Dear Robert/a,

I’m so glad you came to see me in my office yesterday. It was good to hear how the year is going for you. It was also good to see your courage on display – it’s not easy to approach your professor with questions like the ones you’re facing at this point in the year. Well done! 

What I heard you saying is that you feel a bit like you’re getting lost. Not academically (though I’m sure you’ll have those times, too) but that all this new academic work is making you feel a bit lost or unsteady in your faith. You described growing up in a stable family, community, and church. But now, being a graduate student and learning about how complex life has and can become, and the diversity of thought around how to conceptualize and engage with it, you’re starting to feel a bit overwhelmed and adrift, as if everything you’ve believed as a Christian to be solid, the whole world you’ve felt like you’ve inhabited because of your Christian worldview to be secure, has become just another option out there that you can take or leave on a whim.

Do you know the episode in Jesus’ ministry recorded in Mark 4:35-41? It’s the end of the day and Jesus and his disciples need to cross the Sea of Galilee. During the overnight sailing, Jesus asleep, a massive storm erupts which threatens to sink the boat. The disciples wake Jesus up with a frantic, “don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus gets up, stills the storm, and then wonders why his followers still don’t have faith. (Jesus has, ironically, just been teaching earlier in Mark 4 about how God can use even the smallest things to do what’s truly amazing.)

I have found the last verse of that passage to be immensely meaningful for life in the academy. The terrified disciples ask each other, “Who is this?” Here are the disciples, scared out of their wits and certain of their impending doom, while all the time the Creator God is right there with them in the boat and the storm. The disciples didn’t know who was with them all the time.

Sometimes life in general or academic life in particular can feel like a terribly unsettling and threatening storm. We can feel like the diversity of people, the many divergent ideas, and the endlessly raging debates and conflicts will overwhelm us and cause us to lose our balance, our sense of stability, our confidence, our faith. But throughout the Bible, we find person after person who reminds us that there is nowhere we can go in all of Creation where God is not already there. There is nothing we face in life that God is absent from. Wherever we go – even in our rational inquiry of the world at university – God is already present there and with us. Psalm 139, to grab one other example besides Mark 4, reminds us that even before we’re aware of our own selves, God knows us intimately, loves us unconditionally, and is covenantally committed to us. The psalmist would say to those disciples in Mark 4: even in the worst storm of your life, the storm in which you feel like you’re going to lose your faith, Jesus is with you. Like the disciples, we just have to remember who’s already with us through it all.

Sharon Daloz Parks reminds us of something vitally important about being at university and/or being a twentysomething: it’s during this time in our lives when we come to realize that faith isn’t a static noun but a dynamically active verb. Our faith isn’t a set of propositions that we just have to convince ourselves that we really and truly believe. If it were, then all the new knowledge we encounter at university would be a recurring threat to faith. Instead, to have faith is to face the storms, the potential shipwrecks, and even the celebrations of life with “a dynamic, multifaceted activity [which] is an active dialogue with [God’s] promise” (43). For it is in the struggle of faith and life that we have the opportunity to discern the deep meaning of our lives in God’s Creation. It’s in the storms of life that faith actually becomes real and active in our lives.

So, as you go into another week in the classroom, laboratory, or library, take Parks’ words to heart: “The ongoing process of shipwreck, gladness, and amazement shakes us loose from our focus on little loves and puts us in touch with the mystery of the wider force field of our lives. Each time, our souls are stretched and reordered, at least in some measure. … We are perpetually invited to participate more consciously in the deep motion of faith, learning to wonder in a larger frame and awakening to bigger questions and larger dreams” (44).

Remember who’s with you in the midst of all this topsy-turvy-ness of university, storms and questions and all.

Michael

Michael Wagenman
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Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​

1 Comment

Mark Roques · November 22, 2022 at 10:21 am

Thanks Michael. I really enjoyed this insighful and pastorally sensitive article. Recently I was talking to a young Christian woman who is being bullied at college by very aggresive ‘secular believers’ so your pastoral tone is very appropriate.

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