An interesting question has recently been circulating through the halls of Luther College: should religion courses be taught in such a way as to challenge conventional norms, thus provoking spiritual crises in the lives of our students? That the academic study of religion—and the academic study of the Bible specifically—tends to throw students into a state of disorientation is a long-standing tradition at Luther, and many other colleges and universities too. But what I find interesting about this latest iteration of the discussion is the implication that the "spiritual crisis" experienced by students is a negative outcome of these classes—that religion classes lead to a diminution of faith that may eventually lead to a rejection of Christian identity altogether. We must be careful about what we teach and how we teach, we are told, for our students' spiritual health might hang in the balance.
While I certainly have sympathy for the spiritual struggles of my students, I find it ironic in the extreme that these struggles are being articulated as a negative outcome of religion classes at a place called Luther College. For there would be no Luther College had it not been for the deep spiritual crisis experienced by the eponymous figure at the center of this institution's identity!
The story is well known of how Martin Luther experienced profound spiritual struggles during his days as a Catholic monk, his terrifying fear of a judgmental God whom he could never do enough to please. Had Martin Luther been happy and content as a monk, secure in his relationship to God and bold in his defense of his faith, he would have lived and died an obscure Catholic monk—a mere footnote to history—and there would be no Lutheran church and no Luther College. But instead Luther struggled, and it was out of that experience of deep spiritual crisis that a new light dawned leading Luther to a new understanding of faith that not only brought him peace, but also led him to raise critical questions about the tradition in which he had been raised (95 questions to be precise!). The Lutheran reformation was the fruit of spiritual crisis. So how can we now interpret such an experience in such negative terms?
The answer undoubtedly lies in the loss of deep spiritual connection that characterizes contemporary American life, a loss of spiritual connection that leads to the mistaken narcissistic belief that all suffering can be banished from life. The emotional and spiritual suffering that forms an all-too-real feature of human existence are today pathologized away, reduced to the status of mental illness, an abnormal aberration away from our "normal" state of happiness that can be cured through medical intervention—just like heart disease or cancer. If we can "cure" spiritual struggling, then we never have to be uncomfortable again. But of course, this is nonsense.
Most of the great heroes of faith that we so venerate today only came to the insights we find so inspiring through the process of crisis. It begins with Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane to St. Augustine to St. Teresa of Avila to Leo Tolstoy to Carl Jung and many more. And this is not just a Christian phenomenon. The great medieval Islamic scholar al-Ghazali (sometimes referred to as the Muslim Martin Luther!) engineered a grand synthesis between the esoteric and exoteric forms of Islamic faith, an understanding he developed only as a result of years of wandering in a barren spiritual wilderness. And lest we forget, after her death in 1997 it was revealed that Mother Teresa struggled to feel the presence of Christ in her life over a span of fifty years! Are we prepared to question the depth of Mother Teresa's faith because she lacked the kind of certainty trotted out by far too many Christians today as the mark of spiritual strength?
Students who struggle spiritually in religion classes are not losing their faith. They are merely having the certainties of the superficial faith they have absorbed from the surrounding superficial culture challenged. I do not mean to minimize the experience. Our students’ struggles are real and need to be taken seriously. Resources need to be provided to support them in their struggles. But bringing them to a place of doubt, uncertainty, and disorientation may be the greatest gift we can give to them—and to the world. Through the experience of spiritual crisis, they, like Martin Luther, might discover a renewed and deepened faith through which they can effectively engage a broken and hurting world.
If Luther College is serious about educating students who are "transformed by the journey," we clearly fail in this mandate if our students leave with a faith no different from when they walked in the door. Transformation implies movement beyond what has been traditionally taken for granted. In challenging our students to question received wisdom, and provoking a spiritual crisis along the way, we may be setting the stage for the next great reformation. A little struggle can go a long way toward the creation of a better world.
Robert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."