From Atheist Physicist to Elder in the church of Christ

Episode #13: (Post on Sunday) From Atheist Physicist to Elder in the church of Christ The LKN Faith Podcast

Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes

An essay drawn from a transcripted interview of the author conducted by Ms. Kerry Honan, Religion major, Davidson College class of 2017.

I’ve been a college physics teacher for more than two decades. Generally speaking, academia is not an environment that you would naturally associate with Christianity, so my students are sometimes surprised when I tell them that I am a Christian who believes deeply in Jesus Christ and who is an active member of the church of Christ.

To some it may even seem absurd that “college physics teacher” and “faithful Christian” are two compatible identities. I am very pleased to report that indeed these identities are completely compatible. Notably, it was some of my earliest physics role models and peers who, many years ago, had a role in my journey from nonbeliever to Christian.

I am the youngest of five children, all of whom were raised in a non-religious household. My parents were both raised in a church, but by the time they married, they had both wandered away from their religious upbringings. Although they had lost their spiritual moorings, my parents were committed to raising their children with strong principles and morals. I never heard my parents say anything negative about Christianity; however, our home was a spiritual vacuum – there was never any discussion or mention of matters of faith, at least that I can recall.

As a result of this spiritual void, and perhaps because of other influences, as a teenager I considered myself to be an agnostic, an atheist, or somewhere between. When I was 16 or 17, I was pretty sure there was no God. However, at a young age, I understood the value and the intrinsic merit of basic morals.

Moral relativism seemed silly to me, and it was plain to me that there needed to be some fundamental foundation for morality.  Thus, I wondered from time to time about my parents’ failure to discuss religion. I also saw that my parents objected to some of my older siblings’ choices, but my parents also lacked any spiritual foundation for their objections. This seemed slightly hypocritical to me.

In addition to my eventual conversion to Christianity, my three older sisters all married Jewish men, and my older brother married a Hindu woman. Collectively, my birth family has an eclectic background now. One of my sisters converted to Judaism, and all of my siblings’ marriages bothered my parents – especially my father, though he could not articulate why.

I was quite sure that his disapproval was not due to racism or bigotry – after all, my parents had at one time been involved in the local chapter of the NAACP. Looking back, I realize now that my father’s discomfort with these marriages was likely due to some underlying regard for Christianity, though he was unable or unwilling to express this.

The growth of my faith began very slowly and early in college with the seed being planted by several people. Most of my friends in college, it turns out, were in fact active in denominational churches, or at least had a spiritual background. Two of my closer friends were Muslim. I was in a secular institution, and I didn’t go around asking people about their religious upbringings before I decided whether to be friends with them. I concluded that there must be something more than simple coincidence to this very strong pattern of my friends all having a spiritual background.

None of my college friends were openly evangelistic – this was in Ohio, after all – but they did occasionally invite me to join them in their church related activities. Given that I was wholly committed to my studies and still had an uneasy feeling about religion in general, I almost always declined these invitations.  Nonetheless, I gradually became interested in what I was “missing out on”.

By the end of my junior year in college, I finally submitted to my curiosity and began visiting a variety of churches, and talking to my Jewish sisters and my Muslim buddies about their spiritual traditions and beliefs. I continued to be leery of organized religion and I was hesitant to jump into anything abruptly. I have a very thick skull and it took a long time for my mind to open.

Looking back, I realize that this opening of my mind truly began in high school when I watched my older siblings’ interactions with my parents. But it was in college that I began questioning not only how I had been raised, but everything else in life – including myself and my own thinking!

While I was studying in my college years, I was influenced by brief conversations with a couple of physics professors. Comments regarding religious or spiritual matters made to me by mentors whom I had assumed were atheist revealed to me that even respected, professional academic scientists could in fact have a spiritual side. This revelation inspired me to read and ask questions and to question my own spirituality, or lack thereof.

I realized that in being completely self-dependent (something I was proud of) I was actually limiting myself. I had a fine social life, but in terms of understanding the world and in terms of problem solving, I had a very humanistic, self-centered worldview: I believed that humanity can solve its own problems if we just spend enough money and if we’re educated enough.

Shortly after beginning graduate school at the University of Virginia, months after college graduation, I began dating a Catholic student. Through attending mass with her, I became interested in Catholicism. Once again, a seed had been planted.  I stopped attending those masses when she broke up with me, but I was still very curious to learn more. Only weeks later I experienced a defining moment in my faith development.

On a day that is firmly imprinted in my memory, a graduate school friend of mine – who was an active believer in a Protestant denomination – and I were walking across campus and discussing my experiences in the Catholic masses. In part of our conversation, my friend suddenly asked me a question that I will never forget. He asked me whom I thought Jesus Christ was.

Perhaps he was a little concerned about the Catholic influence on me. In any case, I don’t recall how I answered his question, because I did not know the answer. I definitely did not have a Biblical relationship with God at that point, so I have no idea how I responded.  But I do recall what my friend said to me next. He said, “Well John, I believe you’re going to have to answer that question someday.”

That was the end of the conversation, and we moved on to another topic. But his comment has stuck with me to this very day – I can remember it as if it occurred yesterday. I can remember exactly where we were on the campus. The moral of this story for evangelists is that a simple, off-hand comment – such as my friend’s comment – can have an eternal impact.

