By Bradley Yam, Saybrook ’21. Bradley is majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics.
The summer crickets are loud in the bush and will be for some time before the cold wipes them out, leaving new eggs to hatch in the spring. This is the sound of a new academic year beginning: things living, things thriving, things dying, things starting again. College is a place filled with worry enough, especially for bright-eyed newcomers to the hallowed halls of the Academy. Those among them who have faith often carry an added burden: the fear of losing it.
The initial excitement and glittering celebration at admission is dampened by the first relative to say with a genuinely concerned expression, “Ah, but you will still go to Church right?” Or perhaps “Be careful and only take classes in Math and Engineering.” They only mean well, but their abashed tone tells you that they might secretly have regrets about encouraging you to apply in the first place. Then might come an awkward conversation with your pastor, perhaps a youth pastor, a young man who found the trial of college terrifying and is now trying his best to gird you properly for doubt inevitable without being the cause of it himself.
The truth is that many such small things foment a fear of the foreign. This is a sign of the more worrying tendency for churches to isolate themselves—from disagreement, from controversy, and often from both traditional and contemporary context. The end result is that Christian communities can become disconnected from the cultures they exist within. We should be salt and light in the world, existing in tension with the culture of the day. Instead, we have become in some respects a navel-gazing in-group, obsessed with an idealized version of the past.
There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there, said G.K. Chesterton. I add that the home you keep is quite different from the one you find. One would never be able to point a stranger back to a home they had never left. Chesterton continues: the other way is to walk around the whole world till we come back to the same place. I am suggesting that this is the necessary walk of faith for the young Christian today. The world is coming to us faster that we can go out to it. We can no longer afford to stay at home, especially if we have already gone off to college!
The walk (or way) may be narrow, but it sure is not straightforward or the same for every person. Here are some universal encouragements.
(1) Practice your faith like you practice an instrument or a sport, even if you don’t entirely understand it. In fact, practice it precisely because you don’t entirely understand it. Faith is less a feeling and more a discipline. You can be open about your uncertainties. Faith is also not a set of propositions, but a lived reality, and you should feel freedom to question the propositions that are merely the descriptors and not the foundation of faith. You may question Newton’s equations, but not the falling apple that strikes you on the head.
(2) Understand your context, even if your faith is in the transcendent. We are (helplessly, as much as I hate to say it), social and temporal beings. Thus, our faith is socialized and cultured according to the times. But this faith is supposed to be in an unchanging, transcendent God—is this a paradox? Perhaps, but I prefer the word mystery. “We have this treasure in jars of clay”(2 Cor. 4-7). Our God, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Transcendent himself, deigned to become contextualized, temporal, physical—incarnate. In this,he shows us that the transcendent shines not apart from but through the contextual. Understanding our own context, the traditions that have shaped us, and how we are markedly different from others who have arrived at this same place allow us to discern this truth faithfully.
(3) We ought not shy away from deconstruction. We can do it better. In order to be faithful, Christians have always deconstructed the world around them, seeing past the glitter and the gold through to what lies beneath. What is the world pursuing, what are you most tempted to pursue? Fame? Money? Acclaim? A successful deconstruction is one that allows you to see better, to see what truly matters. C.S. Lewis said that if you see through everything, then everything is transparent. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. Strive to see what is of ultimate worth and value.
(4) Find a community of faith that practices consistently. Two is better than one, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken, says the Ecclesiaster. This is because the practice of our faith is a communal practice, like a team sport. Of course, the practice of faith as a community is infinitely more complex, difficult, and fraught with risk than any sport, but also infinitely more worthwhile, magical, and life-giving than any individual practice of faith can hope to be.
(5) Engage vigorously with difference. There is no lack of lines to be drawn in our world, and there are many voices insisting that you may not empathize or understand across the boundaries of your specific religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, what have you. Discourse is embattled. So be all the more brave and courageous in the face of censure, since you are seeking to love and understand. In doing so, your faith will be challenged to be valid in the diversity of experiences you will encounter. This is surely a good thing.
The summer crickets are loud in the bush now. I must go do the dishes and take the laundry out and decide on classes—most of which are not Math or Engineering. I must remember to pray before I go to bed, and next week I will go to church and bible study. For now, the incessant chirping reminds me that I have come to find home.