A student has approached me about his crisis of faith

Write for Advice

Should I tell a fundamentalist Christian student what I really think?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 27, 2006

Dear Cary,

I am a doctoral student/teaching assistant in English literature at a prestigious public school on the West Coast. Yesterday evening, one of the students from my Harlem Renaissance literature course Instant Messaged me and asked to meet for a talk. As one of the younger and more approachable T.A.s in my department, I tend to forge close relationships with my students, so I agreed. I arrived on campus, we plowed through the obligatory small talk about finals, the library, etc., and then he confessed the genuine reason for the late-night summons: a spiritual crisis. He belongs to an evangelical Christian church with small Bible study groups, and evidently he is at the point in his spiritual development where he is expected to go off and lead his own study “cell,” as he called it. He is not sure that he wants to do so, but he cannot discuss his doubts with his family or church friends because they would regard him as “spiritually done.”

Cary, I don’t know what to do for this young man. I am a pro-choice, Nader-supporting, Bush-loathing, lapsed Catholic New Yorker who lives in sin with her boyfriend. He knows this — why did he come to me for advice about his Christianity? I imagine you’ll suggest he did so because he wants an outside point of view, and I concur, but I don’t know how to be an objective source of support for him when I find Christian evangelism so repellent. I don’t want to encourage him to abandon his faith. Yet this is a young man who has lived in the same conservative Orange County community his entire life, who has never traveled anywhere outside of California, who leaves our vibrant campus (and his friends) every weekend because his church would frown upon his attending services elsewhere. It seems to me that he is sacrificing so much for a faith that has been stamped upon him rather than chosen freely — truly freely. I’m trying to be supportive (e.g., I encouraged him to seek out members of his church who reached the Bible study crossroads and opted out), but I have the feeling that he approached me because he knows I will ask tough questions about his faith. What should I do?

Trying to Save the Saved

Dear Trying to Save the Saved,

You have been approached as a sympathetic person but also as a representative of the academic tradition. Your different roles require different responses. So I suggest you respond in two ways. But be careful. If you have a copy of written guidelines governing relationships between teaching assistants and students, read them over. Think about whether there may be anything in this conversation that is recommended against. Think about the possible consequences.

Then, as a sympathetic peer, be honest with him, but stress that this conversation is strictly in confidence. If he wants what you have, which is a secular life, share with him its advantages and disadvantages. If you have from time to time wished that you could take refuge in an absolute faith, if you have at times called out to God and felt that you were heard or not heard, if you entertain certain beliefs as many of us do, tell him this too.

But do not neglect your duty as an academic, which is to aid the development of his mind. That means helping him think critically. If you were a priest or a minister, your duty would be to try to bolster his faith, to turn him away from doubt and toward devotion. As a representative of the tradition of intellectual inquiry and rigorous examination of ideas, your duty is just the opposite. Your duty is to prod him toward doubt. Because doubt is the basis of critical thinking.

So prod him toward doubt and see how his faith responds. But do not do this in any obvious, hectoring or badgering way. Instead, do it by simply asking questions.

Perhaps his faith is weak and dying. If so, perhaps that is as it should be — perhaps it is an inferior faith, a faith shallowly grounded, or not grounded at all but grafted onto his skin by charlatans whose own faith is only skin-deep. One doesn’t know until one probes, with seriousness, with an open mind.

It’s not your job to soft-pedal the academic tradition. Nor, in my opinion is it your job to be an “objective source of support.” It’s your job to help him learn to think critically and grapple intellectually with difficult questions.

If you think he needs other kinds of help — counseling or psychotherapy — then point him to sources for that. What you offer is different, and it is priceless and indispensable.

How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,
Lost

Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.