Off to College … Into? (RJS)

Off to College … Into? (RJS) September 12, 2013

We are now into the second week of school around here. A new set of freshman (or “first years”) have arrived,  ready to begin a new phase of life. Away from home and exposed to new ideas.

It is rather popular among Christian bloggers and others to reflect on how students, away from the constraints and support of home and home church can hang onto faith. The University, after all, is a melting pot of ideas. Christian faith holds no special sway, and is considered fair game for criticism of all sorts. There is, as Jordan Monge reminded us on my post last week (Religious People Are Less Intelligent), a cultural narrative: “In the U.S., we assume that intelligent people grow up, then reject faith. Faithful teenagers go off to secular colleges, stop attending church, and become skeptics.” (I linked her CT piece in the post last week, she also has a blog post discussing the issues, Religion, Intelligence, and Socialization.) I don’t think this cultural narrative explains the weak correlation between religiosity and intelligence as measured by IQ, as I discussed in the post and comments last week, but I certainly agree that the narrative exists and that it is a powerful social influence.

I don’t want to be overly melodramatic here, because I think that the magnitude of the danger has been overblown by many. Christian Smith (Dept. of Sociology, Notre Dame) and colleagues have pointed out that college isn’t the pit of apostasy it is sometimes made out to be, that most who lose faith were but weakly connected to begin with, and that young people who don’t head off to college are more likely to walk away from the church than those who do head off to college. But I don’t want to minimize the challenges either. A realistic concern is certainly justified. Most of my colleagues (University Professors) had some kind of faith upbringing and most have no religious faith today. I don’t think most of them simply succumbed to a cultural narrative and abandoned faith. Toss it together … very real intellectual challenges, social pressure, a sense of power and optimism … all of these play a role.

An important question, then, is what advice to give those going off to a College or University?

What role can the church can play to help. What have you found helpful? What books or other resources would you recommend?

The intellectual challenges to Christian faith are not simply a cultural narrative. For many, coming from conservative (and even more liberal) environments, the questions are overwhelming … contortions to protect inerrancy, young earth creation, often a sound bite salvation rather than an appreciation of the depth of Christian history and thought, hell, original sin, pain and suffering … these can strain credulity.

Several years ago I reviewed a book entitled Doubting by Alister McGrath.  This is a book I recommend. It isn’t a book to hand to someone as a magic bullet to answer all questions and solve all problems. Nor is it a book that explains how to avoid doubt and questions. Rather, it is a book that describes how one can profitably face doubts and questions. The following is an edited and expanded version of my original post on the book.

The first nine chapters of the book present a rather conversational and light discussion of doubt and doubting as a normal part of the Christian experience. But then we hit chapters ten and eleven. Chapter 10 — DOUBT how to handle it, and Chapter 11 — DOUBT putting it in perspective. These chapters are worth the price of the book and should be required reading for every pastor or other Christian leader whose work includes ministering to those who experience doubt and conflict in our educated secular environment, especially those ministering to undergraduate and graduate students. McGrath’s advice in Chapter 10 is right on target -€- he gets it.

First the common situation, especially for students and scholars in the academy and those now out of school in educated professions or environments:

It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their faith marks them out as “€œabnormal”€ in the eyes of their colleagues. It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God. Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of every area of modern Western culture. Many Christians find the new aggressiveness of secular culture deeply disturbing. It seems to call their faith into question. At best the world seems indifferent to their faith; at worst, it treats it as absurd. (p. 118)

This is the cultural narrative and environment Jordan Monge highlighted, McGrath understands, and I have certainly experienced. In this environment doubt flourishes, grows, and brings down.

This leads to a question for Christians and churches today – How can we cope, grow, and witness in such current reality? What can the church do to help? What does your church do to help? I will be brutally honest — I have generally found the church to be inadequate to the task. There are exceptions. The Veritas Forum, for which Jordan Monge is the northeast regional director, is on the right track. But the power of this forum is less in the special event and more in the conversation and relationships it can ignite. Think about it as you read on and let’s start a conversation.

The Key Points – and Some Advice. McGrath has several powerful suggestions for Christians – especially, but not only, students. These are culled from various places in the book, with a little of editorializing thrown in for good measure.

(1) Know your faith: Most of the people who ridicule the faith know little or nothing about it. Unfortunately, neither do most Christians. Many Christians have a superficial faith in the gospel; shallow roots, with external rather than internal strength. To one with an unsophisticated faith the ridicule of the world appears reasonable and deadly. The most powerful defense then is education. Read the scripture daily; read solid scholarly Christian literature (this blog is a good source of suggestions); read books that stimulate you to think about the content of the faith. A more reasoned faith with deep roots can be defended and shared. A ‘€œSunday School’ sophistication is not enough–neither is a catechistic memorized list of propositions and answers. Do not simply affirm belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus €- discover what these doctrines mean, how they developed, and why they are affirmed.

(2) Keep it in perspective: Nothing in the Christian story suggests that the Christian life is easy. There is no guarantee of health, respect, and prosperity. The early church was persecuted; the church around the world is persecuted today; the God who raised Jesus was on the side of the early church and is on our side today. We move forward in this power and hope. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow.

(3) Appreciate the importance of support: in isolation we waver and fall all too often. Go to church, worship and study in community. Search out community and be persistent. Don’t just interact with your peers. It is not always easy to find support or wisdom in our evangelical church, especially beyond the undergraduate years. Be a church that makes community a priority for all ages. The gathering of the people of God is essential. We need a strong ecclesiology.

(4) Develop spiritual discipline and make it a priority. Read books that stimulate thought about prayer, worship, devotion (Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, …). Pray and worship without fail, from the head and the heart — and from the head even when it is hard to make it from the heart.

(5) Face questions and concerns head on, with study and, if possible, in the support of community. Running from questions doesn’t make them go away.

(6) Don’t be afraid of change — your faith should change and grow as it matures in understanding and depth in the great traditions of orthodox Christianity. We must believe in age! Yes, the essence of Christian faith can be understood by a young child … but for most of us it shouldn’t stop there. Here I will once again provide a link to an essay by Keith Drury that should help give perspective My Faith Meltdown Story. What is written in blood won’t change – but the bits in pencil and even ink we need to hold a bit more loosely, with a willingness to grow.

Doubt is not a sin, shameful and disloyal — to be beaten down with a stick or a whip — but a sign of a faith that needs to grow.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

Browse Our Archives