The Big Question
In 2010, when I was a mere toddler in the faith, a fellow writer approached me. She said, “May I ask you something personal? I have always liked your writing, but when you write about the Lord, there is so much conviction in your voice, you really believe! What makes you so sure there is a Lord, a forgiveness of sin, an afterlife, all that good stuff? Has it ever crossed your mind that it all might be just a man-made story, a myth, like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or even The Tooth Fairy?
“Belief in all things God and spiritual is like having an internet relationship. It’s fantasy to me, wishful thinking, but not reality. And you’re a scientist, so I find it kind of strange that you believe at all in this.
“I guess I’m asking because I’m having some sort of crisis of faith and spirituality. I think I’m becoming more of an atheist…. I want to know if you’ve had a personal experience with faith that makes you so devoted to it.”
I said that a crisis of faith is not unusual. War, disease, famine, pestilence—those four horsemen can surely make one wonder if there’s even a God. I can’t prove it a priori if he exists, but I can sense him. I see his brilliant poetry of creation in the stars, in the trees, and in the people I love. Even from the age of twelve, I knew there was a God; I just didn’t know he was a personal one.
The Early Years
In Catholic school, I heard about Jesus but placed him on a back-burner for thirty-seven years. I believed in a historical Jesus, as Josephus did. That Jewish historian wasn’t sympathetic to the Christian movement.
Mainstream religion turned me off by the time I was twenty-one. I claimed the same excuse many do today for not going to church—too many hypocrites. Especially the Bible-thumpers. I had met many who would try to preach the gospel, but the only thing I sensed was phony-baloney. What a turn-off. The last thing I wanted to hear was that I was going to Hell.
I never rejected the gospel because I never really understood it! All I heard was condemnation and a lot of bickering among denominations, Protestant, too, each thinking it had the corner on the “right” theology while the rest were going to Hell. All those denominations are flawed, yet none will reconsider their position.
Scientists, like myself, are committed to the evidence. If new data doesn’t support a “theory,” then it’s time to cut it loose. In other words, we believe in the scientific method to test the veracity of data. For literary text, the closest thing we have is something called hermeneutics. It’s the best we can do in examining extant writings, whether they are of Shakespeare or of the prophets in the Bible. The methodology involves much more than linguistics; scholars also look at the mindsets of the writers and the intended audiences in the context of the socio-economic setting, historicity, geography, and a host of other things. I am straying a little, but I’ll try to rope this all together.
The world of science and the world of (religious) literature operate on different philosophies. One deals with the concrete, the other with the abstract. The rules are not interchangeable. We cannot, nor ever will, prove the existence of God. The best we can do is examine circumstantial evidence.
Lee Strobel, a lawyer, and former atheist, once said that circumstantial evidence is often more powerful than direct evidence because direct evidence can always be challenged. There is no “agenda” to circumstantial evidence. If there is enough circumstantial evidence, then it can form a much more powerful case. Indeed, many criminals have been convicted on just circumstantial evidence.
As I would learn from his testimony, the circumstantial evidence for God, and particularly, Jesus the Christ, was so overwhelming that it led to the conversion of this atheist to Christianity, and eventually for me, too, but in some ways I might have been a little more hard-headed.
For me, it definitively began in Connecticut (but on looking back, there were many others in different places over the previous years who were kind, generous, and nonjudgmental who tried to subtly talk about Jesus to me—these folks undoubtedly paved the way for what happened in Connecticut). There, I met a lovely, and bold-in-the-faith, Black lady at work. She was no Bible-thumper. I felt no pressure, but sensed something special in her.
Curious about her faith, I accepted the invitation to attend a Bible study with her in October 1997. I met wonderful people and appreciated their genuineness and friendship. Over the next few weeks, I visited with them more often and tried to understand what they had, and what I didn’t have. I asked about the stories in the Bible, about the miracles, and more about Jesus. I liked their honest answers. I enjoyed being around them; they were like family. But I did not want to join a church (be assimilated into one) if I didn’t believe what they believed. I did not want to join a social club.
So what was my faith? Did I even have spiritual faith? The only thing I knew for sure was my intellect, and the void in my heart (despite the fact that I was happily married).
Five months earlier, I flew a Piper Archer II, my small private airplane, to Maryland to spend the weekend with my baby sister. Just before boarding my plane for the flight back to Connecticut, she gave me a slim, pocket Bible (She confessed to me later that she was afraid I might reject it; I would never do that, I knew it was important to her, so I stashed it in my flight bag where I knew it would be safe with my life-depending charts and approach plates were, and not get lost).
One night in November, when I arrived to my apartment, I “froze in my tracks” half in/half out of the car with arms full of groceries for dinner that night. Yet I was compelled to reach into my flight bag and fetch that very Bible my sister had given me. (I would later understand that this was the prompting of the Holy Spirit.) I tossed it on the table and began preparing dinner.
