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Crying out

Is seeing believing?

Crying out

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

The theological debate between evidentialists and presuppositionalists shows no sign of abating. Do we come to Christ because the evidence demands a verdict? Are we only open to the evidence because God has disposed us to believe it?

In three installments so far (WORLD, Aug. 9, Oct. 18, Jan. 31), I've placed before you the background for a case study: me. I've described going to Yale as an 18-year-old atheist, moving politically to the left, bicycling across the United States, newspapering in Oregon, and at age 22 joining the Communist Party USA (CP) and heading to Moscow.

There I filtered everything through neo-Marxist assumptions. Religion, for example, was still the pain-killing opiate of the masses, and Russians with their painful lives needed the religion of Lenin. The two neon signs above Moscow buildings in 1972 proclaimed "Slava Lenina" (Glory to Lenin), but so what? Better that than selling soap. Sure, churches like St. Basil's had turned into museums of atheism full of fawning references to Soviet leaders, but propaganda of some kind we would always have with us, and better to worship Man than god, right?

In my own mind I was not like the lying pro-Soviet writers of the 1930s. Sure, Lion Feuchtwanger rhapsodized in Russia about "the individual's feelings of complete security." Sure, Maurice Hindus said, "The dictatorship . . . actually overflowed with kindness." Sure, Walter Duranty of The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for praising Soviet prison camps as places where "the labor demand exceeds the supply" and inmates have the satisfaction of working "for the good of the community." Sure, those were lies and Communists were still lying in 1972, but I saw myself as a realist: Yes, Communism had problems, but capitalism was worse.

I thought the United States needed to lose its power in the world, so helping the Soviet Union was righteous. The CP wanted me to do my part by spending some time in Moscow as a purportedly independent journalist. There I would be given access to Soviet officials and could build a reputation as a foreign correspondent that would allow me to catch on with The New York Times or some other influential gazette.

My orders were to stay at the Hotel Berlin in Moscow: There "someone will contact you." The mystery was intriguing, so I walked blithely around Red Square and wondered: Was that man in the gabardine suit a spy? How about Tatiana over there-was she my agent? It turned out that no one was. The communications mix-up (God's mercy, I later realized) turned my Moscow stay into farce. A visit to the Moscow offices of OVIR, a Soviet internal control agency, produced stares as blank as those of waiters in restaurants when asked how long it would take to heat and serve the soup.

But for the grace of God and the inefficiency of man, I would have been a Soviet agent. As it was, I disappointedly left Moscow after a week and adopted Plan B: Return to the United States and hook on as a reporter for the Boston Globe, where I had been a college intern and correspondent. I did not disclose my CP membership, but my stories regularly emphasized the dark side of capitalism and received good placement. A front-page story about agriculture in western Massachusetts became a tale of small farmers ruthlessly deprived of their land by big capitalists. A front-page story about Portuguese immigrants became a saga of capitalist sweatshop exploitation.

Academia also beckoned: Why not become a tenured radical, turn a generation of students into disciples, and be a journalist on the side? When the University of Michigan gave me a hearty fellowship I left the Globe and enrolled in a summer Russian language class at Yale, both to satisfy Ph.D. language requirements and to improve communication with my Soviet big brothers.

One morning my language teacher, a Russian émigré, mentioned the starvation of millions that accompanied institution of the Soviet collective farm system in the 1930s. He concluded, "If Communists ever come into power in this country, I'll cut my own throat." That afternoon, as was my custom, I hung out at the Communist Party's Angela Davis bookstore located just off the Yale campus. I told the teacher's story to a young Communist woman. She replied, "That old fool, when Communism comes to this country he won't have to cut his throat, we'll do it for him."

At the University of Michigan in September and October 1973, professors complimented me on the Marxist analysis I offered in history and film classes. Meanwhile, I attended meetings of the Ann Arbor chapter of the Communist Party youth organization, the Young Workers Liberation League. We learned about key targets for Communist activity over the next decade: Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Nicaragua. I did my bit by setting up a University of Michigan short course showing how foreign leaders viewed stupidly insular Americans: Its highlight was a visit and speech by Georgi Arbatov, the Kremlin's expert on American politics.

A Michigan law school student led campus Communist activities. He argued that the Communist Party should be above bourgeois law. He regaled me with tales of how to settle disputes by using brass knuckles, or at least a roll of nickels firmly clenched. He drove me to a meeting in an affluent Detroit-area home where the aged Communist Party chairman, Henry Winston, spoke. Winston, who was blind, spoke to the group of perhaps 30 as if he were orating before a convention of thousands.

