About a week and a bit before my baptism, Rev. Robert asked me if I would be willing to do a little writeup about what led me to the desire to be baptized. I told him I would and began to think a bit more deeply about what led me to make the decision to formally join the Anglican Church and the Christian community. As reinforced by the many congratulations and welcomes I received by my now fellow parishioners at St Mark’s after the baptism service was finished, the welcoming culture of St Mark’s itself was a definite draw to that particular community. Of course, I would not have even reached out to Rev. Robert a few years ago without an interest I developed years prior.
Growing up, I was never raised in a religious context. Neither of my parents are churchgoers and neither would likely identify with a religious tradition in any significant way. This is not to say they were ardent and vocal atheists, but just that religion was not something that was really on the radar. Prior to the last few years, the only time I ever visited a church or other religious space was an uncle’s wedding (I can’t recall the denomination as I was too young to remember, or possibly care), my grandmother’s Catholic funeral, and a baptism of a high school friend in a Foursquare Baptist church.
It was around the time of that baptism in late high school that I began visiting religion chat rooms on Yahoo. I considered myself an atheist at that point (having figured out God and everything at 16, like many teenagers) and would have been comfortable among the New Atheist types like Richard Dawkins and his ilk. Most of the conversations/debates in those rooms were a great way for a teenager to feel smart tearing apart the straw men arguments presented by the various overly-literal Christians that produced them. I, of course, having little experience with religion, gladly accepted the less than robust arguments for God and Christianity as the best ones and judged all of religion accordingly. While I don’t expect a single convert was made for either side, I had least had a good time and was started on the path to the study of religion that has culminated, so far, with my baptism.
After high school, I enrolled in the University of Victoria where I majored in philosophy and minored in religious studies. While I appreciated the rigor with which the various philosophers over the past centuries and millennia dissected their beliefs and ideas with reason alone (or so many claimed at least), it wasn’t until I took courses in philosophy of religion and Chinese philosophy that I was led outside the rigid confines of the Western context. I began to appreciate the different ways of thinking about what is reasonable to believe and on what epistemological frameworks one can justifiably form those beliefs. Going forward in my classes, I would at times get frustrated by the limits of the “purely rational” views on God, metaphysics, ethics, etc. By the end of my degree, I had exhausted my interest in pursuing philosophy and wished that the university had offered a major in religious studies instead of the minor I had to settle for. Here, my mind was beginning to open up to new ways of thinking.
After a brief time at law school, which I happily left after 8 months of biweekly existential crises regarding a future as a lawyer, I was accepted into the Masters of Religion and Culture at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Here, studying various religious traditions and how they interact with the world both in the past and today led me to appreciate religion more fully in general. As well, most of my classmates were religious, including Catholics, one Pagan, a couple Buddhists, and even a self-identified Hindu-Christian (or Christian-Hindu?). The fact that these were all smart, well-adjusted people that I respected may be one of the most important levers that shifted me into religion and ultimately the Anglican church. When I returned to Halifax after completing the program, I began exploring religious traditions in a less-book oriented and more people-and-place oriented way (though I continued to read academic, and sometimes not so academic, books on religion).
If the reader hasn’t figured it out by now, mine has been a particularly academic, text-heavy path, and that hasn’t really ended. I have added a number of books to my bookshelf, but there are three books, though, that I would probably consider the most formative in my move into the Christian Church. The first is The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. My biggest takeaway from that was probably how she identified what “belief” means in the biblical community, where the word evokes more of a sense of trust that the words and actions of who or what you believe in, rather than mere intellectual assent to a set of propositional statements. The minor conceptual shift really opened me up to thinking of belief as being less about the truth value of words as logical arguments and more about the truth in their meaning (think: the letter vs. the spirit). The second and third are Abraham J Heschel’s Man is Not Alone and Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. Both books allowed me to contemplate new ways of thinking about how to see God in the world (though I will not claim to fully understand the latter after only one reading as its reputation as a difficult book to read is well earned).
I briefly visited a Buddhist meditation group while in Halifax, but was left unsatisfied. Realistically, I don’t think I gave it enough of a chance, but I just didn’t feel drawn to it. One of the things that eventually drew me into Christianity the most was the Bible’s worldliness, especially the focus on social justice and the richness of the world, in all its flaws, described in the Bible itself. The Buddhist groups I found did not have much of a presence in this way. By this point I had finally finished reading the Bible through, aside from a few proverbs and psalms I skimmed over. This, combined with my past readings and experiences mentioned above, got me interested in Biblical religion, though I first visited a synagogue before eventually testing out St. Mark’s. While I have a significant appreciation for the Tanakh and still enjoy Jewish scholarship and theology regarding it, fitting in to Judaism culturally was too difficult.
It was after this that I began looking more into Christianity itself, in particular the Anglican tradition. There were a couple of reasons I focused on the Anglican church. One, from my studies I determined that the Anglican church struck a good balance between the traditions of the past 2000 years while still being open to change when morally necessary (something I think the Roman Catholic Church is struggling with today). Two, my fiancée’s family is largely Anglican. To find St. Mark’s, I had simply googled Anglican churches around St. John’s and read an entry on Rev. Robert’s blog. I can’t remember what it was about, but I do remember that I enjoyed the tone of it and that it implied that the church would be a good fit for me. From the nature of the sermons and conversations within St. Mark’s as well as its actions in the community, I am convinced that it is. I certainly would not have stuck around a church that did not share the friendly and dedicated nature of St. Mark’s.
After reaching out, Rev. Robert and I shared many chats and books over the last couple of years, eventually leading to my baptism at the beginning of the month. While I fell away from the church a few times and ceased attending, after the third time coming back I figured it was time to take the leap and accept that I wanted to be part of the Christian tradition and seek baptism. Almost one month later I am happy I did so and look forward to further developing my faith, especially when I finally finish my current degree and have Mondays free again for Pub Theology!
By Peter Matterson