Friday, 31 January 2014

Some People's Damascus Road Experiences

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me. (Rev. 3:20)
     No doubt that is how it is for most of us. But sometimes the Lord does not simply wait patiently outside the door. There are times when He comes with a battering ram, smashes the door down, and drags the occupant, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the feast. St Paul knew all about it; it happened to him on the road to Damascus. Here are a few other examples of other people's Damascus Road conversions. No doubt there are many more out there. God only knows how many.
     (1) Let us start with a rather simple one. John C. Wright, who is better known as a successful science fiction writer than for his day job, was a militant atheist and, by his own account, very good at it. The trouble was, he was also a scholar, having studied the Great Books program, and had found the ancient stoic philosophy persuasive. What troubled him was that the preachings of his fellow atheists began to sound more and more like irrational rantings, while those of the Christians started more and more to make sense. Since he had already convinced himself that God couldn't possibly exist, he found himself in the dilemma of cognitive dissonance. The only way out, as far as he could see, was to throw down the gauntlet to the non-existent God and demand He reveal himself. So, about the time of Thanksgiving, 2003 he uttered the following prayer, as best he can remember it:
Dear God, I know (because I can prove it with the certainty that a geometer can prove opposite angles are equal) that you do not exist. Nonetheless, as a scholar, I am forced to entertain the hypothetical possibility that I am mistaken. So just in case I am mistaken, please reveal yourself to me in some fashion that will prove your case. If you do not answer, I can safely assume that either you do not care whether I believe in you, or that you have no power to produce evidence to persuade me. The former argues you not beneficent, the latter not omnipotent: in either case unworthy of worship. If you do not exist, this prayer is merely words in the air, and I lose nothing but a bit of my dignity. Thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter, John Wright.
      He would be the first to admit that this was highly disrespectful language, and that he wouldn't have spoken so rudely to any human authority. So he really couldn't complain about what happened two days later.
     He had a heart attack. At his request, his wife, who was a Christian Scientist, read a passage from one of their writings, and the pain disappeared right away. He was rushed to hospital, where quintuple bypass surgery was ordered. He later claimed that the time in hospital was the happiest period of his life.
     The peace of God which passes all understanding flooded over him. Then, while he was fully alert and not under the influence of drugs, he received three visions. He recognized them as visions, rather than dreams or hallucinations, because he was familiar with dreams, and knew a person who suffered hallucinations. Apart from that, it is hardly likely his subconscious mind would produce visions totally at variance with everything he previously believed in. Then, several days after he left hospital, he received another overwhelming religious experience, quite distinct from the visions.
      But there is far more to it than that, and you would be well advised to read his own statements on the events, here and here, not only for the details, but for the insight they provide.

     (2) Wright at least took the first step of praying. It was not the case with Joy Davidman, whose literary fame has been, perhaps unfortunately, overshadowed by that of her second husband, C. S. Lewis. Also an atheist, and a Jewish one at that, she found her marriage falling around her ears as a result of her first husband's alcoholism, violence, and infidelities. It was when he telephoned her to say he was having a nervous breakdown, and could not say when he would be coming home, that it hit her that she was no longer mistress of her fate. She walked into the nursery, and then, to quote her own words:
It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. . . .Those who have known God will understand me. . . . There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness - a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.
     Like C. S. Lewis before her, once she had accepted that God existed, she decided her duty was to find out which God it was, and began a journey which led her to Christ.

     (3) But these two cases are rather tame in comparison to some others. For those who are unaware, the Somalis inhabit not only Somalia, but also northeastern Kenya. They are semi-civilized barbarians and hard line Moslems. Shortly before I visited Kenya in 1990, they had murdered their bishop. But when I attended the Anglican Cathedral in Nairobi, I read the testimony of another priest, Father Shafi.
     Shafi is a common Moslem name; it belonged of the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. In this case, Shafi had been walking through a city when he heard a Christian street preacher. It sounded interesting, but he never had the time or inclination to follow it up. Some years later, he heard another street preacher but, again, was unable to follow it up.
     Those were his sole contacts with Christianity. Some years after that, he dreamed  he heard someone call his name. So vivid was the dream, that he woke up. There was no-one there. He went back to sleep again, only to be awakened by the same dream. The third time, the voice cried: "Shafi! Shafi! Will you be my disciple?" Of course, it was a rhetorical question. You don't argue with the Voice. On awakening, he went down on his knees and committed his life to Christ then and there. In the cold light of morning, however, he realised that if he spoke to anyone about it, he would most likely be murdered. So, for the next five years, until he was able to make contact with Christian groups, he said was neither a good Moslem nor a good Christian.
     You will notice a strong resemblance of his experience to the call of the prophet Samuel, except that Samuel was awakened by an external, rather than an internal voice. I wonder if that story had been included in the preaching he had heard. If so, one can only say that the effect was out of all proportion to the cause. Dreams, it hardly needs to be told, are products of the subconscious, churning former experiences and ideas, usually recent ones, into new patterns. It would be a miracle if the subconscious were to reach out years in the past and produce a dream so vivid as to turn a person's life around.

     (4) Leslie T. Lyall appears have had an incredibly adventurous life. After he was expelled from Red China in 1951, he made an informal inspection tour of the churches of southeast Asia, as reported in his book, Urgent Harvest (1962). In what is now Malaysia - I am quoting from memory now - he met a Chinese medium who, when he went into a trance, used to see and communicate with dragons. But all this ended one day when, in his normal frame of mind and in broad daylight, he went to cross a bridge, and found his path blocked by a man in white robes, who said: "Give it up!" So he did. You don't argue with the Man in White either.
     He was convinced it was Jesus he met that day, and I am in no position to refute it.

