One month ago yesterday I walked the stage to pick up a diploma in Religious Studies at a secular institution. And I’m a stronger Christian than ever. In the Religious Studies department at the University of Montana I learned how to study history with careful eyes, how to debate subtle philosophy with gentleness and confidence, how to respect professors and peers with opposing views on foundational beliefs, and, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to critically examine my place in and beliefs about the story that I’ve come to recognize, more and more, as truth.
Because of its students’ deep love for The Beatles and its reputation for encouraging “progressive thinking,” the University of Montana is known by some as “Little Berkeley.” As you know, so-called academic progressive thinking doesn’t include positive thoughts of the Christian God. Overt anti-Christian agendas are not uncommon from the front of the classroom. But, as much as you might suppose that such agendas are destructive for the young Christian, these provided the fuel for the examination of my own deep beliefs. One of the most antagonistically atheist professors at the U of M said this in an email correspondence between us some time ago:
The problem is not when interpretations are challenged, but the opposite – when students simply assume a supposedly authoritative interpretive tradition and don’t think and ask about it.
Tim Keller said something quite similar in The Reason for God:
It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.
As one who has been pressed to the edge of critical analysis concerning my own faith, I can tell you that the more you question the Way of Jesus, the more it displays the most sublime truths. The other day I was talking with a good friend, a friend who is not a Christian, about my faith. I said that, having studied the other major religions of the world, I have come to a much deeper respect for those who follow them. Then I said:
“But I’ve also seen the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the other religions clearly, and am —” I paused, searching for a way to say what I wanted to say without sounding provincial.
“You’re glad that you’re a Christian?” he finished my thought with precision.
And then we started talking about the clouds or the breaking wave in the river, or something like that. (We’re both outdoor activities guides at a 5-star resort for the wealthiest people in the world who come to Montana to experience the Wild West. We talk a lot about the beauty of creation.)
Religious Studies at a secular institution as a Christian has not been easy, however. There was a constant spirit pervading the brightly-lit classrooms and the long, eyes-straight-forward hallways of my home in the Liberal Studies building that whispered — or sometimes screamed out — “You’re wrong. If you were smarter you’d be an atheist.”
But I am not an atheist. And I have discovered, at a secular institution from secularist professors, that this is a wise thing. Not in the eyes of the academy, certainly, but in the eyes of the Author of Wisdom. I have come to know, through thousands of cups of coffee and dozens of hazy-eyed mornings after sleepless nights, that Christianity is founded upon desirable, reasonable, rational, logical and experientially true doctrines. I have found that critical, so-called “conservative” Christianity (whether Protestant or Catholic) is the most reasonable, rational, logical and experientially true. Take that last point as you will.
At the end of these five years in the Religious Studies department at the University of Montana I must say that I stayed because I loved it. I loved the challenge. I loved being the Christian voice in the atheist classroom. I loved my professors, even the ones with whom I strongly disagreed. I loved studying the heart of humanity and our perplexing views of ultimate reality. We all want to live forever in love and justice. We all yearn for the cross.
As I go forward with my studies in religion and philosophy and theology I trust that I’ll continue to learn and grow, and agonize over loss of sleep. And I’ll continue to yearn for the cross.