MIT Atheist Searches for Truth – Chris Lee’s Story

May 27, 2022

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
MIT Atheist Searches for Truth - Chris Lee's Story
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MIT graduate Chris Lee was raised to reject religious superstition and embrace science alone.  His search beyond a purely naturalistic worldview led him to believe in God and Christianity.

 

To read Chris’ written story, you can read his article “My Christian Story” here

 

To read and listen to more stories of skeptics and atheists’ conversions to Christianity, visit www.sidebstories.com


Episode Transcript

Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Stories Podcast, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist who surprisingly became a Christian.

Why do atheists become atheists? There are as many answers to that question as there are atheists. Every skeptic has a reason, or more likely, every skeptic has several reasons for rejecting God. Sometimes, it’s on the back of bad experiences with Christians, Christianity, and faith. People or institutions who are supposed to represent truth and grace, lives of integrity and generosity, genuine love for God and others, well, they don’t. They’re supposed to demonstrate lives that have been transformed into something other, something more, something different, something better than what is normally expected by those who don’t claim God as authority and guide, but they don’t. If they reflect God, then they are poor ambassadors for the one they supposedly represent, or so it goes. Once someone starts to distrust Christians, they can begin to doubt the whole endeavor of Christianity and God. Belief is no longer attractive or plausible. It is no longer an option. 

Today’s episode taps into this reality, the reality of human failure to embody God well. It can be very disorienting. It can lead to disbelief, and unfortunately, it often does. But the question in today’s episode is whether or not someone can find their way to belief in God despite all of this human failure. Let’s listen to Chris Lee’s story to find out. 

Welcome to the Side B Stories podcast, Chris. It’s so great to have you with me today! 

Thank you, Jana, for having me.

Wonderful. Before we get into your story, why don’t you tell me a little bit about who you are, where you live, maybe a little bit about your education, what you do? 

Sure, absolutely. I live in the Boston area, in a little town called Braintree, about 10 miles south of the downtown. By day, I consider myself a software engineer in financial services, so fin tech, and by night, I jokingly say that I’m a cult fighter. I graduated from MIT in 1997, and also did my master’s degree in divinity at Gordon-Conwell Theological seminary.

Oh, okay. So you’re pretty highly educated, and of course, in the Boston area, academics is prevalent there, so I’m sure we’ll find out more about what you mean by cult fighter? 

Something like that, yes.

Something like that. I forgot the exact term. But anyway, so that sounds very intriguing. I’m sure we’ll get to that later in the podcast. So you’re in Boston now. Let’s go back to your childhood and where you were born and grew up. Tell me a little bit about your family, whether they had any belief in God or not, or how they directed you. 

Sure. I grew up in western Canada, in a city called Vancouver, a beautiful, amazing place to grow up. Very multicultural. And my parents, my dad was very much an atheist, a humanist, so did not have any beliefs, and in fact, had been very hurt by a number of Christians in his life, so he had very much turned against Christianity and was, as you might expect, anti Christian. My mother was very nominal. She might have gone to church a few times now and then in college, as well as afterwards, and certainly she had a belief in a higher power. She believed in God. She prayed, but it was not very evident in her life, and certainly if she mentioned that she was Christian, it was only in name. As I mentioned, the very nominal side. So that’s the background.

So Vancouver. Is that—tell me, culturally speaking, is that much of a religious community? 

No! Not at all.

Okay. 

I would say probably less than 20% even identify as Christians. Certainly, it’s very small. It’s maybe more than New England where I am, which is something like 5% or less evangelical and something like very nominally Roman Catholic, but certainly religion in western Canada was not a public thing and was not even a major factor in people’s lives.

So did you have any exposure to what you would consider a more robust form of Christianity growing up? Any people that you knew? Or was that in your world at all? 

Sure. So there’s kind of two major influences. My grandmother was very devout, but we didn’t have a lot of exposure to her. And then my best friend in high school was able to answer a lot of my questions, and he was and continues to be a very devout Christian today. And so whenever I had weird questions, like, “I don’t understand the Bible,” or, “I don’t understand this Trinity thing. This is weird,” I would go to my best friend in high school, Vern, and we’d talk about it. And he very cogently explained to me these doctrines.

Okay. So you did have some influences. So as you were growing up, you had a father, you said, who was a secular humanist. He was an atheist. You had a mother who had a nominal expression of faith. So when you were growing up, did you have any belief in God? Were you following in the footsteps of your father or your mother? Or was it an issue or something—did you go to church? Talk with me about that. 

