Dwelling in a land of disbelief: My University Years

 

 

Two-thirds of my life has been lived since I graduated from university in 1975.  Its ancient history now, and it feels like it.

University should be about learning how much you don’t know.  That was certainly my experience.  My intellectual horizons were stretched or, more accurately, the stretching process began in university.  Up to that time, my education was designed to keep me from thinking too deeply about anything, and that was particularly true at church and, for the most part, at the Baptist Leadership Training School.

Once I realized how much there was to know, I adopted a wait-and-see attitude.  Most of my professors were Oxford graduates who came of age during the halcyon years of logical positivism.  The truth was what could be verified, period.  The late 19th and early 20th centuries had been dominated by Hegelian idealism, the vague notion that God (or something) was gradually coming to being through the tribulations of history.  The social gospel and all things progressive were rooted in this kind of thinking.  So is Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

The positivists were reacting against the mystical, fanciful, unverifiable aspects of Hegelian thought.  Scientific empiricism of the most rigorous kind was the goal.  If you couldn’t prove it, it wasn’t real.  And if it wasn’t real, it didn’t matter.  The positivists, not surprisingly, weren’t big on divine revelation.

Religious and secular versions of existentialism were also reacting against Hegel, but in a very different direction.  While the rationalists wanted to reduce everything to observable fact, the existentialists wanted to go back to the questions that had spawned philosophy in the first place: what is the purpose and significance of human existence?  What’s it all about, Alfie?

During the years I was in school, the positivists and existentialists were gradually giving way to the next big intellectual fad: post-modernism.  But it was an awkward time; a period of transition.

Did I understand any of this at the time?  No, I did not.

I had been raised to see the Bible as a kind of answer book.  No matter the question, the Bible had the answer.  But I cannot emphasize too strongly that the preachers I grew up listening to were not fundamentalists.  They never told me that the world was created 10,000 years ago or that Jesus would be returning on the clouds of glory any day now.  There were certainly people in the churches of my youth who believed these things, but they didn’t get to preach.

Preachers talked about science quite a lot when I was a boy.  The message was mixed.  Science was very good at discovering how God put the world together, I was told, but the men in lab coats couldn’t tell you why you were alive, or what happens when you die, or which ethical system you should follow.  Only God, speaking through his Holy Word, could do that.

Lewis
C.S. Lewis

I was also reading a lot of C.S. Lewis during my university years.  Lewis didn’t just graduate from Oxford, he bloody well taught there.  And at Cambridge too.  Which meant he was smarter and better informed than my professors.  Because Lewis believed in God, I could too.  He made religious belief intellectually respectable simply by being who he was.

I was vaguely aware, even then, that men like Lewis were fighting a rearguard action against the Orcs and Goblins of rationalism.  But I didn’t care.  Lewis was the ace I kept hidden in my sleeve.  If my belief in God and his Holy Bible was threatened I re-read Mere Christianity and that had a soothing effect.  Lewis had been dead for over a decade when I enrolled at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, but were he to rise from the dead, I fancied he could win a debate with any of my professors. I suspect I was right about that.

I was also reading a lot of Malcolm Muggeridge, an acerbic and cranky Brit who rebelled against his socialist upbringing after World War II and embraced a mystical version of Christianity.  Muggeridge got me reading William Blake and Dostoevsky, two Christians who criticized conventional religion with wild abandon, but as people of faith.

And I read a lot of Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century essayist who created one of the first dictionaries in the English language.  Richard Sherbaniuk, my old high school friend, introduced me to Johnson (and Muggeridge and Arthur Koestler and Graham Greene) and we would talk about their ideas late into the night.  Richard had been reading ten books a week since he was a wee boy and knew a lot more about these things than I did.  He hadn’t been raised in church and viewed religion as a kind of necessary nonsense.

I am surprised, looking back after almost half a century, how unperturbed I was by the ideas I was exposed to during my university years.  I didn’t feel I had to believe any of it, nor did I feel constrained to reject it.  For one thing, I knew that, after graduating from university, I would probably be attending a seminary somewhere so God would eventually get the last word.

That’s why I didn’t take a lot of courses in the Bible in university.  My focus was the western intellectual tradition.  I wanted to know where the ideas I had been taught, in Sunday school, at the Baptist Leadership Training School and at the University of Alberta, came from.

I could read secular writers with relative equanimity because the idea of a godless universe has never appealed to me.  Not one little bit.  It was a bit like Pascal’s wager.  If I am wrong about God I will one day pass into nothingness and be none the wiser.

