"I believe that there is a God. I didn’t used to. In fact, I was convinced that there wasn’t."
Corinne Tu ’13 smiles, dark brown hair framing her face and falling lightly around her shoulders. She pulls the edges of her sweater tighter around her torso. Tu spent her childhood in San Francisco, one of those children for whom religion seldom entered into the equation. She grew up to become the kind of girl who bristles at the mention of God: a teenager convicted in her atheism. “I thought I knew a lot about faith and lack thereof,” Tu recalls.
Christopher D. Wood ’12 remembers sitting in Science Center B for his LS1a lecture last semester—a video of ribosomal RNA translation was showing on the screen. The reading of genetic information, the sequencing of amino acids. “I know it’s just a molecular mechanism, but somehow I was struck by—within this complexity, I saw intentionality,” Wood remembers. “I see behind all of that God’s creation.”
There are countless tales of students whose faith slips away during their time at college. The ones who ignore questions from mom about going to church on Sundays, or take a philosophy class that destabilizes their belief in God. The ones who no longer see the appeal of theism, or leave their copy of the Bible unopened on the bookshelf. You’ve heard of them. But this is different. This is a story about the students with burgeoning faith—the moments that caused them to question, and the experiences that led them to believe.
Reasoning It Out
“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”—John 8:31-32
Jordan A. Monge ’12 is a philosophy concentrator. She looks you directly in the eye when she speaks. “Specifically, what do I believe?” she asks, then pauses for a moment. “I believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins and for the sins of the world. In so doing he conquered Satan, defeated death, and three days later was raised from the dead. So I believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ and that also includes a belief in God who is loving and just, merciful and powerful.”
For Monge, coming to know God was an arduous, conceptually challenging journey. “My story is very much one of seeing an intellectual appeal in Christianity,” Monge says. This, she recognizes, is rather atypical.
Monge, like Tu, entered college not believing in God. She grew up in Orange County, Calif. in a politically conservative, atheist family that places itself somewhere between the Rick Warren megachurch crowd and Hollywood’s secularists. Though the matter of God was always a topic of conversation in her family (her father is an atheist philosophy professor), Monge’s childhood was characterized by a marked absence of religious schooling.
She laughs a bit as she recalls her first encounter with the church. Monge was four or five, and her grandmother—a Catholic—decided to bring her to mass. After sitting through the service, she arrived home and eagerly announced: “Dad, I met Jesus today!” Her father, confused, asked, “Wait, what’s going on?” To which the young Monge eagerly replied, “Yeah, he was wearing a dress like when you graduated.”
Monge pauses, letting the punch line sink in. “I was talking about the priest and the robes…so I didn’t have a very clear idea of it.”
This religious ignorance soon transformed into a deep curiosity about Christ, prayer, and theism. Yet, Monge’s exploration led her to the conclusion that neither God nor Christianity was viable. “Why would I believe in God?’ she remembers asking. “There’s no evidence for God.”
In school, Monge had classmates who questioned her about her atheism, and often berated her for refusing to say the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance. Monge argued with them, occasionally picking religious battles between games in gym. Once, the religious kid who sat next to her (who always sat next to her) found out she was atheist. Why don’t you believe in God? What’s wrong with you? He told the whole class. One boy threatened to come to Monge’s house and shoot up all the atheists. But that was only once.
However, Monge, who was always very concerned with social justice, found herself struggling in high school to find an atheist moral system in which she was satisfied. “I believed in human rights, but couldn’t really give an explanation as to why,” Monge says, recalling her frustration. She spent her time exploring what morality without religion would look like, pondering how to ground ethics and justify human rights if God didn’t exist. Monge didn’t come up with much, though. There should, she believed, exist a universal morality. But, as she examined the ethical allowances of various cultures, Monge found that what was permissible in one community was often morally suspect in another. It was the relativism that troubled her.
