Authorial Note: The following is the published second version of a piece, the first version of which will be posted on this blog shortly. This second version was published in the September 2014 issue of The Newspaper, the University of Toronto’s Independent Paper but due to layout complications it did not turn out as planned. However both myself and The Newspaper look forward to publishing more together. The following was written for the new undergraduates at the University of Toronto who identify with a faith tradition. 

             The Psalmist says of the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119:105). Now while one cannot necessarily reflect the rays of divine light unto your path, one can hope to illumine your divine light with reflections upon one’s own path. It is with this endeavor that a former undergraduate can hope to shine a flashlight over his shoulder to illumine your future by his past. Coming fresh out of high school, I had one goal—get the best education possible. To give you a noble reason for why I wanted to get the best education I possibly could get, would be a masterpiece of deception I hope I will never be capable of. Being raised in Christian apologetic material, scholarship, books, movies etc… that sought to ‘defend’ the Christian faith on historical grounds against the perceived onslaught of secularism, Islam, and post-modernism I had begun to notice that those who were talked about the most, and were taken most seriously in the public court of opinion, were those with high degrees from top universities. They had proven themselves more than capable in the scholarly realm and had wished to make a public defense of the Christian faith, and their status as elite academics only helped the cause. In a rather cynical manner, as I perceive it now, coming out of high-school with the same desire, I sought to get the best education at the top university in Canada, the University of Toronto. If I exposed myself to the harshest criticisms of the Christian faith, studied the New Testament under the ‘liberal’ scholars, and engage at the highest levels of academic debate—I would come out with my Christian faith all the stronger, and a mark of status so that people would have to listen to my opinion.

             As cynical as this endeavor originally began, it did instill a virtue in me that I would now trade for nothing else in the world—the courage to pursue the truth, for the truth has nothing to fear. Throwing my faith in the ‘deep waters’ as it were, while originally beginning as a pursuit of a mark of status, was also a sign in the deep trust that I had in the truth of the Christian faith—reading about the Qu’ran, Karl Marx, New Testament textual criticism, and atheism, did not frighten me in the least, nor should have they. First and foremost then, while I may not know why you wish to pursue your education as you are so doing—be prepared to be transformed, and in the process possibly value your education in a different light. Second, truth has nothing to fear, do not view ‘faith’ as a set of propositions that must be defended at all costs, rather, view ‘faith’ as trust, as a verb, that invites you to throw yourself in, knowing that after all the transformation has been gone through, no matter how painful, that it is worth it.

            Speaking of painful transformation, let me tell you a story from my first year that should reassure you in two respects—one, your education will be challenging, and two, your professors are not your enemies, despite all appearances. My program was a specialization in Christian Origins, so I was required to take two years of classical Greek—if you’ve ever studied another language you know how difficult it is, let alone how difficult it is when the language is considered as dead as you feel after you’ve learned it!!! During our first day of class, our professor, invited us to read a passage of Homer’s The Odyssey…in Greek. Most of us were not sure we knew the entire alphabet of the Greek language. Needless to say, near the end of the first semester the class had dwindled from 40 people to 12, and before our first exam I was considering to be numbered among the 28 that dropped out. I had never struggled so much learning anything as I had classical Greek, I had come out of high-school with a 92% average with little to no difficulty—to be unable to grasp the complex grammar of classical Greek was an embarrassment to whatever ego I had, and brought me to tears, as I was failing the class miserably for nearly four months. I asked our professor repeatedly how I could do better, she gave the same answer each time—‘memorize, everyday’, ‘memorize, everyday’ almost like a mantra. I decided that I would take her up on her challenge and prove her wrong that even with such studying, the class was far too difficult. Sure enough however, my pride went before the fall (Prov. 16:18), and she was right. I memorized and studied everyday, and ended the course with an A.

            However, this does not mean that your professors are always right about everything that they may advise or teach. It is here where we must come to the straight-forward reality of the campus of the University of Toronto, that will you meet people not only with different beliefs but conflicting beliefs to your own. The question then is how will one interact with the ‘other’. When it comes to your professors, the first thing that I can advise you, for I had seen it in many of my friends throughout my undergrad, is that when you encounter a professor who appears to be challenging your particular beliefs about something is- do not panic. Many Christian friends had continually asked throughout the course of my study—‘how has studying under liberal professors affected your faith?’, ‘how did you manage to keep your faith in the midst of all the criticism of the Bible you had learned?’ While, these questions were greatly appreciated, it is important to note that they came from a place of timidity and fear and what I always reminded them was, the professors were not out to destroy my faith. To be quite honest, most professors could probably care less about what you actually ‘believe’, what is important for them is that you understand the teaching material, not that you yourself subscribe to their point of view. I myself most assuredly changed some of my beliefs because of what I had been taught by professors, but, as equally important, I was all the more enriched and confirmed in some of my beliefs because of what professors had taught. The key was that at the end of the day I had to trust that I could engage 100% with the thoughts and worldviews presented to me, without my entire world falling apart. You may study something, and come out believing exactly as you did before, or you may study something and be utterly transformed, as all good education would do. But either of those outcomes must come from a willingness and courage to step out of your comfort zone.

