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Why Choose a Religion? | Why Christianity? Series 1

Derek Caldwell

An Odd Question

Sixteen years ago, I felt the presence of the Lord in my life. I “made a decision,” as is often said. More realistically, it is not a life “given” to God but one returned. Into the waters of baptism I fell, and out of the waters of baptism He raised me. It’s been a long, strange trip full of some wonder-filled peaks, but also some dangerous and heartbreaking valleys. It is not a journey for the faint of heart, which is to say it wasn’t a journey for me. Thank God that it doesn’t rely on our strength alone to survive.

There are many ways one may answer why or how they came to Christianity, and it is an unavoidably personal question. For me, it was something in the resurrection of Christ that stood out among all other religions of the world. There were other religions I had had some passing interest in, but ultimately, I rejected them in favor of atheism. So, this is an exploration about why this one instead of those ones. But even though this matter is unavoidably personal, I’ve seen that my life is not so unlike others’. We’ve all been impacted by culture, desire, and pain to resist the Giver of Life. And, in my many discussions with those who seek God and those who have found God, the factors that go into a decision for Christ are often quite similar.

If you ask why, out of all the belief systems in the world, one would choose Christianity (given all the attacks this 2,000-year-old religion has sustained in recent centuries—some of it quite deserved, by the way), then this summary article might be helpful. Can’t one just take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff behind? You know, give me Jesus, but not the church. The problem, of course, is that the first thing—Jesus—said we couldn’t lose the second thing—the church. He actually said, rather surprisingly, that somewhere in that labyrinth of organized chaos He would be found (Matthew 18:20). It gets very hard to throw out the frustrating parts when the best part doesn’t allow it.

Wrestling with God through pain

So where to begin? The name “Israel” means wrestling with God. I suppose I began wrestling—unbeknownst to me—when my brother, Mike, died in 1988 when I was five years old. He was my cool older brother with a Camaro. What I learned earlier than some children was that the world isn’t fair or safe. And while it quite often has the common decency to lull us into feeling safe, for some reason it opted to red pill me into reality. The unfairness I discovered upon awakening, the unfairness of the world-at-large, is often violent and cripplingly painful. I learned there was no firm foundation, or so I thought. Extreme anxiety quickly came, which is sure to happen when suddenly you feel the safety and security of the world is in your very small and incapable hands. I tried—and failed—many times to be a savior. As I grew, I accepted that the world was just full of pain and suffering and concluded that there just simply couldn’t be a god. Yet, at the same time, there was a silent cry welling up in my heart that was accusing this god I rejected.

The “problem of evil and suffering” was my stumbling block. I had the real, deep, felt data from the tree of the knowledge and good and evil downloaded into me. While a part of me seemed to reach out for the transcendent, my rational side held it back. “Survey the carnage,” it would say. “Does this look like a good god did this?” No, it did not. Perhaps a bad god. But not a good god. In this case, I was very much like David Hume, who so acerbically summed up my sentiments:

Were a stranger to drop on a sudden into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of its ills, a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strewed with carcasses, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. To turn the gay side of life to him, and give him a notion of its pleasures—whither should I conduct him? To a ball, to an opera, to court? He might justly think, that I was only showing him a diversity of distress and sorrow.[1]

As an atheist raging against “god,” I had more than a growing suspicion that nothing really mattered. Life was about maximizing happiness. Life was hedonism, essentially. But every now and then, without the words to give life to the thought, these nagging contradictions would begin to pop up in my head: if none of it matters, then why should I care about pain and suffering?

Just another religion?

One might first ask: why bother? Why bother even feeling the need to choose a religion. They are all basically the same, aren’t they? Actually, no. I find it quite fascinating in the postmodern landscape that in one instance there is a desire to uphold the stories of the marginalized and reject oppressive metanarratives, and in another, to seek to claim ultimate truth is unknowable and flatten all religious belief into essentially one thing. Is culturally-enforced pluralism not also a metanarrative? Of course, to do this is to assume that all those adherents from all those other religions large and small, all in their own ways exclusive, are ultimately wrong about what they believe, wrong about the differences they hold with other religious beliefs, and wrong to hold any belief that is not pluralistic or universalistic. All religions cannot be harmonized into a whole, and therefore cannot all be equally true, for they contradict each other on a foundational level. The faint voices, those promised in a pluralistic society to be heard, have been silenced once again. James Sire is right when he concludes that “the acknowledgment of the death of God is the beginning of postmodern wisdom.”[2] Pluralism thrives in a postmodern world, which in many ways has delivered helpful correctives to modernism, but like King Hezekiah, many peace-seeking adherents of other religions don’t realize that in inviting another to browse their treasures they are actually being plundered.[3]

The truth is, the major world religions—and the many diverse forms of the major world religions—all make different claims about where we came from, why we are here, our relationship with the divine, and how we get out of the whole mess in the end. And perhaps more importantly, there is a major difference between “gods” who have been made out of the material stuff of the universe, or who are synonymous with the universe, and a God who created all the stuff, even the universe, but is not synonymous with any of it. A God like that would be, in the parlance of Karl Barth, wholly other. Significantly, these differences are mutually exclusive if we take them seriously on their own accounts. To any of these types of gods (at least, in their more traditional, pre-modern forms), being a member of another religion—serving another god—automatically discounts you from entering salvation through the other, since you are not doing the right things that need to be done.

So why choose a religion? Or better yet, why seek God? Well, I suppose for the same reasons that we seek and choose anything. We choose a spouse because we love them. We choose to eat because food nourishes us. We choose to trust science because (in its best forms) it discovers aspects of truth that help to sustain and improve life. But these things are not just choices. They are hardwired necessities. There is something that calls us to love, to surround ourselves with community, to seek nourishment and truth. From the Christian perspective, it is the same with God: He is the source of all these things, we were created in His image, and He is calling us back to Himself. We choose religions and we choose gods; we seek transcendence, we search for meaning, all because instilled in us is what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, a homing beacon that constantly directs us to seek the Creator behind our glorious Creation.[4] In other words, humanity’s insatiable desire to “find God” is no accident of history, but instead the result of being created by a God who longs for reunion.

You can read part 2 of the Why Christianity? series here.

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[1] David Hume, from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in Michael L. Peterson (ed.), The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 42.

[2] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 215.

[3] 2 Kings 20:12-19.

[4] “That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. … Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.3.1, trans. Henry Beveridge, retrieved from https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.iv.html.