Sarah Irving-Stonebraker

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Sarah Irving-Stonebraker (PhD in History from Cambridge University) is a Senior Lecturer (with tenure) in Modern European History at Western Sydney University in Australia. She was brought up in a secular household and attended university to study history. For a large segment of her studies as well as prior to her conversion to Christianity, Stonebraker possessed much skepticism over religious claims and alleged truths[1].

Stonebraker’s Background and Skepticism of Religion

Stonebraker, who already had dreams to become a historian at just the young age of eight, went on to study history and author an award-winning book on the history of Britain’s colonial empire called Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire (2008). Her book was well received and she was awarded The Royal Society of Literature and Jerwood Foundation Award for Non-fiction.

Stonebraker’s skepticism of the purported truths of religion can be traced back to her “loving, secular home." When she arrived at Sydney University she was a critic of religion. Religious faith and belief in God were unimportant to her at the time, and she rejected the idea that one needed faith or belief in God to be able to sustain value and meaning in life [2]

Her skeptical views were met with little challenge at King’s College (Cambridge). Stonebraker's negative perception of Christianity fitted well with the views of her fellow students: "Christians were anti-intellectual and self-righteous.” [3]

Stonebraker’s Doubts Over Atheism

Stonebraker soon learned of the Australian ethical philosopher and public atheist Peter Singer. Singer has been quite controversial given that he forwarded the notion that some forms of animal life have more worth than some human life. Stonebraker attended “three guest lectures” by Singer, and it was while attending his lectures that she begun entertaining doubts about atheism when it came to the questions of human value and worth,

“The natural world yields no egalitarian picture of human capacities. What about the child whose disabilities or illness compromises her abilities to reason? Yet, without reference to some set of capacities as the basis of human worth, the intrinsic value of all human beings becomes an ungrounded assertion; a premise which needs to be agreed upon before any conversation can take place.”

She recalls leaving Singer’s lectures with great uneasiness because she felt committed,

“to believing that universal human value was more than just a well-meaning conceit of liberalism. But I knew from my own research in the history of European empires and their encounters with indigenous cultures, that societies have always had different conceptions of human worth, or lack thereof. The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth: it is profoundly historically contingent. I began to realise that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.”

Stonebraker soon after stumbled into the theology section at her library with an “awkward but humble reluctance." She ventured forth and discovered a book of sermons by philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, “As I read,” she says, “I was struck at how intellectually compelling, complex, and profound the gospel was.” Stonebraker was atrracted to Tillich’s teachings but says that she still wasn’t convinced of the purported truths of the Christian religion.

Stonebraker’s Conversion to Christianity

Several months after the Singer lectures Stonebraker was invited to a dinner for the International Society for the Study of Science and Religion. She sat next to a Christian and scientist by the name of Andrew Briggs. Briggs, a professor of nanomaterials in the Department of Materials at the University of Oxford, asked Stonebraker if she believed in God. Stonebraker recalls fumbling in response to the question, which led Briggs to urge her to pursue the question herself rather than sit on the fence. Stonebraker says that Briggs “made me realise that if issues about human value and ethics mattered to me, the response that perhaps there was a God, or perhaps there wasn’t, was unsatisfactory.” At the same time she saw how many Christians were performing good deeds through self-sacrificial giving to their fellow people,

“With the freedom of being an outsider to American culture, I was able to see an active Christianity in people who lived their lives guided by the gospel: feeding the homeless every week, running community centres, and housing and advocating for migrant farm laborers.”

Just before her 28th birthday Stonebraker visited a church for the first time. She says that she visited it as an individual earnestly seeking to know God. Her experience of the church left an impression on her, “Before long I found myself overwhelmed. At last I was fully known and seen and, I realised, unconditionally loved – perhaps I had a sense of relief from no longer running from God.”

One of Stonebraker’s friends gave her a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. She read through it finding many of Lewis’ ideas and arguments impressive. This, coupled with her doubts over atheism and her several months of attending church, led her to accept Christ, “I knelt in my closet in my apartment and asked Jesus to save me, and to become the Lord of my life.”

Journey into Theology

After her conversion Stonebraker begun looking more into theology. She read the Bible and explored the views of influential theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, and F.D. Maurice. Christianity, she explains, “looked nothing like the caricature I once held.” It was not only compelling on both the intellectual and spiritual levels but also unique in the context of world religion. It was radical in how God, the all-powerful creator of the universe, became “fully human in Jesus, God behaved decidedly unlike a god.” God became a man in Christ in order to suffer “punishment in our place because of a radical love. This sacrificial love is utterly opposed to the individualism, consumerism, exploitation, and objectification, of our culture. To live as a Christian is a call to be part of this new, radical, creation. I am not passively awaiting a place in the clouds.” Stonebraker found that to live as a Christian is to be part of a new, radical creation saying that with God’s grace, she’s been elected to serve, in whatever way God sees fit, to build for His Kingdom, “We have a sure hope that God is transforming this broken, unjust world, into Christ’s Kingdom, the New Creation.”


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