            The question and challenge of the ‘other’, when it comes to your peers, can be best exemplified by my interaction with a Yugoslavian acquaintance of mine. In my pursuit of understanding science (and fulfilling my science distribution requirement, of course) I took a history and philosophy of science course. Unexpectedly, I had seen another guy who I knew from my middle school days in the same class—we were not on the best of terms. Whenever the topic of ‘religion’ came up amongst our mutual friends on Facebook or whatnot, inevitably we’d get caught up in those utterly time-consuming and ineffective internet-debates. He would accuse me of being an idiot, a Biblical literalist, and what not, where as I had overtly made the point that I was much more well-read than him and that because I felt that I was smarter than him, he should back-down. Well, this course in the history and philosophy of science could not have been a better situation to put an angry atheist and a proud Christian together in to see what would happen. Throughout our conversations and studying, I don’t think either of us actually persuaded one another about the truth of our particular stances but we did manage to laugh, interact, and even become friends. He became convinced that I was not a ‘religious’ idiot to be ignored, and I became convinced that his anger came from a real anguish over the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. I learned not to use an intellectual status to clobber people into agreeing with me, and I’m sure that he learned that insults were not arguments.

            The reason that I relate this story to you is because in your new environment, if you walk, live, and study with your peers with a posture of trust towards that with which you have been brought to trust in, you can treat those ‘others’ in: (1) a hostile manner, imagining them your enemy, (2) an indifferent manner, imagining them as other objects essentially in your world to be tolerated, or (3) in love toward them, imagining them as, while fully being the mysterious ‘other’ as, nevertheless, like you—fragile, scared, anxious, and a whole other host of issues that afflict students today. The interaction between my Yugoslavian friend and myself, is a great example of the third. We were enemies, at first we tolerated each other, but the more that we saw that though we were an ‘other’ to each other, that if we did really trust our beliefs, trust in that which we believed to be the ground of our being—then there was no fear needed to be had.

            Lastly, however, I must tell you about my extremely traumatic encounter with an issue every student faces, anxiety. During the summer after the third year of my undergrad, I had a GPA of 3.6 and I had been awarded a student award of excellence scholarship, for which I would work on a research project with my one of favorite professors, Dr. John S. Kloppenborg, throughout this summer. During the summer however, I had a very unexpected onset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a result of guilt over sexual-related anxieties, and isolation due to the research project. The aspect of myself that I had most trust in, and had relied upon for my entire university career, my brain, had begun to fail me. In OCD the brain alerts you of your worst fears, no matter how irrational and the more one tries to get rid of those fears with every little practice the worse it gets because you have now alerted and taught your brain that there really is something to fear. My fearful obsessions had me hospitalized for a week due to sleep and food deprivation to the point of thoughts of suicide. In a matter of weeks I had went from viewing myself as a top scholar to the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph’s hospital, in the company of those who were much more mentally afflicted than I. During my time in the ward, my grades, my scholarship, my learning meant nothing, for at the end of the day I was as fragile and weak as anyone else there who I may have considered myself as having an advantage over before. Through a process of medication, therapy, and an understanding of the deep love of God that I could trust no matter what, I recovered in time to bring the research to a close and start my final year of university, not knowing whether I would be able to handle it. The most important lesson then that I have to offer you is, that as a student of a particular ‘religious’ faith, you can boldly trust that while you may not always have it together, there is a love in the universe that cares for you. That may sound sentimental to anyone that has not had their ‘life’s-breakdown’ moment yet, but, to those who are keenly aware of their own fragility and anxiety ridden nature, the news that one can trust that there is a love greater than you and whatever broken things you may have relied upon, is good.

            Hopefully, now having helped you initially navigate what it means to be a student of faith, and how you should interact with your peers and professors in how you hold your beliefs, I’d like to leave you with some helpful tips to take full advantage of the resources available to you at the University of Toronto, as you grow, learn new things, possibly change some of your beliefs, while holding others in even a more trustful manner than before. One of the most wonderful attributes about the campus (and, not to mention, something which McGill has nothing like, haha) is the Multi-Faith centre (https://www.multifaith.utoronto.ca) , located at the Koffler House (569 Spadina Ave), which hold various events and conversations intentionally so that students from different faith traditions can meet, interact, and grow. On their website you can find the Campus Chaplains Association to find leaders of various faith traditions, as well as lists of the various faith communities on campus, with whom you can feel at home with. Another tremendous resource available to you at the University of Toronto for students of faith, is the immense library catalogue that the university is home to (http://onesearch.library.utoronto.ca). If you encounter an issue with which you have had not dealt with before, i.e. the textual history of the Qu’ran, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion, transgender people, chances are there is someone from one’s particular tradition that has written on the subject that can help you react to that as you navigate and enjoy your life as a student.  While much more could have been said or advised, it is the hope of this writer that you will have enough trust to take the next steps yourself, and to share the light you encounter with others as I have endeavor to do so here. May you be blessed by the reading of this reflection. May you trust that the ground of your being can handle any question or trouble you may encounter. May you treat others as sites of love and not battle-grounds. Finally, may you find home in community as you engage, explore, endure, ponder, question, and live life as the gift that it is at the University of Toronto.

Sincerely,

Caleb Upton

MTh

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