“Would you come talk with us about how we can sustain spiritual depth through our years of study here, and on into the rest of life?”
So came the question from a student at Yale University last fall. He was part of a group of serious, committed Christian students who met together week-by-week to think and pray as they made their way through one of American’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education.
And a few months later I joined these 25 students for a weekend on Cape Cod. Simply said, the setting was beautiful: an ocean view looking out towards Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in a home wonderfully able to handle a group of students for a weekend of serious conversation — and lots of laughter and eating.
They wanted to spend a weekend together talking about the issue that faces every serious disciple of Christ who enters the college years — whether that be in an institution that is large and urban, land-grant and rural or small and liberal arts. Though the sociological pressures are different in those distinct settings, the challenge is the same: how do I make my way through these years developing a coherent faith, having deepened and not discarded my most basic beliefs about what is true in life and the world, and my convictions about God, human beings and history?
Among many conversations I had that weekend, one stands out as especially relevant here. A thoughtful Asian-American student came up to me on Saturday night, wanting to talk further about the Smashing Pumpkins. We had been talking through the evening about my observation that those who continue on in deepening faith are people who have the spiritual skills and theological tools to engage the brokenness of the world — artistically, politically, economically, sociologically and on and on — in the name of Christ.
Earlier I had told a story about going to one of the Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” concerts with my teenage sons, and wondering about some of what I had seen and heard. From the 15,000 person “YES!!” to the lyrics in the song “Zero” — “God is empty just like me…. I’m in love with my sadness” — to another song with the lyrics “… I’m still just a rat in a cage,” we pondered what words like that mean in a culture like ours.
On the one hand, what is being said that we ought to listen to, really trying to understand the dreams and disappointments of the artists and of the culture they represent? On the other, what is foolishness and ought to be called what it is? As we sat in a quiet place he told me that even with all that he believed about life and the world as a Christian, there were times when he found himself singing out, with all his heart, “… I’m still just a rat in a cage.” And he wondered what to make of it, viz. what was it about those words that rang true to his experience of life and learning?
As I listened, I thought about the irony. Before me sat one of the most academically gifted students in America, on a career track that promised one success after another. Beyond that he was someone who consciously had committed himself to Christ and the worldview accompanying that commitment. And yet … he had been deeply impacted by the ideas and images of his culture, and he was deeply torn over whether what he believed could meaningfully make sense of how he lived. Like so many I have met in universities and colleges all over America, he found himself wondering whether the Christian faith can truly speak to all areas and arenas of human life, from personal hopes to public dreams. In words I have heard so often: when push comes to shove, is it really true? Can the Christian worldview truly address the sadness I have experienced and the brokenness I meet as I try to live out what I believe in the world? Or is the fallenness I see and hear all around, in myself and in everyone I encounter, in the end just too much, too complex, too hard? And so, I feel helpless … like a rat in cage.
If we could account for this story by blaming it on the secularizing influences of Yale, or on the theological and psychological deficiencies of one student, then we could all breathe easier. We might imagine ourselves off-the-proverbial-hook. But that is not possible. I have heard this story so many times in so many settings from so many students — in both secular-spirited universities and Christ-centered colleges — that I have come to believe it is the central challenge facing serious Christian students today.
So then, what do we do about it? Where do we look for answers?
In my experience of walking along with students for many years, an eagerness for God is the most critical factor in whether a student will make the most of his or her college years. Nothing else matters so much. That kind of eagerness is principally manifest in listening to God and learning from His word — for the sake of the world; as John Stott has put it so well, in learning to live in the world under the word. It all begins here.
We can listen and learn from others too. They are with us and for us. In the language of Hebrews 12, we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses,” who on some level and in some way cheer us on as we “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We take up in our time and place what generations of other lovers of God have taken up in their own, as we take part in God’s renewing, redeeming work in history.
One of those saints I have listened to most carefully is Augustine. Few persons have so shaped the history of our civilization, at its historic best, as did Augustine. We know him best through his Confessions and The City of God. As a boy and young man he rebelled against the Christian influence of his home, and through his social and intellectual abilities found himself drawn into the centers of the 5th-century Roman culture. After a remarkable, amazing grace encounter with the gospel, his vocational vision was transformed and he offered himself, heart and mind, to steward his gifts in service to Christ and the world.
Years later, now a leader in the church throughout the Mediterranean, he received a letter from a Roman Christian, Laurentius, who was trying to flesh out the meaning of his faith as he watched his own civilization beginning to crumble. He asked, “What do we believe?” It is a pregnant question. I hear in it the question of the Yale student and the hundreds of others like him that I have listened to over the years. Is this Christian view of life and the world credible? Is it believable, in the face of the fragmentation all around me, and within me? Does what we believe make any difference, really?
Augustine wrote a long letter in reply, and towards the end said to Laurentius something which is at the very heart of Christian doctrine and discipleship, in every century and every culture. “For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves.” He pushes us at a crucial point: true discipleship is not a matter of having the right ideas in my head, but of having a heart that loves God and loves what God loves.
If we could hear him asking Laurentius a question in return, it would be “What do you love?” For it is in that question, and the answer that is given, that we begin to understand how a worldview becomes a way of life; how belief becomes behavior. As I spend my life among students throughout this country and the world, I have found the questions, “What do you love, and what are you learning to love?” critical ones for those who want a growing integrity between what they believe and how they live.
But we can also learn from others nearer to our own time. On the question at hand we can listen to those who have made their way through their university years and who still believe that the gospel of the kingdom is real and true and right — decades after their own experience as students. The last half of the book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, is a report on what I found as I listened to men and woman from all over the U.S. and the world who, 25 years later, were still pursuing a coherent faith. Those who, in the language of the Yale student who invited me to speak, had “sustained spiritual depth on into the rest of life.” I asked them a host of questions centered upon the relationship between their present commitments and their experiences as students two or three decades earlier.
What did I learn? That those who keep on keeping on, growing in love with God and his world, are people marked by three habits of heart:
- they developed a worldview that could make sense of life, facing the challenge of truth and coherence in an increasingly secular and pluralist society;
- they pursued a relationship with a teacher whose life incarnated the worldview that they were learning to embrace; and
- they committed themselves to others who had chosen to live their lives embedded in that same worldview, journeying together in truth, after the vision of a coherent and meaningful life.
There were no exceptions.
The novelist Walker Percy writes of the person who “gets all As and flunks life.” It is a warning lurking around the corner of everyone’s life. The college years are critical years as so much of who you will be, what you will believe, and how you will live for the rest of life, is being shaped. For you who are serious about God and the worldview that grows out of the word of God, listen and learn to the saints who have gone before you. And above all, make sure that your every experience as a student — every class you take, every book you read, every friend you make — serves to deepen your love for what God loves. That is what the college years are really all about.
Copyright 1998 Steven Garber. All rights reserved.