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A Meandering Journey from Atheism to Catholicism

Gregory Graham
June 23, 2020 No Comments

Childhood

I was born in 1962 in Abilene, Texas. My father was a Nike missile radar operator in the Army, raised in the Baptist tradition, and my mother was raised Methodist. My dad got out of the Army, and we moved to Dallas when I was a year old. My dad entered the new field of computer programming and stayed with it until he retired. My mother worked for the phone company for a few years, until my little brother came along.

We did not go to church much until I was ten years old, when neighbors invited us to their Pres- byterian church, where my parents remain members until this day. My earliest memory related to faith was a conversation I had with my Methodist maternal grandmother when I was five or six. She told me about how Jesus was the Son of God and that He died on the cross for our sins. If I believed in Him, I would be saved from hell and would go to heaven when I died. I certainly wanted to go to heaven, so I wanted to believe in Jesus. But I wondered if my belief was good enough and real enough. I had been given a book of Bible stories, which I tried to read sometimes, thinking it was a good thing to do. I found some of the stories difficult to believe, and I had trouble staying interested.

My real interest in childhood was science and technology, especially airplanes, rockets, and robots. I had a poster showing all of the planets on my bedroom wall, and I remember watching the Apollo missions on TV with great interest and excitement. My favorite cartoon as a little boy was Jonny Quest, which was about the adventures of the son of a scientist. I wanted to be an astronaut or scientist when I grew up.

Atheist Teenager

When I was twelve, I entered the communicant’s class at my church. I faithfully attended and tried to learn what was taught. Since I hadn’t been baptized yet, I was baptized at that time and became a full, communicant member of the church. However, my commitment to science seemed to be at odds with my minimal Christian faith, and any enthusiasm I had at my baptism soon faded. I continued to be involved at church, as was expected of me, and I tried to learn what was taught in Sunday school, to please my teachers, but my heart was not in it.

Instead of religion, I subscribed to a kind of technological optimism, as was preached by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of my favorite TV show, Star Trek. Roddenberry envisioned a future where science and technology had solved the major problems of human existence. On the earth of Star Trek, there was no more war, poverty, disease, or hunger. The conflict of the show came from interaction with strange or hostile beings in other parts of the galaxy.

Although my interest in science and science fiction had led me to a vague atheism, there were two things I encountered that opened the door for later faith in God. The first was an essay by my favorite author, Isaac Asimov. Although I first came to Asimov through his science fiction stories, he was very prolific and wrote on a wide range of topics. One essay, called “The Judo Argument,” looked at attempts to prove the existence of God by appealing to science. Asimov examined these arguments and showed that they didn’t work, but he surprised me at the end of the article. Although he believed that science could not prove the existence of God, he said that science could not disprove it, either. From the scientific point of view, the existence of God was an open question. This surprising conclusion was something I never forgot. The second influence was the movie Star Wars. It had the look of science fiction, but it also had a mystical aspect with the presence of the Force. It appeared to challenge the idea that science, technology, and space travel were incompatible with religion and the supernatural.

I remember, in high school, considering the possibility that there were some things in the world that were beyond the reach of the scientific method, and that religion might know something that science did not. Therefore, I thought that I should someday do research on all of the major religions of the world, to see if they might have something worth knowing.

Conversion

In my junior year of high school, some Christian classmates of mine — Mike, Chad, and Doug — would talk to me about their faith. I respected them because they were smart, especially in science and computers. In the minutes before physics class one day, Chad showed me how there were Old Testament prophecies that predicted Jesus Christ, yet they were written centuries before He lived. I had an epiphany right then that the Bible had to be a supernatural book. It was written by multiple authors over the course of many centuries, but it had a coherent message that could only be possible because of divine inspiration.

From then on, I wanted to learn everything I could about the Bible. I started reading the Bible, watching Christian TV programs, reading Christian books, and listening to Christian music. I reasoned that if the Bible was from God, there was nothing more important I could know about. All of this soon led me to faith in Jesus as my Savior and Lord, and was the beginning of my journey as a Christian believer.

My favorite Christian TV program was Zola Levitt Live. Mr. Levitt was a Jewish convert to Christianity, and I liked his program because he talked about the Jewish roots of the Christian Faith, and how Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which was the very thing that began my conversion. This was the subject of a book he co-wrote called The Bible Jesus Read is Exciting. I read this book and have loved the Old Testament ever since then.