John Joseph Porter (He Goes By Joseph Porter)
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.’”—Jeremiah 29:11
“When I came to college I had a friend who really pushed me on this issue and said, well, ‘why?’” Monge looks down at her lap.Freshman year, there were evenings spent talking on secondhand futons in Wigglesworth, hours devoted to philosophizing in empty music practice rooms. J. Joseph Porter ’12, who grew up a Christian, prodded Monge about her atheism, asking her to revisit the moral quandaries that had puzzled her throughout her high school years. He explained, questioned, and debated with her. Where do your strong ethical and political beliefs come from? How do you fit human consciousness and free will into your moral framework? How did everything come into being?
During this time, Porter helped Monge realize that, for there to be meaning in her life, God would have to exist. Once, Porter played her a song on the piano—“Hallelujah.”
That night, he remembers Monge praying.
“I came to think that the reason that we do treat each other with dignity—and that we ought to—is because of this relationship that we have with our creator,” Monge says, reflecting on her early explorations of theism.
Monge attended her first service in February, when she accompanied Porter to a meeting of college students at MIT. She was baptized two months later in the Boston Church of Christ, a decision that came as a shock to her parents. Monge chuckles, recalling how her dad suggested, “Maybe you could just wait ’til, you know, 2012.”
Questions of how and why her faith developed are ones Monge has thought about and been asked to justify quite often. In fact, soon after her adoption of the Christian faith, Monge wrote a document titled “Converting to Christianity: A Humbling Tale of Love, Longing, and Learning,” which explains the process of her spiritual transformation. It is published as a four-part note on her Facebook.
“I’ve heard many people say that the way to convert skeptics or intellectuals is to appeal to their heart, not their head. I think you have to appeal to both,” it reads. “This is a story I never thought I would write, but one that I will never regret.”
“Jesus wept.” —John 11:35
The following year, Monge missed the shuttle to the quad. There was a girl—she turned out to be Tu—who had also been trying to catch the shuttle at Boylston. Monge introduced herself, and they decided to walk home together.
At this time, Monge was making a point of asking people about their religious backgrounds and, if possible, sharing her own story. When she brought up Christianity, Tu seemed receptive. The two of them got to talking.
“She just told me that one day she had lost an intellectual debate with one of her friends, and she was convinced that Christianity was true,” Tu says of Monge. “I thought she was nuts. Oh my goodness. I thought all Christians were nuts.”
This wasn’t the first time someone at Harvard had approached Tu about religion. Freshman year, Tu’s roommate had suggested (and suggested again) that Tu attend service at her church.“
I was pretty offended,” says Tu, mimicking an eye roll. “Her invitations had, at that time, seemed to me invasive, presumptuous.” After all, God didn’t exist. Tu knew that.
Yet the certainty with which Tu entered college gradually eroded over the course of her freshman year. Ask, decline, ask, repeat. Eventually, Tu decided she might as well try. After a year of resistance, she accompanied her roommate to Bible Study. There were two reasons for this decision. One, because she was such a great friend. And two, because her roommate seemed to have a joy and a peace that Tu felt was missing in her life.
“When I went to Bible Study, I remember not understanding much of what was going on,” Tu recalls. “I think when I actually started to explore the person of Jesus historically, to look at the historical evidence in favor of his existence as well as his teachings in the Bible, and to examine the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus Christ—instead of entertaining and developing my thoughts intellectually against an abstract God—that was when I made true progress in getting to know [Him].”
God At Harvard
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”—Micah 6:8
“It’s very hard to name the name of Christ at Harvard,” Tu says matter-of-factly. It is a word—an idea—that carries with it a tremendous amount of baggage at an institution known for its secularism. Students can be quick to judge, unrelenting in their critiques of Christianity. When Tu, a joint astrophysics and statistics concentrator, talks to people about her faith, she often gets skeptical—if not dismissive—responses. That doesn’t make sense. You’re a scientist or what? I thought you went to Harvard. Tu inhales deeply and begins motioning with her hands,“I get a little worked up about this.”
Tu is currently developing her thesis, which will examine the X-ray emissions from a supermassive black hole at the center of another galaxy, Ark 120. These emissions should allow her to infer the spin of this black hole. “Studying astrophysics is actually one of the most beautiful ways that I connect with God,” Tu says.
