Students Find Christianity at Harvard
"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.