Christian skepticism in college

In May of 1962, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Alfred Corn, a student in college who wrote concerned that he was losing his faith. O’Connor wrote:

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames of reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe.

She writes that he needs to read more broadly (suggesting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) not to get answers but to get

different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes its place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

She gives many other practical suggestions – that he not jump too quickly to the conclusion that he can’t have faith just because he is currently experiencing doubt (indeed, she says, doubting is part of faith); that even as he wrestles intellectually with questions, he should look for God by acting as a Christian (she recommends, through Hopkins, charitable giving); and that for every anti-Christian book he read, he should also read one “that presents the other side of the picture”.

She writes:

To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.

Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticism. It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

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