The crisis of faith that many young Christians experience when they go to college is the subject of endless books, studies, and parental worry. It's a thing. Kids go away, fall into the clutches of wicked professors and institutions, and abandon the faith. Parents go to many measures to avoid this.
I started college in '96 as the second homeschooler ever accepted into the University of Florida (my beloved was the first, the year before). I was in many ways an ingénu; after all, I'd homeschooled since the 8th grade. I already had the outrageous personality that many think of first when they think of me today, but it was charmlessly clueless.
For example, my two favorite t-shirts my freshman year were a white undershirt upon which I'd written in Sharpie a quote from a Puritan which read "All the world is queer save thee and me, and sometimes I think thee a little queer", and a t-shirt a couple of girls from the Baptist Collegiate Ministries had had professionally spray-painted for me. Yes, professionally spray-painted. It was skin-tight and said something, I forget what, about love. The spray paint was rainbow-colored and full of sparkles.
It wasn't until years later that it occurred to me to ask my dad if he and my mother had ever been worried about me abandoning the faith. I was only going to class when I wanted to. I moved out of my parents home to live in a funeral home. I got an earring and even painted my nails (which I removed when my mother asked me to). I was dating a girl when my parents (and hers, for that matter) had made it clear they didn't approve. And I was wearing outrageously flaming clothes everywhere.
When I asked about that, by then well into my thirties, my dad didn't hesitate. It had never crossed their minds that I was in any sort of spiritual trouble. (Which is not to say they couldn't spot sin when they saw it.) It never occurred to them that I might be experiencing a crisis of faith, as so many young college kids do.
I was kind of amazed, because if my kids did those things, I think I'd be worried. But they were right. By the grace of God my faith got stronger and developed in new and richer ways when I was in college. It was, without question, a time of spiritual growth and maturation.
All the potential traps were there. Philosophy, literature, and science courses taught by disdainers of Christianity. Pagan friends. Staying out all night. Working *gasp* at a bar. Doing stupid things with girls. Leaving a sheltered environment and discovering a great big world out there that wasn't like mine!
The fact that I sailed through all of that unscathed is strictly by God's grace. Yet God's grace manifested itself in particular ways. I believe that other saints, especially my parents, equipped me to handle those things.
I had other problems with sin during that time, but I never struggled with unbelief. Below are some of the reasons I think that might have been. I would welcome your comments and emails, since I'm still juggling a lot of this.
My parents chose to homeschool me not because they thought it was the best way to educate, but because they were scandalized by the things I saw in middle school in North America (we'd moved to Canada from Brazil). I don't think any American would be impressed by those things today, but they were enough to get my mom to pull us out of school when she discovered homeschooling. My point in bringing this up is that they were trying to shelter me. The most common bugbear of Christians who wonder why young people leave the faith is overprotectiveness. And I grew up sheltered, but only in certain ways.
1. I traveled. With my parents, of course, but enough to know that people lived and thought differently in different places. That included Christians.
2. I read. My parents basically operated the C. S. Lewis' dad did when it came to books. I could read anything I wanted to. And I did. I definitely read some things I shouldn't have, like the time my mom found me reading a Harlequin romance at grandma's (the description of what the flame-haired hero looked like to the heroine as he stepped naked out of the water is forever seared into my brain). I read about bad people doing bad things and good people doing bad things. And sometimes I could even tell that the writer was a bad person. And I read on.
3. I met lots of different people on their own turf. We moved a lot. At one point, after living in Canada and California and Massachusetts in the span of three years, I was saying things like "Like, wicked, eh dude?" We had to take all these people as they were. I didn't think about it, but that was what we did. And we became a little bit those people for a time. I was a passionate devotee of the Canadian Football League when I lived in Canada; I remember running into my dad to brag about how "we" had beaten the American kids who'd come up to visit our church. And we'd definitely enforced Canadian rules.
4. My parents were purposefully but not artificially multi-cultural. Purposeful but not artificial. That's a tough line to walk. I don't know how, but we ended up at a black church one Sunday on the plains of Alberta and my dad stood up and told the entire assembly that he'd had a dream about being at a black church. So there we were. In Berkeley, California we ended up at a white-bread church of professionals, and in Massachusetts an ex-Assemblies of God full of blue-collar workers. They were comfortable in a lot of different settings, but most importantly, they made themselves fit. And they made us fit.
5. All these things fed into what I think was the most important part of the equation. I had drilled into me a robust understanding of total depravity. I knew that my own heart was desperately wicked, and that man without God is given only to evil. I think that a lot of kids stumble when they meet someone who's obviously a raging pagan and they have the thought, "But...but...he's a really nice guy!" I knew that evildoers were nice guys. My parents taught me that Hitler was not a monster, but a man; they emphasized that there but for the grace of God go I.
I knew that good in the world was to be found only by God's grace. I knew that pagans could be smart, and reasonable, and logical within their presuppositions. I knew it was normal to hate and rage against God. Things that evangelicals are afraid of, because they seem so judgmental, equipped me to like and love and listen to people who hated the Triune God without it provoking a crisis of faith.
My parents had sheltered me. They had kept me out of the circles of mockers, but raised me in such a way that I knew what mockers did and why. They had done as good a job as I think parents could do to make a young man as innocent as a dove but as wise as a serpent (which is to say, not particularly wise or innocent, but certainly not unequipped).
Some of the things mentioned above would be difficult to duplicate; they just sort of happened because of life. I said that understanding total depravity was the most important part of the equation, but I want to especially emphasize that one of the other points would, I believe, have been sufficient to equip me with whatever the other aspects of my upbringing written above contributed to my preparation:
There is nothing new under the sun, and of the making of books there is no end. It didn't matter that I'd never read Voltaire's Candide. While it was blowing away the minds of Christians and pagans alike in Philosophy 101, I was able to perceive that it was nothing new, and was aware of its historical context from a Christian perspective. I had no idea who Voltaire was mocking when Pangloss claimed this was the best of possible worlds even in the face of evil and misery (it was Leibniz), but I knew that this is God's desired world, and I was equipped to defend the idea. Other young Christians grew embarrassed because they thought an Enlightenment thinker had exposed them.
Again, this was not because of any merit, but because my parents had made me read deep and long. I had seen much of the world, past and present, in books, because of their efforts.
What do you all think? Am I on to something here, or off my rocker? How should children be prepared for college and the big wide world? I have not taken the time to write here against the idea of simply throwing your children out into the world at age six or twelve or whatever and letting them figure things out...I mean, having them "witness". That would be another article. But there is a way to tend your children as plants in your garden, who need shelter at first as they grow into robustness. When they are young you can over-tend them, making them weak at full growth. Or you can under-tend them, and weeds choke them out.
My experience has informed the decisions we are making as parents. What would you add or take away from what I've said? We can meet up again in fifteen years to see how we're doing.