With such scrutiny placed on her faith, however, also comes strength. Being constantly questioned by one’s peers means that there is an intense intellectual rigor involved in practicing Christianity at Harvard. “My story is one of seeing the intellectual appeal of Christiantiy that would’ve been harder to see in a place that wasn’t Harvard,” Monge says.
“Maybe I just like the role of dissenter,” she muses. “But being in a community that predominately disagrees forces me to look at my own assumptions and challenge those as well.”
There is, as Monge explains, always an underlying question that Christians must consider: “Why believe in something that 80 percent of your peers reject?”
“One of the things that I worry about a lot is being misunderstood.” Eric, a sophomore, has on a dark grey Led Zeppelin t-shirt. He wears his blond hair cut short, and there is a delicacy to the way he gestures as he speaks.
“A lot of people misunderstand Christianity—they misunderstand Christians. I think they understand religion in general a lot, but I think it comes across as a superstition, something you were raised with and a conclusion you don’t reach on your own.
“There’s a very real reason that I do it and it’s because I really feel that God has reached out to me, made himself known to me, and given me so much hope. He’s helped me to overcome so many struggles—he’s made me into a better person. So those very real effects that God has had on my life—that’s the reason why I continue.
“I’m a very shy person, so I don’t really end up having these conversations very much. When I do I’m often not sure of myself because I feel very intimidated by the Harvard atmosphere. I feel that everybody looks at Christians the same way, so I’m pretty quiet about it.”
A Sense of Belonging
“The Spirit Himself witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God.”—Romans 8:16
“We were made for community,” explains Tu, who initially met many Christians through her roommate. “There’s a sort of bond that I never in my wildest dreams thought existed until I actually experienced it for myself.”
There are many Christian organizations on campus: Christian Impact, the Catholic Students Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Fellowship, to name a few. Both Monge and Tu belong to Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA), an interdenominational Christian fellowship.
“The community in HCFA is one in which we love each other,” explains Monge, who also writes for The Harvard Ichthus, a journal of Christian thought. She looks to her Christian community for guidance in interpreting the Bible, religious training, and advice on how Christians should lead their lives. It’s also where she has met many of her closest friends.
“God himself seems to be holding relationships together,” Tu says. “Without God, human relationships can be really broken, and filled with a lot of pain.”
It is Friday and both girls are sitting at desks, in rows. The room is Harvard Hall 202, an ordinary classroom used as HCFA’s weekly meeting place. There is hugging, some chatter. The Bible will be interpreted, relationships discussed, and everyone’s faith will seem just a bit more clear. The room is academic and the classroom is ordinary but there is a sense of spirituality in the space.
“And surely I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” —Matthew 28:20
Downstairs, Wood stands at the front of Harvard Hall 103, head bent over an electronic keyboard. He has an angular jawline and bashful smile—the kind of face you would probably remember from a party. He moves a bit to the music.
Better is one day in your courts
Better is one day in your house
Better is one day in your courts
Than thousands elsewhere
The Harvard Radcliffe Christian Fellowship (HRCF), which Wood joined his sophomore year, begins each of its Friday evenings in song. These lyrics are an adaptation of Psalm 84:10.
Predictably, it is far more common for individuals who grew up in Christian households to have experienced religious growth during college, than for atheists to become theists. For these Christians, the beginning of college marks a period of spiritual development—one of re-defining religion in their own terms.
“You’re thrown into a new intellectual and social environment and have to really decide what parts of you are worth keeping,” he says of the transition to college.
Wood grew up in Florida—Tampa, then Jacksonville—in a traditionally religious home. He attended public school, was an athlete, and his parents were not part of the crowd that pasted “W for President” stickers on their cars. They did, however, teach him about prayer, Christianity, and Jesus. So, starting at a young age, Wood talked about faith, went to church, and thought about God sometimes.
