I feel I need to start with a little background (context is always key, y’all). Right after high school, I went to a small secular liberal arts university for three and a half years to earn my undergraduate degree. Directly following my undergraduate degree, I went on to earn my master’s degree from a large evangelical university. Hah! Yeah, I don’t think I could have picked more opposite schools if I tried. I was not Catholic during either of these programs, although, by the end of my undergraduate degree I considered myself a nondenominational protestant- staunchly.
If you are Catholic going to a secular university and you are struggling with how to navigate it… I totally get it. I can’t say I have been exactly in your shoes as I was not Catholic when I attended a secular university, but I get the culture that you are immersed in. It is its own little academia world that is a well-oiled machine at churning out young adults (who are still figuring life out) to fit their mold. It’s a world where high-level academics hold your future in their hands. With a swipe of a pen they can alter your future and when you don’t fit their mold, whether that be philosophically, theologically, or just academically… it’s a rough spot to be in. As with everything, there are two responses that come naturally when you feel put in that ‘rough spot’… fight or flight. While I completely understand that natural response, I don’t believe either are necessarily needed (obviously, there are exceptions to these rules). Why? Because those responses naturally occur when you feel threatened. I am here to tell you… there is no need to feel threatened. From my experience, there are six things you should remember if you go to a secular university and are struggling.
DO NOT BELIEVE THE WORLD.
DO NOT let the world lie to you about what truth is. There is a FALSEHOOD that the secular culture likes to push. It’s the narrative that those with religious faith are inherently biased and therefore unable to accurately discern truth/facts. It’s the narrative that science is ‘scary’ because it proves our faith inaccurate. It’s the idea that the reason Christians struggle with going to secular universities is because they present us with so many true facts that ‘de-bunk’ our faith. It’s the idea that we should be scared of ‘liberal’ or ‘secular’ knowledge. It’s the idea that we need to be terrified to send kids there because, as some Christians will say, they will ‘poison our minds’ or, as the secular world would say, they will ‘take off our blindfolds’. Y’all… there is not a single piece of this that is true. It is a lie that the world began and one that I believe we have taken up for them! One of the biggest blessings in my life was being able to go to a very liberal college. Yeah, you heard me correctly. It was a blessing BECAUSE it was liberal.
Every. Single. Person. on this planet has a worldview that skews their interpretation of facts. Facts are meaningless without interpretation. Ask any statistician and they will tell you how important interpretation is. Each individual’s worldview is shaped by their upbringing, their race, their gender, their socioeconomic status, their biological traits, their culture, the time period in which they were born in, their religious beliefs, their LACK of religious beliefs, etc. We all wear different ‘worldview lenses’ that make us lean towards one interpretation of a fact over another. WE ALL DO. There is this idea in secular culture that those without religious beliefs somehow have ‘cleaner lenses’. Meaning that they can see facts more objectively than those who are religious ever could because they somehow lack that bias. Well, let me tell you something, I could argue that an individual’s false belief in objectivity makes one much more prone to bias than my recognized Catholic-informed worldview ever could. Difference between my ‘bias’ and theirs? I not only recognize my bias (which you need to), I STUDY IT. I study how it shapes my view of the world and how I interpret facts. The awesome part is I have 2,000 years of some incredibly intelligent people to help me understand the implications of my beliefs in the context of history, philosophy, theology, sociology, science, politics, etc. I WANT to know where my blind spots are, where my objectivity will fail, and what facts I may struggle with personally. I encourage you to as well.
RECOGNIZE YOUR OWN BIAS.
I think this is SUCH an important concept to understand for a multitude of reasons. First, it is important to recognize that you have a worldview and no, you cannot claim ‘objectivity’ because no one has it. It is equally important that you start to understand it. Understand how your faith impacts your interpretation because it does! Search out your blind spots and recognize you have them. It’s funny, we are quick to pick out everyone else’s ‘blind spots’ but struggle with our own. Second, recognize that everyone else has a worldview that shapes their understandings as well. There is a reason why people believe what they do, it’s never random. Start to learn their ‘why’. I promise you, the more you learn their ‘why’ the quicker your ‘fight’ will instinct will begin to diminish.
