Matt Emerson
Effective way to nurture belief among skeptical students

Except for the severest of unbelievers, it is rare to find a person who does not relish a tale of spiritual transformation, an account of the soul’s progress from winter to spring. A favorite of mine from this genre involves Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, who is now doing with religion and science what Steve Jobs did with computers and cell phones.

It began in his 20s, when, as a medical resident, Dr. Collins observed the faith of the dying. Though he thought religion was irrational, a relic of an unscientific era, he wanted to know why his patients believed in God. This led to conversations, then to books (cue Mere Christianity) and, eventually, the cross.

Every year, I discuss Dr. Collins’s conversion with my students, and every time I am reminded of something I easily forget: Faith takes time. Conversion is a multi-dimensional, life-altering evolution in worldview that implicates knowledge, experience, other people, self-reflection, humility, mystery and grace. And that is just the start. For most, conversion occurs in stages and depends upon the presence of certain conditions, certain habits of mind and heart, which enable a person to accept, and to live out, a transformed, divinized life.

These habits of mind and heart can be referred to collectively as “preambles” to faith (see my article “Help Their Unbelief,” Am. 9/10/2012). The development of these preambles and the accompanying faith journey bring to mind the Book of Exodus. Before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land, as part of their formation to accept the covenant, Yahweh had to prepare them. He had to expose the futility of their false gods, the emptiness of Egyptian authority and the fickleness of human nature. He had to teach them about temptation, strength and fidelity, a process that involved a period of confusion and frustration but in the end permitted the Israelites a rebirth of faith and freedom.

Young men and women today must undergo a similar metamorphosis before they enter the land of a flourishing Catholic life, before they can comfortably join those who call themselves practicing Catholics. As we move forward in this Year of Faith, I want to elaborate upon the notion of preambles. My goal is to assist Catholic schools in their efforts to nourish a Catholic identity in contexts where religious belief may be met with apathy, skepticism or hostility. So thatthese reflections do not remain too abstract, I will offer methods and resources that have been helpful in my own classes and encounters.

Starting With Socrates

Young men and women often do not think about religion because they deem it so unverifiable as to be unworthy of consideration. It is as if the search for God were like the hunt for Bigfoot. An indispensable duty of a Catholic school, therefore, is to animate a spirit of inquiry, a spirit that extends beyond what they see through a microscope or plug into a calculator. 

To get students moving in this direction, I have found that one of the best things I can do is not overwhelm my students with apologetics (which often assumes things they deny) but rather inspire questions. If you want to get to Jesus, start with Socrates. Before students can fathom the mystery of faith, they need to hone an introspective, self-examining outlook; and every subject, not just theology, must join this project. Whether Scripture or English, Algebra I or environmental science, every class must be a bit of an earthquake, leaving students, like Mary before Gabriel, a bit shaken, asking: “How can this be? What else am I missing? What else have I not known?”

It is only when students relinquish their certainty about inherited beliefs that they rethink their resistance to God. One way that Catholic schools encourage this shedding is through immersion trips. A number of my students, for instance, return from a two-night visit to a Los Angeles homeless shelter with revised opinions about the homeless, about immigrants, about the poor. Where previously many carried the standard upper-middle-class assessments (“the poor aren’t my fault”), students return from these weekends with preconceived notions in ruins. These trips neutralize prejudices and generate fresh perspectives of charity and humility that burn with the fire of the Beatitudes.

Science Test

As adults we tend to become more comfortable with the mysterious, but teenagers usually are not. They carry devices and play games that make tangibility and visibility the most powerful indicators of the real. To them, moreover, education is supposed to eliminate mystery and simplify the difficult. For most of our students, therefore, it becomes counterintuitive to believe in a spiritual dimension.

Because of that, and because modern academia seems to believe that only the sciences yield genuine knowledge, students tend to assume that there are basically two kinds of life: one that depends upon faith and another that does not.

As a preamble, therefore, to believing in a personal God, Catholic schools have to get students to have faith in faith; they have to show students that the dichotomy they draw in their heads—the life of faith versus the life of rationality—cannot be sustained. In his 1998 encyclical letter “Faith and Reason,” Blessed John Paul II wrote that the human person is a creature that lives by belief, for no man or woman could possibly verify, and prove with certainty, all that we rely upon to get through life. That observation might seem so obvious as not to need any further discussion, but it is precisely a point that is not obvious to students. Most of them simply do not realize how much faith and belief permeate their existence.

