Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, made some pertinent observations in a recent piece for The Atlantic, “When Faith Comes Up, Students Avert Their Eyes.” Roth says that in the classroom students can talk about nearly anything — identity, sexuality, politics — but not faith. It doesn’t mean it’s not there. In unwelcome environments, faith goes into hiding or presents as humanism or seculosity; often, faith stays quiet until it finds the right space where it can speak in tongues along with other likeminded believers. By avoiding rigorous discussion, students only maintain their particular brand of belief, or lack thereof. They bring to the table only who they perceive they should be (atheist pretending faith doesn’t exist), rather than who they actually are and what they actually believe. Of course, it isn’t only students in this situation. Who feels comfortable talking about faith in mixed company?

As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues. […]

Although few of our students today know much about John Wesley’s charismatic preaching or the core tenets of Methodism, many of them are still perfectly comfortable with the idea of finding one’s own good while also doing work in the world that promotes what they now call social justice. If they no longer have a principled spirituality, they need to think hard about what else sustains efforts aimed at justice—and about how politics, ethics, and the nature of knowledge have been intertwined with religious faith and practice. […]

Now, some may say that students should check their faith at the door (perhaps alongside their privilege) before they enter the seminar room. But that’s not the way I teach. In my classes, I want students to bring their complex, changing identities into our efforts to wrestle with enduring questions of love and judgment, justice and violence, grace and forgiveness. These are historical questions, but they can also be meaningful in students’ lives right now. If we neglect these issues in our liberal-arts classes, we are cutting off a vital domain of human experience from an education claiming to deepen cultural understanding. And we desperately need that understanding in our polarized society.