Three Troubled College Students:
A Disillusioned Senior
"A Case Study on Spiritual Transformation"
"I just don't know how anyone can really be a Christian here," lamented Joe, a tired, unkempt, disillusioned senior at one of America's most prestigious private colleges. Joe had walked away from his faith his freshman year and for the next two years kept Christianity and Christian friends at a safe distance. It wasn't until he studied abroad his junior year, after living for two months in a tropical rain forest far away from the University culture, that he began to read the Bible again. As he did, the life and teaching of Jesus came alive like never before. Joe returned to Harvard different. For the first few weeks back at school he continued to experience something like a revival of spiritual life and radical change in his behavior. He found himself spontaneously looking for and finding opportunities to serve people, enjoying the Word of God, and regularly fellowshipping with others committed to creating Christian community and growing in Christian faith. But, as the semester wore on, his zeal wore off and the affects of the culture set in. He found himself at a very similar place, across the cafeteria table from me, a Campus Crusade for Christ staff member, with an expressionless extended stare at the overcooked green bean dangling from his fork. It wasn't just the pose of young man who had lost his appetite for food, but a young man who had lost his appetite for life-who at that moment felt more at one with the green bean on his fork-impaled by the ruthless spirit of the prevailing college culture-than he felt one with the God Christians loved and worshipped.
Joe recognized something true, radical and engaging in Jesus and Christianity, but several things troubled him:
1) Certain intellectual questions about Christianity bothered him. Dismissing these ideas was like burying something alive-they just kept coming up and haunting him.
2) The notable absence of anyone at college who was really living the kind of life Jesus called people to live bothered him.
3) Although he longed for a Christianity grounded in experience (not just the life of the mind) he could not see how it was even possible to live this kind of a Christian life within the prevailing college culture, after all, "How do you make time for it?"
A Troubled Freshman
Later that day I met with Matt, a wide-eyed, clean cut, energetic and enthusiastic freshman. Despite the noticeable outward differences of countenance and disposition it only took a second question, "How are you really doing" to find that he, like Joe was at a very similar place. Carried along for the first two months of school by years of spiritual discipline, Christian fellowship and Bible study he now found very little time to cultivate his spiritual life. Nor did he see the academic environment as helpful to his spiritual formation. He lamented the absence of the theological perspective in any of the readings or lectures of his classes. As far as he could tell, this college considered the theological or religious perspective irrelevant to anything that he studied. Given the extremely demanding academic environment and his high achieving mindset (typical of most students at this school), if the theological perspective failed to show up in his studies it failed to show up in his every day life-consumed as he was by studying. It not only troubled Matt that the highest level of academic training conditioned him to make sense of the world in a place that denied any relevance of God, Spirit, Christ to the development of his mind, but it troubled him even more that the demands of what he perceived as an anti-theistic environment practically precluded the possibility of cultivating a spiritual life that could integrate with, or critically analyze, these new insights from a theological, spiritual or Christian perspective or practice.
A Desperate Sophomore
During my dinner with Matt, another student, Brad, shared briefly about the retreat he attended the past weekend with several of our small group leaders. During the retreat he had a rather extraordinary and unexpected religious experience where, after an extended time of singing and prayerfully invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, he found himself for several minutes in an uncontrollable state of weeping and laughter. "God," he said, "has never been more real to me than right now." This experience marked his life in a way that he believed would never be forgotten. He is looking now, like never before, for ways to know and serve God.