Sure. So my younger brother and I were taken to church for a while, maybe off and on. Whenever we went on vacations or whenever it was convenient, so maybe a couple of times a month, and mostly to go to the Sunday school programs and socializing. And I really didn’t get much of the faith, and a lot of it seems like rituals, so I really didn’t understand why people did what they did, and then, when I was 12, my dad came up to me and said, “Well, Chris, you’re twelve. You’re old enough to make your own decisions. If this is what you want to do, then you have my,” whatever, equivalent of blessing, I guess. “You can do that, but if you don’t want to do it, then stop doing it.” And I said to him at that time, “Yeah, I don’t understand this. It makes no sense. I’m going to stop doing it.” And, also around the same point in time, we were talking about college applications already, at age twelve, and preparing for higher education, and also I had become very enamored of science. Kind of like Carl Sagan puts it, that the cosmos is all that is and all there ever was and all there ever would be. And really believed that science could or would be able to explain everything. And so I said, “Well, this all seems like superstitious hogwash. Every kind of religion, especially going to church and things like that.” So I, at that point in time, decided, “I’m going to be an atheist.” And it was a distinct moment in my life that I remember. It was over two years where I said, “I don’t believe any religion is true. I reject it all.” “All this stuff seems like either fantasy or hogwash, your choice.”

So when you rejected God and that metaphysical reality, any kind of supernatural reality, by default, in a sense, you embraced a naturalistic view of the world. 

Correct.

I know you said you really honored or revered science in a way as being an ultimate explainer, in a sense, of the world and that there was not anything more than that. Would you say that you looked at the naturalistic worldview with any kind of critical eye at all, in terms of the logical implications of that naturalistic worldview? Or were you looking more at just the positive aspects of “intellectual people believe in science, not in hogwash.” What was your line of thinking around that time? 

That’s a great question. So yes, absolutely, I actually carried through a number of the logical conclusions, so, in fact, we were being taught, not only evolution and all that it entails, but you can apply that also, you know the Darwinian evolution, to the survival of the fittest. And certainly in terms of implications, if I’m smarter than somebody else, I deserve to live longer or… deserve to have my opinions heard more rightly than other people. I became very elitist in a way. I’m kind of ashamed now to admit it, but I certainly had this air of superiority because I thought that my thinking was correct, more correct than others, and certainly that those who were more correct deserved to have their voices heard, and the less correct voices did not deserve to have their voices heard.

So certainly I did carry through in some of those implications of what I believed. I didn’t fully see that certainly naturalism and humanism have certain assumptions, like, as you alluded to, if you basically eliminated all possibility of the supernatural, that it’s almost like, “Okay, everything has to be explained by science,” or it’s kind of like you’re almost using science in a way of being like god in the gaps instead of using God as the God of the gaps, things like that kind of argument.

Yeah. That tells me a little bit about you, that you are, obviously, a critical thinker. That you are willing to look a little bit more closely at what you were embracing, not just what you were rejecting. So you were obviously a student, a teenager. You had embraced this atheistic identity. You were moving towards university and developing an elitist, intellectualist way of thinking, I guess to pursue your goals of academia and achievement. So I wonder, were most of your friends thinking in the same kind of way? Did you have a lot of friends who called themselves or identified as atheists as well? 

I had some friends who were atheists, maybe one or two, and then the rest of them were largely agnostics, true agnostics, meaning they didn’t know, so in my mind there’s a major difference. Atheists are—within reason, you determine that there are no supernatural… there is no existence other than what we know. There is no possibility of any God or gods. And agnostics can range from, “Well, I’m not sure, and I’m not 100% certain that my position is correct,” or it doesn’t have to be 100% certainty that there are no gods, but maybe even 99%, 97% sure. That would be an atheist position, and then some agnostics were like, “Well, I haven’t thought through it enough, so I don’t know what to believe.”

It strikes me, as you were talking about the embracing of your naturalistic worldview, that there was somewhat of a Darwinian perspective on who was perhaps the stronger or the more fit. And I think that oftentimes there is a dismissal of the religious in that kind of scenario and almost a contemptuousness. Did you ever have a sense of that? As just a part of your atheistic worldview? 

I didn’t get to that point where I saw all, whether it was Christianity or other religions, as having zero credibility and zero value. I think I was much more a pragmatist about it and very utilitarian. It’s like, “Okay, well, I guess some Christians do function as counselors, and they give free counseling and help out the homeless. Okay, yeah, that’s somewhat useful,” and I definitely heard a number of my brother’s sentiments, whether that’s expressing that Christianity is just a crutch for those who are mentally weak or other sentiments that are similar.

So you lived with this perspective for a little while, while you were in high school. So take us on your journey from there. How long were in this atheistic perspective? What, if anything, kind of starting making you question, perhaps, your own perspective and becoming open towards another? 

