Naïveté is inherent to the condition of the college freshmen. I cultivated my own variety of this malady after I dove deeply into Christian faith during my first year as an Ivy Leaguer. I’ve written previously about this freshman stage of my spiritual journey, but that was not the end of my adventure in the faith. Over my upperclassmen years, while I’ve continued to grow along many of the same trajectories I started on as a first-year, I also lost some naïve beliefs I held earlier on.
Naïve Belief #1: Conversion is the End of Someone’s Story
I’ll begin with one of the darkest epochs of my time at Harvard. On February 8, 2014, my friend Andy Sun sent this email:
I am sure that God spoke to me in a supernatural way tonight. He pointed out to me the idols in my heart, my pride, and my vanity. He showed me in that even in my darkest hours I still have the eternal assurance of his love. I’ve come to realize that my identity is not in anything in this world, but in Christ alone. Praise God for his divine revelations.
Precisely eight weeks later, Andy killed himself.
Andy and I both came to Harvard as part of the wide-eyed Class of 2016. We joined the same Bible study shortly after we had our first class meetings. Unlike me, who’d grown up in church, Andy was from a non-religious background, but he accepted the Christian faith a few weeks into college. Quickly he displayed a passion for God and was deeply grateful for what God had done in his life. He wanted to preach, to share the Gospel with his family. He spoke in tongues. He exclaimed “Jesus Christ, baby!” He started a prayer group. Andy, so full of new faith, was an inspiration to me.
Andy’s depression, which hit (as far as I know) late in sophomore fall, does not at all imply that everything prior was a lie. Depression is complex and is not a symptom of the rejection of God. Additionally, while suicide is certainly a sin, it is not an ultimate and unforgivable sin.
All that said, Andy had been rather different in the months leading up to his death, ways that I hadn’t thought possible given his prior testimony. He expressed doubt about his previous spiritual experiences and commitments. Then, when he emailed out to our Christian fellowship on February 8 (quoted above), he seemed to be feeling free from many of the problems he’d been dealing with in the months prior. But that testimony was not the end of his story.
Early in college, I tended to think that a powerful testimony of one’s experience of God’s love and grace in Christ meant that I could know the person would remain committed to Christ and not turn away in any deeply significant ways. While we’d certainly sin, I didn’t think something like a suicide would happen. I hope I will see Andy again in the resurrection, but regardless, his suicide showed me that someone can still do such a dark thing even after a powerful conversion story.
Naïve Belief #2: Faith Will Come If You Spend Time In Christian Community
When I dove fully into following Christ, I fell in love not just with Jesus but with the Christian communities of which I was a part. I thought that if any skeptic simply spent time in worship, prayer, and study in one of these communities, the skeptic would feel the love of God, understand that the Gospel of Christ made sense, see the witness of others in the group, and believe. Since then I’ve brought skeptical friends and family to church and other Christian gatherings, and while I don’t know precisely what they experienced, I certainly know that everyone didn’t have the same experience as I did and didn’t come to believe. I’ve also known people who have spent a good deal of time with these groups, even coming on retreats, but didn’t come to faith.
If someone had expressed this naive belief to me regarding Christian groups in general three years ago, I would have agreed that certainly spending time in those groups didn’t guarantee religious conversion. But, at that time, I felt that my fellowship and my church were different. And while they certainly are awesome, full of committed, knowledgeable, loving people, I’ve realized they don’t have in themselves some of the powers I thought they did.
Naïve Belief #3: My Favorite Christian Intellectuals (and Friends) Must Be Right
In college I started reading many Christian thinkers I’d never heard of before, all of whom sought to explain life, philosophy, and the Bible in a way consistent with Christianity. And these thinkers were very compelling. Among others, there was Tim Keller, pastor of a large church in New York City; N.T. Wright, leading New Testament scholar and theologian; and C.S. Lewis, witty writer and patron saint of Christian college students. Other than Lewis, whom I’d only read a little bit, these thinkers (and many others) were not people I’d heard of before, and the kinds of ways they discussed Christian faith and engaged with the broader world were different than what I’d seen in lightweight apologetics and Bible studies earlier in life.
In addition to these thinkers who occupied the stratosphere of knowledge, I had new friends and mentors on the ground level of my life, and these friends guided me through the new, confusing kingdom of ideas to which Harvard opened the door. My friends had seen much more than me, so it was natural to look to them for guidance.
The thinkers I mentioned above are still some of my favorites, and I certainly still trust my friends and mentors to a large degree. But I’ve lost a certain element of automatic trust that their their beliefs are correct and their arguments are sound. Over recent years I’ve been able to think through more arguments related to Christianity for myself, and I sometimes recognize that the Christian conclusions aren’t obvious.
Moreover, one reason I was trusting of my older Christian friends was because they were Harvard students, and my opinion of Harvard students was extraordinarily high. So if Harvard students could believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, it must be right! Now, plenty of other Harvard students didn’t share that belief, and I never explicitly thought “Some Harvard students believe X implies X is true,” (which I would have recognized was incorrect), but it was something I felt nonetheless.
Now that I’ve been a senior, my opinion of Harvard students is much lower. We’re still people, very much shaped by our backgrounds and capable of believing what we want to believe. We aren’t all philosophers, committed to investigating the foundations of our deepest beliefs at every turn. Thus I continue to want to investigate what I have been taught.
What’s the Point?
It might seem that the logical next line is “and so that’s why I’m not a Christian anymore.” With that phrase I would add my narrative to the collection of de-conversion stories that dot the Internet.
That would be a complete lie, though, as I’m certainly a Christian. You see, none of my naïve beliefs are required for trusting in Jesus Christ. If my naïve beliefs had been true, they would have provided reasons to be a Christian, but even without them, I still have some trust in certain philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons for believing. I very much still want to read and think about these matters, and it is not fully certain that I will remain a Christian over the next decade, but for now, I trust in Jesus.
To young Christians and those new to the faith, know that you, like me, will experience some disappointments, and you’ll realize you believed things that weren’t quite true. But don’t necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon faith.
Though I have had these disappointments, there continue to be many pleasant surprises. I keep discovering testimonies of conversions and proclamations of God’s work in unlikely places. While testimonies aren’t the end of everyone’s stories, they are real, and they frequently are permanently life-altering. Additionally, while Christian communities aren’t clearly the homes of God’s power for everyone, many non-religious folks I know do see something different about these communities of faith, and some are quite attracted to them. Finally, I’m still completely convinced that Christians are way smarter and more creative than I had thought when I entered college, even if I’m not as default-trusting of my favorite thinkers as I was a year into college.
Naïveté is natural, and I’m sure have a great deal of it—I wonder what I’ll next realize was a naïve belief.
I also wonder what pleasant surprises God will reveal.
Peter Hickman ‘16 is an Applied Math concentrator in Leverett House and is Editor-in-chief Emeritus of the Ichthus. In the fall, he’ll be a pre-doctoral fellow in the Harvard economics department.