Former atheist Jim Tickner shares his story of discovering God in the midst of an existential crisis
“The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it some form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs.” Clifford Geertz
In a world choking on pollution and beset by inequality I have found myself wondering exactly where is my place to stand in the shifting sands of an uncertain world.
Death has lost its sting
Fighting against God
Finding God through science
If God exists why does he allow suffering?
In need of salvation?
In this context, one tome that proved illuminating was ‘Romans Disarmed’ by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, my former mentor at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) Toronto. Deep into this fine work I was struck by this passage describing a key moment in (for want of a better term) the life of Brian, whereupon he reflects on his need for salvation:
“For Brian, as a 16-year-old kid from the suburbs of Toronto what he needed to be saved from wasn’t an angry God; he didn’t even believe in God, so whether God was angry or not wasn’t really an issue. No, what he needed to be saved from was a life of meaninglessness: a monotonous life of suburban boredom and emptiness; a life climbing the corporate ladder to who-knew-where; a lonely life of deep, deep brokenness; and, truth be known, a life without a father who loved him. From all of that, he needed salvation.
Or maybe we could say that he needed to be saved from a secular narrative that had no moral depth, couldn’t sustain him in a life of joy and seemed to be at a historical and cultural dead end. And while he couldn’t have put it that way at the time, he is now pretty sure that something like this was what was going on.”
My early years
For me it was at about the age of 16 that I began to ask existential questions about life. Faced with an uncertain future I found myself entering sixth form at in September 1981. At this point I was enmeshed in a working-class environment where the only yardstick of merit amongst my peers was how tough you were.
At the same time my long-suffering mother left my philandering father. Suddenly I was at home alone and all this space gave me time to prosper at sixth form and to reflect on what to do with my life. Frankly, I did not have a clue.
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The decisive moment arrived when my head of sixth form called me into his office and suggested that I apply to University. I had nothing to lose and managed to secure a place at Bath University, studying Business.
So, there I was, a clueless, wide-eyed, working-class kid amid young adults from some of the finest fee-paying schools in Britain. For me, with a fractured family left behind, it was all guns blazing to join the yuppie throng. It was 1984!
It was a four year course that furnished me with the opportunity to work in the ‘real’ world for two six-month blocks. The first of these saw me take up a position at IBM, Bristol. I was suited and booted and earning. It proved to be very illuminating in terms of the competitive reality of work. I was often a pawn in a game of one-upmanship as the sales staff brought to vivid life the practice of social Darwinism.
I then found myself in London at Mobil Oil. In contrast to IBM, the work at Mobil seemed to consist mostly in shuffling paper. The whole place was populated by careerist middle-managers trapped in what Max Weber would describe as “an iron-cage of bureaucracy and disenchantment” and frightened to death by the imminent arrival of IT.
So, here I was an energetic, positive young man seemingly set for a high-flying career and the chance to rise above his circumstances. As I would later discover, I had fully inculcated the dominant meta-narrative of my culture. My future mentor would eventually help me to understand my outlook back then by fleshing out the idea that we all possess a worldview, a way of understanding reality, that shapes how we lead our lives and what we choose to prioritize.
A worldview can often best be summarized by considering the answers to four questions:
1/ Who am I?
2/ Where am I?
3/ What is the problem?
4/ What is the remedy?
How I would have answered these questions as a student in Bath in the late 1980s:
1/ I am an individual human being, the measure of all things and free to choose my own destiny
2/ I exist in a material world that came into being by chance billions of years ago, which, by a series of random mutations, produced humans, the pinnacle of a process called evolution.
3/ I have to compete hard with other individuals in a rat race in order to get ahead and avoid penury and suffering.
4/ I must attain a good education, find a well-paid job and assert my will upon a universe that is indifferent to my fate.
An existential crisis
It was at this point that something unsettling began to happen. Firstly, the world of work that I witnessed became profoundly unappealing to me. It seemed that I was about to escape a life of ‘suburban boredom and emptiness’ and was ready to begin the process of climbing the corporate ladder to who-knows-where? I was beginning to reach the conclusion that the idea that the ‘the one with the most toys at the end wins’ just wasn’t going to cut it for me. Did I want to spend my life marketing washing powder?
How was I to make sense of reality? I soon discovered that there were many thinkers with plenty to say on the subject. Take Rudolf Clausius who clarified that “the second law of thermodynamics demonstrated that nothing is created or destroyed, and that the universe would ultimately end in a heat death”. Or Steven Weinberg, who soberly noted that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”.