I took all kinds of survey courses in European history, gradually narrowing my focus to British history.  I didn’t take a single course in either Canadian or American history, subjects that, at the time, held no interest for me.  I’m not sure why.  It probably had something to do with what was on offer at the time.  Oxford trained professors tended to place their alma mater at the center of the universe.  At sixty-five I have yet to travel to Europe, a tragic omission I hope to rectify before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Most of my philosophy courses, naturally enough, were introductory.  We read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.  Or at least we were supposed to.  I just skimmed, and squirmed, and squinted, too confused to be threatened.  I had no mental hooks on which to hang these learned notions.  Besides, I have never been a fast reader, and have never really wanted to be.  I want to hear the author’s voice (typically in a high-brow British accent) speaking to me.

This became a real problem when I took a course on the English novel.  I enjoyed reading Emma and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Great Expectations, but these books often ran to 800 pages and I couldn’t make it all the way through before the pop quiz rolled around.  I became enamored of Charles Dickens, though, and read his most familiar books during the long summers when I counted traffic for the Alberta Department of Transport.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic in most parts of the province so I could read big books slowly.  I also read a lot of Graham Green and Dostoevsky and, when I wasn’t reading I was playing my guitar and singing.

dress on fireI don’t remember bearing witness to my Christian convictions in class, but I must have said something in my course on the English novel to give the game away.  When we reached the gothic scene in Great Expectations where the tattered remnants Miss Havisham’s wedding dress catch fire my professor looked up from his notes. “I have a theological question for you, Mr. Bean,” he said dryly.  “Is it better to marry than to burn?”

Had I been that obvious?  So it would appear.

During my traffic-counting summers I devoured The Brothers Karamazov.  Twice actually.  I identified strongly with the quiet, contemplative Alyosha. I wasn’t like him, but I wanted to be.  It was the Grand Inquisitor chapter that really grabbed me, though.  It’s one of the most imaginatively distressing scenes I have ever encountered.  Alyosha is sharing a meal with his older brother, Ivan.  While Alyosha is evolving toward life in an Orthodox monastery, Ivan is an atheist who delights in tormenting the faithful with hard questions.  Both men represent different stages in Dostoevsky’s life (as does their debauched but charming elder brother, Dmitri).

InquisitorIvan has written a story in which Jesus returns to earth, behaving much as he did the first time around, only this time he shows up in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition (Dostoevsky really had it in for the Jesuits).  Jesus performs a few healing miracles but is taken into custody by the Grand Inquisitor, a wizened old man in charge of burning local heretics at the stake to the greater glory of God.  Late that night, the Inquisitor pays a visit to the dark, cold cell in which Jesus is being held.

It’s a brutally Christian critique of Christianity.  The Church, discovering that the way of Jesus is too demanding for the common folk, has decided to take the Devil up on the bargain offered in the wilderness, substituting physical bread for the hard words of God. The common people don’t know this, of course, just a few brave souls at the top of the ecclesiastical pyramid who carefully guard their terrible secret.  The story comes to mind when I observe the evangelicals bending the knee to the personification of Mammon . . . But I am getting ahead of myself.

I also took a course in Shakespeare (didn’t we all?) and a master’s level course on 18th century English literature that was way over my head.  But that was fine; undergraduates should feel overwhelmed most of the time.

And I took courses in the classics, whirlwind tours of Greek and Roman history that proved invaluable for placing the Bible in historical context later on.

I even took a few science electives (they made me): two courses in evolutionary biology, one in entomology (the study of insects) and one on the physical history of Alberta.  My science professors held to a simple version of Neo-Darwinism.  They didn’t argue for it; it was simply presented as truth. I had no real beef with that.  If C.S. Lewis didn’t subscribe to young earth creationism, why should I?

In my final year of university, Duane Gish, the world’s foremost anti-evolutionist, came to the U of A.  A friend from my Baptist Leadership Training School days invited me to attend, and I did.  We were joined by a biology student who was writing his doctoral dissertation on the reproductive organs of the moth.  Gish had recently published his magnum opus, Evolution: The Fossils Say No!, and he had a snappy presentation filled with plenty of jokes.  He came prepared to debate an orthodox biologist, but no one took up the challenge.

As we were leaving the lecture hall I witnessed a lively back and forth between the friend who invited me (who thought Dr. Gish had nailed Darwin in his coffin for good) and the biology student (who wasn’t buying a word of it).  The expert on moth balls said he could take us to his lab and prove that evolution was a fact.

