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Further Reading

Society: Person of Interest

Wise Man on Campus

An Interview with J. Budziszewski

by Marcia Segelstein

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 31

J. Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes extensively in a variety of venues, including his blog www.undergroundthomist.org, about his interest such topics as natural law, conscience, moral character, family and sexuality, and religion and public life. He's the author of several books, including How to Stay Christian in College, On the Meaning of Sex, and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.

Dr. Budziszewski shared with us his thoughts on how students can preserve their faith while in college, why the sexual revolution has no future, and the hope offered by the one thing all humans want.

What was your inspiration for writing How to Stay Christian in College? Was it related to what you saw happening among your students? Or related to what happened to your faith in college? Or both?

Both. I saw the difficulties many of my students were having with their faith—they would come and talk with me about them. I also remembered how I had lost my own faith in college. During my student years I was caught up in the radical politics popular among many students in the late sixties and early seventies. I had my own ideas about redeeming the world, and my politics became a substitute religion. Because my unrepented sins made me more and more uncomfortable in the presence of God, I began looking for reasons to believe that he didn't exist. Then again, once I lost hold of God, things started going wrong in my life, and disbelieving in him seemed a good way to get back at him. That may seem a strange sort of disbelief, but most disbelief is like that. I decided that the universe had no meaning, and that I was one of the few who could see that and still go on living, walking the rocky heights where the air is thin and cold. You could call that macho nihilism. It's more common among young men. Women who lose faith tend to lose it for different reasons.

Based on your experience as a professor, how difficult is it for kids to stay Christian in college?

It's a challenge for young people to stay Christian in college. One reason is that when they moved away from home, they lost their support group. People talk about resisting peer pressure. That's a good idea, but it's a better idea to get better peers. Another problem is that the popular culture of college is hedonist. Not many people in college lose their faith in God and then begin practicing a lot of new sins. What tends to happen is that they get attached to some sin, then look for reasons to lose their faith in God. The third reason is that although the university was a Christian invention, the intellectual culture of the modern university is essentially atheistic. I am not speaking of theoretical atheism, which is believing that there isn't any God; I mean practical atheism, which means believing that even if there is a God, he couldn't make any difference to anything—and certainly not to the human mind. It's really too bad. Having lost God, the modern university has also lost confidence in reasoning itself. Try saying you want to find Truth, and see how far that gets you. "What are you, a bigot or something?"

So can you stay Christian in college? I know you've written a whole book about it, but could you offer our readers some of your thoughts on the topic?

Certainly you can stay Christian in college. Many Christians even grow in faith during their college years. The most important thing is to avoid sinking into spiritual individualism, thinking, "It's just you and me, God." As an ancient saying has it, one Christian is no Christian. So I recommend three things.

First, find or form an on-campus support group of Christian friends who really understand and practice their faith, and for whom the life of the mind isn't just an extra, but a part of the service of God. Next, find one or more Christian professors who can serve as intellectual mentors, preferably of the same sex as yourself—professors who not only practice their faith but also are alive to the Christian intellectual tradition. And then find a real church off campus, and worship faithfully. Your on-campus Christian fellowship group isn't the same thing; it's not an expression of the entire Body of Christ, but of just the nose or the elbow. You need to be not just with Christians who are just like you—students and twenty-somethings—but also with Christians who aren't like you.

Where you teach, and at colleges where you speak, are there strong communities of Christian students? Are they a distinct minority? Do they face persecution or isolation, academically or socially?

I would say that communities of Christian students are becoming stronger, not weaker, although the picture is mixed, and there is a lot of retrograde movement, too. They do stand out, not just for believing God exists, but for living as though he does. Some of their professors sneer. Some of their non-Christian friends—whose sense of history goes back, oh, maybe fifteen minutes—tell them, "Get over it. You're on the wrong side of history." There is no "wrong side of history." All that matters is being on the right side of the Author of history. The hedonistic life gets old pretty quickly. And now Christians are almost the only ones who really believe in the intellectual ideals in the name of which the university was invented. Christian student groups are growing and thriving in the midst of some of the places you would least expect them to, such as Harvard and Princeton.