      (5) The Man in White also appeared to the Rt. Rev. Hugh Montefiore, later to become Bishop of Birmingham. As he described it:
‘It happened out of the blue.’ ... ‘I was 16, a keen Jew from a devout and influential family. I knew nothing about Christianity and I had never even been to a church service.’ His voice becomes quiet. ‘It was very, very strange. I was sitting in my study at Rugby school when a figure in white approached and said, "Follow me." How I knew that the figure was Jesus is totally beyond me. But I did. All the hallmarks of a conversion were there: a feeling of extreme exultation and so on.' [I am quoting from the extended article.]
"It's the easiest way to come to Christianity, you know," he added. "Other people have to fight and struggle and so on. I was made a Christian." He also said: "In the morning, I was a Jew and by the evening I was a Christian." That was in 1936, and he was to pay dearly for it, in being ostracized by the Jewish society. No doubt his family held his funeral, as was the norm in those days. And he also retained another hangup. The first time he ate a bacon sandwich he felt terribly guilty, and it turned to dust and ashes in his mouth.
     (He also discussed the incident on pp 234-5 of his 2002 book, The Paranormal: A Bishop Investigates. He especially emphasized his complete ignorance or, and indifference towards, Christianity at the time.)
     Here is the testimony of another Jew who was converted by a vision.

    (6) Amir was a lapsed Christian from Lebanon, who went to Saudi Arabia on business. However, while he was there, an angel visited him in his hotel room and told him he had to go to Mecca, the forbidden city, and pray for the Moslems. The next evening Jesus came and told him the same thing, so he wasn't in a position to argue. Now, Mecca is off-limits to non-Moslems on pain of death but, by one of those quirks which fools call accidents or chance, there had been a mistake on his passport, and his religion was recorded as Islam. He therefore purchased Islamic clothes and took the bus to Mecca where, on the way back to his hotel, he overhead a person saying, "It is the third dream since I have been here. But what does it mean?"
     He found himself being followed, and was afraid the jig was up. However, the man merely introduced himself with the words, "I am your friend. I am Muhammad." The same Muhammad later managed to get the authorities off his tail, and explained to him that he too had received visions of Jesus while on the pilgrimage, and was now staying undercover in the forbidden city to pray for the Moslems.
     Isn't it interesting that people who have these same experiences manage to find each other in the midst of a hostile city? Tom Doyle managed to record many such first hand accounts in his book, Dreams and Visions, Is Jesus awakening the Muslim World? This particular episode is discussed here.
I have written a review of the entire book in a later post.

     (7) Alfonse Ratisbonne was a Jew by birth and an atheist by conviction. In his own words, he "had never opened a book of religion nor even read a single page of the Bible." However, in 1842, at the age of 29, he made a visit to Rome, and met a fellow Frenchman who attempted to convert him. Ratisbonne described his experience in a letter a few months after the event, and this has been faithfully reproduced by William James in his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
     According to his testimony, he treated his friend's attempts at proselytism as a bit of a joke. They had only two or three conversations, and his friend got him to hang a religious medal around his neck, and to read out a short prayer to the Virgin Mary. Although he had been in a rather jocular mood when he read it, the words of the prayer haunted him for several days. Then, one night he had a disturbed dream featuring a black cross.
     The next day he was back to his old jocular self, and joined his friend in trivial conversations. As his friend had some official position in a certain little church, they halted there, and his friend went inside for few minutes on some duty or other. With nothing else to do, Ratisbonne followed him. He had nothing particular on his mind. There was nothing special about the church. It was "poor, small, and empty". He noticed a black dog trotting around inside.
     At that point, the church and everything in it vanished, and he was struck by a vision of the Virgin Mary so overwhelming that Saul's encounter on the Damascus Road paled in comparison.
Heavens, how can I speak of it? Oh no! Human words cannot attain to expressing the inexpressible. Any description, however sublime it might be, could be but a profanation of the unspeakable truth.
     His friend found him prostrate on the floor, bathed in tears. Initially, he could not respond to the questions put to him, but finally he grasped the medal and began kissing the image of the Virgin. He walked out virtually in a trance, unable to speak, overwhelmed with joy. He felt himself changed into someone new. It was like bandage after bandage had fallen from his eyes, like coming out of a sepulchre, like one gaining his sight after being born blind, and being unable to comprehend the light. He said that if, just before he entered the church,  anyone had told him that, within fifteen minutes, he would be renouncing the world, his fortune, his hopes, the esteem of his friends and fellow Jews, and his fiancĂ©e in order to receive baptism and follow Christ, he would have told him he was completely crazy, yet that is how it turned out.

    Now, people who are religious can work themselves up into a fervour such that their subconscious mind can produce a vision. This, I suspect, is what happened to the original Muhammad in AD 610. People who are not religious, but are nevertheless struggling with a crisis of belief, may theoretically have their subconscious produce an altered state of consciousness which resolves the crisis. I don't know of any examples, but it does not seem unlikely. Just the same, you would expect their subconscious to push them in the same direction their inclinations point them. In these cases, however, predisposing factors were next to nil, and the experience turned them in a direction diametrically opposite to their inclinations, while at the same time being accompanied by intense emotion, particularly of joy and exultation.
     Why some people receive such a gift denied to others, God only knows. But as C. S. Lewis said in regard to his own much more conventional conversion, the harshness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our salvation.