My crisis of faith was faith itself and it needed finally to be addressed; I was forty-nine. The challenge wasn’t the existence of God, no, not that at all. In fact, my faith in God was anchored because of my scientific profession. I was constantly wowed as I studied the universe and unraveled its beauty with my eyes (and with mathematics). My crisis was that of faith in Christ, in his deity.
I had “conversations” with God as I tried to rationalize things; I argued the whole concept of faith in Jesus. I used mathematical intuition, rhetoric, logic, everything I had faith in. I never seriously pondered that question before.
With the food still simmering in the kitchen, my attention shifted to that Bible on the card table. I opened it to where the tassel marked it. It was in the gospel of John; I dismissed coincidence since I figured my sister marked it there for me—my name is John. After dinner, I planned to call and ask her what I thought was a “much more important” question: the notion of Original sin. At that time, I didn’t buy my having to “take the rap” for what Adam and Eve did, whatever that was (there was no forbidden apple—that’s a Hollywood construct).
I called my sister, Rose, about 10:30 PM on November 10, 1997, with the intention of asking this important question and then, perhaps, to ask the seemingly unimportant question of her marking the Bible for me. I knew full well her answer would be yes, that she indeed had marked it there for me.
But as I began to speak, out of my mouth came the silly question about her marking the Bible for me first. I had no power to stop it. However, without hesitation, she said “No,” that she did not. At that moment, I experienced a surge, an intense adrenaline rush (as I would have had when suddenly scared, but a hundred times more intense); waves of heat and cold moved throughout my entire body from the top of my head all the way down to my feet.
The creator of this universe, of Heaven and Earth, had just paid me a visit as if he were there in person. And he “spoke” his own words to me. The Bible in my hands was marked to John 14. And the seemingly unimportant words of the first verse pierced me. It was Christ speaking these words, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in the Father, believe also in me!” I heard it with the great emphasis (little did I know, until I would study Greek years later that there are two forms of the pronoun “me;” the English doesn’t show it, but Christ spoke the emphatic form to me).
On the night before, while driving down the road, I had an epiphany. finally realized that I did have faith and I shouted out loud, “I have faith! I have faith! I believe in God!! Then why can’t I also believe in you (the Christ)?” Almost identical to what is written! He answered me with Scriptures.
I was silent on the phone.
And in that same moment, my sister later confessed, she was prodded to quote scriptures from the letter to the Romans—the so-called “Roman road”—she led me to the Lord that night. I was very aware of what was going on. And as I pondered the evidence, I was convinced the Holy Spirit gave me all the time I needed to receive him unto myself, as if time were dilated. And as if it were an out of body experience, I could see myself just pondering the evidence for his deity. I saw the scales of evidence convincingly tip in that direction. Yes, it was a very emotional experience, but I made a purely logical decision.
There are tears now even as I type this, as there were then. I had a “Peter experience.” I didn’t worry if I didn’t understand it all—the miracles, even the resurrection upon which my faith hinges. My reasoning at that point was simple: He is the Christ, therefore everything else is possible.
He is real and he loves me. I can’t prove it as a scientist, but I know that my redeemer lives. And he has proven it to me so many times over the years. And today, by his grace, I try not to be a hypocrite, though I surely fall from time to time. Yet he picks me up and kisses me on the heart. I fell in love with Jesus Christ five months later. It was during Easter 1998.
Falling in Love my Redeemer
I will express it through a poem I wrote, which is what started this conversation on faith:
It Wasn’t Just the Nails
Gethsemane wasn’t a garden of figs,
but a place for pressing, the pressing
of olives until their oil seeped through
cracked skins, the color of extra pure.
This place was for crushing, the crushing
of grapes until their sweet juice dripped
as blood into a stone, cold cup filled
with bitter dregs. He drank it. His blood
sieved through pores intumesced
with sorrow, swollen from anaphylaxis
of sins thrust on Him, stinging. My sins,
today’s, tomorrow’s, piercing His mind
as thorns, as acacia thorns lashed out
gouging His flesh. No numbing for pain,
prick of each thought, a flailing, a death.
The pummeling of His back with bits of lead
digging into bone, stripped His flesh, Heart
already broken, because every one of us
is Judas. Yet, are we choked with remorse?
It wasn’t just the nails we drove into Him
at Golgotha clang clang clang
mallet to metal, iron to flesh, the splintering
of wood and bone. He hung on crossbeams
with the weight of the world pulling. His sinews
burned as He breathed His last agony.
He was poured out, so that we could be filled
May this testimony of my faith help you find your faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or buttress the faith you already have.
Author’s Note: I continue to serve Him with every gift so kindly given to me, one of them is through my spiritual poetry and in-depth Bible teaching through PoeticWord Ministries, which I formed in 2005.
John C. Mannone has recent poems in North Dakota Quarterly, Foreign Literary Review, and Le Menteur. He was awarded a Jean Ritchie Fellowship (2017) in Appalachian literature. He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. A retired university physics professor, John lives between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. http://jcmannone.wordpress.com