How University has affected my faith

Victoria Stock is a member of St Peters choir now beginning her third year as a Theology Student at the University of Nottingham. This piece seems doubly appropriate; it is a reminder of what all students go through at the beginning of their degree course and an eye opener on the experience which young Christians - in particular - are likely to face.

Bored one afternoon, browsing the internet, I stumbled across the ‘Belief-O-Matic’ test - ‘Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-Matic (TM) knows’. Curious, I thought I’d give it a go and, after much deliberation, the results were in. ‘Mainline to liberal protestant’ was the answer. I suppose that is where I stand with my faith. The fascinating thing about these ‘personality quizzes’ is the quick answers about oneself that they provide. Looking back, I suspect that if I had taken this test at the beginning of my degree at Nottingham, the result I would have had then would be the same as now, especially as I seem to be back where I started three years ago. However, unlike the results from the ‘Belief-O-Matic’ test, an accurate understanding of my faith and how it has developed since being at Nottingham isn’t really as straightforward.

I arrived at University revelling in a recently renewed and vibrant faith, looking forward to finding fellow Christians with whom to share my faith and its development. Having a faith and going to Church isn’t something widely adopted within my age group, so the idea of having the chance to make Christian friends out of the 15,000 strong undergraduate populous was anticipated with relish. But, compared with the picture I had formed in my head of the Christian community at University, the reality was far from rosy.

Freshers’ week was filled with attempts to settle in and join all the societies that I could - ensuring (I hoped) that I would maintain my interests as well as my faith. There was the Christian Union (CU) and the Joint Anglican & Methodist Society (or JAMSoc as they liked to call it). Both societies had action packed ‘Week One’ events lined up, so I found myself rather busy in my first week of University meeting all the Christians I could hope and ask for.

I felt immediately at home in JAMSoc- I knew from talking to the Chaplains it was a good place to be. The society’s ethos was and still is to be a non-pressured, friendly and open place where anybody can explore and develop their faith. The fellow students were friendly and warm. I instantly felt at ease.

My experience with the CU was distinctly different. At Freshers’ Fair I was given a Doctrinal Basis to sign should I wish to join the society- ‘a list of some of the essential truths of the Bible’ . I read down the list of 11 items. The two following items stood out:

  • The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
  • Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God's wrath and condemnation.

These two really put me on edge. I could not subscribe to these beliefs, nor was I prepared to pretend that I did. With the rest, despite their rather dogmatic and restrictive undertones, I could more or less agree. The whole list felt far too contrived. The idea of leaving aside one’s beliefs and personal thoughts on faith in order to buy one’s membership into a Christian Society seemed a complete violation of our individuality. I did not think forging a community based on parrot-like agreement was likely to enable the fruitful and wholesome growth of all involved.

Out of the two Christian Societies that I had looked at, JAMSoc was therefore to be my main ‘home’. Still, I decided to persevere with my links with the CU (without joining I might add) and try to have an open mind about these fundamentalists about whom I had previously giggled with my Theology classmates at school. At ‘A’ Level, we covered fundamentalism and creationism, and unanimously came to the conclusion that a conservative reading of the Bible was ignorant in that it meant abandoning one’s intellect for the sake of wishful-thinking. We settled for a liberalistic approach since it seemed much more intellectually satisfying. I think at University I wanted to grapple with why people felt they could live with themselves and accept such poorly grounded ‘truths’. This was partially motivated by guilt at previously mocking the sort of people who were now becoming friends, as well as wanting to ensure that I myself had not got it wrong.

However, being open-minded had its consequences. The pervasive message I was receiving from the CU was that in not following the Bible to the letter, I was essentially being very disrespectful to God, and that I hadn’t really submitted my will properly to him. I was learning that as we are such rotten fallen beings we cannot possibly rely on reason to understand God. In matters of faith I had to submit my wayward mind. My intellectual understanding of God was merely a product of my own musings which may bear a partial resemblance to Christianity; it was really a monologue on what I felt was good and right and not what - actually - really was. This attitude was incredibly hard to ignore seeing that people from the CU were ‘shouting’ with the most vehemence. They had the most passion, and I think that that passion alone was incredibly seductive and persuasive. I loved God so dearly, and the idea of having my own convenient, selfish faith repulsed me. I became lost, neither believing in my own thoughts nor really believing in what people from CU were saying. It seemed that, if I really wanted to be in a proper relationship with God, I was unacceptable.

This all came to a head in my mind over my first summer holidays. I suddenly felt incredibly uncertain about life.

  • I do not know whether to rely on reason or the Bible in matters of faith.
  • If I am meant to be relying on the Bible, my reasoning is insufficient to understand God.
  • If my reasoning is defective in relation to faith, then there is a distinct possibility that my reasoning in other areas of life would therefore also be defective.
  • If my reasoning in relation to life in general is defective, then any certainty I might have about the world around me is therefore defective.
  • The world is therefore distinctly likely to be a very uncertain place.

The task when I went back to University was to make sense of it all. Things needed to somehow be picked up and pieced together again. Living with such uncertainty was incredibly painful and exhausting. I desperately needed answers and understanding of the world and God that would bring me to a state of peace once more.

I could not go back to my pre-University thoughts, neither could I ascribe to an evangelical approach. I had to find a new way. After much thought, I realised that in life there are indeed things to be certain about, but yet co-existing alongside this there is much uncertainty. This enabled me to have a more balanced view of the world. This worldview has allowed me to look uncertainty in the face and no longer be filled with fear. Because of this transformation in thought, the most certain thing for me has ironically become uncertainty. I now have the freedom to say ‘I don’t know’ without feeling I should know. This does not mean however that my insatiably curious mind has now shut down. Rather, it is my acceptance of uncertainty that enables me to recognise where my intellectual limits are. I still have a huge desire to understand the world around me, but I know that this task will never be fully accomplished, either by me or by mankind. We can strive as far as we can, but there is far too much to know of this world. I think it is truly amazing that we already have the extensive knowledge we do have about the world, but yet there remains a vast sea of things we simply cannot fathom. This mystery is what draws me to God, as the secrets of the universe’s intricate workings ultimately lie with him. He has equipped me with powers to begin to understand Him, but yet to be in relationship with Him I need to step into the unknown. I think that once in relationship with God, the impetus to know everything somehow fades into insignificance.

I bring myself to God now with what I am, where I am. I do not need the ‘right’ understanding. I simply say to God ‘take me as I am’.

Victoria Stock
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 9th October 2004