Sure. So I would say it was just over two years, maybe somewhere between two and two and a half years, that I very much would self-identify as an atheist and would tell you, “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in anything. I believe science can explain everything or will explain everything.” And I think even I had an atheist high school teacher who questioned that a little bit, and he said, “Well, wait a second. Are you sure that science will be able to explain everything?” I was like, “Wait. You’re an atheist. Aren’t you supposed to accept that science will or can explain everything?”

But it was really a set of three circumstances that really made me think that maybe atheism is not correct or maybe that there is an existence outside of what we know, outside of a naturalistic environment. So the first thing was I was walking home—this was in, I think, the end of seventh grade or eighth grade or something like that, and I was walking home from my school, and on the way home, there’s one side of the road that has a sidewalk, and the other side has no sidewalk, and the other side that doesn’t have a sidewalk is actually further, and for whatever reason, I decided I’m going to cross the sidewalk. And a car came over, kind of barreling out of control, on the side of the sidewalk, where I was standing, and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s really strange. It’s completely illogical and irrational to cross the street where it would be a further path and it’s not got a sidewalk, and crossing the street, I could’ve been hit by a car. Does this make sense?” And it’s like, “I wouldn’t have seen the car coming from behind me, either, but it did eventually run over that piece of sidewalk. So hmm.” That was a little puzzling, and I didn’t think anything much more when that happened.

Like it was a near miss? 

Yeah. It was a near miss. Well, that was an unusual piece of intuition, that I crossed the street and should have been dead, and I’m alive. And there’s no rational reason for this. So, okay, whatever.

And then, the second time, my mother was driving my brother and I back from whatever it was, I think from the high school, and she had just finished the night shift, so she was overly tired, and she forgot to stop at a stop sign, and a car kind of came over the hill and broadsided us. And it was on my side of the car, but five seconds before the accident happened, I’d actually unbuckled myself and moved over to the center of the car. Not seeing the car. I just unbuckled myself and moved. And again, I was like, “My goodness! I survived another crash and could have been seriously hurt.” My mother actually did have whiplash and concussion, and she had to wear a neck brace for many months afterwards, whereas I didn’t have any injuries whatsoever. And it was very remarkable. So again, it was kind of like, “What?” I should have been fully seat belted and not taken it off at any point in time, but for whatever reason, I moved.

And then a third time we were passing in between two warehouse buildings, and there was a railway crossing, and there was actually a train coming our way, but the gate had not dropped and there was no signal, and we barely missed it. It was—I don’t know—six feet? Ten feet? It couldn’t have been more than that. And so there was a series of situations that I realized, like, “Probabilistically, I should be dead. And if I had followed everything rationally, done everything rationally, stayed on the same side of the sidewalk where eventually the car would’ve run over, kept my seat belt on, that I should be dead. And yet here I am alive, and all these things not very rational.”

Right. 

“So is there perhaps something more than what I see, maybe more than rationality, maybe more than naturalism,” and so that led me to thinking, “Okay, maybe I should think there is the possibility of a supernatural,” and then at that point I kind of went from atheist to agnostic. And I definitely would not say I was a Christian, did not want to explore Christianity at that point in time, but at least at that point in time, I would have put it this way, “I’m open to some existence beyond the natural, whether that’s God, gods, goddesses, whatever. I’m open to it. And maybe I should go look into these things.” So this was at the age of fourteen.

Okay. So then you started looking, I presume, and tell me about that journey. Where did you go first? What did you start looking at first? 

So I was very interested in pantheism, so I started exploring Greco-Roman gods and explored that to its logical conclusion. It was like, “Okay, maybe more gods is better, and having a god for everything.” So I’d already studied Egyptian mythology, Norse mythology, Greco-Roman gods, even Hindu gods, and it seems like, to me, that if there were such gods or goddesses, they were very haphazard, like throwing dice with our lives. And, for the Egyptians, it was like, there’s a god for everything. There’s a god of Nile. There’s a god of the dead. There’s a god of fertility. There’s a god of the rain. There’s a god of the sun. And so on and so forth. And certainly I think, as I’ve read, in retrospect, as a Christian now, when we use the word universe, it’s like one out of many, and we’re trying to make sense of the diversity of life and the diversity of… whether it’s beetles or whether it’s life forms or numerous other things, and I think that the pantheism appeals to the diversity, trying to explain that, but it didn’t do a good job of trying to unify, “Why does science make sense?” “Why is physics so mathematical and so elegant and so beautiful?” The pantheism doesn’t unite very well there. And so I slowly rejected polytheism or pantheism.

