People sometimes talk about how universities are hostile places for Christians and how they lead people away from faith. Yet, I think this idea of universities being anti-Christian is too simplistic an understanding of how faith and academia relate. At the same time, I believe that a lot of people who participate in academia go through faith struggles, especially at the start of graduate school or the beginning of their career.
The following are a few potential reasons why graduate school might act as an incubator for faith struggles:
– Universities expose one to a lot of new ideas, experiences, and people. This then challenges one’s beliefs. Most people become more solid in their beliefs or find something better. If one’s faith is primarily therapeutic moralistic deism (See Christian Smith’s work), chances are something better can be found. Thankfully, sometimes historic Christianity is one of the better options people find. The wonderful memoir, Surprised by Oxford, illustrates that well, as do the reports of new conversions given by campus ministries.
– Graduate school or a new career in academia often involves a significant change in location (University/college and a career outside of academia do as well, but to a lesser degree). One leaves friends and family and church community, and finding new community is hard. Potentially negative experiences with trying to find a new church can lead to cynicism and dissatisfaction with church and faith in general.
– Deconstruction is a significant part of any serious academic program. Being trained to question everything in one’s own discipline naturally leads to questioning faith. This can lead to a deepening understanding of faith or it can lead to a profound questioning of the tenets and relevance of one’s own faith.
– Graduate school can be lonely and isolating. Many people get depressed. While some people find God a solace in difficult times, others are prone to question where God is in the midst of this, and why it is this way.
In the midst of this, campus ministries ought to be safe places to talk about faith, especially those struggling with faith, whatever that struggle looks like.