From faith to reason, my journey

The conversion of Bart Willruth

In the summer of 1979, I was a theology student at the top of my game. I was standing next to several of my professors, some recognized as the worldwide authorities in their fields. I had already completed a B.A. degree with a double major, history and theology, with a minor in Koine Greek. Now I was the fair-haired golden boy of the theological seminary at Andrews University. It was graduation. I was speaking with these professors I had looked up to for so many years, who were now starting to treat me as a bit of a colleague. I was basking in the glow of graduation from the Master of Divinity program at the theological seminary and had graduated first in a class of 300, Summa cum Laude. I had just been invited to enter the Doctor of Theology program at the University. What made that unusual was that no student had ever before been allowed to enter that program prior to serving several years as a pastor and receiving ordination. I was being fast-tracked to become a seminary professor myself. I had just been interviewed by the executive editor of the Southern Publishing Association and asked to write a commentaty on the Apocalypse for educated laymen and college students. Two of my professors had already given me multiple opportunities to guest lecture in their M.Div. classes on the subject of apocalyptic literature and New Testament eschatology. I was a committed Christian who was realizing a dream years in the making.

While I had been brought up in the Armenian Protestant tradition, I had steadily been embracing Calvinist theology, albeit without the hard predestinarianism associated with it. The death and resurrection of Jesus as my saviour, forensic justification, the Protestant credo; Grace alone, Faith alone, and scripture as sole authority, were my life blood. I stood firmly in the gospel and let the gospel stand in judgment of all things; creeds, church institutions, and worldview. I was as committed as one could be and certain of my salvation by the grace of God through his son Jesus Christ. I was a believer, an Evangelical Christian.

As I entered into my doctoral program, specializing in apocalyptic literature, I took on the position of associate editor of "Evangelica" magazine, published numerous articles, and begain accepting invitations to give seminars at churches in several states. I excelled in my studies, maintaining a straight 4.0 G.P.A. throughout.

But there was a serpent in the garden. I had studied deeply in Christian apologetics (defending the faith) using clear logic and argumentation to bolster the reasons for articles of faith. I was convinced that reason and faith could work hand in hand, that reason strengthened faith, and faith could take us where reason could not. One day I picked up a book on economics by Ayn Rand, "Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal." I found the arguments for free markets and capitalism to be enlightening and compelling from the practical standpoint. But the more challenging part of the book was the moral defence for capitalism. I had always believed, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, that there was no positive morality involved in the pursuit of commercial interests, wealth, or any of the material benefits of the secular world other than to renounce them and give to the poor. Suddenly I was confronted with a tightly argued presentation of the morality and the necessity of using one's mind for survival and well being, for being properly concerned with life, this life on earth, and the irrationality of self sacrifice and altruism. Her interplay of the practical and the moral were a blatant challenge to my Christian worldview wherein this life was to be used to serve the purposes of God in sacrifice to Him and others, with the reward coming in the next life. Jesus, as he is presented in the gospels, deliberately drives a wedge between the moral and the practical. A three page section of Rand's book called "the Meaning of Money" presented a conversation of two protagonists debating the question of the truth of Jesus' position that money is the root of all evil. As the conversation grew sharper, the debate corrected to Jesus' position that the Love of money is the root of all evil. The capitalist protagonist began to show that there is no higher value to man than life. Without it, no other values exist. That that which supports this life is the moral and that which is destructive of life is the immoral. That this life is the only one we have (any other is just a hope). That we survive through the use of our mind and reason. That we use our minds to judge the best course of action, to reep the rewards of our thought and action, and to live as we see fit without coercion. That reason is our only guide and means of knowledge. That self sacrifice by any organism, from the lowliest worm to the most intelligent human, is the road to self destruction and death. That money is the visible means of identifying the value we offer to others in exchange for the value they offer to us. It is the tangible symbol of the best within us and is the support for life, our highest value. That the value we put on money is the value we put on our own life itself. That to disdain money is to disdain life. That to love life is to love money which supports it. I was stunned, not that I agreed with the position at that time, but that morality could be so logically argued and tightly reasoned from an ontological perspective (arising out of that which is, existence) rather than being a kind of knowledge only available from revelation. Reason from existence vs. acceptance by authority. She summed up Judeo-Christian morality in this way, To the degree that we are fitted properly for this life, we are unfit for the next. The result of the Christian morality is that to the degree we are fitted properly for the life to come, we are unfit for survival in this life. The vision before my mind was the ultimate symbol of Christian righteousness, Christ on the cross, death in this life in sacrifice for others, self immolation, with new life in glory. Death and humiliation as the paradigm for our proper behavior vs. a morality of making the best out of the life we have, to live for our own purposes, to love this life. The differences are obviously stark, and the sources for the two moralities just as opposite, reason vs. authority. The explosion of Christian morality through reason was shocking. I had never questioned it before. I had thought that Christian morality was the obvious, the given. That those who rejected it did so for sinful reasons, not for moral reasons. Could it be that the morality of Jesus' was irrational?

