“you have such a sweet job, I would pretend to be a Christian just so I could do what you do!” Max*, a super-senior at Grand Valley State University responded to me when I told him that I got to talk to college students about their spiritual beliefs as my job. I had to smile at his excitement to talk about spiritual things even to the point of making the statement above about being a poser. On an afternoon where the blue sky stretched over the GVSU campus filled with ray-ban and skinny jean clad students, I met with members of the InterVarsity chapter to engage in spiritual conversations on campus with people. Max was one of the people we spent time talking with who shared that he was an atheist but loved talking about philosophy and religion.
This really is one of the part of my job that I enjoy most, meeting people like Max & listening to their beliefs about life and the world, whether they believe in God or are atheists and engaging in conversation about what life is really all about. When Maria the student who was with me approached Max we introduced ourselves and shared that we were with InterVarsity and were out talking to people on campus about their spiritual beliefs. Max, a 6-feet tall red headed guy smiled & said “I love talking about this stuff! Have a seat!” gesturing to the metal bench where he was sitting & took a last drag on his cigarette & stubbed it out. We talked with Max for about an hour and he had a lot of really good questions- “why do you people believe in the bible?” I laughed and ribbed him when he called us “you people” and he backpedaled responding, “no I didn’t mean it like that- I meant the two of you that I’m talking to!” He was also curious about other things like; “What’s up with all the weird stuff the bible says, like; don’t eat shellfish?” “Aren’t good and evil just terms we make for things we like or dislike?” “What about darwinism?” At that point I had to tell Max that I needed to honest, that I really didn’t care how the world was created, I was just glad I get to enjoy things like blueberries, and lake Michigan and Narwhals and the mystery and beauty of why all of these things exist and the pleasure of enjoying them with people I love.
I was impressed with Max’s intellectual and spiritual curiosity. As a math major he seemed to have a desire to both understand the world and make it a better place. He shared that after GVSU he and his wife were going to serve in the peace corps for a year, which I thought was really cool. We talked about how this world and our relationships were designed for good yet damaged by evil, though he didn’t like that I used the word “evil.” “How about inhumane?” he asked brow furrowed, “the word evil just has too many connotations.” We talked about where we see evil and injustice happening around the world- like in relationships where children are molested, or the fact that entire economic structures are build on the exploitation of child sex slaves. Though we may not have used the same words, we both agreed that those things are wrong.
We talked about Jesus and as Maria & I shared about his ability to change us from the inside out and heal us of our selfishness that causes us to perpetuate evil/inhumanity in the world, Max got kind of twitchy. Maybe he shouldn’t have stubbed out his cigarette so soon! “So, are you telling me that if I don’t believe in this Christian God I’m a bad person? I feel like you have some sort of agenda here. I don’t mean to come off the wrong way, but why do you guys want to talk about this stuff with people?” I looked at Maria who was looking nervous and hadn’t said much during our conversation. “Well, yeah in one sense we do have an agenda.” I replied. “We could have just hung out and had coffee together but because we’ve experienced God’s love in our life we want to tell others that he loves them. Most people think God wants to judge and condemn them, but we want people to know that God loves them, including you.” Max sort of laughed at this point, stretching out his long legs and smiling. I had the sense that though Max had a lot of questions one of his unspoken questions was “are you going to judge me for not believing what you do? When are you going to tell me that I’m a bad person and am going to hell if I don’t believe in your God?” Sadly many people have the perspective that this is what Christians do- reel you in to a conversation about love & then spring it on you that you’re a bad person. But that’s not how I roll, and more importantly- that’s not how Jesus rolls.
As we began to close our conversation, I shared with Max that God’s intention for people is to be a community that is sent to heal. Though Jesus followers, myself included have done some messed up things in the world and to others, God’s intention is to orient our lives around his priorities through Jesus to heal the world and our relationships. We thanked Max for being so honest with us and respectful & said that we hoped he felt the same way. “Yeah, totally- this has been like the high point of my day.” We invited him to the InterVarsity meeting that night & he said he’d hope to come. I hope that whether he did make it or not, he’ll keep pursuing his questions with InterVarsity students who are asking some of the same questions.
I was so glad to spend time talking to Max & other students that day. It is too easy to put spiritual questions on the back burner or to try and figure things out on your own. I’m thankful for people like Max that are asking hard questions and are seeking for communities who are willing to pursue questions and answers together.
*name changed out of privacy.