The field of physics – like any intellectually honest field of the sciences – is one that is self-critical and self-examining. As scientists, we constantly challenge our assumptions, our observations, our results, and our theories. As I dug deeper into graduate level physics, I studied quantum mechanics and some other topics in what we call “20th century physics”. These topics show us that physics is not always as first meets the eye. I was forced, as every physics student is at some point, to rethink my approach to the natural world in a very dramatic way.

And I became so accustomed to having to rethink my understanding of the physical world, and to rethink my results from experiments, that I said to myself, “Well, John, while you’re in this business of rethinking everything, you might as well rethink yourself.” So, I began to ask myself if there was something really important that I was missing.

Was there anything I was blindly assuming about myself or about life that might be limiting me in some way? This was all occurring at the peak of my education, but I was willing to rethink everything. And I eventually concluded that what I was really missing in my life was Christian faith.

By the time I met my wife, Shirley, I was convinced that I needed to develop a Christian faith. On our first date, I told Shirley that I knew I wanted to raise my children with a Christian faith. This was important to Shirley also. The seed had been planted by old friends, mentors, and acquaintances, and the soil was fertile, but Shirley certainly had a big impact on my faith development. We began to attend a denominational church together, and were married about 18 months later.

Roughly 22 years ago, Shirley and I and our children moved to Davidson, NC, for me to take a faculty position in physics at Davidson College. Shortly after arriving in Davidson, we joined a denominational church. This choice was partly a logistical one – the church was close to our home and neither too big nor too small, and the preaching and teaching seemed to be good. We remained heavily involved for about 13 years, raising all four of our children there, and taking on various roles and responsibilities. In retrospect, at that time our understanding of the scriptures was rather limited and it was difficult for us to choose a church truly sound in doctrine.

After many years we slowly began to realize that there were some scriptural elements lacking in the denominational church, especially with regard to use of musical instruments in the worship, with regard to church leadership, and with regard to the essentiality of baptism. It was a year-long challenge to disengage ourselves from the denominational church, but we eventually began worshipping with the Lake Norman church of Christ and were added to the Lord’s church. 

Thanks to the church of Christ, we began reading and studying the Bible much more carefully and for ourselves. We realized that previously we had been overlooking some fundamental teachings of the New Testament, and our baptisms into Christ by immersion were a watershed moment in our understanding of the scriptures – no pun intended.

Over the years I have stayed in touch with old friends from childhood and school. When I tell these old friends of my conversion from atheism to Christianity, few are surprised. Many of them remember me as a child raised in a family with ostensibly Christian values. My siblings have been neither surprised nor displeased, despite their different beliefs. In fact, I find myself having more in common with my religiously observant, Jewish sister than I do with atheists or agnostics. Although my sister and I disagree on Christ and the tenets of the New Testament, at the least we worship the same God.

Before I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I lived essentially for myself. I didn’t spend enough time thinking of other people. One of the day-to-day impacts of my personal Bible study is that I have learned to try to put God first, all others second, and myself last in my life. I’m not perfect at this – I violate this principle every day – but it’s always in front of me, always a goal. 

My conversion to Christianity has also had a huge impact on my view of science, and specifically physics. When I first began to study physics, I saw it as a way to solve the world’s problems. Now I realize that physics is a study of God’s creation. If we’re doing our jobs honestly as scientists, the truth we’re seeking is a universal truth as opposed to something peculiar to an individual, an ethnicity, a race, a culture, or way of thinking.

While I am part of a profession that thinks humans can know it all, I have a different view of our human capacity. I believe in science and education every bit as much as I ever did. I’ve made a career out of pursuing these things. But I also believe wholeheartedly that there are things about the universe that we will never understand because of the nature of our relationship with God.

God is infinite and we are finite, and because of this difference, we will never completely understand God or his creation, no matter how much education we have, no matter how much money we spend, no matter how many experiments we do, no matter how much we study the Bible.

Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  (NKJV)

The great news is that God’s truth – the gospel of Jesus Christ – is offered freely to all people, Jew and Gentile alike.


6 thoughts on “From Atheist Physicist to Elder in the church of Christ

  1. Happily,no one need a god to explain the universe. And morals are invented by humans, subjective ideas that can become common if they support civilization.

    Chrisitans unsurprisingly can’t agree on what morals their god even wants, so no reason to believe any of you has the “truth”. I certainly don’t need to pretend your genocidal, child-killing, slavery approving god exists.

    1. Hello Neighbor,

      Thank you for your consideration and for caring enough to leave a comment. While we don’t claim to be perfect people, we genuinely seek to find truth and to help make this world a better place. Hopefully that is something where we can find common ground. With that being said, we believe that we’ve found Truth and perfection in Jesus Christ. Clearly we disagree there, but – based on your comments – I’d like to recommend the below article. Please consider reading (and challenging) it.

      God Bless and Merry Christmas,

      Lake Norman Faith

  2. You are simply part of a cult. What is you say about the world is defined by your need to belong to that cult. No one cares what you say about these non-scientific matters – it comes out as all gibberish.

    1. Hello Neighbor,

      Thank you for your consideration and for caring enough to leave a comment. We represent a spiritual family of diverse people who seek to love others more than ourselves. While we are imperfect, we genuinely seek after truth. Hopefully we can find some common ground there.

      God Bless and Merry Christmas,

      Lake Norman Faith

  3. I appreciate your ministry. I am also very grateful for the words of encouragement and edification. Keep the light of Faith burning bright!

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