Sarah Irving-Stonebraker who is presently a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, grew up in a loving, non-religious home. During her years at Sydney University, she was an ardent critic of Christianity. She later won the University Medal and a Commonwealth Scholarship to do her Ph.D. in History at King’s College, Cambridge, known for its secular ideology. She fitted right in.
But her life changed forever when she moved from Cambridge to Oxford where she attended a series of lectures by an atheist, world-class, Princeton philosopher and fellow Australian, Peter Singer. He is one of the rare secular philosophers who faces atheism’s lack of grounding for human worth head-on. If human worth is not based on the unique status of Homo sapiens, he argues, then it should be based on their capacities, without which, “the intrinsic value of all human beings becomes an ungrounded assertion”. As Sarah listened to Singer, she experienced a ‘strange intellectual vertigo’:
“I was committed to believing that universal human value was more than just a well-meaning conceit of liberalism. But I knew from my own research in the history of European empires and their encounters with indigenous cultures, that societies have always had different conceptions of human worth, or lack thereof. The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth: it is profoundly historically contingent. I began to realise that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear”.
From this point on, she began exploring Christianity, albeit with ‘humble reluctance’, beginning with the ‘Theology’ section at her college library. She was struck at how intellectually compelling, complex and profound the gospel was. “I was attracted, but I wasn’t convinced”. Months later, near the end of her time at Oxford, she sat next to a Christian Professor of Nanomaterials. He asked if she believed in God. She fumbled and said, “An agnostic?”. He responded, “Do you really want to sit on the fence forever?” The question haunted her. In 2008, she took up an assistant professorship at Florida State University where she continued her research examining the relationship between the history of science, Christianity, and political thought. There she met Christians whose lives were deeply shaped by the gospel. They fed the homeless, ran community centres, and housed migrant farm labourers.
Shortly before her 28th birthday, she walked into a church for the first time, earnestly seeking God. “Before long I found myself overwhelmed. At last, I was fully known and seen and, I realised, unconditionally loved…”. After a couple of months of attending church, she knelt in her closet in her apartment and gave the reins of her life over to Jesus.
She then started a rigorous diet of theology and reading the Bible. “Christianity, it turned out, looked nothing like the caricature I once held…God wants broken people, not self-righteous ones. And salvation is not about us earning our way to some place in the clouds through good works. On the contrary; there is nothing we can do to reconcile ourselves to God. As a historian, this made profound sense to me. I was too aware of the cycles of poverty, violence and injustice in human history to think that some utopian design of our own, scientific or otherwise, might save us. Christianity was…radical…far more radical than the leftist ideologies with which I had previously been enamoured…The love of God was unlike anything which I expected…In becoming fully human in Jesus, God behaved decidedly unlike a god…Why submit to humiliation and death on a cross, in order to save those who hate you? God suffered punishment in our place because of a radical love. This sacrificial love is utterly opposed to the individualism, consumerism, exploitation, and objectification, of our culture. Just as radical, I realized, was the new creation which Christ began to initiate…To live as a Christian is a call to be part of this new radical, creation. I am not passively awaiting a place in the clouds. I am redeemed by Christ, so now I have work to do. With God’s grace, I’ve been elected to serve – in whatever way God sees fit – to build for His kingdom. We have a sure hope that God is transforming this broken, unjust world, into Christ’s kingdom, the New Creation”.
I share this story to remind us that our faith is rock solid, something we don’t have to be apologetic or ashamed of. In the words of John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, “My faith in God and Christ as the Son of God is no delusion. It is rational and evidence-based”.
(adapted from Sarah Irving-Stonebraker’s article, “How Oxford and Peter Singer Drove Me from Atheism to Jesus”, The Veritas Forum, May 22, 2017).