[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on July 19, 2014.]
Living Faith: Non-believer ponders, ‘Where will you go when you die?’
By Roxane B. Salonen
We were driving through the emerald hills of southern Minnesota recently when the signs appeared.
I couldn’t help but think of the atheists I’ve known and the pattern I’ve discovered in talking with them; how mention of the afterlife often brings the discussion to a screeching halt.
I’m naturally curious about the non-believer, since the non-believer’s conclusions are the antithesis of my own. I am challenged by their thoughts and feel compelled to challenge in turn.
Likewise, I’m attracted to the stories of atheists who have, after a long discovery, found faith despite all the odds and fervent resistance.
One such person, Jennifer Fulwiler, had started seriously pondering the question, “Where will you go when you die?” at age 11, during a nature trip with her father. They’d stopped near a creek on land they’d visited many times before.
While there, she found a fossil that had been entrenched in rock since before Mount Everest was formed, and another near it that had existed even before that. That moment marked the beginning of a long, internal tug.
“I looked at the ammonite settled in between my soggy sneakers, and I understood for the first time that my fate was no different than its own,” she says in her book, “Something Other Than God.”
Fulwiler goes on to say that until then, she’d always thought of those long-ago creatures as being fundamentally different from her. “They were dead things, I was the alive thing, and that’s how it would be forever.”
But this time she realized, “Ten million years from now, there would be nothing left of me.” Even more jolting, she said, her strong, capable, loving father also would be nothing.
A short while later, another moment would have her giggling with her father and would provide relief from this dark thought, but only temporarily.
Fulwiler tried to ignore the haunting message from the fossils, and went on to become a passionate atheist. But when her first child was born, something began to awaken within her.
She realized that atheism could offer no satisfactory explanation for the love she was experiencing through her bond with her husband and love for her child.
Yes, the atheistic worldview can offer an explanation of the way our brain chemistry can be altered to experience more of the sensation we label “love,” she said, but it could not provide the full truth.
“It would be like confusing a picture of the Grand Canyon with the actual place; there’s nothing false about the picture, but it would be foolish to confuse the piece of paper with the real thing,” she writes. “There was more to human life than the atoms that made up our bodies – I was sure of it.”
Thus began a slow and methodical journey toward belief for Fulwiler, who ultimately found Christianity to be the most reasonable place in which to live out a life of faith.
As she quotes from former Chicago Tribune editor Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case for Christ,” “Regardless of your religious beliefs…you had to admit that something explosive happened to Jewish culture in first-century Palestine.”
In tapping atheists, I don’t believe I’m being unfair. I will give atheists this much: to a point, it can make sense to believe that this world is a godless one. But those who are being completely honest with themselves will eventually bump up against the kind of unnerving questions Fulwiler did.
When that happens, the even harder questions will have to be asked, such as those the signs posed: “What’s next?” And if nothing, then why does anything matter at all?
As Fulwiler discovered, there’s a beautiful life waiting for us, here and now and also after here and now. Finding it takes asking the hard questions and not stopping until they’ve been satisfactorily answered.
A key to this, as she also discovered, is that our hearts can’t be closed. We can absorb data under any circumstances, but to attain wisdom we have to be “in the proper position.”
“There was something about my approach to the question of God that had been blocking my ability to sense him,” she said. “Now, I just needed to find out what it was.”
The signs of southern Minnesota are beckoning us all to ask and dig deep for the answers.
Knowledge is there, and if we orient ourselves towards truth and seek openly and earnestly, wisdom will follow.