I moved into human wisdom religions, so Taoism, Buddhism. I actually practiced a number of things. Like, “I feel hungry!” “No, I don’t, because this is causing me to be imbalanced, and I should not have strong desires, because that’s what causes conflict.” And so I practiced a number of these things, and I realized later, especially becoming Christian, that it’s like, well, sometimes God does work through our desires. Certainly, we love justice. We love beauty. We love truth as Christians. And certainly even compassion or things like that… There’s a number of virtues that Christianity espouses, and these are things that we should strive for. If justice doesn’t matter and we should have no desires for justice, well, who cares? Just let everybody do their own thing. And then we get anarchy and chaos, but anyways.

Yeah. I was going to say, there are such things as good desires. 

Right, absolutely.

Worthy. Yeah. 

And also that there are some times that God does tell us, as a Christian, it’s like, “Well, I’m feeling tired.” Well, is it legitimate, like I didn’t get enough sleep? Or maybe I did work really hard for 12 hours on physical labor or things like that. And so my body is telling me, “Hey, maybe it’s time to get some sleep.” Instead of saying, “Okay, I’ve got to deny myself and not have these desires for sleep,” or whatever. So I actually slowly but surely rejected those human wisdom religions. I actually had my own Tarot card deck. I had crystals. I was playing around with that. I was into horoscopes and into biorhythms and all kinds of things. And that seemed a little arbitrary.

And then eventually I got back to monotheism. And I studied with a rabbi, and we read the Old Testament. He instructed me fairly well. I actually had a very strong sense of the holiness of God. That’s one of the major themes of the Old Testament. A number of the books, especially Leviticus, emphasize God’s holiness. And whether it’s Isaiah 6 or numerous other passages, that God’s moral perfection and that He’s utterly sinless and that no fellowship can exist between a being of utter absolute moral perfection and sinlessness and imperfect, finite creatures. And so I actually was struck with a sense of my own sinfulness and my unworthiness because of that experience, and I was like, “Okay, this is nice. I’m glad I studied it. Okay. Moving on.”

And then I studied Islam, and I actually had my own copy of the Koran and read it a lot, and it struck me as like, “Well, if we actually carried a number of the statutes, like carried eye to an eye, unfortunately what we see is, like, “Okay. You knock off my brother. I don’t know why. I’m going to go knock off your family or several of your brothers,” or things like that. And then there were later hadiths that had to address, like, “Okay, you can’t deal with other followers of the way that way,” or the followers of the way of peace that way. And I realized that a number of the things in Islam were untenable if you follow it through philosophically. You can’t do that as a society. You can’t do that even as a family. And I cannot exercise eye for an eye. And that will only perpetuate a cycle of violence and wrongdoing.

And so I came back to Christianity, and I had already been somewhat instructed by the Jewish rabbi and others, that the Old Testament ends at basically Malachi in our canon, and then Matthew is the first book, and of course, as soon as you dive into Matthew and right after the genealogy, you get into, within chapters five through seven, the Sermon on the Mount. And this was mind blowing to me. It was like, “Oh! Of course! This is correct! This is how you defeat evil. Turn the other cheek and not retaliate.” So it actually surprised me. Caught me off guard. In contrast to everything that I had studied beforehand. And even… Jesus has the passage about prayer, and so I said, “Okay. Let me try this. Maybe it might work. God, if You are real,” I remember praying, “please show Yourself to me. Please guide me or help me understand,” and I did have the distinct impression that this was happening and that… My best friend from high school started spending more time with me, and taking me to things, some of his youth group activities, although they weren’t terribly overtly Christian. They were more social.

But, anyway, my best friend Vern explained to me a number of things at that point in time, so I was much more open and saying, “I don’t understand the Trinity. I don’t understand why God has so many names. What is this?” And so my friend was very patient and kind of took me through and explained to me what it meant and slowly but surely I think I was like, “Okay, I can see that. That seems reasonable.” So he laid that foundation.

So you were, at this point—how old were you then? You said later in high school? 

So this was—Vern and I started spending a lot of time when I was sixteen and seventeen. So at this point in time.

And you had been, it sounds like, on a very diligent exploration, exploring all of these different potential faith traditions that didn’t seem to have substance, or at least didn’t seem to satisfy your understanding of God or faith or how it relates to reality or the human condition perhaps. 

Right.

Except when you got to the Old Testament. Then it really peered into the human heart. You said you felt the holiness of God. 

Yes.

Which that can be daunting. But I love what you talked about when you started reading the New Testament, and you started with the stories of Jesus, the gospel narratives, and that there was something palpably different, in the sense that there was something there a little bit different than what you had felt or experienced before. Now, again, I’m thinking about this. You had moved from atheism to agnosticism. Agnosticism but with an openness and a willingness to see these different faith traditions or religions for what they were. You were willing to actually take them on, to try them experientially, which again I think is very laudable, in your search. Rather than just looking at things intellectually, you actually tried them out experientially.

