“So I swung my tassel to the left side of my cap, knowing after graduation, there would be no going back. And no congratulations from my faithful family, some of whom are already fasting to intercede for me, because it’s hard to be, hard to be, hard to be a decent human being.” – David Bazan, Hard to Be
The year was 2008. I was just starting my graduate school career at Baylor University, the largest private Baptist institution in the United States, and one of the top colleges for intersectionality between religion and literature disciplines (indeed, I didn’t know it yet, but my thesis director would be a former Episcopal priest).
During my senior year of college, thanks in part to some provocative discussion with colleagues at Oxford during spring of my junior year, but also in part because of my theology degree, I’d begun a political change – I was steadily moving further to the left and was throwing support behind President Obama.
It is in this context that I got into a harried discussion about torture with a family member, only to have the discussion end when said family member threw the insult into my face: “Higher education has addled your brain.” Because I didn’t take it at face value that torture is a part of war.
As a person with two higher education degrees, I’ve had my share of “elitist” insults thrown my way. And, because these degrees have emphases in theology and philosophy, the picture of being “elitist” has most frequently come from those within the church.
Remember in 2008 that Sarah Palin sounded the charge against the “elites” of higher education?
Now, in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has resurrected that clarion call with his comments this past week about how colleges kill faith, citing the fact that young adults (18-30) are leaving the church in droves.
Sojourners writer Tim King wrote a decent response to the issue, stating in plain terms:
Rather, the exodus is about hypocrisy.
Last year, we saw Christian leaders raising the alarm about the encroachment of “radical Islamists.” They call for the restriction of Muslims religious liberties to practice their faith and build houses of worship. But this year, when it comes to contraception, the rallying cry is religious freedom.
Last week, Franklin Graham was asked whether or not he believed President Obama was a Christian. He gave a fair answer when he said it wasn’t his place to judge.
But when asked the same question about the faith of Santorum and Newt Gingrich, Graham’s standards changed. He answered that yes, he did think those men were Christian because of “political interests” and “spiritual interests.” Graham later backtracked, but the message was already out.
What did a lot of young people hear? To be a Christian you need to look like, talk like and vote like Franklin Graham… Oh, and something about sinners and grace.
Such political spectacles are driving a generation away from faith. It almost did for me, an evangelical Christian in my 20s who attends church on an almost weekly basis.
While I like and agree with King’s response, I do feel that it lacks nuance – pinpointing hypocrisy isn’t quite enough. Better is his statement that we place the locus for loss of faith on factors external to the Church – a culture of hedonism, “liberal” college professors (subtly implying that liberals are somehow faithless), the prevalence of Hollywood elite liberals, women being able to vote, what have you. Instead, the locus needs to be placed internally – the Church needs to be aware of its own complicity in young adults’ loss of faith.
It is, on some level, foolish to proclaim that higher education is having no effect on the faith of the students who attend. Higher education did change my faith, but it wasn’t because of “liberal” professors – indeed, many of my professors from my undergraduate education are conservative Calvinists, so clearly my liberalism isn’t part of merely trading one institutionalized belief system for another. Indeed, even at Oxford University – a supposedly elitist haven of hedonism, and intellectualism (after all, Richard Dawkins is a professor there!) – my tutors were more theologically conservative than I was. And this during a time period when I wasn’t sure if evolution was true and thought global warming couldn’t be man-made!
Indeed, my education influenced my outlook in the way the church already should have been doing – I learned how to think critically, to examine everything, and not to accept the easy answers. In my philosophy class sophomore year of college, we were taught Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living. It was within the Christian bubble, taught by Christian professors, at a Christian school, in a class for my degree focusing on Christianity, that I learned how to examine my life.
It is sad that it took until I was 20 for such a lesson to be taught.
The nuance that is missing from King’s article is this: the problem is not hypocrisy on the large scale political realm (though that is certainly a part of it), but rather, a lack of willingness to embrace the practice of critical thinking. We’re afraid that if we allow people to question, that they will walk away from the faith. And it’s an okay fear to have – we’ve seen it happen time and again with prominent figures.
However, in reaction to this fear, we have created an environment where questions are not welcome, where going against the common dictates of conservative evangelicalism is greeted with disdain and even outright rage, where we are told that our brains are “addled” if we dare question something outside the essentiality of Scripture (the question of the use of torture, in a political sense, is not a salvation issue).
Unfortunately, stifling questions does not make them go away, as much as we wish they would. We wish that we could live in a world where asking a question always led to a nice, acceptable answer, and that we could maintain faith in the God we knew in childhood after all our questions have been asked. But that’s not the way it is, and it’s not the way it should be.
We love by allowing questions. We love by being willing to say that we don’t have all the answers. We love by offering the grace and room for people to question, and we love by accepting that they may make a decision that we would not have made, accepting that they may go on to find their own way.
We fail to trust in God when we think that creating room for critical thinking about an issue is something to be feared rather than embraced. We fail to love our neighbor as ourselves when we tell them that their questions are not welcome, or are even sinful. And we fail to be a light upon a hill when we tell the world that it is they who are killing the faith of our young people, when we make excuses for all the problems with the church by blaming the world, and when we call critical thinking a sin.
It is not an issue of conservative vs. liberal, of left vs. right, but rather of unquestioning acceptance of the association between not asking questions and being Christian. It is not being raised Republican that’s the problem. It’s the indoctrination that results in a failure to take the hard questions head-on, and the inability to cope and adapt when our young people step forward and ask “But why?”
THAT is what kills faith. Not Republicanism, not liberalism, not even libertarianism. Any environment in which a person is not allowed room to grow and question and become more fully themselves is naturally going to be oppressive.
So, Mr. Santorum, the question is not “How does college kill faith?” but “What are we doing that makes our faith a house of cards?”
And that, sir, is the question worth asking.