There are no atheists in foxholes . . . or are there?

PC: Johanan Sowah

PC: Johanan Sowah

A few years ago in high school, I was eating lunch with two of my friends, one a devout Christian and the other an atheist. The three of us would often wrestle over the subject of faith and the finer details of its place in our world, a topic that most Christians regularly confront in their lives. In one particular squabble on the subject, the two of them were discussing the topic of free will and salvation, fresh from a world religions class in which we had read the Book of Matthew and learned about how Jesus performed miracles in his lifetime and died on the cross for all of humanity. My Christian friend asserted that “there are no atheists in foxholes” before citing examples where people are in a rut, find God, and are born again. My atheist friend responded with contrary examples in which people don’t find God and spiral into an even deeper rut to the point where some even decide to take their own lives. This struck a sensitive chord between the three of us at the lunch table. I, the onlooker, watched as the conversation devolved into insensitive bickering that failed to go anywhere.

I have often thought back to this encounter in recent months. In the wake of several serious tragedies on this campus, I cannot reiterate enough that we have a serious problem on Columbia’s campus regarding how stress and despair are dealt with. This has been said time after time amid countless instances everyday when students feel at their wits end and on the brink of falling apart. I do not mean to condemn Columbia in particular as a hub of despondent souls, but I can only speak to what I have witnessed about stress culture at my own university. Neither am I writing this in order to formulate any call to action to the Columbia administration or echo students’ proposals for the enactment of specific legislation within the University, be these demands very valid and even necessary. My goal is to bring attention to a sensitive issue from a different perspective.

It is not enough to say that my heart still aches for all of those affected by the recent suicides on our campus. And in this time of these horrible tragedies, I was brought back to the conversation I witnessed unfold in front of me in the cafeteria in high school, and most notably the validity of my friend’s belief that people naturally will turn to faith as a means of coping with hardship. I remember many an occasion in church when the pastor would tell a story of one who found God and had subsequently beaten disease or addiction or depression. And hence I took my friend’s assertion about the lack of atheists in foxholes to be nothing short of whole truth. However, coming to Columbia and witnessing the stress culture here firsthand showed me just how much most everyone seemed to be struggling, some more than others. I cannot speak to how every student seemed to be coping, but I do not have too much faith that most here turn to Jesus for strength. These days I hear testimonials from people who found God and rose above their struggles, as well as from others who discovered God and later fell out of touch with their faith. However, this distinction is irrelevant in discerning those who seek God in the first place. In my college experience, it seems that those who turn to God as a refuge from the pressure of Columbia, the same people who find themselves in foxholes, tend to be those who had nurtured a relationship with Christ in their family life before coming to college. It seemed that my Christian friend’s argument at the lunch table could not hold up.

This might come as a surprise to fellow Christians who also take strength from the Lord’s word, but I truly don’t mean to suggest that in modern society Jesus can simply be enough for all people to overcome all of their struggles and live their lives to their utmost fulfillment. A consequence of the world we live in, the world that is blinder to faith and more complex than in the days of Christ and early Christianity, we must accept the very valid and multidimensional problems and needs that people have today. I remember being present at the Veritas Forum at Columbia in early January, in which I listened in on a discussion between Christian theologian Tim Keller and secular scholar Mark Lilla. I heard Pastor Tim Keller aptly describe how humans relate to God. He asserts that the desire to love Him is initially a selfish desire for earthly happiness, but upon getting to know God and discovering His eternal love, one begins to seek happiness in loving God just for the very sake of doing so. I think to athletes who partake in team prayer before their games, as well as to fellow students in my Bible course who ask the Lord for a good result on an upcoming exam. Then I realize that I, a Christian athlete, relate to God in such a way as Pastor Keller describes.

According to him, most people do not reach this supreme level of loving God, but it is important to nurture a relationship with God even if initially motivated by one’s own interests. If happiness in life is the end goal, which it unequivocally is, it is these individuals who have at least expressed a desire in forming a relationship with Christ at some point in their lives who show greater promise of overcoming strife once they find themselves in a foxhole, as compared to people who have never before sought a relationship with Christ and reach out to Him blindly in times of need. As I discuss above, this is what I found out upon coming to college.

In the face of strife and hardship here on campus, we must be open and loving towards one another in mimicry of Jesus and his actions unto others. This seems as plain a notion as anything, but anyone who is familiar with the Bible will know that its image of God may not be as straightforward as it sometimes appears. There exists a seeming disparity between the harsh God we see in the Old Testament and the compassionate God described in the New Testament, who are ultimately one and the same. Similarly, there also seems to exist a disparity between truth and love, but we can draw the same parallel that reconciles these seemingly antithetical notions. I do not mean to compare this dichotomy to God’s different aspects, but rather to emphasize that often there exists a seeming contrast between certain aspects of this faith, which still carry through logically. Love and truth exist as elements in our faith not as dissimilar from each other, but each holding different purposes. Whether or not the specifics of the type of Christianity that favors truth is the source of some of controversial issues in today’s world is another subject entirely, but what can be said is that this outlines Jesus’s teachings and the path to salvation. However, in our role as Christians on campus, we should spread the kind of Christianity that is conducive to love, that more would be alleviated from some of this school’s hardships and find happiness in exalting the Lord.