I’m curious. When you started reading the New Testament and you obviously, as an inquisitive person, you started critically thinking, and you had these big questions. And Vern was there, and he was helping guide you. Was he a good resource? Or was he, let me just say, more than a nominal Christian? Was he able to engage with you in a way that was intellectually satisfying? Able to answer your questions? And also was he someone who actually embodied Christianity in a meaningful way? Not just nominally. Not just by name only but actually took it seriously.

Yeah. Vern has always been rock solid in his faith. And he’s very much self-identified not only as a Christian but been very serious about his Christian faith. At that point in time, even when we were both sixteen and seventeen, he had certainly internalized his family’s faith but also had explored it and was able to articulate why he believed what he believed and could explain a number of things in his faith. And I don’t ever recall that Vern was ever at a loss. He knew his stuff, and he really knew his faith.

So you obviously knew that he was a Christian, and you… because I think sometimes we wonder how we can start meaningfully engaging with those who aren’t Christians, but you obviously knew something about him that you were willing to engage with him, ask him questions, and he was approachable, which sounds pretty wonderful. As you were reading the Bible and it has this miraculous content, as a former naturalist, when you were reading those kinds of things, was that off putting?

So it was actually a long process for me to come to actually accept the Bible was true. So I think I started exploring Christianity when I was sixteen, and I would not have ever said, “Yeah, I’m definitely a Christian.” In fact, I remember distinctly going off to MIT and thinking, “Okay, when I get my life in order, and when I finish my PhD or something like that, then I might consider exploring Christianity more seriously, and maybe then I’ll think about becoming a Christian,” and things like that. So it was not even on my radar when I went to MIT.

Okay. 

And so it was actually about a three-year journey, from sixteen to nineteen, where there were a number of things, and even, shockingly, you might find, at MIT, there were a number of professors who were Christians, including my academic advisor and now the department head of AeroAstro. That’s Daniel Hastings is a devout Christian. He was my undergraduate advisor. And then there were numerous other ones, and then little hints here and there, like they talk about Cantor sets or Gödel and his formulation of God and actual infinities and things like that, talking pretty high level, but I was resonating with this, and I was going, “Huh. I never thought of it that way,” in terms of actual infinities as a way to prove our God.

And there were a number… I had a material science professor who jokingly mentioned that some MIT students, pranksters that they were, they decided, “Oh, let’s enter a wine contest and figure out how to synthetically make a wine, and they combined, obviously, ethanol and various carbon compounds and things like that, and then they entered the wine contest,” and the judges were like, “Oh, this is really, really good! Where did you get the grapes?” and they were like, “Uh, yeah. We can’t tell you that. Proprietary knowledge,” or whatever, and they got busted, and they got eliminated, but they synthetically created a wine from water, carbon compounds, and alcohol, ethanol. So the idea of even Jesus turning water to wine suddenly became far less far-fetched. And obviously somebody who is very advanced in technology could do these things, but obviously the technology didn’t exist back then, so it even argues that somebody who was the Creator of the universe, or somebody who had mastery over nature and the elements, would be far superior in order of magnitude than any human being that existed. So even my time at MIT kind of opened me to a Christian worldview.

Wow. That’s interesting. So it sounds like, even though you were trying to venture a little bit away from thinking about God, that you entered into an environment where actually there were some very high-level discussions about that very reality. So did that kind of bring you back around to thinking more seriously about the potential for God’s existence? 

Sure. I think I would say that, somewhere between… I was eighteen or nineteen, and certainly whether it was my freshman year sometime or by that summer, I had accepted that, “Okay, the Christian God exists. Even if I’m not a Christian,” like I would not self-identify as a Christian at that point in time. I did say the Christian God exists, and certainly my sense of His holiness prior to the end of high school and my own unworthiness kind of alluded to that, or at least gave me some sense of that. And certainly towards the summer of my freshman year, so as a rising sophomore at MIT, my best friend in high school took me to a number of church events that I started to realize, “Oh, the Bible is not just abstract and full of weird stories and genealogies. It’s very practical and applies to my life.” And of course I’m not ready to live it yet. This forgiveness thing, too hard, not going to try. And the moral codes. “Nah, nah. Not for me. It would be too hard. Nice ideas, certainly, but not ready to follow after the steps of Jesus.” So I would not, again, identify myself as a Christian. I was, at that point in time, age eighteen, turning nineteen, at least recognizing, “Okay, the Christian God exists. I recognize His existence and certainly His presence in my life, and it makes sense of all that I’ve gone through, and certainly I recognize the Bible is factual and credible and certainly practical.” So that’s where I was.

So you embraced it a bit intellectually. 

Yeah.

That it was propositionally true or historically true? 

Yes.

But you weren’t willing or able to… willing, I guess, is the right word. 

Yes.

To embrace it personally. So then what happened? How long did you stay in this bit of an ambivalent state? 

