Adam asked, ``Please tell me what brought you out of your head, and into the arms of God, whatever that story may be.''
I tried to write my story down for him. I hope it is catching.
I was reared by Christian parents, but when I left home at the age of 16, I left all my Christian education behind me and considered myself an atheist. What I had seen of Christians (and my parents in particular) had not convinced me; God seemed to be a human construction, made to make up for the believer's weaknesses. I was young and strong, and science had given me an outlook to life and truth that seemed to be superior to an authoritarian belief structure, with working techniques to test and improve one's conjectures about the world. (It didn't occur to me at that time that science is mute about many things that are of primary concern in life...)
I had high standards of love and truth after which I was striving, and I was eager to learn, to perfect my understanding of the world I lived in. I started to swim into the waters of science, which turned out to be a big, nearly endless ocean. My learning was very rewarding, and today I am still swimming. Learning to master mathematics at a deep level clarified my insights into what it means to know, and also gave me a sense of how to search for truth, and how to distinguish between promising and irrelevant ways that one can go.
With 23 I had my Ph.D. and married. But I had not enough love to cope with the difficulties created by our very different personalities, and a few months afterwards, I separated. (This was followed later by a sequence of steps moving back and separating again, sometimes for shorter, sometimes for longer periods. 23 years later, I was divorced and remarried, after having lived 6 years in separation, without any reconciliation in sight.) Seeing that I failed in what was very important for me, I realized that what counts in life is not so much knowledge, but rather power - the power to put into practice what one believes.
A year later I came across the book `Journey to Ixtlan' by Carlos Castaneda. I was strongly attracted to the personality of the main character, Juan Matus, a Mexican indian sorcerer, and to the part of his philosophy I could understand. There is much weird stuff in Castaneda's books related to drugs and dreams that always remained irrelevant for me, but what Juan Matus said about the way of the heart, death, being a warrior, and the loving way he treated his `disciple' Castaneda always intrigued me. To my friends I appeared at that time as sort of a prophet of Power; I was surprised by this since for me it was just a matter of having seen how to become more real. Juan Matus uncovered in me a deep quest for purpose, and he opened my senses a little to the transcendental part of life.
At about the same time, I got to know some Christians who became my friends, and to get to know them better I asked them to share with me the thoughts and ideas that were most important in their life. So, for a few months, we met weekly to talk about the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, and for the sake of completeness, I read other parts of the New Testament at home for myself.
Soon I was fascinated by Jesus. What I read was so different from what I had in memory from my youth; Jesus comes across so lively in the Gospels - and he had what I was lacking: the power to love. What was more, he took it for granted that everyone could be like him. In his mouth the command ``Be perfect, as my father in heaven is perfect'' (Matth. 5:48) sounded as straightforward and natural as his command to the paralytic man, ``Get up, pick up your mat, and walk!'' (Matth. 9:6). Both equally impossible, but said in a matter-of-fact style that demands obedience. And the man got up and went home!!!
Of course, this were just stories, and I had no way of checking whether they were true, but the impression on me was real enough that I started to look for whatever basis there was for Jesus' way of being. I studied him as closely as I could to see how he got his power. It was fairly easy to see that what distinguished him from `ordinary' people was his way of relating to his God, so I tried to figure out what his God was. At that time, I still had the idea of God as a human construction; but Jesus' construction must have been particularly powerful, and I set out to discover what it was, strip it from its religious superstitions, and integrate the essence into my life. At least that was my plan.
Jesus referred to his God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; so I read the Old Testament to find out about them and their relation to their God. It turned out to be very exciting reading to find out how their life was shaped by the encounter with this `God', and I took note of every little detail that might be a help to my quest for finding out the real thing behind. I tried to model their God in my mind, to figure out what was essential, what really made a difference to their life, and how. I had to discover the secret.
I then read the stories of Samuel, David, and the kings, those of the prophets, of Jesus and the apostles, not caring about their doctrine, not even much about their message, but watching very closely the way they interact with their God, and how he interacted with them. Somewhere there, the secret had to be found.
Then, one day, I realized that among all this talk about God, there was something characteristic about the way the people in the bible acknowledged that God had acted. I could not consider the miracles since how could I know whether they actually happened. But there were quite a number of ordinary things that had happened and that were attributed to God. Why? What occurred were coincidences that happened to have decisive consequences.
