On being ‘religious’ in college

Jason McCann talks through his experience of attitudes towards religion in college.


Perhaps one of the most wonderful experiences of being liberated into the college environment is the exposure to such an eclectic mix of interesting people, whether that is in lectures, the numerous student societies, or the endless mill of invitations to get-togethers. Fraternisation happens in the no-man’s-land between the various schools and disciplines; friendships are made, and some of the most memorable and extraordinary nights are had. First impressions count, and meeting new people comes with its own set of problems, but imagine for a moment being in a crowded room filled with strangers enjoying some beers and listening to music and being introduced as one of the trainee vicars.

Yes, that trooper was me. No doubt few others who were at that particular session remember the moment, but I do. As I remember it the music suddenly screeched and then scratched to silence, all conversation stopped, others held their glasses and tins from their mouths, and all eyes fell on me like ravenous wolves. There was even some tumbleweed rolling outside.

For much of the rest of the evening I listened as dapper looking science students and an array of other enlightened souls told me all about my faith, and people like me, they were eager to say why they couldn’t share my beliefs or be like me. Yet some were kind enough to say how much they admired me for being able to hold onto all that stuff.

These new faces – many of whom are now dear friends – told me all about my thoughts on Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark. I learned all about my attitudes to homosexuality, contraception, divorce, and abortion. As I continued to smile and nod, the more philosophical reasoned with me about the absurdity of the existence of God, and the problem of this loving God letting so much badness happen in the world. As I was obviously ‘one of the good ones,’ and as more social lubricant was imbibed into the night, a few felt comfortable enough to confide in me their frustration and anger at the other ones who were all about abusing children and extorting money from vulnerable old ladies. I was glad at least they were getting it off their chests.

Now, writing this reflection on being religious in college, a few years later, I could go into my trust in a God who does not exist; a God who is prior to and apart from existence, a God who is. I can explain my thoroughly modern acceptance of the biological evolutionary processes that brought us here, and discuss the mythological narrative of Eve and Adam as a means of understanding human nature, and set out my thesis that Noah’s Ark is an allegory of an ancient kingdom surviving an invasion and the exile of its people. I could even explain my religious reasons for voting Yes in the marriage equality referendum, my advocacy for greater use of contraception, and my thoughts on divorce. It might too be useful to describe how St. Thomas Aquinas held that life began not at conception but at the ‘quickening,’ but this isn’t the place for any of that.

It may even make sense for me to write about what it is like to be religious, but I am afraid that I can’t. I am not the sum of all religious people in Trinity. I’m not a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Hindu, or even a practitioner of Wiccan religion. I am me. It is only my experience I can speak of, and my religious life lived in this university.

Credo in unum Deum… That I am a Christian who believes and trusts in God is not an escape from the crises of the world we share. Like so many other religious people I say my prayers and stop to wonder, often with a deep sense of dread, if I am talking to myself. Time and again I am assailed by doubt and anxiety. I worry that I am a fraud in the academy; that I am not smart enough to be here. In darker moments I question if there is some truth to the assertion that religious people are less intelligent, and that I myself am my own personal proof of this. It is at these moments that I begin to agree that my religion is a crutch.

Yesterday I discovered that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer. I called him immediately and heard this giant of a man’s voice break. Not much more than a year ago an uncle to whom I was particularly close passed away in his fifties, and still I feel bitter. I have witnessed too many deaths, too many tragedies, but what is this to the suffering of the world – all the misery of all people and animals? What seems too much for me is but a drop in the ocean. People we know and love get sick and die, people die in accidents, others are callously murdered. All about us there are people living in poverty; women, men, and children forced into the most desperate conditions. Then there is war and genocide, drought and famine. When faced with these realities I tend to despair. Imagining that there is no God drives me to hopelessness.

Hopelessness is death. We can live moments without air, but not a single second without hope. So to describe my crutch more accurately I would say that it is hope as an act of resistance. This is to say that it is because of the realities of real life that I choose to hope; not that everything will be alright, but that love and justice will ultimately triumph – in this life or the next.

Much like the languages that we use to communicate and understand the world, hope has a grammar that permits us some access to an awareness of the final guarantor of our hope – be that God, an ultimate reality, or truth. Our trust in this transcendence is how I would begin to articulate my faith, and the religious path I follow becomes one of the many languages which give expression to this ultimate reality in the ordinary and everyday realities of my own life, and my life among others.

Appreciating religious faith as the grammar of hope renders absurd the notion that my particular religious tradition is the only way of accessing and communicating the truth. This would be every bit as absurd as claiming that only Irish or English was capable of transmitting ideas and of providing us with a vehicle by which to make sense of our thoughts.

How then does my own religiousness fit into life on campus? On the personal level my faith provides another dimension to the moral and social norms we all try to live; respecting others is transformed into an encounter with truly meaningful and unique others who are worthy of love and compassion for their own sake and because in them is the impress of God’s own image and the radiance of her love. It opens, for me at least, the way to welcoming others into my life as sisters and brothers rather than mere friends and strangers. This welcoming of the other as divinity and humanity – and divinity in and for humanity – imbues every encounter and experience with joy, and reminds us to savour each moment with a thankfulness which elevates the humdrum to the exceptional. On the social level my thankfulness helps me to see past all the assumptions people make of me and so see them as the other worth knowing, and reminds me daily to assume nothing of others.