Sophomore year, I was launched into grades, so I kind of threw myself wholeheartedly into my grades and was getting straight As even at MIT, and even my professors were patting me on the back, saying, “Keep it up,” “You’re doing great,” “Whatever you’ll want will be open to you,” whether that’s graduate studies or whether that’s working for NASA or whatever else. And so it seemed like the world was my oyster, and I was really working hard, too. I was maintaining some extracurriculars and successfully auditioned… Out of ten french hornists, I was the only one who selected for MIT Symphony Orchestra, and it was a fabulous experience, and numerous other extracurriculars.

So I was doing everything that I’d ever wanted to do, and yet I felt like it was empty. And so kind of this existential angst here. I had finished up one of several all nighters, so sophomore year in Aeronautics and Astronautics, which is nicknamed rocket science.

And I came into my room and was thinking to myself, “Hey! Everything that I’ve ever wanted has come about. I’m at MIT. I’m doing incredible. I’m doing research. I’m involved with all these extracurriculars. I’m at the top of my game.” It’s like, “If this is the best life now, I’m living it,” and it wasn’t a nadir or I’d lost everything. I was at the top. And yet it was like, “Is that all that there is in life?” Like, “I’ve accomplished everything that I’ve ever wanted, and yet why do I feel like something is missing? There’s something else.”

And I had packed a red King James Bible, which I kept on the left side of my dresser, and coming back into my room, I was thinking through, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure if I kept this up, I’d be doing fine in life, and then what? Then get married? Then get a job? Get whatever, and what does this all mean?” And I was at a loss for answers, but as I came into my room, my eye fell on my King James, and I opened it up. “Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well. Seek first His kingdom.” And I realized, “You know? Yeah. I don’t know. Chris doesn’t know what’s right, what’s best for Chris. I think I might.” And later, as I became a Christian and I started studying, I realized, “Yeah, there is a big God-shaped void in my heart, and I’ve been trying to stuff it full of everything else, of extracurriculars and achievements,” and it wasn’t satisfying. And it’s not like God necessarily changes you and you become like the Borg or whatever. It’s not like that when you become a Christian. God reorders your life, and it’s not like I had a lobotomy after I became a Christian and was dumb thereafter. It continued to be intellectual and use my intellect to honor God. But at that point in time, late October 1991, I was 19 years old, and I think I remember praying, like, “God, I don’t know what’s best for my life. I don’t even know how this is supposed to go. I know that You know because You have seen the past, the present, the future. I know how this is supposed to go. I know You know better than I know what I need, and please help me find people who will help me order my life as would please You.”

So you surrendered. I mean, you finally came to that place where you were willing to go His way instead of your own. 

Right, exactly.

Right. Wow. And so you said that was… You had kind of reached the pinnacle and it wasn’t enough and then you surrendered.

And then, I’m curious. In terms of your Christian faith walk, have you been able to find that sense of fulfillment or satisfaction or meaning that seemed so elusive for you when you had everything? 

So it has not been easy. And sometimes the route is very circuitous. So even though I prayed for God to put people in my life who would teach me the Bible or teach me His way, I got involved with a deviant group, the Boston Church of Christ, at that point in time. In fact, one of my friends in the MIT Symphony Orchestra had just joined the Boston Church of Christ, the extended International Churches of Christ, and he had been seeking out people that he was going to try to bring in. And so, because we were pretty good friends, he decided to invite me, and I got involved with the Boston Church of Christ. And that was a little bit over 2-1/4 years of that, and kind of a long story short, it took an amount of time of searching after that before I came back to Christianity again. So certainly a lot of looking for the truth and trying to understand what is the truth, and then I came back to Christianity, and then in trying to align my life with God, I did eventually make a lot of sense of my difficulties, my suffering, my circuitous route in life, and things like that. So it hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been like going from mountain to mountain to mountain to mountain. It’s been very circuitous.

And for those who aren’t familiar, just in a nutshell, the Boston Church of Christ is not what you would consider an orthodox Christian group. I presume from your work with cults that you would consider this group to be cult-like or a cult. Is that right? 

Sure. So there’s a number of synonyms, because the word “cult” can certainly bring out a lot of strong emotions, so I try to avoid the word cult sometimes. Certainly, we can talk about either authoritarian groups or totalitarian groups, groups that tell you how to run your life or that bring out unhealthy psychological dynamics. Certainly yes. Absolutely. Or we could talk about spiritually abusive groups or groups that cause codependency, especially on leaders or other members. Yes, absolutely. So I try and use synonyms for the word cult, yes. It is not an orthodox group. It’s not terribly healthy. In a nutshell, yes.

But you found your way out of that group and found, a healthy, normative kind of Christian church, I presume. 