I threw in my lot with the expert on moth reproduction.  He seemed to know what he was talking about and I didn’t.  But I didn’t really care, one way or another.  Darwin’s theory, even in modern guise, sounds too much like monkeys producing Shakespeare, but what do I know?

rudolf-bultmann
Rudolph Bultmann

A more direct challenge to my faith came from a course in comparative religion.  The professor was Korean, a graduate of the University of Chicago and the textbook we used for the Christianity section of the class was written by Norman Perrin, my professor’s mentor.  I now realize that Perrin was a disciple of Rudolph Bultmann, a German Lutheran who flourished between the two world wars.  Bultmann was concerned that a culture immersed in the scientific method would ignore the glories of Jesus’ teaching because they couldn’t get past mythological trappings like pre-existence, healing miracles, water-walking, and, supremely, the physical resurrection of Jesus.  The point, therefore, was to slough off the supernatural bits so the existential import of “the gospel of Jesus Christ” would shine forth in undiluted splendor.

My Korean professor was convinced that the evangelical churches (who rejected Bultmann as a heretic) had missed the central message of the New Testament.  Billy Graham, my professor informed me, was a “false prophet” because his version of Christianity was disconnected from the needs of the poor.

This didn’t bother me.  Billy Graham kind of left me cold and I figured, correctly, that I would contend with Herr Bultmann when I got to seminary.  By this time I was aware that academic fads (like their religious counterparts) rise and fall with the tide.

For reasons that may be more revealing than I would like to imagine, I totally aced the course on the psychology of alienation.  I remember sitting behind a couple of hot shots who were waxing eloquent on the fine points of Freudian psychoanalysis. “You guys really believe that stuff,” I asked.

Two heads whirled round to face me.  “It’s all been proven,” one of the Freudians informed me, “with rats!”

Later that morning, the two young Freudians complained to the professor about the mediocre grades they had earned on their last exam.

“If you want a better grade,” the professor told them, “you need to work on your writing and reasoning skills.  In fact, if you want to listen to a really first-rate exam essay, listen to this.  Mr. Bean, could I please see your exam?”

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to have my essay presented to the class as a model.  Maybe I was getting a handle on things after all.

The professor gazed at my paper for at least thirty seconds.  “Mr. Bean,” he said at last, “I’m sorry, but your writing is so bad, I have no idea what you have written.”

The Freudians shot vicious glances in my direction.  How could the professor be impressed with my writing, they wanted to know, if my writing was illegible?

Not every Christian pilgrim crosses swords with the demons of disbelief during their university years, not to this extent at least.  Most of my born again buddies at the University of Alberta were preparing for some kind of career (nursing, education, agriculture, engineering, etc.) and were only forced to take a course or two in the humanities.  But I went looking for these courses and took as many as I could cram into my schedule.  I wanted to know how the other half looked at the world.

I didn’t know very much about the history of the church back then.  The version of church history I had been exposed to in church bounced from the Book of Acts to Martin Luther and on to the present as if nothing worthy of mention transpired in between.

My survey courses in European and British history made me realize how enmeshed the church has been with secular society until very recently. Bound to the most reactionary segments of the power structure, the church has typically been the last institution to sign off on positive change.

In my last semester, I took a graduate course in 18th century British economic history.  By the end of term I was the only student and the class was being taught in my professor’s study.  The three other students who signed up had been bored into submission, but I was in my element.

The primary text was The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, who was, like most of my professors, an unapologetic socialist.  I did my major paper on John Wesley and the Methodists.  A lifelong Tory who opposed the American Revolution, Wesley gradually turned his back on a church that had turned its back on the poor.  I learned my liberal politics from my father and my leftward leaning intensified during my university years.

Please don’t get the impression that my young mind was continually occupied with academics during this phase of my life. As you would expect, I spent a lot of time thinking about women.  But I never acted on my natural impulses.  I don’t believe I kissed a woman during the entirety of my college years.  (If I kissed you and have since forgotten about it, you have my sincere apology, but please take you secret with you to the grave.)

My academic and sexual interests converged briefly when I met a young woman in my psychology of alienation class (hardly an auspicious beginning).  I can’t remember her name, but she was attractive and intelligent (and you had to be both to capture my interest).  I was hopelessly awkward with women at the time so I have no idea how a conversation got started, but she ended up inviting me to a party she was having at her apartment.

It didn’t go well.  The party was BYOB and everybody brought their favorite record.  I was listening to some pretty avant garde stuff at the time and was sure the girl would be impressed with my taste.  But I had decided to abstain that evening.  I have no idea why.  I had been drinking the occasional beer or glass of wine (or two, or three) for several years by that point, so I wasn’t taking a stand on principle.  I suspect I didn’t drink because it was expected and I always push back against social pressure.  I’m sure I didn’t announce my intentions, I was just sipping on a coke instead of a beer.

