Atheism Leads Historian Sarah Irving-Stonebraker to Faith

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Sarah Irving-Stonebraker is a Senior Lecturer (with tenure) in Modern European History at Western Sydney University in Australia (1). Stonebraker’s first book Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire (2008) was awarded The Royal Society of Literature and Jerwood Foundation Award for Non-fiction. The book offers an academic treatment of England’s colonial empire and how it became tied to the Protestant redemptive project of restoring humanity’s original dominion over nature. Before joining the University of Western Sydney, Stonebraker was a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University, and then Assistant Professor at Florida State University.

It was at the tender age of eight that Stonebraker knew that she wanted to become a historian and study history at Cambridge (2). Stonebraker’s skepticism of religion was likely engendered by childhood upbringing. She grew up in “a loving, secular home” and later “arrived at Sydney University as a critic of “religion.”” At the time she felt she did not need to have religious faith, or belief in God, to be able to ground her identity or values.

Looking back over her university career, Stonebraker explains that her identity “lay in academic achievement, and my secular humanism was based on self-evident truths. She also achieved academically,

“As an undergrad, I won the University Medal and a Commonwealth Scholarship to undertake my Ph.D. in History at King’s College, Cambridge. King’s is known for its secular ideology and my perception of Christianity fitted well with the views of my fellow students: Christians were anti-intellectual and self-righteous” (3).

Stonebraker would then meet the ethicist and atheist intellectual, Peter Singer. Singer’s ethical theories are well-known and have been quite controversial. He has argued that some forms of animal life have more worth than some human life.

Stonebraker explains that after having graduated from Cambridge, she was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford and attended three guest lectures by the “world-class” Peter Singer. She realized the significant challenges an atheistic philosophy presented when it came to human worth,

“The natural world yields no egalitarian picture of human capacities. What about the child whose disabilities or illness compromises her abilities to reason? Yet, without reference to some set of capacities as the basis of human worth, the intrinsic value of all human beings becomes an ungrounded assertion; a premise which needs to be agreed upon before any conversation can take place.”

Stonebraker left Singer’s lectures with unease as she felt 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.”

Stonebraker one day wandered into the theology section at her library, “I noticed that my usual desk in the college library was in front of the Theology section,” and with an “awkward but humble reluctance” she ventured forth, finding a book of sermons by philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich. “As I read,” she explains, “I was struck at how intellectually compelling, complex, and profound the gospel was.” This was the start but being attracted to the ideas and views presented of a single person does not necessarily make one convinced.

Several months later Stonebraker was invited to a dinner for the International Society for the Study of Science and Religion. She found herself sitting next to Andrew Briggs, a Professor of Nanomaterials as well as a Christian. During the dinner, Briggs asked Stonebraker if she believes in God. Stonebraker fumbled in response. But noticing her confusion, Briggs asked, “Do you really want to sit on the fence forever?” It was that question, explains Stonebraker, that “made me realise that if issues about human value and ethics mattered to me, the response that perhaps there was a God, or perhaps there wasn’t, was unsatisfactory.”

The good works that many Christians did in their lives, big and small, warmed Stonebraker,

“With the freedom of being an outsider to American culture, I was able to see an active Christianity in people who lived their lives guided by the gospel: feeding the homeless every week, running community centres, and housing and advocating for migrant farm laborers.”

Not much later just shy before her 28th birthday that Stonebraker visited a church for the first time as one earnestly seeking God. The experience was important to her,

“Before long I found myself overwhelmed. At last I was fully known and seen and, I realised, unconditionally loved – perhaps I had a sense of relief from no longer running from God. A friend gave me C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and one night, after a couple months of attending church, I knelt in my closet in my apartment and asked Jesus to save me, and to become the Lord of my life.”

Stonebraker then began looking much more into theology. She read the Bible and explored views presented by notable theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, and F. D. Maurice. The ideas presented by these thinkers made “Christianity” look like “nothing like the caricature I once held.” She found that putting her faith in God did not require the suspension of the intellect,

“I found the story of Jacob wrestling with God especially compelling: God wants anything but the unthinking faith I had once assumed characterized Christianity. God wants us to wrestle with Him; to struggle through doubt and faith, sorrow and hope. Moreover, 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.”

She noticed just how “radical” Christianity is. It was radical in how God, who is the very creator of the universe and all things within it, became “fully human in Jesus…” God essentially “behaved decidedly unlike a god.” It is a radical love demonstrated in such an act,

“Why deign to walk through death’s dark valley, or hold the weeping limbs of lepers, if you are 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. 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.”

As Stonebraker learned more about God’s radical love she discovered that “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.”

Stonebraker concludes,

“Just as radical, I realized, was the new creation which Christ began to initiate. This turned on its head the sentimental caricature of ‘heaven’ I’d once held as an atheist. I learned that Jesus’ resurrection initiated the kingdom of God, which will “bring good news to the poor, release the captives, restore sight to the blind, free the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) 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.”

References.

1. WSU. Doctor Sarah Irving-Stonebraker. Available.

2. Metaxas, E., & Guthrie, S. 2017. Do Humans Matter or Not? Available.

3. Stonebraker, S. 2017. How Oxford and Peter Singer drove me from atheism to Jesus. Available.

7 comments

  1. Like her, I read Tillich, Niebuhr, F.D. Maurice, and Lewis. The first two were quit liberal, and Maurice was a leader of the Christian Socialist movement in Victorian Britain and I think a universalist. Lewis is the one whom Evangelicals have bestowed a sort of sainthood upon due to his relatively conservative opinion of the historicity of the Gospels and acceptance of eternal punishment and thinly-veiled Christian allegorical fantasies.

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