Yeah. So that, again, is circuitous. In a nutshell, I went from… My friends that I consider Christians outside of the Boston Church of Christ were shocked when I started hanging out with them. They were like, “Hey, Chris. Did you know you’re hanging out with the members of the Boston Church of Christ?” And I was like, “Yes, I did.” And then they’re like, “You know there’s all this controversy, and let us give you numerous pages and numerous articles about how controversial they are.” And it’s like, “Oh, my gosh! What have I gotten myself into?” And then I made the mistake of, again playing the scientific principles, so it’s like, “Okay, I won’t tell them I’m looking for something, and if I don’t see it, it must not happen anymore,” but that was the wrong leap of logic. It was, “If it doesn’t happen, it probably is that they’re not telling me,” much like in corporations. It’s on a need-to-know basis, rather than total transparency. And so I was very committed to the Boston Church of Christ for a number of years, and then even became a leader, and was actually, for having some integrity, like I really believed that there were Christians outside of our group, unlike the Boston Church of Christ, that I tried to present to the conciliation meeting and failed horribly, but it got back that I was orchestrating it and that I dared to question that there are issues, like things that could be improved in the Boston Church of Christ, so I was kicked out.

And I can honestly say that was God acting, because I would not have had the strength to leave, and I would not have chosen to leave on my own. And the people have since, numerous of my friends who have left have apologized, and I was like, “No, no, no. Nothing to apologize for. We were kind of under that mindset and being unduly influenced.” I had to unwind a lot of that stuff and figure out, “Okay, what does Christianity actually teach?” And, “What is actually correct?” And it was examining my faith. And that led me to studying the scriptures even more intensely and in the original languages and studying church history and theology and things like that. Kind of a weird coincidence, when I was involved with the Boston Church of Christ, one of the deans of administration at MIT had kind of taken me aside and said, “You know, I know you’re involved with the Boston Church of Christ. You really should take some time and study maybe at a theological institute. Study your church history. Study your original languages. Study your theology,” and at that time, when I was a member, I scoffed at him. “All you need is the Bible.”

And I had done poorly. My grades had kind of plummeted when I was involved with the Boston Church of Christ, and I had to take some time off. And then eventually… That was kind of a further purification process, too. It’s like I had to get rid of everything, all preconceptions of who I was, so I had kind of wound myself up to be, like, “Okay, I’m this really smart guy who is an MIT student,” and suddenly, I was stripped of all that. I had to take some time off. No chance of returning for at least a year. And then I had to claw my way back to finish, and then eventually did finish, and all these experiences had kind of led me to a point where I was like, “I’d really like to study my faith better, not only for myself, but also to teach it well. And that led me to seminary, and I actually asked that dean for his recommendation letter. And as well, I got involved with a much healthier church, and there were a lot of people who were refugees from the Boston Church of Christ there.

Then, you have a heart, obviously, for those who get wrapped up in things like that. I’d like to ask you a question. As someone who is such a thinker and with an appreciation for philosophy and science and theology, there’s often a push back against Christianity that, if you believe in science that you cannot believe in God or religion or have faith. How would you answer a skeptic or someone who raises that objection, that you cannot believe in them both together? 

Sure. No. Absolutely. That’s a great question. I was fortunate that I got to meet Alvin Plantinga when he was at Harvard, and he exactly lectured on this. And the way he put is this: There seems to be very superficial concord between scientism, which is really what it is. It’s not just science, but it’s scientism. It’s a purely science and naturalistic point of view. But there’s actually some deeper discord in the ways that they actually conflict, so it’s almost like you have to outright object or get rid of any of the supernatural. You have to ignore a lot of things, and so while there is very superficial concordance between scientism and atheism or humanism, but also linked to truth, that there’s much deeper concordance between Christianity and science. And not surprisingly, there are a number of Christians at MIT who were strong Christians but also strong engineers and strong scientists. And they didn’t see a conflict.

Yeah. There’s a basic order and rationality to the universe itself, and the elegance of mathematics, and the way that you’re able to even pursue observation and evidence and that there’s a predictability to it. And all of those things that would not be unless there was a transcendent source. Even your own rationality, right? 

Right. Absolutely.

There’s a comprehensibility to the universe. And we have a mind that can comprehend. So there’s just so many things with regard to actually belief in God that allows you, like you say, to even understand the physical nature of the universe and science. It’s really quite wonderful and elegant when you look at it. And there are those, like you say, that have brilliant minds that can see all of that and that there’s no conflict. 

So as we’re wrapping up, Chris, let’s kind of turn for a moment. If you had a skeptic sitting in front of you who was actually curious. Maybe think back to when you were in high school and you were actually looking. “There has to be something more. I feel it.” Or, “I intuit.” Or, “I have an experience,” like you did, that they’re, “Okay, there’s something more, and I want to search for it.” There’s an open willingness there. What would you say to that skeptic? How would you speak to them? 

