I recently listened to a podcast interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris on What is Christianity? Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and professor at North Carolina who, famously, journeyed from self-described fundamentalist Christian to self-described agnostic as he graduated from Moody Bible Institute, to Wheaton College, to Princeton. Sam Harris is one of the so-called “new atheists” who have been evangelistic in their atheism. Following are some comments and thoughts that I have about the interview.
The first thing that strikes me is Sam Harris’s statement about approaching a subject with which he is familiar as if he were not familiar with it and getting re-acquainted with the subject. This, of course, is a good, scholarly and open-minded way of approaching any subject. What strikes me, though, is that this exercise for Sam Harris isn’t really what he makes it out to be.
Sam Harris is an atheist, and Bart Ehrman is a former believer, self-described agnostic. In that sense, Harris is not approaching Christianity from an unfamiliar position. He has brought into his studio someone who thinks the same way he does. Ehrman came preaching to the choir. It would be far more interesting for Sam Harris to adopt the same approach with a scholarly believer.
That aside, as I listened to Bart Ehrman tell his story, a couple of things immediately jumped out at me. One is that he describes his “born again” experience as a kind of social induction into a group (like pledging for a fraternity or something) orchestrated by a charismatic youth leader. Then he comments that he was “supposed to have been changed”, but he “wasn’t sure from what”.
These statements are telling. First, Ehrman doesn’t describe an experience with God, but an experience with a group of people to which he was drawn, presumably, by the “charismatic” youth leader. He wanted to be part of the group. Anyone who has had a born again experience knows that this is not an apt description for the experience.
Being born again (“born from above…. born of the Spirit”, Jesus says (John 3:1-8)) is not an induction into a social group. It’s a transcendent experience with a transcendent Being, God, the Holy Spirit. It’s a relationship.
A person who has had a legitimate born again experience wouldn’t begin to describe the experience in relation to other people. Aborn again experienced is a horizontal, personal experience with God, not a vertical, social experience with a group. A real born again experience is not susceptible of being confused with an induction into a social group.
Second, Ehrman was admittedly confused about the experience: “Changed from what?” He explains that he had previously attended church; he already called himself a Christian; thus, he wasn’t sure what needed changing.
This confusion reveals a fundamental disconnect that belies his born again experience, as he describes it. In fact, he doesn’t describe a born again experience at all, as anyone who has had a born experience would be able to attest.
I am not sure whether he was recollecting his thinking at the time or relating his present thinking about the experience. Did he mean that he wasn’t sure at the time why he needed to be “born again” and changed? Or is he questioning now why a change was needed. Either way, he didn’t have clarity about his experience.
People who relate a genuine born again experience have clarity about the experience. In fact, the experience is usually defined by heightened clarity! It is usually life changing, a complete paradigm shift, a kind of light bulb moment when everything changes and the way a person sees the world changes.
I am not necessarily saying that anyone who can’t relate the experience in this way is, therefore, not born again. Some people who “always believed” or who become believers early in life cannot recount such a pivotal moment in time. It may not even be described as a “moment” for everyone either. It may be more of a transitional time. For most people, though, it is a moment or realization that is not forgotten, and, in many ways, it is a moment or transition marked by the most intense clarity.
Ehrman also talks about how the same charismatic youth leader told him, if he wanted to be a serious Christian, he needed to go to Moody Bible Institute, which he did. Ehrman went through three years at Moody Bible Institute, which is where Ehrman decided he wanted to be a professor.
Ehrman describes coming to the conclusion one day in class that the professor, “who was a pretty smart guy”, was getting paid for doing what he was doing, and Ehrman says he decided then and there that he wanted to do that as well. The motivations implicit in that story related are money and recognition.
For this reason, presumably, Ehrman transferred from Moody Bible Institute to the more academically challenging Wheaton College. Ehrman describes feeling like he was moving into a “progressive liberal institution”. Clearly his views were still colored by his social induction and the charismatic youth leader’s influence, but his concern about the movement away from what he thought was right to what would bring him money and recognition didn’t sway him from the course.
