Everyday Grace: A Conversation on Faith and Doubt

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Spring 2011

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Notre Dame students tend to be very polite. Perhaps excessively so if you long for knock-down arguments in a seminar or class, as most professors do. After all, it was Cardinal John Henry Newman who said that the university is a place where “mind clashes with mind.”

Courtesy, however, has its advantages. I appreciate hearing from a student that he missed class because of illness, or that a defective printer caused the late paper. It was not surprising, then, when a first-year student dropped by my office one day a few years ago to tell me that he was enrolled in my first course in theology. Since the course was required, he said he would be faithful in attendance, and work hard on the readings and papers. But he wanted to know if he would be given a hard time or even given a failing grade if he was an atheist.

He went on to explain that he was raised as a Catholic by devout parents who sent him to parochial schools, but he simply did not believe and, further, was a sometime fan of the emerging literature of the New Atheists. He was happy to be at Notre Dame, but did not want to be “brainwashed.” The rest of the conversation went something like this:

What is it you do not believe?
That there is a god up there who watches my behavior and judges that behavior as either good or evil.

I do not believe that either. What else do you not believe?
God makes rules I have to obey or be punished.

I do not believe that either. What else?
I do not like the church shoving rules down my throat.

Well, I do not like anyone shoving anything down my throat.

This dialogue went on for a bit in this vein until I asked the student if I could ask a question. “What ultimately do you stand for?” I asked. “What would you give up your life for?”

After some hemming and hawing, he replied that he would do anything for his parents and his sisters. Give up your life for love of them? Sure, he assured me. Well, I said, there is a really good book that says that God is love. It’s called the Bible. So, maybe the problem is that you don’t like the word “God” and what it stands for. Maybe you stand for love with a big “L.”

Warming to my subject, I went on: The real problem—and this may only be an educated guess—is not that you don’t believe in God, but that you don’t believe in an idea of God that is in your head. After all, the objections my student raised seem to visualize God as some kind of “super parent.” Such an image, however, reduces God to a large projection of ourselves as Freud pointed out decades ago. Images or “pictures” of God as “Father” or “Judge” or “Shepherd” are just that—images. Mature faith is the graced movement to get behind those images. If that’s the case, your “atheism” is a good thing, because it means that you are maturing in your thought. And as an added benefit, you are not committing idolatry—worshipping a human idea. A pretty good thinker named Thomas Aquinas once said that it is easier to say what God is not, rather than to say what God is. Before we deny God, it’s helpful to know what it is we are in denial about. Maybe this theology course will help clear up such matters.

We concluded this conversation with a little summarizing flourish from me: So, my young friend, here’s the deal: Take the course, think about it, and when you are puzzled or irritated with what is going on, raise a hand and ask a question. If you want to come to the office to continue this conversation, come on by. I’m around because that is what a professor ought to be—around. Don’t be overly argumentative in class. When you are genuinely puzzled, ask. Be a seeker.

He did come by on occasion and he did have questions. He finished the course satisfactorily. But to this day, I have no idea if he still is an unbeliever. If he is, my hope is that he is an unsettled one. I want him to be a questioning agnostic just as much as I want my believing students to be questioning. After all, as St. Anselm of Canterbury famously said a thousand years ago, theology is “faith seeking understanding.” We seek in this life for understanding; we will only possess understanding when we are bathed in the light of eternity.

This modest hope for my agnostic student will not please parents who spend lots of money to send a young person to a school such as Notre Dame, only to discover that their child’s faith is unsettled or even “lost.” The plain truth is—and this comes with 40 years of teaching behind me—that when a lot of young people say that they lose their faith while in college, what they are really losing is a certain form of habitual behavior that, in truth, lacks personal conviction. They went to Mass because their parents got them up for Mass. They went to Catholic schools or catechism classes because that was what was expected of them. So, when gaining their independence, they might give up those religious modes of behavior just as they might give up swimming lessons or listening to certain kinds of music.

What can the Catholic university in general or a theology teacher in particular do for the young people whom families entrust to them? Speaking for myself, here are the strategies I employ:

First, be a listener. And in listening, take seriously the complaints and challenges presented to you. Try not to argue; listen. This is not as easy as it seems since, by training, we are teachers. It took me a long time to grasp this point. It is hard not to interrupt with a rejoinder. However, arguments do little good because, inevitably, I am going to win the argument since I have been at it longer than my student. To win the argument, however, may seem to dismiss the student’s concerns or the personal exploration.

Second, listening convinces the student that the matter is serious and intellectually crucial. I like the steps once proposed by the great Jesuit Bernard Lonergan (my old professor in Rome): Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be responsible. Be loving, and, if necessary, change. In that way, we are being a seeker. After all, the professor is as much a seeker as the student.

Finally, I told the student described above to pray. But the objection was immediate—I do not believe in God. Well, I said, just perhaps God believes in you.