To reinforce this point, it is helpful to get students to think of faith in contexts that are not explicitly religious but which have religious impli- cations. I ask my students, for example, “Can you prove with 100 percent certainty that someone loves you?” They will say no, it cannot be proven like that, and then we discuss why. Students acknowledge that the question of love is not formulaic, is not susceptible to an equation. And yet, they do agree that it is possible to believe in love and to both give and receive it. Love, they all recognize, is something that can be known and trusted in, even if it cannot be graphed and measured. More important, students acknowledge that when it comes to love, they must have some kind of faith, especially if they hope to marry. Intuitively, they know that a relationship like marriage requires a faith that goes beyond what could ever be guaranteed or personally verified.

Another successful technique for warming students to the idea of faith is to introduce them to the work of scien- tists who are something like heretics in their field, scholars like Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne and Leon Kass who are chipping away at the wall of separation between faith and science. A great place to start is an op-ed article that appeared in The New York Times in 2007 titled, “Taking Science on Faith,” by Paul Davies, a physicist at Arizona State University. Davies asks why the laws of physics are what they are. How do we account for their existence? How do we know they will not suddenly change? Until scientists can answer those questions, writes Davies, all science proceeds upon faith that the laws of science and those of mathematics will not change; faith that the world will remain ordered, rational and intelligible.

This short and accessible article intrigues my students because it undermines the one-dimensional story they carry about science. Most of them have not considered that even science requires a willingness to trust something that is not completely known, a willingness to enter mystery. Even scientists have a “conviction of things unseen.” Once students appreciate that even science has to take this leap, religion does not seem so absurd. 

Creating Space for Faith

One of the recurring phrases in Jesuit education is cura personalis, or “care of the person.” Cura personalis means that schooling should elevate and ennoble the health of the entire person—heart, mind, body, soul. When education loses that emphasis, when the personal and psychological well-being of students is destabilized, the spiritual life suffers.

Teachers see this every day. When students, for example, fall asleep and wake up to the screams of fighting parents, they begin to doubt the possibility of love and commitment. If students are bullied, or if they are depressed, they are likely to see the world as haunting and chaotic, not as a space for God’s grace. When students are tormented emotionally, they want immediate relief from their distress, a disposition that makes them resistant to the patience required in prayer.

The examples could be multiplied, but the lesson is the same: In teenagers, a healthy psychological state is an essential preamble for the development of resilient faith. Excellent counselors, then, are as indispensable as excellent teachers; and their work is akin to the role of campus ministry. Both are stewards of grace and truth, just in different ways.

In the journey to impart faith, we might ask: Is there one class, or one activity, where the preambles conjoin, where the habits of mind and heart work more like a symphony rather than in isolation? I believe they come together in retreats more than in any other place. 

In Jesuit institutions (the ones I know best), the fruit of retreats is abundant. Retreats allow students to step away from sports, homework and family, so they can have the physical and mental peace to enjoy uninterrupted hours of contemplation. The friendly and inquisitive atmosphere leads naturally to the rise of wonder and alertness to the whisper of God. On retreat, students meet others they would not normally befriend, and they divulge difficulties that cause anxiety and fear. Retreats do not cure anything overnight, but they provide a desperately needed spiritual x-ray that can spur interior reform. Students recognize the masks they wear, the false selves they inhabit and the ways they have trapped themselves in harmful patterns of thinking. For students who come from broken or disordered homes, retreats begin to foster trust—in themselves, in others, in the future. Retreats allow students to become comfortable with the unknown, which is to say, with God.

These breakthroughs arrive every year. On a recent Kairos retreat, a discussion about faith prompted one stu- dent to admit that part of his unbelief stemmed from his wish for control. He did not want to deliver himself to the unknown, to something or someone that might limit his freedom. Another student shared the anguish she had endured because of online cruelty; this in turn moved a second student, through blinding tears, to apologize in an open letter for failing to stop the bullying, a moment so collectively stirring it felt as if we had entered the chambers of the Sacred Heart. Another student told me that on retreat she finally accepted her true self. In the silence of mountains, she finally resolved to love and appreciate the ways she was different from her peers.

The above is only a sampling. Many other methods and resources initiate the transformation that must occur. But where I teach, at a seven-year-old Jesuit high school, I have found that for the Christian faith to have plausibility, students must develop, at a minimum, a contemplative, Socratic spirit that calls them to cross-examine their own assumptions; a faith in faith, a recognition that human existence, even the part that intersects with science, requires a trust in the unknown; and a psychological stability, a basic mental and emotional equilibrium that empowers students to approach every day without feeling as if they are strug- gling to survive.

But whether it is these qualities or a combination of others, there are preambles to a committed Catholic faith that must be established, and laying the groundwork for these preambles takes patience and time. It can be daunting work, so thoroughly secular are the words and images that con- sume our students’ time. But we need not despair. We need only to ready young men and women for the outbreak of grace, for that moment when, in the sanctuary of their truest self, they hear the call of the ages: “Come, follow me.”