Recently, some have questioned religious faith at Yale both for its supposed incompatibility with the liberal arts and its inherent irrationality. The demeaning of religion is not new, especially on college campuses. In my own Yale experience, one professor described my faith as a “geographical misfortune” in class, while another deliberately proposed that I write a paper about how literature demonstrates God’s mythical, comical nature.
Aside from being arrogant and devoid of pedagogical value, these comments neglect the formulation of religious liberty as expressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite my frustration I consoled myself with the hope that most of my peers — the real reason I chose Yale — would not share in this kind of bigotry.
Many people at Yale find strength, virtue and peace through religious life; the pursuit of faith complements the work of a liberal arts institution. God is not dead, not in the lives of hundreds of Yalies from diverse places, experiences and faiths.
My faith wakes me up in the morning. It is the most beautiful, steadfast and gracious power in my life. To the unbelieving, this description sounds mystical and irrational. But my present conviction comes from years of careful reasoning and wrestling with doubt. Yalies often assume that a belief in God is inherited, like culture, or that it exhibits a failure to think critically. My relationship with God is the greatest intellectual, emotional and spiritual test of my life. Faith is the thing I often neglect, but it is also what I want more than any grade, job or title.
As a leader of one of Yale’s Christian ministries, I am fortunate to see God at work in communities across campus each week. I’ve seen friends study, sing, serve, rebel, cry and grow in their pursuit of transcendence. These students are not just conservative or white or Christian; they span the full spectrum of backgrounds and identities. One of the great joys of my life has been belonging to such a diverse community united by our belief in something higher.
That word — higher — is often used to describe education at the postsecondary level, and it’s not coincidental. Historically, higher education diverged from secondary education in its concern for liberating the mind. In the mid-1800s, John Henry Newman, a Catholic, articulated the process of becoming intellectually liberated: A person’s mind grows freer as it becomes self-aware, understanding the process of learning in addition to acquiring knowledge. Such a mind is freed from oversimplification and self-absorption because of its heightened state of awareness.
Volumes have been written about the far-reaching implications of this educational philosophy, but, for our purposes, it means that a central goal of the liberal arts is to draw a person out from their reliance on perception, authority and even “rationality” itself.
This commitment manifests itself across Yale’s design: there are no preprofessional majors in an attempt to prohibit overspecialization; distributional requirements encourage intellectual breadth and exploration and residential colleges immerse students in an array of perspectives and backgrounds different from their own.
Religious communities rely upon different means to accomplish similar ends. Religious leaders and texts supply profound, even radical ideas that reject seemingly natural human impulses. Some faiths also demand charity and mercy, both of which help us understand people different from ourselves. Religious belief requires individuals to ask existential questions, commonly through prayer, forcing a person to interrogate their meaning in life.
The central impetus of most religions is the recognition of something greater within human beings that longs to be liberated. The outcome of genuine faith includes freedom from desire and perception, just as it does in liberal education.
Faith and a liberating education are compatible, if not complementary, because of their common pursuit of greater human awareness. Faith at Yale merits the respect of professors and pundits alike, not only because it is legally protected, but also because it shapes people’s lives in powerful ways.
Given the views recently expressed in the News, I fear some of my peers share in disapproval of religious faith. Yale’s motto “Lux et Veritas” intentionally responded to Harvard’s, an institution whose motto is merely “Veritas.” The motto is a commentary on what was seen as Harvard’s unfortunate reliance on reason alone; the “improvement” of this institution was its orientation of truth within God’s wisdom or “Lux.”
Three hundred years later, modern Yalies of faith continue to seek “Lux.” As former Yale President Bartlett Giamatti ’60 wrote of our home, “The quest has been going on in this College for a long time, in this old New England city by the water.”
ethan young is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .