Trader to theology student: why?

There are all sorts of reasons why people leave the investment banking world, but heading off to study theology afterwards isn't the typical path. That is what I am doing, though: I am leaving my job as a bond trader in order to study theology, and I want to spend the rest of my life doing explicitly Christian work.

To some people I guess this will sound like a mad idea, either because they think that the job I'm leaving is great (which it is), or because they think that the church is a horrible organisation with irrational and outdated belief.

But I believe that communicating the Christian message is the most important thing I can do with my life, and the church I know is made up of amazing people who I love to live and work with.

Read on for my explanation of why I am moving from bond trading to theological study - I want to knock some misconceptions on the head, and try to get across what I find so attractive about the Christian message that I want to devote my life to it in this way.

Banking and trading are ethical

People could easily imagine that I've had a big change of heart, and "seen the light" about the banking industry. Certainly there is a great deal of popular rhetoric these days about the evils of the banking industry, and the dubious value of trading to society.

However, while I think Christians sometimes have useful ideas on how society could be improved, including perhaps the financial industry, I don't have any ethical problem with banking as an industry. I would not have taken a job as a trader if I thought that it was an unethical activity.

Like most professions, there are people involved in investment banking who behave unethically. But not everyone (or even, in my experience, the majority) of people behave that way, and those people who do behave wrongly within the banking industry do so because of a personal choice, not because all bankers are somehow evil.

I don't think that my job was unethical - but I do think that what I am going to do is a far better use of my time and energy. I am going from a job that was legitimate to one that I am passionate about.

I don't think that I'm better than other people

Sometimes people think that I'm moving from trading into Christian work because I think that I am somehow morally superior to other people in "secular" jobs. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am far from perfect, and the better they know me the more they will realise that (just ask my wife!).

And while I can look back on some ways where I have lived consistently with my faith, I can equally look back on many ways in which I have failed to live up to God's standards. There's no way I could honestly claim to be better than other people, and I won't pretend that I am.

I want to devote myself to Christian work despite the way I often fail God, because the Christian message is one of forgiveness for moral failures like me, not a club for those who think they are morally praiseworthy.

I don't think that doing this will make God like me more

I'm not leaving my job, with the sacrifices that doing so entails, because I think that I will impress God. In fact, quite the opposite - I know that nothing I do can possibly impress God, or make him love me more than he already does. Anything I do for God is simply a response to what he has done for me.

I believe that the Christian message is true

Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists have recently been active in promoting the idea that rational people don't have faith - and particularly that they don't have Christian faith. There is no doubt that the Christian message makes claims about what is true and false, and about what happened in history. To many people those claims seem incompatible with rational thought. The suggestion is sometimes made that Christianity (or faith generally) might have a limited use in society as a psychological crutch for those who need it, I guess as some sort of philosophical Prozac, but that it certainly doesn't make sense.

Now, as a Christian I have had to face the questions thrown up both by my own thoughts and experience, and by those who believe Christianity is at best a harmless falsehood and at worst a dangerous menace to society. Having faced those questions, I still believe that the Christian message is not merely helpful, but also true.

I hold to that belief as a rational person. While by no means eminent like Richard Dawkins, I am qualified as a scientist, and I have not traded scientific thought for blind belief. There is strong evidence for the beliefs I hold, which I won't try to simplistically summarise here. Of course, I realise that the evidence won't be compelling to everyone who considers it, but the point is that my faith is compatible with rational thought, not standing in opposition to it.

If I was the only educated Christian then my case would be somewhat weak, but many eminent scientists share the faith I hold to. For example, Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project is very open about his Christian beliefs, and has in fact written a book on them (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief). Closer to Oxford, where I am studying, John Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of the University, and he is again openly Christian (he's the author of God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?).

While I could go on naming such people, the existence of scientists and mathematicians who are also Christians clearly does not prove that the Christian faith is true. It does show, however, that having reached the highest levels of rational achievement in our society is compatible with belief in Christianity. Nobody can doubt that these people are rational, and they believe that Christianity is true.

I sadly haven't reached the same heights of intellectual achievement as them, but I am happy to believe the same faith as they do, while also sharing with them a genuine desire to think rationally.

I believe that Christian faith changes people

As well as being rational, the Christian faith has an effect on people - both spiritually, and also outwardly. If you are not a Christian, you will perhaps find the idea of a spiritual change rather unlikely, but I hope that you can see that Christian faith has an impact on the way people behave, and in particular on the way Christians care for people in need.

Roy Hattersley says this about the Salvation Army in a BBC interview (from about 3 minutes in):

...I think it remains a vibrant organization because of its convictions. I'm an atheist. But I can only look with amazement at the devotion of the Salvation Army workers. I've been out with them on the streets and the way they work amongst the people, the most deprived and disadvantaged and sometimes pretty repugnant characters - but they look after them as best they can. I don't believe they would do that were it not for the religious impulse. And I often say I never hear of atheist organizations taking food to the poor. You don't hear of "Atheist Aid" rather like Christian aid, and, I think, despite my inability to believe myself, I'm deeply impressed by what belief does for people like the Salvation Army.

I think that it is important, if you are an atheist, to recognise the link between Christian belief and the effect it has on our lives. You might think that the good work that the church does for those in need is something that happens alongside our belief, as a coincidence not a consequence, but that's just not true. Where Christians do good, we do it because we are following what Jesus taught, and because of the change in our attitudes and behaviour that God gives to people who have faith in him.

Matthew Parris is a former MP, and current newspaper columnist who writes in the Times. He is also very openly atheist, but I was struck by an article he wrote earlier this year, in which he said this about missionary activity in Africa:

...travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I can only applaud his intellectual honesty, for seeing the link between the beliefs of the Christians working in Africa and the good they do. Like him, you might well find that link a frustrating one that doesn't fit the rest of your world view.

I believe that underlying every social problem we observe, and behind every personal moral failure in our own lives, is a rejection of God. As a Christian, I believe that we can only be reconciled again with God by faith in Jesus, and that faith in Jesus leads to a changed life.

Because Christian faith solves our underlying problem, then telling people about Jesus is the most important thing I can do. I can see that people are changed, not simply by having good things done to them, but when they believe the Christian message. In the work I have been part of with homeless drug addicts, I have seen repeatedly that their problems with addiction are symptoms of their deeper spiritual problem of rejecting God. So the most effective thing I can do to help them, or to help anyone else in need for that matter, is to tell them about Jesus - while of course doing everything I can to care for them practically too.

The best use of my life is in sharing the Christian message

In another article, Matthew Parris wrote this (remember that he is himself an atheist):

The New Testament offers a picture of a God who does not sound at all vague to me. He has sent his son to Earth. He has distinct plans both for his son and for mankind. He knows each of us personally and can communicate directly with us. We are capable of forming a direct relationship, individually with him, and are commanded to try. We are told this can be done only through his son. And we are offered the prospect of eternal life - an afterlife of happy, blissful or glorious circumstances...

Friends, if I believe that, or even a tenth of that... I would drop my job, sell my house, throw away my possessions, leave my acquaintances and set out into the world burning with the desire to know more and, when I had found out more, to act upon it and tell others.

He's picked up on the essence of what I'm doing: I have given up my job so that I can learn more about the God described in the Bible, and having learnt more to go and tell people about him. It's the best work I can imagine doing.