When Faith Comes Up, Students Avert Their Eyes

In college classrooms, where almost anything is up for discussion, religious ideas are met with awkward silence.

People stand on Wesleyan's college quad, near the campus's gothic Memorial Chapel.
Wesleyan University's Memorial Chapel was completed in 1871, three years before this photograph was taken. (Transcendental Graphics / Getty)

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”

Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

As a nonbeliever myself, I am not trying to convert any student to any religion. Yet how to discuss religious faith in class poses a major challenge for nonreligious colleges and universities. How can such an institution claim to educate students about ideas, culture, and ways of life if students, professors, or both are uncomfortable when talking about something that’s been central to humanity throughout recorded history?

I teach my classes at Wesleyan University, where I am also the president. For most of its first century, the school was—as its name indicates—firmly in the tradition of the theologian John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. In 1831, Wesleyan’s first president, Wilbur Fisk, articulated the mission of the school as being for “the good of the individual and the good of the world,” drawing on Methodism’s synthesis of deeply personal spirituality and the pursuit of social reform. Indeed, the passion for reform often was energized by that spirituality. In the early 1900s, Wesleyan officially became a secular university, eventually prizing academic freedom and independent research rather than adhering to a set of religious teachings.

Still, Fisk’s words have continued to ring true. Although few of our students today know much about John Wesley’s charismatic preaching or the core tenets of Methodism, many of them are still perfectly comfortable with the idea of finding one’s own good while also doing work in the world that promotes what they now call social justice. If they no longer have a principled spirituality, they need to think hard about what else sustains efforts aimed at justice—and about how politics, ethics, and the nature of knowledge have been intertwined with religious faith and practice.

Yet classroom discussions of these very subjects often seem threatening to even students of faith, who tell me they don’t want to be “outed” on campus. These undergrads encounter mostly secular professors who sometimes treat religious believers as somehow intellectually deficient, or as morally compromised by their commitments to traditions that their teachers have left behind.

These students have ample reason to feel left out. Not long ago, a group of such students at Wesleyan asked me to participate in a discussion about religion on campus, and now it was my turn to try to hide. “Hey,” I said, “I’m an atheist Jew. I’m the wrong guy to talk about these topics.” They pressed: What happened to your commitment to intellectual diversity? I signed up for the event. The organizers had planned a public conversation with Michael Wear, the director of evangelical outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, and more than 100 students attended, comfortable to be talking about these issues in “safe enough” company. I participated, but while doing so I also explained my reluctance to show up. As a Jew, I worried about the easy slide from “evangelical outreach” to harassment, and then to anti-Semitism. The tension in the room was real, and so were the issues we discussed.

I wasn’t converted to Wear’s liberal evangelicalism that night, and he wasn’t persuaded by my combination of atheism and Torah study. What I took away most of all was the reluctance of students to “bring their whole selves to class”—as we urge all Wesleyan students to do—because of perceived prejudice against faith practices. Now, some may say that students should check their faith at the door (perhaps alongside their privilege) before they enter the seminar room. But that’s not the way I teach. In my classes, I want students to bring their complex, changing identities into our efforts to wrestle with enduring questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. These are historical questions, but they can also be meaningful in students’ lives right now. If we neglect these issues in our liberal-arts classes, we are cutting off a vital domain of human experience from an education claiming to deepen cultural understanding. And we desperately need that understanding in our polarized society.

In my next class with Tom, we talked about Aquinas’s connection to Saint Augustine’s “short command,” by which he told the faithful to “love, and do what you will.” We talked about the struggle to bring love and intellect together, about the mystics and their relation to the philosophers. Tom energetically joined our discussion of how religious traditions create practices that link faith and reason and reveal the tensions between them. I didn’t need to be a believer to create space in the classroom for him and others to be fully present to learn. I did have to respect what people of faith brought to the conversation.

What my students ultimately believe is none of my business. But they, like all other college students, need to understand what it’s like to be absorbed in robust traditions, including religious ones. They—and I—should refuse to hide behind narrow versions of critical thinking that keep them from engaging with people whose lives are energized by compassion and forgiveness. Becoming more aware of the multiplicity of traditions and practices will make all of us more curious about and more empathetic toward others’ beliefs—and more humble with respect to our own.