You can't do that. You can't evangelize that way. It's not kind. And that's not gentleness and respect. If I'm really going to respect the other and defend the faith, then I have to be able to argue with Truth, capital T. And that's objective. And that's not me.
You’ve also mentioned the word worldview a couple of times, more than a couple of times. In terms of the importance of what that is, and you inferred that there may be Christians who believe who may be not aware of or not interested in, or know even, what a Christian worldview is. Can you describe what that is?
Yeah. So I think the easiest way to describe it is it’s a narrative. It’s a story. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every story has a rise, a fall, and a resolution and so, worldview is a story with all of those component parts. So some worldviews…. There are six or seven dominant worldviews in the world today. People can argue how many they are. You know, secularism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism. It could also be argued that there are as many worldviews as there are people. I’ve heard John Stonestreet say that. But if we take the six dominant world views that really do make up the globe and the world of ideas, the Christian worldview, in my estimation, shines brighter because it has an answer to all the pieces of the story. It answers questions about the beginning, how we got here, the best. It answers questions about evil and the fall and why there are bad things in the world the best, why bad things happen to good people and vice versa. Good things happen to bad people. And it answers with the best evidence and reasons on how the world is redeemed and then restored.
So if I look at the secular script or if I look at it with a Christian worldview script, I'm going to arrive at a different understanding of what's going on in the world, a different perspective based on that worldview. It's a means to really think critically about cultural trends and gives us perspective. I hope that was a simple explanation.
That was really wonderful, and I think we can draw your story full circle here, because, in your childhood and your coming of age, you were aware of these different stories, but they were all equal in nature. There was not one privileged over another, not one that was primary over another. And it sounds like you didn’t associate them to be true, with the truth, objective truth, as matches with reality. They were merely stories in and of themselves and at that time not worthy of belief for you.
But now you're sitting here as an adult woman, very educated, who's done obvious due diligence, not only to investigate the story. It sounds like your experience put you on a trajectory and these big questions to know more. You went to seminary, you’ve undergone apologetics training at the graduate level, and you've really looked and done a deep dive into the worldview of Christianity and looked at the evidence and looked at the arguments, and you can make a defense now for the Christian worldview that sounds compelling, that answers your questions, that proclaims Jesus Christ, Who’s the center.
So there's the issue of does God exist? And does God matter? And it sounds like you have answered both of those questions through your life. And I wondered…. The transformation that has occurred in you—mind, heart, emotion—it sounds like it's made all the difference. Can you speak for just a moment about the change that this has made in your life, coming to believe in Christ as the center of all things?
I think I would say two things: I think, one, I lived with tremendous fear. I think fear dominated my life. And I think that can happen to a person without them knowing. And we try to cover that fear with as many things as we can and hide that fear. But that fear is gone. And that fear is not just simply answered with a narrative script or use of an ideology. It's answered with the person of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. You know, when He says, in the high priestly prayer at the end of the Gospel of John. He’s going to the right hand of the Father. He's ascending to the Father. And He says, “I'm not leaving you as orphans. I'm not leaving you alone. I’m sending you the Advocate, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, to cause you to remember all of these things, to be with you until the end of the age.”
So I live now with a Presence that's palpable. I don't have a sense of being alone in a world that is so big, and that's real to believers. Had you told me that when I was 25, I would have looked at you curiously, like, “What is she saying?” I would have no concept of that. But I know now it's real.
The other thing I would say is, secondly, I think of Galatians 5:22 and fruits of the Spirit. And I'll tell you just a quick story: My students in middle school, as middle school students go, would often forget their books. And they’d always comes to class without their books, and the teachers were always trying to come up with a way, “How are we going to get them to remember their books for the right class?” And so we came up with this behavior ladder and all these different rules and ways that they could remember. Well, it really was out of control. They would often…. Almost every day, there were a number of students that would forget their books. And they’d come in and they’d say, “Can I go get my book? Can I go get my book? Can I go get my book?” And so you couldn’t get started as a teacher. One day, a student raised her hand and said, “Mrs. Leonard, can I ask you a question?” I said sure, and she said, “Why are you so patient?” And I just stopped and I thought, “That is absolutely a phenomenal question.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody would have ever…” She was just asking about a book.
And she's just trying to figure out why I'm just so calm, cool, and collected, and saying, “Oh, go ahead. Go get it.” I said, “Nobody in my life would have ever described me as patient.
I mean, I went home that night and thought, “Wow! He changes us. He really does.”
Those are the experiences I think we can tell to others and say that does happen. There’s the truths of the resurrection, evidence for the resurrection, and that has to be investigated. Every one of us has to do that. Every human being, believer or nonbeliever, needs to investigate that evidence. Because Jesus is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord, but He has to be one or the other, right? And when you investigate that trilemma, you realize, He’s not a lunatic, and He’s not a liar. He can't be a moral teacher, and so He is Lord.
And you do that and then you can talk to believers and see that they are being changed into the likeness of Him, and that is just glorious. It's fascinating. It's fascinating.
