Awakenings – 3

Awakening Part 3

I entered Bible school as a committed, idealist, and dare I say naïve, young man.   I enrolled in the schedule of courses that would lead me into a BS in Bible with a concentration in Youth – I wanted to be a youth minister just like the heroic youth pastor of my teen years.  I renounced dating for the first semester and completely focused my energies on studying scripture and prayer.  Everything was exactly as I had foreseen; God had foreordained my life and I was eager to fulfill my role as His agent of forgiveness and love.

Valley Forge Christian College was built on the grounds of the old Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The last time that I drove through the campus in 2004 I literally could barely recognize it with all of the brand new buildings and Frank Lloyd Wright inspired architecture, but in 1990 when I began to attend the college it was a dilapidated trash heap.  We literally had rooms where the floors were nearly falling into the basement, the heat was often off during the cold Pennsylvania nights, and the food in the cafeteria was beyond horrific.  I remember a specific example where I kept a piece of liver from dinner one night on my dorm desk for nearly a year – it never attracted flora or fauna; even bacteria were too discriminating to attempt to colonize it. My wife’s parents, upon first seeing the facility, begged her to come back home with them.

But I didn’t care, because I was preordained by the will of God to be there, to receive training, and go out to preach the good news to a dying world.

I met the woman that was to become my first wife on the first day while in line for class registration.  We ended up sitting a couple of seats from one another in chapel, where I spent most of my first year in that room attempting to stare at her out of the corner of my eye.  We began to date in the second semester of my freshman year and were wed in the summer of 1992.

I was attending the school with the intention to become a youth minister, so I jumped at the opportunity when a local pastor invited me to join his church as youth pastor.  Finally, I was a pastor with a flock of my own!  I also preached from the pulpit and helped the senior pastor to manage the small church.  It should have been an ideal situation – I was in school for youth ministry and I had the ideal laboratory to test all of the ideas that I had begun to formulate after my experiences as a young adult and my time in Valley Forge.

Unfortunately, I soon found myself in philosophical and social conflict with the senior pastor and the church board.   I was bringing in large numbers of inner-city kids to the church and I could see that the regular rank and file of the church felt threatened by the increasing urbanization of their youth program, especially those with children that were already in the youth group.  I also found myself becoming less interested in pastoral work and more interested in teaching and theology.  My wife and I tried desperately to save the ministry that we had founded; but I resigned after about a year and a half of service.   I knew after the dissolution of that ministry that youth ministry was not God’s plan for my life, though I stayed in school working on my degree.  I knew that God had something else up his celestial sleeve; all I had to do was to wait for it and to continue studying.

My favorite instructor in college was Dr. Bruce Marino, a professor of Biblical and Theological studies that taught almost all of my theology courses.  Dr. Marino was a unique character at Valley Forge; he actually encouraged intelligent discussion and would tolerate dissension from the party line of the Assemblies of God.  He would tell us tales of his libertine college years; LSD and comparative religions seemed to have been a heady mix for him.  He was approachable, erudite, and intelligent – one of the first Christian men that I had ever met that I felt actually used their mind to perceive the world.  It was in one of these theology courses that an event occurred that was to shape my future in ways that I could not foresee.

Dr. Marino was one of the few professors at Valley Forge that appreciated academic rigor and he would assign us a thesis project for each class.  Sometimes the topic was assigned directly, other times he would allow us to choose a topic of our choice within a range of study.  For my Theology II class I chose to defend the Young Earth literal view of Creationism from a scientific viewpoint.  I thought it would be a simple trouncing of the idiotic concept of the “Big Bang” – surely all of the concepts that I had read as a youth from men such as Henry Morris would allow me to make logical mincemeat out of something as silly and “unscientific” as a universe created from nothing.  What I found instead would rock my world to its core.

In writing this thesis, I decided that I would start with three basic assumptions.

  • First, that with the correct interpretation, Scripture is the revelation of God to man.
  • Secondly, that with the correct interpretation, data reveals God’s actions in creation.
  • Lastly, God does not “trick” us (miracles excluded).

These assumptions were, and still are, rationally and theologically foundational to any study of science from a theist perspective.  With these three basic assumptions in hand I, for the first time, really began to lay out the evidences for what I believed to be true and to rationally compare them to modern science.

. . . and deep in the dimly lit library, I knew that the numbers simply did not work.  I prayed, I sweated, I doodled copious notes, but no matter how I thought about it, no matter which angle I approached it, there was no escape from the conclusion that faced me – I was wrong and Carl Sagan was right.   

As I studied the data that was available, in light of my basic assumptions, I almost immediately ran into a simple, unassailable problem with the Young Earth – the visible event horizon.  I had considered this problem before, but never with the assumptions that I had logically chosen.  If light travels at a finite speed, then objects appear as they did in the past due to the transit time of light.  We can see objects that are empirically and scientifically provably billions of light years away which inescapably means that they are at least that old.  This left me with only three possible scenarios – God created the light in transit (which violated my third assumption), the speed of light is not constant (which would invalidate almost all astrophysical data and partially invalidate assumption two and three), or the Universe was billions of years old.  All of the data pointed to an old, inflationary Universe that began with a high energy event – all of the Young Earth data was obviously created presupposing the literal account of Genesis.  No greater violation of the scientific method or simple rationality was imaginable and in my mind the theory fell to dust.  Carl had been right all along and I wrote my thesis in light of that new view.  I still have the document and I treasure it as a monument to my reascendant rationality.

I can still remember both the shame and exultation of my discovery.  I felt a deep shame in that I had believed such errant nonsense so such a long period of my life, but I can remember the feeling of power that came from my first attempt to understand the world through reason since my conversion.  I felt that a door that had closed in 1983 was reopened a crack – I could see the sunlight streaming in.

My view was not a popular one at Valley Forge.  After I graduated, I spent a short period of time as a professor teaching what passed for science in the Christian institution.  From the beginning, I made it clear that I held a slightly different cosmological view than most and that I would not disguise my beliefs in the name of orthodoxy.  Word of my beliefs spread and a few students contacted me to offer their support to my position, while others contacted the administration to express their disapproval.  After I finished the semester, I was never asked to return.

Understand, if you will, that my faith in God was not shaken in the least.  There were and still are many writers in the Christian community who believe in a “Big Bang” event and this idea in no way invalidates their faith.  My newly found ideas were not antithetical to my Christian worldview; in fact they reinforced it in a vaguely Newtonian way.  The breaking point for me though was the application of reason and rationality to an object of previous faith.

For the first time since my conversion I examined a faith based belief outside of a religiously conceived frame of reference in a rational way.  The die was cast, the Rubicon was crossed – and my life could and would not be the same.

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