Throughout my time as a student, I have found this advice helpful: be a damn good student, the best you can possibly be, because it is a calling

One of my favourite theologians is actually a Methodist by the name of Stanley Hauerwas. He’s infamous not only for his radical stance on pacifism (in that he is a card-carrying pacifist) but also for his unexpected Texan profanities. The Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh once joked that he’s the kind of pacifist you would want with you in a bar fight. And one of the milder stories goes that he was looking for the library at quite a prestigious university, so he asked a student, “Where’s the library at?” The student informed him that at this university they don’t end their sentences in prepositions, so Hauerwas amended his question by saying, “Where’s the library at, asshole?” He’s a forthright individual, to say the least, and in my opinion more Catholic than many Catholics (but that’s for another time).

The reason I bring him up is because he wrote what is probably my favourite commencement address to college students in America that I’ve ever read, one that is deeply applicable to Christian students making their way through university here in Australia. It carries just as much import because secular universities in Australia (even Catholic ones, to be honest) have forgotten their historical and religious pedigree and are in many ways culturally hostile to faith, seeing faith and learning as somehow incongruent with each other, maybe even as impossible bedfellows.

From a modern standpoint, I can understand this perspective since a certain brand of Christianity has managed to redefine faith as being somehow on a different plane of existence to the intellectual life. Faith comes into play, according to this account, when reason fails. When you reach the point of unknowing is where faith truly begins and anything else is not faith. It has to be, ipso facto, a leap in the dark.

Pope Francis and Pope Benedict raise this point in their joint encyclical Lumen Fidei. Here is what Francis has to say about this changing understanding of faith:

In the process, faith came to be associated with darkness. There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way (LF, #3).

It's quite a beautiful understanding of faith that of a shared light and one that is also very ancient. There was a maxim in the early church that faith seeks understanding. Faith does not begin where understanding fails, but understanding begins when faith does. To think that faith begins when the intellect fails is to get things the wrong way around entirely.

To go back to Hauerwas, one of the points he makes is that to be a Christian student is a calling. Drawing upon Robert Louis Wilken, he says that Christianity is inescapably ritualistic, uncompromisingly moral, and unapologetically intellectual. What we do, though, is separate these things from one another so that students assume their Christian duty at university is simply to be moral (and thus not act in too wild a fashion), while they view the rest of the intellectual work as a pathway to getting a job. On the contrary, Hauerwas says, the student’s time at university is not his or her own: it belongs to Christ. And the best service students can offer the Church is to be the best students they can be to do the rigorous intellectual work that needs doing in order to witness to faith as it truly is, not as modern secularism assumes it to be. And this means thinking through everything no matter what the discipline is in the light of Christ.

It reminds me a bit of the novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, who said that too often what the carpenter hears from the Church is simply ‘come to Mass on Sundays’ and ‘don’t get drunk’. What he should instead be hearing from the Church – the first thing he should be hearing – is make good tables. Don’t let your work be shoddy and second-rate. Make bloody good tables. In doing so you will give glory to God.

Throughout my time as a student, I have found this advice helpful: be a damn good student, the best you can possibly be, because it is a calling. And when you think everything through in the light of Christ, you will be a service to the Church, a witness to Christ, and one step closer to helping people see faith as the light it is supposed to be.

Christian Bergmann is a Graduate of Campion College, a husband, and a father, and operates his own copywriting business based in Perth, Western Australia.