University, I was warned, is a dangerous place for faith. Brought up in an Evangelical Christian family, my father’s socks-with-sandals combination and rarely trimmed beard were enough to rival any Jesus-freak-of-the-year competition winner. He even read the Bible every morning, sitting on the toilet – locked in his sanctuary of calm, safe from the whirlwind of five children late for school, mum the human barrier to our fighting, simultaneously telling us off, brushing our hair and checking her make-up in the mirror.
The temptations of university are familiar to any undergraduate: sexual immorality, drunkenness, cigarettes, atheist lecturers, and a non-Christian peer group. From the dawning of puberty Christian adolescents are warned of these, and of how the temptation will be amplified tenfold at university. And here was I – lamb to the slaughter – choosing to study the most dangerous subject of all for any good young Evangelical: theology.
Determined to avoid alcohol and women, I applied myself to my studies with the fever and seriousness of my religious upbringing. I also found solace in my faith. I started reading my Bible in the morning – occasionally on the toilet, but mostly in my room – beginning to understand the comfort my father found in its familiar words and promises of hope. I went to church on Sundays, a lively Anglican place brimming with smiling young families and invites to lunch. At church, I enjoyed engaging with a different age group, leaving my academic concerns behind and embracing a simple faith for two hours a week whilst the rest of the student world nursed hangovers and sipped coffee. Finding a welcoming community like this is a great consolation amidst the noise, bustle, and loneliness of unfamiliar city streets.
At the same time, my faith was falling to pieces. Beer actually tasted quite nice – and my drunken friends didn’t turn into the raving lunatics I had been warned they would. Girls caught my eye too, although I didn’t have a clue how to talk to them. My studies tore to pieces all that I held dear – I was realising that the Bible couldn’t be literally true, that maybe Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, and that people of other faiths weren’t apostates, but sincere followers of a God or gods who transformed their lives.
Despite my doubts, faith never left me. I grappled with it, trashed it, threw it out at night, and discovered it again in the morning, smiling at me, knowing somehow that I’d always return. I realised that there was a deeper truth to the Bible than literal truth, that whoever Jesus was, he was fairly amazing, and that Christianity could be as sincerely followed as any other faith.
I also realised that faith is not just about God’s love for me, saving my soul, and making me a better person. It’s about God’s love for the world, campaigning for social justice, and making the world a better place. I joined campaign groups, started buying fair-trade, became a vegetarian, and ended up a pacifist peace activist.
University is a dangerous place. The danger, however, is not in undergraduates embracing their newly-found freedoms, but in the academic ivory tower of books and lectures, of proposing complex expert solutions to real life, everyday problems. What is taught at university can have a real effect on real life – I discovered that in my faith. Yet unless real life and academia somehow meet, they will not be able to transform one another, but instead will continue to operate in separate worlds, avoiding each another because of ignorance, fear, or both.
Dad still has the beard. I’ve got one too now, although lately it’s been too rainy for socks-and-sandals.