Yeah. Obviously how Christianity is lived out and how it is practiced is going to be a little to quite flawed. Go to the source and look at what Christianity actually is. And go to the author of Christianity, Jesus Christ Himself, Who I believe is the only perfect person who ever lived. And see the difference, the qualitative difference of his teachings as compared to Buddha or Mohammad or numerous other teachers. And also be open to Christianity and kind of look beyond—even if you look at my life, I’m sorry, I’m a horrible signpost. I’m a flawed person. And I will be the first to admit that, yes, this means I’m a sinner, and I don’t live up to the ideals which I’d like to espouse. But look to those ideals. Look to the ideals of Christianity. And see whether they’re true.

And not only that, that Christianity is not just head knowledge, but it’s also about a relationship. And how would I approach a relationship, right? I’d want to talk to that person, get to know that person, and maybe figure things out. And as I hinted at some of my early turnings, it was about prayer, and I had to turn to God and say, “Hey, I really don’t know if You’re real. I kind of feel silly sometimes, but show me. Please guide me.” And even with all hesitancy that you might have, like you might know you’re certain that He is there or whatever, but try. And try talking to Him. And try getting to know Him, this God that we profess.

That’s wonderful. I think, as I’m reflecting on your story, too, as you’re talking and prior to accepting Christ, you felt this great weight of sin. And the holiness of God, but yet you said, right there, that Jesus was the only perfect person who could ever live, and He lifts that burden from you, right? He lifts and forgives your sin, so that you don’t have to bear that burden anymore, and I think that’s a really beautiful part of Christianity.

If you turned for a moment then to talk with Christians who may know someone or are engaged with those who don’t believe, how would you best advise them to engage? Like Vern did with you.

Sure. I actually still have a number of friends who are atheists and not Christians, and to this day, one of my best friends from MIT is an atheist, and I think he admires that I’m truthful, and I’ll be happy to point out the flaws, and there’s times where he’s like, “Hey, Chris,” his name’s Matt. He has a PhD from Cornell in statistics now, and he’s more fascinated about Christianity from an intellectual point of view, but Matt will say, “Hey, Chris. I’d like to watch Jesus Camp with you sometime and get your insights.” And sometimes I’ve used interesting analogies, so it’s like, “Well, there is definitely some people in the church that I’m like, ‘Okay, you know Crazy Uncle Bob who just wants to talk about fishing all the time? Or Aunt Emma who just has 57 cats, and she’s the crazy cat aunt, and whatever else.’ Yeah there’s some of that in our background, and I’m sorry. They’re a part of the family still, too. And yeah, I’ve got to accept them, and it is what it is, but hopefully there are some more sane parts of the family that you can identify with and get along with,” so there’s definitely times where I haven’t tried to hide all of our warts and pimples and things like that. It’s like, “I’ve got crazy parts of my family and also in the extended family, and that’s also true in Christ, and that’s okay. We’re imperfect. But we are part of the same family, and yeah, maybe I would really like them not to be, but they are.”

And also having an open dialogue with them, so Matt knows that he can talk to me about anything, and we have actually a pretty interesting relationship, like we’ll talk about the New Atheists, and he’ll have read them, and I’ll have read them, and we’ll compare notes. And although Matt is an atheist, he’s never been like, “Chris, you’re crazy for believing what you believe.” He’s respected it, and even with my work with cults, he’ll see, “Okay, so you’re basically a specialist. And you deal with all those weird parts of the family that people don’t want to really acknowledge exist. So yeah. Good for you. Good on you.”

So he respects you. 

Yes.

And what I love about what you’re saying here is that you keep an open dialogue. You speak with him intellectually on his terms. You read things together. You discuss them. You have a nice open dialogue. It’s not defensive. It’s inquisitive. You learn from each other. And I really appreciate that you have ongoing relationships, because I think that’s tremendous. I think that’s huge.

Wow! What a story! Chris, amazing story. Amazing life. And amazing intellect, too. And I think that bodes well for really demonstrating—your whole story demonstrates this real strong intellectual pursuit of truth and what’s real. And that you have come to a place of not only believing it intellectually but giving your life to the One Who exists, Who’s real, Who lived the perfect life. And so He’s obviously transformed you and given you loads of meaning and purpose in your life. 

Mm-hm.

So I just really appreciate you coming on board today to talk to us about your story. 

Thank you for your time.

Very good. 

Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Stories Podcast to hear Chris’s story. You can find out more about his ministry, Exposing Cults, by visiting his website, which I’ll put in the episode notes. If you enjoyed it, follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life. 

 

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