“[Religion] was kind of this thing you did with your parents,” Wood says, going on to explain how he was never really challenged in his faith during middle school and high school. However, as he says, “Coming to college makes you decide what’s important to you.”
As it is for many college freshmen, Wood’s first year at Harvard was a period of exploration and, at times, isolation. He was confronted with college clichés—freedom, girls, beer—and felt the need to place his beliefs under greater scrutiny. “It’s very hard to live a spiritual life by yourself,” he explains. “It was just me and my thoughts.”
However, Wood found himself setting great value in the emotional vitality that comes with having a relationship with God. This, he says, was instrumental in his becoming more deliberate in his faith.
“As a spiritual person you have very different emotional experiences,” Wood explains. He pauses for a moment, looks at his hands, and then tilts back slightly in his chair. “Sometimes when I see the beauty of nature—if it’s a beautiful day—I see that as the reflection of God, the creator.”
He smiles as he recalls walking out into a snow-dusted Lowell courtyard a few weeks back. Rather than simply noticing the beauty of the scene, as he supposes most students would, Wood had marveled at how beautiful God’s creation was. This kind of experience, he says, fills with him with an ecstatic joy—one that he would miss out on in the absence of Christian belief.
However, Wood admits that college means that your faith becomes inconvenient in a lot of ways. This, he supposes, is why many students who grew up in Christian households let their religion slip in favor of classes, teams, social clubs, or partying. “It’s a problem of motivation,” he says.
“How I’ve engaged in the partying, relationship culture is obviously different,” Wood explains. He drinks, though in moderation, and maintains boundaries with his girlfriend that, as he says, “others might think are silly.”
These kinds of decisions are ones that students who are deeply engaged with their faith constantly have to navigate and evaluate in religious terms. “I think there are a lot of problems that people kind of want to wish away,” Wood says. “Christianity shapes how I interpret any moral landscape.”
“I kind of just stopped caring, I guess you could say, my freshman year. I was like eh, whatever, my parents aren’t here. They’re not looking down at me.” A small cross and heart hang from the silver chain around Catherine’s neck. She speaks with animation.
“I fell away from what I had been accustomed to in high school and throughout my life. I think it was really after a fall of sort of going crazy and doing my own thing—I don’t want to sound like I’m saying ‘oh people shouldn’t do these certain things’—what I’m saying is that for me, personally, I had a very strong sense of conviction. I felt guilty for the things that I did.
“It was really my spring when I started thinking about things: How does God play into my life? What does this mean? How is the fact that Jesus came and died for everyone’s sins important to the way I should live?
“If everything had been peachy keen freshman year, and had been going fine, I think that I would have continued on this spiritually stagnant path.”
A Critical Approach
For students whose college experience has been marked by a religious transformation, there remains the question of whether their new-found belief will falter. Theism can always fade. “I think all Christians who are not intellectually disingenuous will say that, yes, there is some possibility that we could be disproved,” Tu says. Faith, however strong, is never certain. There are always gaps to be considered, always questions to be asked.
Yet this ambiguity is not necessarily problematic, and actively reexamining religious values does not imply a loss of belief. “Whatever mistakes you make, God is calling you back. I don’t feel like I’ll ever have such a damaged relationship with God that it’ll just discourage me so much that I’ll throw it away,” Wood says. “I’m very comfortable engaging in the critical aspects of it without losing faith.”
Both the intellectual and emotional bases for Christianity are, for these students, incredibly strong. Decisive evidence would be necessary to destabilize what has become a theistic foundation. “I can conceive of some type of historical document that would make me reevaluate my faith. But I strongly doubt that any such document would be found, or even exists,” Monge says.“
Given the current foundations of our faith, it would be very unlikely,” Tu explains. She pauses, hands still pulling her sweater tight around her torso, then adds: “It’s an intellectual possibility.”
However, as Monge notes, living in anticipation of some sort of change is impossible. Doubt, though necessary, becomes overbearing.
“I think at some point you have to accept whatever world you subscribe to. You can’t question it every day, or else you couldn’t live,” Monge says. “At some point you have to stop thinking and start living.”