And then came the computer virus that began working its way through my mind, corrupting every connection, thought, and memory. Rand pointed out that all systems of thought begin with premises. But then she issued the challenge, "CHECK YOUR PREMISES." Nothing, no other concept, no other challenge, has so profoundly influenced my life. I had observed Rand systematically debunking the sermon on the mount, the moral teachings of Jesus, and the Christian life of piety, through reason and logic, the same methods I had used in Christian apologetics to support my faith and that of millions of others throughout the last 2,000 years. How could this be? How can two systems both use the same logical methods to arrive at such opposite conclusions? The answer was in their respective starting points. These questions didn't percolate quickly through my mind, but they did work as a background program over the next two years.

Finally, with a troubled mind and a fear of doubting, which is placed into every Christian early on, I took the challenge. I decided to check my premises. It is such a simple thing to do, and it is a continuing source of embarassment to me that I had managed to achieve the doctoral level in my theological studies without ever asking the basic questions and demanding satisfactory answers. I asked myself, "What are the premises upon which Christianity is based?" I started from the philosophy of religion perspective and found Karl Barth to be the most lucid expositor of the theistic premises. He posited two presuppositions (premises) on which the whole of theological speculation is based:

1. There is a God
2. He has revealed Himself.

Yes, I agreed that those are the starting points upon which all logical arguments for God and His will are based. Number one deals with metaphysics, the issue of existence. To acknowledge this premise is to accept as a fact that God exists. Number two deals with epistemology, the means of knowledge and verification. Together, these presuppositions state that God exists and He has made Himself known to man. The problem as I pondered was that these premises were presuppositions, not objective facts. That is, they were propositions that we suppose to be true in advance as a starting point. But are these propositions really facts? Are they proper starting points? Or are they themselves conclusions? On what basis? Theologians and philosophers have long pondered these issues, and other than the more ignorant fundamentalist country preachers, most have acknowledged that there is nothing within the natural world enabling us to indicate the existence of the supernatural. Or to put it another way, God's existence must be taken as a given, not the result of a line of reasoning or argumentation. We must first believe that He is. The act that existence exists, that there is a universe rather than nothing, does not require the existence of God. Without evidence, and indeed no evidence is possible, the brutal fact is that the first premise that God exists, is an arbitrary proposition; arbitrary meaning that it has no cause or evidence. That "God exists" must be accepted solely on the basis of sheer faith, unseen, and unknowable. When it is acknowledged that the first premise is arbitrary, it necessarily follows that the second premise, that God has revealed Himself, is also arbitrary since it is derivative upon acceptance if the first premise that God exists. Even so, the question becomes "Revealed how?" The Christian will always answer this with a two-fold response. God first revealed himself through "inspired" men throughout the ages and finally through his son who was the pre-existent God becoming a man, living about two thousand years ago ina poor backwater of the Roman Empire. This revelation to "inspired men" is problematic. Why was such vital information released piecemeal in a geographically limited area to one group and not available to every person equally? And how can we know that anything was actually revealed to any of these individuals? We cannot check out their stories and claims. In fact, in many cases the original writers are unknown. How do we know if they conveyed their revelations accurately? And how do we know that the copying of texts through millenia has been scrupulously accurate? If errors could have crept in, how do we know what they are, what was original, and what was altered? How do we know which claimants to revelation were truthful and which were fakers? Numerous individuals have claimed to have received communication from a god. We know more about Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, and the Rev. Moon than we know about many of the authors of the writings which make up the Bible. Which prophet do we accept and which do we reject? By what criteria? If we choose Paul and use his thoughts as a standard, then we reject Muhammad. But if we choose Muhammad and use his thoughts as a standard, then we reject Paul. Why would the great Revealer make us arbitrarily choose which guy to trust in order to come to salvific knowledge? When we choose, and choose we must if we accept the premise that God has revealed Himself, we are ultimately directing faith not to a god, but to the man or woman claiming to be the recipient of the revelation. Why must we exercise faith in fallible men to understand God and his will? Do we know if any inspired man was actually mentally ill or delusional? Do we know if he had a good memory and faithfully wrote down every detail which was revealed to him accurately? We do know that problems occurred in the transmission of the texts, that corruptions entered the texts through omissions by copyists, additions to add authority to someone's pet beliefs, through changes intended to clarify based upon current understanding, through outright fraud and forgery, through simple copying errors, and by the church of the fourth century as it tried to clarify and define orthodoxy. The fundamentalist will answer that from start to finish, God's revelation was controlled and preserved at every level by his will, that is by a long series of miracles safeguarding his word. But this is an argument of faith, not fact; it is unknowable, circular reasoning.

