Yesterday I was in the supermarket and spotted an interesting button on the check-out lady. It was a woodcut image of some Renaissance figure. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Dante Alighieri,” she said. And I thought: how often do you go into the store for milk and bread and run into a check-out lady wearing a Dante button? OK, yes, it was Whole Foods, but the kind of buttons you expect to see on its employees exhort you to Coexist With the Gay Married Whales, and so forth. But this was Dante!
I told her that I had never read the Divine Comedy, and that one of my great regrets about my college education was that I had never taken the famous Dante course taught at LSU by a particular professor. “We’re about to move back to Louisiana,” I said. “I’m going to look him up and see if he’s still teaching. I’ve got to get into that course.”
I looked him up online last night, and it turns out that the great man has retired. My deep loss. That caused me to reflect on how much I wasted with my college education. I took some great classes, but if I had had any idea how much I would regret not studying harder, and not taking a Shakespeare class, or that Dante class, I would have kicked my own ass out of the bar and into the library (that was a time in my life when I needed more libraries and fewer parades). Then again, if I had been able to recognize that, I wouldn’t have been 18, 19, 20 years old. It’s an old story.
Nevertheless, we may hope that the wisdom of the old and regretful may not be lost on the young, who still have time to learn from our example. Timothy Dalrymple has written a great Open Letter to College Freshmen that contains excellent counsel. Excerpt:
4. Seek answers, not merely questions. You may hear the opposite in the freshman orientation process. ”It’s not the answers but the questions that matter,” they might say, “not the verities but the inquiries, not the destination but the journey.” Yes and no. The faculty certainly want you to question the views with which you were raised, especially when they do not agree with those views. When I was teaching, it was commonly said amongst my colleagues that the purpose of our instruction is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Our aim, in other words, is to cause young people to see how dubious and arbitrary are the moral, political and religious beliefs with which they were raised, and how sensible and compelling the beliefs of others could be. Of course, this was not applied evenly. If you were a liberal pluralist, then you had no oppressive, exclusivist, intolerant and irrational beliefs from which you had to be disabused. And if you were a conservative Muslim, then the religious studies faculty would stumble all over themselves to defend your perspective. If you are a conservative (white) Christian, however, then your parents are a part of the problem, and, for your sake and the sake of the world around you, you have to be liberated from the bonds of prejudice and ignorance. Thus we had professors who promised the students at the outset of a year-long course that any Christians in the lecture hall would lose their faith by the end of the year, or who scoffed that “God is dead beneath my feet,” or who verbally high-fived their fellow faculty when they provoked evangelicals into crises of faith. This is important to remember: if you are a conservative Christian of one stripe or another, many professors will view your loss of faith as a good thing for you, and an accomplishment for them.
And there is value, to be sure, in critically examining the beliefs with which you were raised. Your faith may never truly be your own otherwise. However, you should resist the advice simply to “rest with the questions” and “grow comfortable with ambiguity.” Grow comfortable with complexity, yes, and with a proper humility over the things we can know and the things we cannot. But compelling, reasonable answers are out there. When I began what became a decade-long study of atheism, my faith was cast into question. I believed that I had been initiated into mysteries that other Christians had not, that I had come across criticisms of the Christian faith that few if any Christians had heard or addressed. After all, no one at my home church had read Hume or Voltaire, Nietzsche or Russell. Yet this, of course, was rubbish. The more I investigated the matter, the more I discovered that, of course, countless thousands of exceptionally intelligent Christians have read Feuerbach and Freud and Russell and Rorty — and not only read them, but developed very satisfying responses to their critiques of Christianity. The problem arises when you pit a university course criticizing Christian beliefs against an immature, unlearned, Sunday School faith. Just as you educate yourself (if and when you do) on the criticisms of your beliefs, you should educate yourself on how your faith community has responded to those criticisms. Men and women of profound Christian faith and extraordinary intelligence and wisdom have been responding to criticisms of Christian belief for as long as the Christian church has been in existence. Today there is no field — from biology and physics to philosophy and biblical studies — where there are not committed believers who stand amongst the most accomplished in their fields and stand ready to explain how they see their faith in light of their expertise.
Matthew Lee Anderson followed this with his own excellent Open Letter. Excerpt:
1) The world is built from discipline. Embrace it. Yes, you can and should have fun. Yes, you should cultivate deep friendships with people. But you should also recognize that you cannot take a four year holiday from cultivating the sort of habits and virtues that will shape the rest of your life.
You can, in fact, start small. Take one morning class every semester that meets twice a week, to help you get to bed relatively early two nights a week and so you give yourself the opportunity to experience the joys of the morning sun. If you’ve never seen it, you’re missing out. You’ll probably forget everything from your classes in 10 years, but you will take your habits with you.
Matthew Lee Anderson, where were you in the fall of 1985? I could have used these words carved in the stone with which someone cracked me over the head every morning.
Readers, please comment on all this advice, and/or share some advice you would give to college freshmen today, based on your own experience.