The young woman called me up a few days later to tell me that her friends had been deeply offended by my refusal to drink.  I suspect she told them I was religious and they assumed I was judging them.  Whatever the case, she was mortified and wanted to know why I had placed her in such an awkward position.

I’m not sure how or why, but we decided to meet face-to face to sort things out, which led to one of the most embarrassing encounters of my life.  I decided to share my faith; I have no idea why since my faith was kind of the problem.  But I had a lot of evangelical friends at the time and was a regular at the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship gatherings, so I must have seen this as my religious duty.

I had been talking for several minutes when my friend asked, “Why are you talking like that?”

“Like what?” I asked innocently, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.  I had lowered my voice half an octave and was probably using a lot of what is now called “vocal fry,” the tendency to draw out the last syllable of a word while speaking in a croaky fashion.  I must have heard some Christian soldier talking that way and embraced it as a model.  How fake is that?

This conversation was obviously the end of our relationship.  But this episode taught me something about authenticity.  My refusal to take a social drink, my compulsive insistence on “witnessing” to a potential friend, and my bizarre vocal affectation were signs of inauthenticity.

I now realize that my attraction to this young woman created an existential crisis.  I was committed to celibacy outside marriage.  I didn’t reflect on it that much, it was just a given.  Dating someone outside my evangelical tribe (and likely many people inside it) was problematic because, by 1975, even the phrase “premarital sex” had a quaint ring to it.  Years after the sexual revolution, sex was widely regarded as an itch you needed to scratch now and then.  It had nothing to do with marriage.

But there was no way I was going to get intimate with someone I couldn’t marry.   It is likely, therefore, that I subconsciously sabotaged a budding relationship with someone I liked because I wasn’t ready to negotiate our differences.

I wasn’t just awkward around worldly girls, unfortunately, I was awkward with all women, especially those that left me weak in the knees.  For men, sexual attraction is pretty straightforward, but the mating instinct, the desire to settle down with a particular partner, is complicated, even mystifying.

Like most young men, I was constantly awash in sexual desire.  But my commitment to pre-marital celibacy (which made sense to me back then and still does) meant that I was always looking for a very particular person.  The one.

Let’s be real, shall we.  Had I been tall, dark, handsome and debonair I would have faced temptations well behind my powers of resistance.  But I was five-foot-six, socially awkward and lived inside my own head.  Though hardly ugly, I have never been the kind of person that sticks out in a crowd.  Heads have never turned when I enter a room.  Most of us are like that, and it may be just as well.  Opportunities open up for the beautiful minority on a regular basis, and that isn’t always a good thing.  But, for good and ill, few of us are objects of desire.  To attract women I needed to be assertive and, for the most part, I wasn’t.

Very self-consciously, I dealt with my dilemma by becoming infatuated with two women at the same time.  One had attended the Baptist Leadership Training School the year after me and I enjoyed a few brief encounters with her while making the obligatory return visits to the old school.  She probably didn’t notice me, but I was utterly smitten.  We became pen pals after she returned to Ontario, but I didn’t share my true feelings until late in the process.  She had me figured out, of course.  Why else would I take the time to write long, unintelligible letters to someone I hardly knew?

The second young woman showed up one evening at the College and Career group I attended at Strathcona Baptist Church.  She had a dark, Mediterranean complexion and raven black hair.  She probably gave me the time of day because she was a new Christian, full of questions and I was a pseudo-intellectual with a guitar.  She lived just off campus, sharing a house with two staff people with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVF).  I liked visiting with these women because they were intense, intelligent and deeply committed to Christian fellowship (even if they did turn the thermostat down to 55 degrees in the heart of winter to save energy).  The IVF women believed every word of the Bible and were devotees of Francis Schaeffer, a Christian renaissance man with long hair and a beard (no moustache) who ran an outreach mission in the Swiss Alpis for religiously confused American hippies.

shaeffer
Francis Shaeffer

I tried to read Schaeffer’s books but was unimpressed.  Perhaps the object of my affection may have felt the same way because she was constantly peppering me with questions.  First, she wanted to know what I thought about the social gospel (a concept she had picked up from another male admirer).  I hadn’t given the social gospel much thought, but it sounded good to me.

Secondly, she wanted my read on existentialism (she was reading a lot of Camus and Sartre at the time).  My friend Richard had dropped these names but my survey courses in philosophy hadn’t made it to the 20th century so I had no help to offer.

