A student has approached me about his crisis of faith

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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.

My Christian daughter says I’m going to hell

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Cary’s classic column THURSDAY, OCT 4, 2007 03:10 AM PDT

I don’t believe in God but I want to allay her fears.


Hi,

I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter whose mother has been taking her to an evangelical Christian church her whole life. Her mother’s family is entirely Christian. I am not a Christian, and in fact think that organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult. None of my friends are Christian, nor any of my family.

Her mother and I split up right before she was born, but I have been an active parent. She lived with me for fifth and seventh grades and has been with me every summer and every other holiday. Right now, I have her every other weekend. Religion is not the only issue her mother and I have had, but until this point we have been able to compromise and get along with each other pretty well.

As my daughter gets older, however, she has started to become fearful that because I am not a Christian, I am going to hell. When I try to explain my beliefs (that I don’t believe in God or a higher power), she cries. I am certainly not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church, but I don’t want to cut my two weekends a month with her short to take her back to her mother’s to attend church. Nor do I want her mother telling her that I am going to hell.

It has gotten to the point that if I even try to broach the subject of religion (mentioning my belief in evolution or that homosexuals are not sinners), it upsets my daughter greatly. Obviously, this is not what I want, but I do want to be able to communicate to her what I believe.

Her mom thinks that I am denying her freedom by not taking her to church on the weekends that I have her, but I am just trying to help her see that other people believe other things and that having an open mind is a good thing.

What am I doing wrong? And more important, how can I talk to my daughter about this without making her cry?

Unholy Father

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Dear Unholy Father,

Does football exist?

Some would argue no. Surely they have heard people speak of football and argue forcibly about its rules and the conduct of its games. But they have never been to a game and would never go to a game because to them football is a mass illusion with a peculiar, inexplicable allure for millions of clueless fools, on whose hard-earned dollars certain unscrupulous people get very rich.
If your daughter is not a football fan she might argue thus. Moreover, she might argue, football is harmful to the development of a peaceful, nonviolent culture.

To which you might respond, well, if football does not exist then how can it be harmful?

And she would say, well, people gather to watch games, but what they are watching is not really football. It is just a bunch of people believing in football. There is no actual football. It is an illusion, a group hallucination. But it warps people’s minds and diverts them from more important things.

To which you might reply, Have you ever been to a friggin’ game? How can you say that? What can this thing that we are doing possibly be if it is not football?

Well, she might say, that’s your problem. All I know is that football does not exist, and if it did exist, I’d know.

How can you know unless you go to a game? you’d ask her in exasperation. Moreover, how can you know what goes on there after just one game? You would need to attend games regularly for maybe several years, or at least a couple of seasons, before you could really feel you know what’s going on there!

Exactly.

What I am trying to say is, the way to help your daughter grow is not to debate the existence of God. It is to go to church with your daughter and experience what she is experiencing.

You can argue about who is winning and who is losing. But at least watch the game.

Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem. She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell. From this she will derive great benefit. It will give her some peace of mind. The peace of mind she derives from it will help her in her schoolwork and in her relationships with others. It will help her sleep at night and it will improve her attitude toward you. It will be one less complaint she has against you. It will be one less wedge her mother can use between you. And it will be the only way you will ever be able to argue with her about religion with any credibility, should you choose to do so when she gets older.

Now is not the time to argue with her about religion. Now is the time to strengthen your bond with your daughter by participating in things that matter to her, by showing her that you respect the way she lives her life and by showing her that you have an open mind.

But don’t just go to church with her. Meet with one of the officials. That’s right, wander right down on to the field and speak with one of the guys in the striped shirts. Or whatever they wear. Arrange a private conference. In this private conference, you can say whatever you like. It doesn’t matter really. It might be a good conversation or it might be utterly ridiculous. But show your daughter that you are willing to engage with one of the people she respects. Show her that you have enough humility and independence of spirit to engage, that you are not fearful or dogmatic or close-minded.

In your own mind, you might approach the matter as a consumer. Don’t be glib with the official or you may be ejected. But in your own mind, think of salvation, or “eternal life,” as a product.

How is this product obtained? Are there instances in which people are granted “eternal life” at random, or must every grant be preceded by an act of faith, or surrender? Are there exact words one must use to close the deal, or will any words to the effect of “I’m in!” suffice? Would a silent act of surrender suffice? If a silent act of surrender would suffice, then is it possible that you have already been saved? And, once granted, can this product be recalled? For instance, what if a child were to be a fervent believer and then later lost his belief? Would that initial belief still grant him eternal life? Go over the terms and conditions, as it were.

Once you have done this, and conversed with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.

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