With all these cheerful thoughts swimming around in my brain, I found myself slumping on a park bench and just stopping. I had concluded that life was meaningless. Nothing inspired me, there was no place for me to stand.
I sat for several hours until an odd feeling crept up on me like an inarticulate whisper. It seemed to hint that it was worth hanging on. How then, amid an existential crisis, might I have answered those four questions?
1/ I am an isolated, individual human being forced to create his own meaning.
2/ I live in a material world that came into being by chance, will burn out in heat death and is utterly indifferent to my existence.
3/ Life is meaningless and absurd, and you are little more than a cipher in a deterministic box.
4/ There is no remedy, God is well and truly dead, all meta-narratives have failed.
The hallowed halls
Upon my return to University I met Lucy. I discovered she was a keen Christian. As a staunch atheist this intrigued me, and Lucy took me to church. In November of 1986 we wandered into St Matthews and there was an energy I warmed to immediately. Before long I was reading ‘The Transforming Vision’ by Walsh and Middleton and listening to the music of Bruce Cockburn.
I was ready to reject the prevailing meta-narrative of individualism whilst also discovering the baleful influence of Platonism on Christianity.
In simple terms this was the idea that Christians had to be good so they could book a place in heaven, assume a position on a cloud, sprout wings and sing. I was mightily surprised to discover this had no biblical support. The Bible was instead the story of a loving, creator God, a beautiful creation, rebellious humanity and a desire to reunite heaven and earth through the work of Jesus, to restore us to a place of careful stewardship of a world ripe with potential.
I had found my home and a vision for life I could embrace. I learnt that as humans we were all made in the image of God, As St Paul said: “We are neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” I discovered that we are called upon to open up the possibilities of the world in ways that benefit humanity and sustain creation. It seemed so obvious; so how could I begin to live out this new/old story?
Fortunately, the community of St Matthews provided a haven, and I found myself surrounded by a gang of ordinary radicals keen to create a stir. I took up a post as PA to our lovable but disorganised reverend. Living in a shared house with other church members I immersed myself in reading and selling fair-trade goods. Meaning and community had come together.
Energised, we saw ourselves as a light on a hill and set about hosting conferences, staging cabarets, and raising funds for charity. We tried to combine intellectual depth with charismatic passion.
We saw the world that God had made as good, and we longed for that reunion of the seen and the unseen celebrated in Romans 8:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
Delving into worldviews
In 1991, an opportunity arose to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and I found myself flying off to Toronto and the ICS to study Worldview under Brian Walsh. I also became romantically involved with a Canadian girl, Janet.
How would I answer the four questions at this point:
1/ I am a human being made in God’s image and commissioned with the task of developing this world in positive and joyful ways.
2/ I am in the creation of God. A beautiful world made for the joyful communion of all creatures both seen and unseen.
3/ Humanity has rejected God and set about pursuing aims beneficial to some but detrimental to many people and the world we occupy.
4/ We are called to build signposts to the Kingdom of God in anticipation of the return of Jesus and the reuniting of Earth with heaven and the restoration of all things.
When I returned to Bath, Janet and I were in a quandary. Neither wanted to live in the other’s country. Meanwhile, as is often the case for communities that come together with revolutionary zeal, things were beginning to fray around the edges.
It was at this point that my life took a dramatic turn. Sadly, I found myself starting an affair with a fellow community member. This could only end badly and I found myself exiled to Bristol. My long, dark night of the soul was testing but eventually came to resolution when I found work in Waterstones and a welcome back into St Matthews, which was morphing into an alternative community known as Sanctuary.
I flourished at Waterstones and discovered I was a natural retailer. This would lead to a 22- year career in bookselling.
The next big turning point came when I bumped into an old friend from St Matthews, Louisa. Before long we were an item and we married and settled in Bristol. We now have two lovely daughters. I also rediscovered my love of football with the Bristol Churches League and began singing in a punk band!.
I feel happy that I have settled the meaning question but accept that forming and sustaining community is a tough challenge in a world that militates against it. I now find myself falling back on the support structures of immediate family and am now a full-time carer for my eldest daughter.
I often feel, as G K Chesterton once observed, that “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found hard and left untried”.
Jim Tickner lives in North Bristol with his wife and two daughters and is a full-time carer to his eldest daughter. He has enjoyed a long career at Waterstones, graduated from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and had a lot of fun co-authoring the unconventional RE textbook ‘The Good, The Bad and the Misled’ with Mark Roques. He is a keen cyclist and occasionally sings in a punk rock covers band.