College and Controversy

I went to college at Texas A&M University, to study engineering. Although in high school I continued going to the Presbyterian church with my family, in college I started going to a Bible church, because that was the kind of church my high school friends attended. I got involved in the college group at that church, and I joined a Bible study in my dorm.

Towards the end of my freshman year, two of my friends from the Bible church got into an argument over the teaching of the college minister, whom I will call Bob. He taught that once you received Christ as your Savior, you were going to heaven no matter what you did after that or how sinful your life was. Going to church and avoiding sin were good things to do, but they had no effect on whether or not you went to heaven. One friend sided with Bob, but another friend said that you must receive Jesus as Savior and Lord in order to go to heaven, and if Jesus was your Lord, you would live your life differently. I was surprised to see that two people who believed the Bible could disagree on such a fundamental issue.

The next year I decided to take Bob’s discipleship class, especially when I found out he would be going through the Book of James. I knew the verse about faith without works being dead (see Jas 2:17), so I wanted to see how Bob handled that passage. However, I didn’t make it halfway through chapter one. We came to the verse that says, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:12). Bob said that the “crown of life” was a special reward given to those Christians who endure trial, but not everyone who goes to heaven successfully endures trial, so they won’t get that crown.

It seemed to me that the “crown of life” referred to eternal life. I pointed out to Bob that this crown is promised to all who love God. He replied that not all Christians love God, which seemed very wrong to me, and I worried that this kind of teaching could lead to people thinking they were going to heaven when they really weren’t. I decided to leave the Bible church college ministry and got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was an inter-denominational ministry, and our group had Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and even one Catholic. I felt that they all loved Jesus, and so I began to accept the idea that I could find followers of Christ in all of these different churches. I spoke with an InterVarsity staff worker about this controversy over Bob’s teaching, and he recommended a local church that was in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denomination than the church I grew up in. I started attending there, and I was impressed with their solid moral teaching, a strong sense of pastoral authority, and rootedness in history.

In the spring semester of my sophomore year, Toni, the older sister of a high school friend of mine, transferred to Texas A&M. Since she was new on campus, my roommate and I wanted to make sure she felt welcome, so we would eat with her at the dining hall. She did not have a car, so when I went back home to Dallas, I would offer her a ride. I knew her family did not go to church, so I wanted to share the Gospel with her, even though I had been unsuccessful witnessing to her sister.

There was an occasion when it was just Toni and me driving from Dallas to A&M. I was trying to work up the courage to say something to Toni, and after an hour or two, I finally said something like, “Are you interested in spiritual things?” She replied that she was and had wanted to talk to me about it, but was waiting for me to bring it up. We got so engrossed in conversation about the Gospel that I missed my exit and didn’t notice it for another 30 miles. Toni later came to believe, and she started going to church and InterVarsity meetings with me. While she was in Dallas during breaks and after graduation, I recommended she go to the same Bible church that my high school friends had gone to, and there I had the honor of seeing her baptized.

Calvinist After College

I graduated from A&M in 1985 and started working in Fort Worth, Texas. I found a new PCA mission church and attended their fourth worship service. The pastor took me under his wing and taught me Calvinist theology. We had an adult Sunday school teacher who was very knowledgeable about Church his- tory, so I picked up a lot from him, as well. As that church transitioned from mission status to being a self-sustaining church, I became one of the initial deacons, receiving training in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

Toni and I got married at the Bible church she belonged to, but I had come to believe in the superiority of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition over the Dispensationalism professed at the Bible church. When I soon got a new job in the Dallas area, Toni and I joined a nearby PCA church. However, we found that we were having trouble fitting in, and after trying to make it work for two years, we had the occasion to visit the Bible church where we got married. The reception we received there was so warm, and they had such concern for Toni’s welfare, that we decided to join that church, which meant that I had to reexamine my position on the doctrinal differences between Dispensationalism and Calvinism. I was frustrated that both sides had their own set of Bible passages supporting their beliefs, and I couldn’t find a reliable way to choose one over the other. I decided that the biblical basis for my Calvinist beliefs was not strong enough to prevent me from going back to the Bible church. As a result, I began to doubt the usefulness of theology, thinking it only caused division.

