It was a Tuesday after Saturday’s graduation events. My assistant brought the day’s mail into my office and set the pile in front of me. She had tossed away the obvious junk mail and had taken the correspondence that I needed to deal with out of the envelopes. “I did not open this one,” she said. It was a plain white sealed envelope sent through the campus mail, addressed to me in the president’s office with “PERSONAL” neatly printed on it.
After my assistant left, I opened it. The typed letter did not identify the sender. The writer thanked me for my charge to the graduating class at Commencement. When she had decided to attend Fuller, she said, her parents, who did not approve of women being ordained were worried that Fuller was a liberal school where she would lose her faith. But they had been impressed by the clear evangelical character of the graduation ceremony.
Then the shocking lines. They need not have worried about her losing her faith at Fuller, she said, because that had already happened in her senior year at the evangelical college she attended. It wasn’t the fault of anyone at that school. She had received a good education there and had made many friends. And now also at Fuller—she had learned much, but with the same result—still no recovering of faith.
She had not shared her loss of faith with any family or friends, and she was now thinking about how best to do that. Writing to me was for her a first step. During her senior year of college, having realized that she no longer believed, she decided “to give Fuller a chance” at helping to restore her faith. Nor did she regret that decision. While her faith had not returned, she wrote, “Fuller gave it a good shot!” And then she said something that brought a gasp from me, followed by many tears. She wanted to thank me especially, she said, because, in a philosophy class that I taught, she came close to believing again. “It was in a lecture on Nietzsche. You laid out the issue of a living God versus a dead God, and for a moment—a moment!—I felt like I could believe again. But the feeling went away. But thank you for giving it a try!”
I still shed tears over her words to me. I often pray for her. I think much about what I, or the school that I served as president, should have done differently. I wonder, for example, why after seven years of serious study at evangelical institutions she could describe her spiritual quest as a search for a “feeling” that could emerge and then quickly slip away. We have learned much in recent times about how faith—as a way of discipleship—is nurtured by engagement in communal practices. Did she simply absent herself from that dimension of those formation activities on our campuses? Or did we offer those opportunities as options that a student could take or leave?
Another concern. In our emphasis on being Christian academic communities of faith, do we pay adequate attention to the needs of students for whom coming to faith is a deep personal concern? When I was on the faculty at Calvin College, a philosophy colleague told me about a student who had just met with him in his office. The young man had rather-of-factly announced that he was now an atheist. “What year are you in?” my colleague asked. The young man replied that he was a junior. “Oh, well,” my friend remarked, “you are a little behind me. Sophomore was my atheist year!”
My colleague and I smiled about that exchange. We both agreed that the young man was going through a fairly common stage in the development of undergraduates. In retrospect, however, I can see that we should have taken that student’s state of mind and heart more seriously. How do we work to provide a safe supportive environment for our students as they go through a healthy process of testing their beliefs and commitments?
My sense, though, is that my seminary student was a different sort of case than the college junior. She was a committed seeker, willing to devote years of study to search for a basis for faith. Our relationship with her was significantly different from the Apostle Paul’s in the court of King Agrippa (Acts 26). There Paul was speaking truth to power, and Agrippa’s “You almost persuaded me” was in a different tone of voice than my student’s poignant “and for a moment I felt like I could believe again.”
Those sad words haunt me, but they force me to take comfort in my Calvinist convictions. The Holy Spirit was still at work in her deep places, and the Lord does not give up on people when they graduate. I still pray for her. I also thank God for the gift of her letter to me. It has made me aware that there are students sitting in our classes who are struggling with matters of faith in the secret places of their souls. I am opposed to using class lectures as “come to Jesus” occasions. But we would do well at least to talk to Jesus more about how we can best serve those of our students who are trying to find him!