"All of this is a problem" I thought to myself, "and a huge and fundamental problem at that." If all theological thought begins with two premises which must be accepted by faith alone, then is there no objectivity involved? This gets to the crucial questions,\

1. What do I know? and
2. How do I know it?

We are right back to the issues of metaphysics and epistemology.; I had long believed that reason and faith were fellow travelers. Reason could be used to get us part of the way and to bolster faith with evidence, and that faith could fill in the gaps of information unavailable to reason. But if the starting point must be accepted by faith, it is then like a child's game of "let's pretend." Let's pretend that there is a God and that he has revealed Himself, and then logically and with reason extrapolate those premises. We end up with systems called Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but the pyramid of belief which was so carefully built up with so much painstaking care and reasoning all stands on a completely arbitrary and very uncertain foundation. At this point, the marriage of reason and faith is on the rocks. If faith is the starting point and posits "facts" not in evidence, no reasonong beyond that point, no matter how erudite, can claim anything more than that it is a house of cards, smoke, and mirrors. No knowledge can be furthered by extrapolating arbitrary "facts."

As I grappled with these issues, I was devastated. Could my whole worldview, all my study, all my hopes be false? I couldn't accept it. I began to loook for another way to objectify my beliefs. I turned to the second claim of God's revelation, that of the incarnation of Jesus. The Judeo-Christian tradition (and its stepchild, Islam) is unique in world religions in that it claims that God has entered history. In the case of Christianity, He entered history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who was born a Jew in the first century, was the promised Messiah of the Jews, taught with the authority of God, worked numerous miracles which certified his claims, was crucified, dead, and buried. That on the third day through a mighty miracle, God raised him from the dead. The risen Jesus was then seen by hundreds of witnesses over a period of weeks, and was then raised up to heaven before a group of witnesses. This claim is not a faith issue (using "faith" as an epistemological method). Rather, it is a historical claim, subject to the same methods of examination to which other events of history are subject. That he was dead and then alive again is the historical claim. That the event has implications for believers is a faith issue and is not subject to historical investigation. It is the claim of the actual events on the Judean dirt that must be examined as history.

I seized on this issue as the solution to my questions. It would objectify the basic claims of Christian belief even if the philosophical side was wanting. I threw myself into the question with high energy. While this is not the venue for explaining the details, I put together a research project to marshall all the evidence possible to bolster the arguments for the objective historical claims. I read every apologetic book I could find on the resurrection. I read some historical-critical scholarly texts. And I did intense research on my own. I came out at the far end of that study with the realization that the claim of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a historical event was indefensible. The only way to hold on to that belief would be to blindly accept the internally contradictory and irrational claims of the mostly anonymous writers of the New Testament.

I was faced with two options; retreat into faith, blind faith, to believe in the absence of evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary. Or I could use the mind I have to apprehend the universe and existence as it is, not as I wish it were. FAITH or REASON. There is no middle ground. Either-or. I chose reason, but not without pain. It was an exceedingly difficult thing to shed the beliefs of a lifetime which had permeated every part of my being and my outlook. At every point I had to stop and ask myself if I were reacting automatically to my old perspectives or was I thinking and acting in accordance with reason.

I deliberately and proudly expunged faith from my being and took up the banner of reason. When asked what I believe in now, I invariably respond "I don't believe in anything." What I mean is that I know. I apply reason to every part of my life. That perspective is helpful in protection against all con men, religious or commercial. For the last 25 years I have been an Objectivist with reason and logic as my only means of knowing and acting. I have rejected Christianity and other forms of theism. I consider faith to be a short circuit of the mind and hugely detrimental to achieving the full potential of human possibility. Faith is the lazy man's attempt at gaining knowledge, free from the rigors and risks of thinking.

In the interim years, I have remained a careful student of philosophy, theology, and history. I have worked diligently to deconstruct the claims of Christianity, for my own benefit and that of others crippled by this scourge. I study the formative period of Christian origins to ascertain what actually took place and how Christianity evolved into that which we recognize today. I believe theism is the most destructive force in the world today. It cripples the human mind and its potential. It causes the sacrifice of the interests of this life for the delusion of a hoped for afterlife. It allows separation and vilification. Its fundamentalist side can has frequently led to coercion and voilence. It is intolerant. Its liberal side has led to the collectivist/altruist governance of communism, progressivism, and the social welfare state. In a post-enlightenment world, it has no place. Christianity belongs to the primitive, superstitious, and credulous past.

Bart Willruth