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.