The young woman sat across from me in my office, visibly nervous. She was in her first year at Calvin College, and no one from her school, church, or community was here with her. She was alone and, for the first time, asking big questions about church, God, faith, and Scripture: How can we know that God is real? How do we believe the Bible? What if I don’t feel God? What if I’m not sure if I believe?
“Is it OK that I ask these things?” she wondered. “Will I get in trouble?”
I assured her that these were terrific questions and that she was in a long line of Christians who had asked the very same questions over the years. I pulled a few books off my shelves—The Case for Christ (by Lee Strobel), the Heidelberg Catechism, and Faith and Doubt (by John Ortberg)—and laid them on the table between us.
I held up the catechism: “This was written by two guys, not much older than you are, back in the 1600s. They wanted to help people know what to believe and why. The entire thing is questions and answers.” She picked it up and paged through it, eyes widening.
“This,” I held up The Case for Christ, “was written by a journalist in Chicago. His wife joined a church, and he was an atheist. He was trying to investigate whether Jesus really rose from the dead.” She read the back cover hungrily.
“And this,” I held up Faith and Doubt, “is written by a pastor who says that you can’t have faith without doubt.”
She looked at me in astonishment. This was entirely new information for her.
And she is not alone.
Calvin draws about 70 percent of its students from non-Christian Reformed Church backgrounds and about 50 percent from public schools. I am learning more and more about what various churches, youth groups, or parents teach young people. What is becoming a theme in my conversations is that students are taught to fear doubt.
The young woman who sat in my office had been taught very explicitly that you simply don’t doubt. You don’t question. It is a weakness or even the activity of Satan himself if you question what the church or the Bible is said to teach.
This explains her anxiety in my office: she was afraid. She had been taught to fear her questions. She had been taught that doubt was bad. She had been taught to simply believe.
Living apart from her community for the first time and hearing how faith was discussed at Calvin gave her the courage to come and see me. She knew we were speaking about this differently: we welcomed the questions. We welcomed the doubts.
Mary S. Hulst serves as chaplain at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow her on Twitter (@PastorMary2U) and find her on Facebook as “Pastor Mary.”