Knowing is different
The Failed Atheist: A spiritual autobiography… part 4
My atheism was about to be finally put to death as I was to be initiated into the church through cake. They say its christenings, but really its cake.Part 3 of “The Failed Atheist”
After school, deep in the depths of the chemistry lab, was a group of people who called themselves ‘the Christians’. Led by the grandmaster himself, our very own chemistry teacher, Mr Strickland, ‘Stickers’ for short, which he was – he and his wife; both very short.
On approaching I recognised him immediately, ‘oh, Mr. Strickland is one as well. ooh, never knew. Now I know; I know who they are’. The thought came to me that if I went back to being an atheist they would have to kill me.
It felt like a small clandestine secret society tucked away in the depths of the school.
Brian Stickers was a lovely man; vertically-challenged; gently spoken… and hopeless at chemistry. We would gather around his desk at the front of the class – watch him conduct an experiment and then… watch it fail.
“Oh well, you have a general idea – now go back to your desks and conduct the experiment,” which quickly descended into the “heating-of-rulers-over-Bunsen-burners” and the “slow-releasing-of-the-gas” when he was writing on the blackboard.
“Old stickers,” I thought to myself, “who would have guessed!” Although you might if you saw him; tank-top; brown-creased-slacks-and-sandals” (a definite give away). He looked dated then, even though it was the mid 70’s, quite an achievement – I thought – at not belonging to the world. But it was mostly the smile that gave him away; not an appeal-to-be-liked kind of smile but someone genuinely happy. Quite weird… and yet quite nice. He always seemed so content – as if he wasn’t searching for anything; he had it all and smiled and went about knowing he was totally loved. He was a great advert for Christianity and I needed that as, before the meeting, the only other Christian I had really got to know was Adrian (who was without question one of the most miserable buggers I knew).
There were about 12 of us in the ‘chem cult’. After sandwiches and the promised chocolate cake, curtesey of ‘Mrs Stickers’, we all sat and listened to Stickers give a talk.
He read from Matthew 16
‘Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’.
Then, putting the Bible down, he looked straight at us and said, “What about you? Who do you say that he is?”
Suddenly that was it!
“Yes, that’s it!” I shouted. Adrian stared… no one had ever got excited about the CU talk before.
I said to ‘Sticker’s’ afterwards, “Sir that’s it! When you started talking it was as if the lights went on and I knew immediately who it was in the room. I knew his name.
“Great…”, said ‘Stickers’, “cup of tea”?
I wasn’t sure he grasped what this meant to me. The lights really did go on inside me. The gospel made perfect sense to me – not in an intellectual way but in a eureka moment; a ‘penny-dropping’ sort of moment.
“That’s who it is – that person”. The group looked at me as Cambridge mathematicians would at somebody who had just learned to do fractions. I could see them thinking, ‘Umm, pleased for you… now where’s the cake’.
Most of the people in the group had been Christians all their lives, they grew up in the light. But I was like the blind man Jesus healed, who, having known only darkness, when he saw the light and could make out the image, that image was the face of Christ. I could identify him. I felt like a witness pointing out someone in a line-up. The gospel is the power of recognition. A spiritual recognition of the truth about Jesus.
What I failed to understand as an atheist was that people followed Jesus because of the witness of their spirits, not just because of the reasoning of their minds. Christianity isn’t a philosophy – an idea that you can pop with a needle of rational thought – it was a relationship. The ‘knowing’, is different. It’s not a reasoned rationale (that comes later) it’s an encounter. Atheism must confront ‘the supernatural realm’ – not from rational thinking but from personal experience – before it can speak into the reality of Jesus.
This wasn’t just another book he had given me. This was a visa given to a desperate refugee. It was an entry permit into a different country, a different kingdom and a new life. I picked it up and ran.