For a born pedant like me, this was a terrible admission to make.  A lovely young woman wanted my guidance and I had nothing.  At least I had the courage to admit as much.

Neither of the women I had taken an interest in belonged to the beautiful one percent and therefore never lacked for male attention. But, like me, they were biding their time, keeping their romantic options open.  To be honest, I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship with either of these women (or anyone else for that matter).  They were taking charge of their lives, eager to establish careers, and I had no idea where I was going or what I would do when I got there.  Furthermore, I was fully aware that by falling in love with two women was a coping strategy.  How do we survive our college years without so much as a kiss?

And there was a very practical reason I avoided romantic entanglements during this period.  I was broke.  Always.  My parents sacrificed to send me to the Baptist Leadership Training School and told me frankly that the only way they could defray my college expenses was by allowing me to stay in my own bedroom for free.

I made just enough money counting traffic during the summer to pay for tuition and books.  I almost never ate out and most mornings I rode the bus to the university.  I occasionally drove my parent’s old Valiant, but parking was a lot more expensive than bus fare and I was pinching my pennies.

bruce-cockburn-1978-79-grant-hall
Bruce Cockburn

The upside was graduating debt free.  The downside, I was too broke to date.  I did take the young woman who was wrestling with existentialism out for dinner one night, but I picked a really awful restaurant.  And I took her to a Bruce Cockburn concert at the Jubilee auditorium, which worked out much better.  I was in love with Cockburn’s music and never missed a concert.  By the end of my university years I had been playing the guitar for almost a decade and was pretty damn good for an amateur.  I was developing a love for old time country music: Doc Watson, Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers and was making tortuous attempts at yodeling and bluegrass runs on the guitar (tortuous for those listening in, I was having a terrific time).

My next step was seminary.  My pastor, Richard Darling, thought I would be really happy there and he made the place sound perfectly marvelous, which it was, at least for a young Jesus-nerd like me.

I ended up in university because my BLTS friends were enrolling, and I decided to go to seminary for much the same reason.  Several of my BLTS classmates were heading for Louisville and I sort of tagged along.  Lord knows, I didn’t want to be a preacher.  In fact, the thought of speaking for the Almighty terrified me.  But I could afford to kick that can down the road a bit and, in the meantime, I wanted to study the Bible and learn more about this strange religion that was so central to my life.  I was looking for something higher and deeper and better than the domesticated religion of my childhood and was hoping that Seminary could help me find it.

4 thoughts on “Dwelling in a land of disbelief: My University Years

  1. This helps us understand you. Where I came of age, the Social Gospel was treated as an evil heresy that could cause people to miss heaven and find hell. On the other side of the spectrum of religious thought, some Christians embrace the Social Gospel to the extent that they seek to use instruments of government to cure all deficiencies of humans and move toward a utopian ideal. Perhaps not knowing or admitting it, Marxism lurks in the closet.

  2. This is just so excellent. For many years I had a sort of running diary like this on the website of the Periodical Writers’ Association of Canada (PWAC). But a major computer crash wiped out almost 10 years of this and I haven’t had the heart to try and reconstruct it. But I will try to do it, in the style which you have adopted. I’m quite surprised that so many people think I have led an interesting life. I don’t think so at all. But, as Gore Vidal once said, “Any life seen from the inside simply looks like a series of failures.” Or Johnson: “No-one wonders that we live and die like the rest of mankind. They know not what secret plan we had made, and therefore cannot discern whether it is finished.” I just did this from memory, so it’s probably wrong. And thank you for mentioning me in your posts.

    So I will do it and send it to you. No plans for tomorrow, so I will get started.

    Yours, Richard

    >

  3. Conversations in Summer School this year turned more than once to science, creation, Genesis, and evolution. Although my students are not usually from fundamentalist churches, the reach of fundamentalist populism about science is long. They were shocked to know of my accommodations to modern scientific theories from physics to evolutionary biology. The world in which I was educated at university seems so far from today. Thanks, Alan, I enjoyed this. Mike

  4. Wonderful post Alan. Like others have mentioned, it made me reflect a bit on my college years, and in a nutshell, mine was nearly diametric to yours 🙂 Having attended a very small town high school, and being a first generation college student, the life of the mind was a completely foreign concept that I did not grasp until graduate school. I too learned guitar and had a hard time connecting with any females. But studying was secondary to playing whatever sport was in season, jamming, attending non-academic events, hanging out with the guys after the girls had to return to their dorms by curfew time, helping to produce an underground newspaper, and so on. Fortunately for my Civilian Public Service, I was assigned to a medical school/VA complex, and was immersed in academic pursuits that set my career path.

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