Suddenly it struck me that this was the key to understanding their God. They gave the name God to the power that gives purpose to what otherwise seems to be just coincidence. Science has no answer for questions about purpose, values, meaning of life. It is all pure chance. But God gives purpose to what otherwise appears as chance. Now I had seen purposeful chance in my own life - having taken it before simply as pure chance, I suddenly discovered that I've had encounters with God, without having realized it.
From that day on, God was a reality for me, and that changed my life. I learnt to see chance as the innovative potential of the Creator, in the smallest things (Prov. 16:33) where they may be insignificant as well as in decisive situations (Ps. 139:13).
I learnt to see that chance is simply the scientist's way to account for influences beyond one's control, that cannot be modeled by deterministic laws but appear to have a degree of surprise. The scientific definition of chance, what distinguishes it from deterministic behaviour, is simply the deviation from expectation, without any reference to a cause. For example, apart from any philosophy that is usually mixed with the pure facts, saying that `life developed by chance' is simply the scientifically acceptable formulation of the statement `life developed by an innovation that we don't have an explanation for but that obeys certain statistical regularities'. (And of course, science - being methodically atheistic - cannot arrive at any other conclusion.)
But the people in the bible saw things in a different frame of mind: God is the Lord of chance; He is in control also of what is beyond the scientist's control.
This was the turning point; but of course, it took a while till everything took shape. The insight at that point was simply a working definition of God in terms that I had experienced; God was no longer a theoretical construct but a power that I knew existed because it had already a place in my life.
The integration of previously unrelated and unnamed things into an understandable framework was one of the things that I had recognized long before as one of the hallmarks of quality in my quest for understanding mathematics.
The fact that the bible had helped me in this way to expand my world view with regard to purpose and chance was a sign that I had hit upon something important; and it tremendously increased my esteem for the bible. If the bible could help me to discover this, it is likely to be useful again; and if I got an initial understanding of God through it, it is likely that more of what it says about God is true. At least I had now a starting point to make the world of the bible my own.
Still I had to find out to which extent one could trust the material in the bible. This was a long process of trial and error; always the question: what am I willing to risk at the present level of trust and understanding, so that I can test whether my understanding and my preliminary distinction between fact and poetry is adequate? Different Christians come to different conclusions; so there is some subjective element in the interpretation. How do I arrive at the best possible interpretation?
With time, I found some standards recommended in the bible that were of help.
It took about a year before I learnt to pray. While reading more (for a few months I neglected everything else almost to the limit of irresponsibility) I gradually felt the need for fellowship with other Christians; the internal revolution had gone on mainly inside myself, without discussions with other Christians (my Christian friends were far away since I had moved in the mean time). So I decided to go to a 5-day seminar by a Christian lay mission organization, and there I was shown steps to give account of my past life, to give up the autonomy over myself, and instead to entrust my life to the caring hands of God. I did the latter in a prayer that I spoke along the lines suggested by my spiritual advisor there, and to my surprise this permanently removed the difficulties to pray.
It took some more years before I found peace and had resolved my doubts about many things that I was uncertain about. In fact, some things changed without me having been aware of how. For example, I knew that God existed, but I was quite unsure about the status of Jesus. His resurrection was for some time a problem; it finally simply faded away when I realized that it is consistent with (though not proved in a scientific sense) the fact that trusting Jesus 'worked' as if he were ruling at the right hand of God. And getting familiar with the immense powers of God - as the Creator of everything we see - made look events like resurrection (or virgin birth) quite small things in comparison with what is needed to keep the whole world going. If you can create something as complex as this world, it is nothing to change here or there some detail of it should you find it necessary.
The most difficult thing was (and is) to trust more and more that God is truly in charge of my life, and handles it well through all my imperfections and all the difficulties that come along. Many of my prayers remain unanswered. Far too often I am cowardly, or am too absorbed in my activities to act flexibly upon the signs of the spirit. I have not become the loving person I wanted to be. I am not living my Christian life attractively enough for those close to me so that they would follow.
But I am happy about the friendship with God, and that he cares for me as parents do for their children. And I have found peace and purpose. Deciding to serve Him with all I am has been the best decision in my life, and I never regretted it.
Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)