Starting Down the Road

A few events worked together to ignite in me an interest in the ancient Church. The first was a conversation I had with my high school friend, Mike. He had finished college, where he got a degree in Classics, and was now married. He had read the Church Fathers and studied the Arian controversy. He was struck with how the Arian sect believed in sola Scriptura but not in the Trinity, while the Trinitarian side appealed to tradition as well as the Bible. He also told me about a friend of his who had a conversation with Orthodox Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, who declared to him that the difference between the Orthodox and Protestants is that Protestants worship only with their minds, but the Orthodox also worship with their bodies. This critique resonated with me because of my love of the Old Testament. The worship of the Tabernacle and the Temple was rich with symbolic actions and images, but our Protestant worship was not much different from listening to a classroom lecture, except that we sang some songs at the beginning.

At work, I had a manager who was Catholic. In a meeting with me and two Christian coworkers, he mentioned an upcoming debate between a Catholic apologist and a Protestant apologist. I was intrigued by the idea of a Catholic apologist; I didn’t know such a thing existed. Then one of the co- workers said they should also have someone representing Orthodoxy. I asked him about that, and he said he was in the process of converting from the Episcopal Church to the Orthodox Church. My Catholic manager also loaned me tapes of lectures on the Gospel of John by Scott Hahn. I was impressed to hear a Catholic treat the Bible so well.

Meanwhile, Toni had been enjoying some tapes by a British preacher named Malcolm Smith. We decided to go to a nearby retreat that he was giving, and when we arrived, we were surprised to see him wearing a Roman collar. We found out that he was a bishop in the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC). He explained that the CEC was “Catholic, but not Roman.” During the retreat, he told the story about how the Daily Office in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer brought stability to his prayer life. He also celebrated the Eucharist at the retreat, explaining the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. All of this caught my interest, so when I got home, I started investigating the CEC on the Internet.

Orthodoxy

I could not find a nearby CEC parish, but I did find out that CEC theology was similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, and this reminded me about my coworker who was converting. I had often driven by a beautiful Greek Orthodox church in North Dallas, so I called and spoke to a priest there. He invited my wife and me to come and get a tour of the church. He explained some things, and even gave me a book to read. I attended my first Orthodox Divine Liturgy on January 1, 1999, the feast of St. Basil. I was struck by the beauty of the Byzantine liturgy and felt like I was connecting with the worship in heaven.

An important book that I read at this time was Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard. He spoke about the human need for ceremony and ritual around things we consider important, making liturgy essential for the most important thing in a Christian’s life, which is the worship of God.

When I got back to work after the Christmas holidays, I told my coworker about my experience, and he said I should go to the Wednesday night Bible study led by Archbishop Dmitri at the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) cathedral. The study was going through the Book of Romans, which is probably the most important book in the Bible for Calvinist theology. In this study, I saw another way of understanding Romans that was different from Calvinism, but still very biblical.

I spent several months attending Orthodox services and reading multiple books about Orthodox theology and Protestants who had converted to Orthodoxy. I learned about the early Church Fathers, and how the Eucharist was central to their worship. I was getting ready to begin the process of joining the Orthodox Church, but my wife was not ready because the culture of Orthodoxy was very foreign to her. As we talked about it, we decided that since Malcolm Smith had been such an influence on her, we should give the CEC another try before committing to Orthodoxy. We started going to the CEC cathedral for the south-central United States, located in Sherman, Texas, 45 miles away. Even though it was far away, it seemed to be the perfect mix of of the Evangelical tradition we were used to combined with liturgy rooted in early Christianity. It also had a Charismatic element that we were not used to, but I was willing to give it a try.

The Charismatic Episcopal Church

In the CEC, I learned a lot about what we called “the Catholic tradition,” which we said included Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism. In this context, I learned the meaning of many Catholic beliefs and practices that I had been told were unscriptural. In some cases, I learned that I had been taught a distortion of Catholic belief, such as “Catholics worship Mary as a goddess.” In other cases, I learned the scriptural foundations for beliefs such as the Communion of Saints and asking for the intercession of the saints. I was invited to enroll in their seminary program, which met one weekend a month. Clergy and seminarians from around the diocese came to Sherman for that weekend. I got to know these men and take classes with them, where I learned many things that became important for my journey of faith.