The common denominator of our activities was hatred. We read Left-Wing Communism, in which Lenin called hatred "the basis of every socialist and Communist movement and of its success." We read in the World Marxist Review that "Lenin hated the enemies of the working class, for struggle was impossible without hatred." Hate, hate, hate, and pay dues of 25 cents per month for students and the unemployed: Where hatred costs so little. Hatred is an equal opportunity virus, but proud hatred was a Communist characteristic.

I wasn't dissatisfied with Communism. On Nov. 1 I stuck another monthly-dues Lenin stamp onto my Communist Party card. (Yes, there were still card-carrying Communists.) That afternoon I sat in a chair in my room reading Lenin's famous essay, "Socialism and Religion," in which he wrote: "We must combat religion-this is the ABC of all materialism, and consequently Marxism." Lenin's hatred for the "figment of man's imagination" called God was not new to me-but some surprising thoughts began battering my brain: What if Lenin was wrong? What if God does exist?

Other questions flitted by. Is America really Amerikkka? If not, why am I turning my back on it? Why was capitalist desire for money and power worse than Communist desire? I had embraced treasonous ideas: Why? But the central question concerned God. Why was I heading down a dark corridor and refusing even to open a door to a room that could be filled with light?

I pondered this hour after hour, suddenly thinking that I had done something very wrong by hugging Marx and Lenin. When I sat down in that chair at 3 p.m. I was an atheist and a Communist. When I got up at 11 p.m. I was not. I was not doing drugs. I was not sleeping. I remember hour after hour looking at the clock, amazed that I was still in that chair. I had no new data. I had, through a process I did not understand, a new way of processing data.

At 11 p.m. I got up and spent the next two hours wandering around the cold and dark University of Michigan campus, crying out to . . . Someone. During the next three weeks I stopped doing my coursework and read works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and other Russians, along with Whittaker Chambers' Witness and essays of ex-Communists in The God That Failed. Part way through this process I still didn't know what I was, but I knew I was not a Communist. Visiting the law school tough guy, I told him my thinking had changed and tore up my CP card.

On Nov. 22 it was time to get to work. I slept little and wrote my term papers over the next three weeks, still from a leftist point of view, and received perfect grades-but my writing was false, and it now felt false.

The logical step for me would have been to pursue the question of God's existence, but instead I tried to escape from all-encompassing questions by joining the board of the Cinema Guild, a student movie-showing group, and plunging into film studies. Board membership gave me free tickets to any of the four or five movies shown on campus each night, and I averaged two a night.

In novelist Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (the 1962 National Book Award winner), the main character is more comfortable sitting in movie theater darkness than attempting to find authentic existence in the light outside. I was a moviegoer for two years, combining that with dating in Ann Arbor's promiscuous college culture. I also played APBA and Strat-O-Matic baseball simulation games that presented each major league player on a card reflecting his real-life statistics, with dice rolls representing "chance." All were escapes, or what Percy calls "external rotations" that did not provide a lot of inner satisfaction.

But while I was running from reality, God was pursuing, in a process described by Francis Thompson's powerful poem "The Hound of Heaven": "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways." The good news is that God came after me "with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace." He turned every attempt to escape into a new encounter.

For example, even after my rationale for studying Russian was gone, I still needed to demonstrate for Ph.D. purposes my good reading knowledge of a language. One night in my room I picked up the only unread Russian language work in my bookcase, a copy of the New Testament given me as a travel souvenir and held onto simply because in those days I hoarded books. Reading the Gospels for the first time without punctuation by sneers, I started to wonder who Jesus really was. It helped that I needed to read slowly, thinking about the words, and frequently consulting a Russian-English dictionary.

God's "unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace": Assigned as a graduate assistant in 1974 to teach a course in early American literature, I had to prepare by reading . . . Puritan sermons, including those of Increase Mather and Jonathan Edwards. Those dead white males made sense to me. Some love Puritan arguments and others hate them, but my childhood prejudice that Christians were stupid people who worshipped Christmas trees was fading fast.

And even movies: The ones that stuck with me the most were Westerns directed by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and other notables. In those films characters often stayed neutral for a while but finally had to take a stand. The process was embarrassingly slow in my case, but I was slowly starting to think in Christian terms. In a smaller aftershock of my break from Communism, I was also becoming a devotee of political liberty and free-market economics.

I was slow. In 1975, instead of visiting a church to find out what flesh-and-blood Christians believe, I started reading about Christianity in the University of Michigan library-and there headed down a rabbit trail with Gabriel Marcel and other Christian existentialists, as well as neo-orthodox theologians who said they had wedded Christ without much concern for whether the bridegroom actually existed. I had not left Communism merely to believe in pleasant myths. The question was and is truth: As the apostle Paul put it, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

To be continued . . .

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.