RELAX. LISTEN. TRUTH IS ON YOUR SIDE.
This may be a tough pill to swallow. Its one I struggle with at times as well but I going to tell you to put your truth sword down for a little bit and just LISTEN. Don’t be scared of learning from secular professors *gasp*. Yes, your secular university, your secular professors, can absolutely teach you truths. The Church teaches truth, which means that any truth taught will not conflict with Church teaching! Rest assured in that. Don’t fall into the trap of the false narrative that the Church is opposed to science, reason, logic, etc and therefore incompatible. That is a narrative pushed by scientific materialism and don’t fall prey to it by believing you cannot learn truth at a secular university. Don’t be afraid to listen, and I mean actually listen. Truth is truth and it will always be on your side. No matter who believes it, it doesn’t change what is true. Let that sink in.
There is a strong chance you will get some ‘jabs’ pointed at your faith. You also may hear blatant non-truths being taught. I hate to say this, but that is going to happen for the rest of your life. Look, I was a history major at a secular university – you can only imagine the comments, etc. during classes about the Protestant Reformation or the Borgia Papacy. I get it- I have heard the comments. I am going to tell you though, that getting fired up and trying to prove everyone wrong, it will only frustrate you more. Remember that you cannot ‘intellectually force’ someone into Catholicism. That isn’t how evangelization works. I am challenging you to take the high road and when someone makes a ‘jab’, listen to their explanations. I promise you, you will learn so much through listening that when the times comes that you do need to speak up, you will be able to do so with an abundance of wisdom, empathy, and compassion.
STUDY YOUR FAITH.
This is key. This is absolutely pivotal. How do you begin to discern the truth being taught from the falsehoods? How do you recognize the nuances of where the truth ends and falsehood begins or vice versa? Well, quite frankly, you need to know your faith. You need to know it as well as, if not better, than you do your other subjects. You should study it. Listen to some amazing Catholic academics. Read a lot. Learn Church history, philosophy, theology, apologetics. Our faith is knowable. It’s understandable. It’s logical. It is freaking incredible how much sense it makes (its even more amazing when you start to understand how consistent it is with ‘secular’ truths!). That is not by accident. He gave us the ability to reason, to know Him, and to understand our faith. Take Him up on that gift. The more you understand it, particularly in the context of academics, the more content you will feel. Then, when/if the opportunity presents itself, you will be prepared to listen with a level head full of holy spirit-filled knowledge that does not become threatened by outside viewpoints.
YOU HAVE A UNIQUE GIFT TO BE IN THE POSITION YOU ARE IN, RECOGNIZE THAT.
The world will not agree with you after college, so it’s okay if they don’t agree with you during college either. It’s good practice. You have such an amazing opportunity you may not even realize it. Do you realize how much of a GIFT it is to be able to truly UNDERSTAND other people’s point of view and to learn them from some of the most educated people in their fields? If you want to be a good apologist, you need to be able to argue BOTH sides. That is debating 101. I don’t mean debate from what you ‘hear about other points of view’. I mean truly understand why someone believes or thinks what they do. I am forever grateful for all I have learned and I have only begun to truly appreciate the opportunities I was given.
Now, I am also aware that everything I am saying is easier said than done (what isn’t?). It is our natural instinct to either a.) leave or b.) fight back. There are times when either/both are absolutely appropriate. Only you can discern that for yourself. However, I encourage you to not let the world ‘scare’ you away from knowledge. Stand firm knowing truth will always be on your side. Pray for wisdom. Lean on others when needed. Go to Mass. Study diligently. Stand up when necessary. Listen quietly. And as always, love relentlessly.
“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose and it will defend itself.” – Saint Augustine