We studied the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who wrote at the end of the first century. Not only did he write that the Eucharist is central to Christian worship, but he also wrote that the bishop was the point of unity for the local church. We talked about how sola Scriptura, doctrinal statements and confessions, or congregational votes do not achieve Christian unity. Instead, there must be one man who has the authority to settle disagreements. Jesus gave this authority to His Apostles, and they have passed it on to the bishops through apostolic succession. This made a lot of sense to me, especially given the history of Protestantism, with its split upon split. However, there was a problem in the Anglican world. There were multiple groups of Anglican bishops that disagreed on significant issues, such as the ordination of women and the immorality of homosexual acts. A bishop might provide unity at the local level, but there was nothing in place to provide unity among the bishops. I realized that this principle of unity at the global level only existed in the Roman Catholic Church in the successor of Peter. If the Apostles were the foundation of authority in the Church, then Peter, as leader of the Apostles, appeared to be the foundation of unity among the Apostles and their successors. It was only the Catholic Church that had a credible claim to the successor of St. Peter in the Pope.

In another class, I read The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, by Louis Bouyer. From that book, I learned that the Protestant Reformation was preceded by the rise of a philosophy known as Nominalism, which denied the reality of substances and the philosophical basis of transubstantiation. I began to see that many of the theological disagreements between Catholics and Protestants were because of unexamined philosophical differences.

I felt a call to the Catholic Church for the sake of unity, but I did not tell anyone except my bishop and my seminary mentor. They both tried to talk me out of it with different arguments, but neither of them was convincing to me. The following seminary weekend, I was very conflicted. We had our Chrism Mass that weekend, and the clergy all reaffirmed their relationship with the bishop. As I watched my friends kneel before the bishop, I believed that God had put me with these people, and I needed to remain for at least a while. During the next two years, I put concerns about Catholicism behind me and immersed myself in seminary and ministry.

Into the Catholic Church

Two years later, I was assisting a CEC priest in the establishment of a mission parish and was scheduled to be ordained a deacon in a couple of months, when an incident occurred that led me to the belief that I could not continue working with that mission parish. That whole day I was bewildered, because we had moved in order to be near this parish, and I didn’t know what we were going to do. That night, as I lay awake, it came to me that now was the time for us to go to the Catholic Church. I was filled with peace. The next morning I talked to Toni about it, and she was ready to follow me if I believed that was where God was leading us.

We did not know any Catholics in the area. My high school friend, Mike, had become Catholic a couple of years earlier, but he and his wife lived in South Carolina, so they could only provide prayer and encouragement from a distance. I went to the nearest parish, and they said that I was two months too late for RCIA that year, but I could start the process the next year. I told my former seminary mentor about that, and he told me about St. Mary the Virgin parish in Arlington, Texas, which had previously been an Episcopalian parish, but had come into the Catholic Church under the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II. The pastor there agreed to give us private instruction, and we came into full communion at the Easter Vigil, 2006.

We lived an hour away from St. Mary’s, so after a while we transferred to a closer parish. I struggled with the fact that I had been planning to become a priest, but that was no longer possible. I decided to get a Master’s degree in Theology at the University of Dallas. Soon after I started my first class, I found employment as Director of Technology at Cistercian Preparatory School, across the street from the University. I have settled into that job at Cistercian, where I also teach computer science and theology. I especially enjoy working with the Cistercian monks who work at the school. I came to terms with the fact that I will not be a priest, but God still has a unique purpose for me.

Recently, we have returned to St. Mary the Virgin parish, which is now a part of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, established by Pope Benedict as a home for former Anglicans who have come into the Catholic Church. We were attracted back there because of their traditional and reverent liturgy, and it appears to fit us well. As I look back on my journey, I see God guiding us along what seems to be a meandering path, from a human point of view, but I see each phase of the journey contributing to who I am today. I thank God for His wise plan, and I trust that He will continue to lead us until we reach our heavenly home.


Gregory Graham

Gregory Graham and his wife, Toni, have been married for 29 years. They live in Irving, Texas. Greg is the Director of Technology at Cistercian Preparatory School, where he also teaches computer science and theology. Greg and Toni are members of Saint Mary the Virgin in Arlington, Texas, a parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, a home for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. Greg enjoys reading philosophy, theology, and science fiction, as well as playing complicated card games.

Greg was a guest on The Journey Home in 2018.