When Learning Rocks Your Faith
Seaver College faculty members provide insight into their personal journeys with intellectual doubt.
Why bring up the problem of intellectual doubt? Because it’s our mission as a university.
It can be tempting for Christian colleges to make some topics off-limits or to discourage certain kinds of questions out of a fear that they will shake students’ faith. We can find ourselves in the position of trying to defend or protect God. But if we are true to our mission as a university, we have to be honest not only about what we know, but also about what we don’t know. That’s what it means for Pepperdine to affirm “that truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline.”
Talking honestly about intellectual doubt is also crucial for helping our students understand what faith is—that it’s so much more than intellectual assent, that it is also a decision we make, something we practice and work at. One challenge university students often face is encountering knowledge that seems to contradict the beliefs they grew up with. Many feel a sense of crisis as they struggle to hold on to faith in the face of intellectual challenges. We want to equip them to be faithful in the midst of those challenges and uncertainties, both the ones they face now and those they will face throughout their lives. We don’t do them any favors when we try, as one person put it, to “reduce the leap of faith to a pedestrian hop.”
For so many of us, what made the difference in our own faith was having someone we could look to who had faced those same challenges and uncertainties and yet who seemed to be okay. As faculty members, we are at our best when we model that rare blend of intellectual honesty and deep faith, living before our students as fellow strugglers who have embraced doubt and who still remain
—GARY SELBY director of the Center for Faith and Learning, which hosted a panel discussion on this topic at Pepperdine last fall
Below, three Seaver College faculty members share tales of their personal journeys with intellectual doubt and what they hope others, especially students, take away from their experiences.
Distinguished Professor of Biology
Students at the time of graduation will always have challenges. Issues of today, such as global terrorism, climate change, and economic lows have many analogies, and seeing how others have coped and relied on God’s presence and his will working in their lives may be helpful.
In my case, upon graduation, I was faced with an unpopular war (Vietnam) and the likelihood
of being drafted (which I was) and being interrupted midstream from a PhD program (which happened) and being separated from my new wife (which occurred). My circumstances seemed disastrous, but the opposite was the case. The apparent disaster taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life, including working through intellectual doubt and coming to realize purpose and meaning in life through God’s presence.
Being sent to Vietnam gave me a new perspective on life and God’s calling. I soon learned the things I deemed important while a student, prior to the Vietnam experience, were minor. What was major were human relationships, respect of others, and meeting the needs of the human suffering that are immediate, surrounding all of us, and in all forms.
The intellectual doubts I had prior to Vietnam were tested in a foreign land, isolated from home, family, friends, church, and university professors. I was on my own, alone, for the first time
to ponder, pray, read, and think. Thus, the book Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips and
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl became reality with powerful lessons for survival
and perspective on living. Was my God big enough to extend across the Pacific Ocean or was my God insular and restricted to the U.S., my church back home, my parents’ faith, my family relationships, my wife’s faith, or the faith-based institutions from which I had graduated? Working through the process of “why me?” to realizing God’s call and the search for meaning and purpose was a major breakthrough. My faith was greatly strengthened in the process, I felt needed in a very challenging situation, and I felt that my life had purpose and meaning because of God’s presence. My initial doubt was answered by a powerful firsthand experience, a testing.
Assistant Professor of French
I grew up in a Christian home—actually, before I was born, my father was a pastor and had been working on his master’s at a theological seminary. Our family dinners often revolved around theological discussions in which my parents encouraged my brother and me to ask questions and to think deeply. Even still, at a certain point, I knew I had to discern which views were my family’s and which were my own, and so I purposefully chose to expose myself to ideas that I had not yet encountered in my fairly conservative upbringing.
What challenged me the most in my beliefs during my undergraduate studies, however, were certain French thinkers and their works. Molière’s Tartuffe and Voltaire’s Candide, coupled with courses in cultural anthropology, caused me to think about social practices and customs in American Christianity, and led me to reflect on the true essentials of the faith. I began to question to what extent my would- be faith was just an affiliation with a certain cultural group: evangelical Christians. It was André Gide’s views in La symphonie pastorale, however, that shook me the most. Gide’s view, at least as it was presented to me, was that Christians would do well to focus on Jesus’ teachings and ignore Paul’s altogether. I didn’t feel like I could engage with my professor on the topic outside of the classroom, so I was left to wrestle with the text on my own.
I finished my undergraduate studies with many questions, but with few people outside of my family whom I could discuss them with. Regrettably, I didn’t feel like my tough questions had a place among other Christians I knew. Finally, while I was doing my doctoral work, I came across the Graduate Christian Fellowship on campus, where, once a month, graduate students heard from Christian faculty members about their time in academia. I also found a graduate student Bible study that was committed to offering students “a community of thinking faith.” It helped a lot to talk with other Christians who were not only willing but also eager to discuss tough issues.
I have found that having interlocutors to discuss difficult issues with is key, even if they happen to be people who hold the opposing viewpoint. If a person is honestly seeking truth, they will have to engage with views that are not their own— views that they might never affirm.
It has long been my aim to demonstrate through my work and through my witness that being a Christian intellectual is not an oxymoron. I believe that it’s important to think deeply about hard questions, and I want to encourage our students not to be afraid to do the same.
I also want to let students know that if they have questions they’re wrestling with, they are welcome to come discuss them with me. I would have loved to have had Christian faculty members during my undergraduate studies whom I could have engaged with on a deeper level outside of the classroom.
Assistant Professor of Social Science
The theologian Herbert McCabe was reputed
to always begin his debates with atheists by allowing them to list their objections first. After patiently listening McCabe would invariably
add: “I don’t believe in that God, either.” Our conception of God can be too small, too trite, too familiar, too cramped. Intellectual doubt is part of a process of expansion beyond humanity’s inevitable tendency to belittle God.
My personal journey with doubt began as an ardent atheist, and my conversion to Christianity came when I began to doubt my atheism. Many people think doubt is a special affliction of religious believers, but this is not so. Atheists, too, suffer bouts of doubt.
We begin to doubt when our conceptions of truth and reality are no longer adequate to our experience. Properly understood, this is not something to be feared. Doubt is like a growing pain—it prepares space and room for a more mature, developed understanding of the truth. If I had never doubted, I never would have come to faith.
And yet many Christians fear doubt. They think doubt is something to be repressed or evaded.
It’s important to realize that God gives us doubt, too. It’s part of the destiny we live as humans. Doubt is there for our conversion—our conversion to a greater understanding of the truth. We Christians must become much better at realizing that doubt is part of any healthy human growth. Without doubt we would never shed, amend, or change any of our beliefs.
It can be difficult, however, to be at peace when you perceive God as silent in your life. Many of my students worry that God is not manifest in great and blinding signs. This leads to the concern that God is abstract and has nothing to do with their immediate lives.
We must all learn to see God concretely within the circumstances of our everyday life. This does not mean simply counting blessings or looking on the sunny side of life. This means seeing how Christ is a concrete presence within the hour-to-hour and day-to-day reality of my existence.
We must learn to see Christ again as an integral feature of reality. What does Christ have to do with my commute down the Pacific Coast Highway every morning? What does he have to do with my successes and failures in the classroom? How is he given to me within the people I meet everyday on the street, at work, in my family, and friends? Where am I willing to see the face of Christ?