As an aside, I have always had an issue with Frank Turek’s oft-repeated statement about people who are talked out of Christianity “because no one talked them into it!” Frank Turek, of course, is a well-known defender of the the Christian faith who lectures on college campuses, answering the tough questions about Christianity, challenging people to take it seriously. I like a lot of what Turek says, but I think he is wrong in the sentiment of this catchy turn of phrase.
We can’t talk people into being born again. A born again experience isn’t a social induction, and it isn’t an intellectual exercise. This is not to say that the intellect has nothing to do with faith. Far from it. We are told to love God with our minds (Luke 10:27). God wants us to use our reason. (Isaiah 1:18). Paul urges us to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). But, being born again isn’t just an exercise of the mind.
Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, describes the difference between an intellectual assent to the rationality of believing in God and faith when he tells his story of conversion from atheist to agnostic to Christian. After years of research, study and thought, he determined (much to his chagrin) that belief in God was a more supportable position than atheism. From there, as he surveyed the world religions, he became convinced that Christianity made the most sense. But, having arrived at those intellectual conclusions, he realized that something else was required of him.
It isn’t enough to come to intellectual conclusions about the rationality of God and of Christianity. Intellectual exercise does not lead to a born again experience without something more. Collins describes it this way:
“You can argue yourself, on the basis of pure intellect, right up to the precipice of belief, but then you have to decide. I don’t believe intellectual argument alone will push someone across the gap, because we are not talking about something which can be measured in the same way that science measures the natural world, and then you decide what is natural truth. This is supernatural truth. And in that regard, the spirit enters into this, not just the mind.
I struggled with that for many months, really resisting this decision, going forward, going backward. Finally, after about a year, I was on a trip to the northwest, and on a beautiful afternoon hiking in the Cascade Mountains, where the remarkable beauty of the creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, ‘I cannot resist another moment. This is something I have really longed for all of my life without realizing it, and now I have a chance to say yes.’ So I said yes. I was 27. I’ve never looked back. That was the most significant moment in my life.”
For Ehrman, though, he didn’t initially approach Christianity intellectually. He already went to church and considered himself a Christian. He was drawn to a group of people, influenced by a charismatic leader. He wanted to fit in, so he prayed a “sinner’s prayer”, but his intellect was left behind.
This is a common problem among youth raised in the church. Either they are not encouraged to exercise their minds when it comes to faith, or they are expressly discouraged!
Whatever the case may have been for Bart Ehrman, I have to question whether he had a legitimate born again experience. The way he describes it, the experience was more of an induction to a social group (to use his own words). Things changed for Ehrman when he got to Wheaton College and began to engage his intellect. Ehrman got interested in learning the original Greek, and went on to get a Master’s Degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also stayed at Princeton for his PhD and studied Hebrew, German and French and read biblical scholars in those various languages.
Along the way, Erhman began thinking for himself, which is a good thing, of course. None of us can make a career or enter into a relationship with the Living God on the coattails of other people. We have to stand on our own, on our own thinking and experience.
Ehrman’s “born again experience” was too shallow, however, to carry him as he got deeper into the academic world. He made a social, horizontal connection in that experience with a group of people, but missing was the personal, vertical connection with the eternal God.
Ehrman confuses faith in Christ with going to church and calling oneself “Christian”. (He didn’t understand what change needed to occur.) The Gospel of John says we are not born into being children of God (it isn’t a birthright); we do not choose to be born again, like adopting a worldview; it isn’t by our will, or the will of a charismatic youth leader, that we enter into relationship with God. (John 1:12-13) It’s a response to the prompting of God, Himself.
Being born again is not a social experience, or an intellectual experience, but a spiritual experience. For these reasons, people sometimes say that going to church no more makes a person a Christian than parking yourself in a garage makes a person a car.
At this point, we are not very far into the interview. The entire interview is quite long. I have linked to it in the first paragraph if you have the time and inclination to listen to the whole thing. In subsequent articles, as I have time, I will relate some of the other thoughts I have about other portions of the interview. The next one address Wooden Fundamentalism.