In your book On the Meaning of Sex, you write that not many of your students look happy, and that each year they have less sense of humor. To what do you attribute that?

They say they're happy. They tell me things like, "I am having an awesome life!" But when I ask them to tell me what happiness is, the most common answer I get is a variation on "Nothing but the absence of pain and suffering." In other words, they have no vision of happiness at all. The negative element so fills their eyes that they are completely unable to suggest anything positive that happiness might mean.

My guess is that my students have lived all their young lives in pursuit of pleasure—as the young generally do—but with less restraint from our crumbling conventions than the young who have lived their lives in previous generations. Consequently, even at this tender age, they have begun to experience the hedonistic paradox, which usually kicks in much later. He who makes pleasure the object of his life eventually finds that it evaporates; he who fails to distinguish between good and bad pleasures ends in misery. Although my students don't formulate the paradox explicitly, they feel it in their bones.

You also write that young women seem eager and willing, based on how they dress and their attitude, to be used essentially as "tools" sexually. You say that "any personality so damaged as to be willing to be a tool spontaneously advertises her injury." Why do you think there are so many damaged young women, and where does the damage come from?

I say that some are. And I don't blame them. Young men have become infantilized; they are afraid to grow up and take on adult responsibilities of marriage and family, and they think that because there is a pill, women are obligated to "put out" for them with no expectation of relationship. Women, in the meantime, feel trapped. Radical feminists used to talk about "sisterhood," but they were against real sisterhood. The sisterhood by which, among other things, women used to support each other in saying "No" to male sexual selfishness has all but vanished.

But you mention my line about advertising the injury. Consider the fashion of exposing portions of one's undergarments. It's as though one were saying, "Look how ready to be a tool I am—I am already undressing." One day in a department store I was surprised by a salesgirl whose slacks were unzipped, unsnapped, and folded open. Because I was trying to look elsewhere, it took me a few minutes to realize that they weren't really in the process of removal; they were made to look that way. The flaps were held open by stitching. It is hard to believe that a young woman would dress in such a way unless there were a surplus of men who were ruined enough to like it—and perhaps a shortage of young men who weren't.

In that book you also say that your students talk differently now about "sexual liberation" than they used to. Do you think young people are ripe for reconsidering the hook-up culture? Do you have ideas on how to make that happen?

Right. In the '80s, if I suggested in class that there might be any problem with sexual liberation, my students said that everything was fine—what was I talking about? Now if I raise questions, many of them speak differently. They still live like libertines, and sometimes they still talk like libertines, but the heart has gone out of it. They are beginning to sound like the children of third-generation Maoists. The problem isn't glee but despair. Although the hook-up culture leaves them empty, they have no vision of a possible alternative.

One day in class my students brought up a question concerning sex. I remarked that my generation invented the sexual revolution, but I had the impression that theirs was paying the price. A young man answered, "I know what you mean." He explained that more than anything, he longed to fall in love, get married, and stay married to the same woman forever. I wanted to cheer. But then he added that because his own parents hadn't been able to manage it, he didn't think it was possible, and he was afraid to get married at all.

Women show signs of avoidance too, but in a more conflicted way. Eighty-three percent of college women surveyed by the Independent Women's Forum said marriage is a very important goal for them. Yet forty percent of them hooked up. Do you hear a little cognitive dissonance there? Can you think of a sexual behavior less likely to get you into marriage?

But yes, there is hope. There is always hope. People today do so much to kill joy that you would think they don't want it. Don't believe it. All humans want joy. That is why, in the long run, the sexual revolution has no future. We are put together in such a way that although we can be pushed and pulled and drowsied by the flickering images of joyless desire, we cannot be satisfied by them; we know too much even in oblivion. Fallow knowledge troubles our sleep. We lie under the prickling enchantment of the law written on our hearts, which is stronger than the counter-spell and can never be quite scratched out. We've heard it before, and it's true: The way and the life lie nowhere but in the truth. 


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