I imagine, Susan, that there are people who are listening to your story and to your new perspective and really find it attractive and think, “I wish I had that,” or, “I want that,” or, “I wish I could believe, but I don’t.” Or, “I’m skeptical, but I’m open and willing.” How would you counsel someone who actually might be curious enough to take a step forward, whether it’s into a church or to read the Bible or to venture into apologetics or whatever you think might be a good first step for someone?
I would do two things: I would study ideas. I would study. Comparative worldview study is what I would do. I would get a book like Understanding the Times, and I would look at—by Dr. Jeff Myers and Dr. David Noebel—and I would look at the six competing worldviews, and I would take them seriously. And I would take seriously each worldview and consider them seriously and study them. And I wouldn't just choose a worldview based on feelings or likes or what the trends are. Feelings are fleeting. Likes are fleeting. Study them on ideas and based on reasons and evidence for truth. And reasons and evidence are how we determine what is true. And see how they match up.
So I would show myself grace. I would do a comparative worldview study. And you know what? I’d try to find a good friend that knows something about religion and worldview who is gentle and kind and respectful and just start asking questions. Just go out to coffee. Just ask questions. And understand that the intellect is not separate from faith. The world has separated the intellect and faith, and that's more contemporary and that's a modern worldview. That's not something that we always believed as human beings. When you look at the full scope of humanity and human thought, that's just not the case.
I guess I'd say four is be prepared. I'd say four is be prepared for a joy that knows no bounds.
And you know, in considering your story, there really weren't very many intersections of embodied faith in your path, in your coming to believe. You really pursued it really very independently. You knew you needed something, you wanted something, and you were looking for something, but yeah. There weren't very many Christians who intersected your pathway. So how, based on your perspective now, would you encourage Christians to engage with people who don't believe, who are skeptical, who might be looking like you, and they just have no idea. What would you encourage us as Christians to think about and to do?
Churches need to have classes on apologetics, and they need to publicize them in the community, and they need to make them well known outside of just their own church body. In whatever way they possibly can. Years ago, we'd say put an ad in the newspaper. But go to schools and advertise it and get out there on the streets and say, “There are reasons and evidence for faith. Come find out.” And have open forums to do that. Have community conversations. Host something at the local school.
But I also would just say this, We talked about worldview and stories. I would help people to find the stories within every movie, every song that you listen to, every Netflix series, everything that's out there. And I would just expose those stories for what they are, and then I would re-frame them in the Christian worldview. I think that's very important. And then I would…. What comes to mind right now is a poem by Emily Dickinson. And in the poem, she says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant… The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”
I would be alert to the fact that, “Truth has to dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—” That for someone like me—I didn't become a Christian overnight, just because someone shared a verse with me or just because I… I mean, it takes time as an adult to change the narrative script of your life. It’s painful. There were a lot of tears along the way. Human beings are complex. Worldviews are personal. They’re as tied to our families and our narratives, our stories, and our childhood experiences, and everything in between, and all of those moments are woven together to construct a worldview.
We have to be careful. We have to tell the truth gradually. That doesn't mean don't tell it, but in today's culture, some people might interpret me saying that by saying, “No, no, no, no. That’s not true. You need to tell it. You need to save souls.” Especially in this culture, where absolutes are really at war with one another. But as Christians, we understand human beings and understand the complexity of what makes a human being a human being, and we know that worldviews are personal, and we know that, because our God is a Person.
And so we then are taught by Him and embodied with His Spirit to treat other people the same way, as persons, with complex stories and histories and lives and loves and loves lost and people lost and deaths. And so we have to move carefully into that space, with attentiveness.
And so I hope that's helpful for you. I hope that's helpful for your listeners.
I think it’s incredibly helpful, Susan. It's been such a joy to hear your story and to really appreciate your perspective. I think you bring something so deep to the conversation. It’s obvious to me that you're just so, again, passionate about what you believe, but you're intuitive, and you’re insightful. You’ve given it a lot of reflection, not only from an ideological perspective and what is true, but also from a very personal…. You’re coming from a very personal place and a lot of experience with engaging people who believe and don’t believe. And so you have that ability to not only understand both sides of the story but also to respond in a gracious way, and there's a delicate strength to it.
And I just so appreciate all that you’ve brought to the podcast today, to the listeners today. I think it's just a rich buffet. There's so much we can learn from you, and I'm inspired by your story. So thank you so much for coming on and telling the fullness of your journey today.
Thank you so much, Dr. Harmon. The work that you are doing is extraordinary. It's important. I watch it. I love what you're doing, I can't wait to read your book. What you're doing is a real gift to the church, so I pray and will continue to pray that the church is listening to you.
Thank you so much, Susan. I genuinely appreciate that.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Susan's story. You can find out more about her recommended resources in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our email at [email protected]. Also, if you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with a former atheist with questions, please contact us on our Side B Stories website or through our email, and we’ll get you connected.
I hope you enjoyed the episode, 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 the another skeptic flips the record of their life.