Clown Car Inquiries
“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day. Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town, waiting for someone or something to show you the way.”—R. Waters
My father, who considered himself a “quiet atheist,” once asked me a question that threw me for a loop. He was kindly pointing out the various talents I’d acquired over the years and asked what I would invest all my time in if I didn’t spend it on my “religious beliefs.” His friendly insinuation was that maybe there are better things I could be doing with my time. He then added, “atheism demands no time, once you commit.”
His question was one of those “clown car” inquiries: it seems small and almost silly until you open the doors and an endless stream of implications comes pouring out. My thoughts came so quickly I wasn’t sure how to begin giving him an answer. So I did what I usually do in that situation: I started writing. And I ended up tracing the contours of a personal journey that I thought might be worth sharing here.
The short answer to what I would do with all my time if I didn’t spend it on “God stuff” is that I would probably waste it on myself. My world would shrink down to just the things that I want to do for personal pleasure or profit. (I get claustrophobic just thinking about it!) Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with personal pleasure and profit. Those things are just so small and fleeting that I would find no real satisfaction in pursuing them as an end goal. They are more like fun little gifts we sometimes find along the road as we’re pursuing the important stuff in life.
The initial struggle I had with the question was just trying to understand it because it came from a paradigm that was foreign to me. I don’t consider what I spend my time on to be my “religious beliefs;” it’s not a compartmentalized thing. These are my beliefs about the nature of reality and what matters in life. Because I have a questioning mind that won’t seem to ever turn off, my faith ebbs and flows. I’m constantly questioning my conclusions, gathering new information, reassessing my positions, and so on. I’ve actually deconstructed and re-built my entire worldview because of it. For that reason, grappling with my father’s question has helped to strengthen my faith.
Where our beliefs meet reality is in our actions. As the old saying goes, if you want to know what a man truly believes, look at his checkbook and his calendar. The question at hand forced me to consider both. How do I spend my time and money? It’s not something I’d ever really stopped to think about. And when I did, thanks to my father’s question, I was relieved to find evidence of a faithful man. The specifics aren’t important. I was just glad to find that my “God time” wasn’t limited to just an hour a week on Sunday mornings. Between reading, writing, studying, teaching, and serving, the majority of my discretionary time is spent living out (and/or working out) my faith.
I’ve never thought about how my life must look to an atheist. At the heart of my father’s question is the idea that, since there is no God, a capable fellow like myself seems to be squandering his talents on a myth. I suppose it’s the same way I might look at a talented friend who spent all his time studying and writing about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I might want to ask him, “Don’t you have something better to do with your life?”
The heart of this question touches the heart of why I am constantly calibrating my faith. I do not want to waste my life pursuing a lie. I arrived at a belief in God after no small amount of seeking, research, study, and thought. And I have definitely not chosen to put my trust in Him because it’s comfortable or convenient or reassuring. Following Jesus is hard work! (And I say this as a guy who does a pretty shoddy job of following Jesus.) I ended up at the feet of Jesus because only He has the answers for the reality around me and the reality inside me.
Where it Began
If I retrace the steps that got me into this whole “Jesus thing,” it started with a search for meaning in my early twenties. I was raised in a Christian home. But by the time I graduated high school I was a functional atheist, living my life with nary a thought of God. I was a young rock guitarist bent on making it in music. If you would have asked me, I would have admitted that I like the idea of God. I just figured He had his thing and I had mine, and never the twain shall meet.
In my early twenties, thoughts about purpose, meaning, and truth started surfacing. I have been blessed/cursed with a questioning, contrarian mind, and a need for meaning. So whenever I considered a pursuit in life, I would invariably end up asking myself “What’s the point?” Not in a defeatist way, mind you. Rather as a way to challenge myself and make sure there was a valid reason for pursuing it. For a while, I was completely satisfied with answers like, “Because I want to” or “It’s fun.” But that soon started wearing thin.
I’ve never really been driven by money, fame, or social status. (And I’m not just saying that as an excuse for having none of the above.) Those things are nice, of course, but they don’t motivate me enough to invest my life in their pursuit. I could have rock-star status with millions in the bank and international fame but if there wasn’t a bigger purpose behind it, I would ultimately find it all empty. Without meaning it would be nothing more than pouring one’s self another glass of champagne and heading back out on the dance floor of the Titanic. As Chesterton famously said:
“Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”—G. K. Chesterton
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but a need began growing within me for a metanarrative for my life. I sensed there was a larger story to pursue and be a part of. (Is this what is meant by having a “call” on one’s life? I didn’t know.) But I started a search for meaning. It wasn’t a formal quest or anything. I just began to read lots of philosophers, became fascinated with world religions, and kicked against all the load-bearing doctrines of the faith in which I was raised. There were a couple of things I realized pretty quickly. The first is that I wanted to know what was true, not what was easy or preferable, or what cost me the least. I was on a quest for the truth rather than happiness. So as I began exploring worldviews and belief systems, I tried to evaluate them against the things in life I knew to be true. Were they coherent? Did they seem to accurately explain reality as I understand it and have experienced it?
The first fork I came to on that road was a big one: God or no god? I tried to strip the question of the western Christian concept of God and simply ask if the nature of reality itself required the existence of something bigger than ourselves; be it a force or an entity or a spiritual being. Or does reality stand on its own in purely physical terms? Is it just the rocks and us and that’s enough?
I remember coming across a video series of debates online between a couple of highly educated, intellectual men; one a Christian the other an atheist. The topics they were tackling included questions like “Does God Exist?” and “Are science and God incompatible?” These were the questions I was wrestling with. I was leaning toward Christianity and wanted it to be true, but I was also in a place where I needed to hear from the other side and understand it. I remember pausing, my cursor hovering over the video’s play button, as fearful thoughts ran through my head. “What if the atheist says something so mind-blowing that he cuts the legs out from under me? What if he makes an insurmountable point against Christianity?” I ultimately decided not to watch the video. I just wasn’t up for it.
The next day, that video was on my mind again. I finally decided that if Christianity wasn’t true, I needed to face it. And if it was true, I had nothing to worry about. So I took a deep breath, clicked play, and watched the debate with butterflies in my stomach. And I remember getting to the end of that first debate and thinking, “That’s all he’s got?” Thus began my interest in the field of apologetics. And the rest, as they say, is history.