Sacred Traveling: How Study Abroad Can Enhance the Interior Life (2)

by Janine Paden Morgan, chaplain and instructor in Bible, Ministry and Missions for Abilene Christian University’s ACU in Oxford program

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel fresco
The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel fresco

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I want to reflect briefly on two aspects of the human-divine relationship especially relevant to young adults in study abroad contexts. First, it is important for students of faith to have reassurance of a God who is seen as a present companion even in far-flung places, but, secondly, a God whose conception may also need to be modified and expanded or even discarded.

The Presence of God

In liminal places, what is known is stripped away; in its place is a sense of dislocation and loss of control wherein the question may arise, “Is God here in this place?”  The Genesis account of Jacob’s flight from his brother into unknown territory and God’s appearance in a dream reassures Jacob of this truth.  Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it” (Gen. 28.10-22).  A student of mine similarly reflected:  “Being so far away from home and in a culture so different than my own, I have really felt as if I had no control.  At first, my solution was to pray for the results I wanted in all the situations that were causing me stress.  Then one day, I realized I was trying to tell God what I wanted to happen but was struck that I didn’t have to worry about the outcome of anything–because no matter what I wanted, events were going to unfold for God’s glory and it wasn’t in my hands at all.  It released me from so much worry and brought me such peace.”

An Expanded View of God

A second shift among believing young adults is the move from understanding God in terms of American-centered, tribal theologies to an expanding view of God.  One student writes, “I am overly saturated with church in America.  Christian education, youth groups, and summer camps have lulled me into thinking the world goes about faith as I do.” Through contact with other believers from other cultures, students often acquire newfound sensitivity to social and ethical matters.  Some move from uncomplicated faith to grappling with its complexities, as a Catholic student studying in Rome notes:  “Rome also made me more realistic.  I saw for the first time that the good and the bad, beauty and ugliness, saints and sinners, can coexist and in fact are always mixed together in this world….  Most importantly, I learned to question my own culture and to doubt its fondest assumptions.  I realized that the Gospel makes demands of nations and cultures, not only of individuals.” [i]

For some, distance from home and its values can lead to serious faith

Jacob's Ladder by William Blacke.
Jacob’s Ladder by William Blacke.

questions. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, unexamined faith also has limited value. Nearly every semester I sit on my couch with students who are worried about losing their faith, often a faith that defines their very identities. If unprepared for such challenges to belief, young adults often assume the worst, a fearful “well-that’s-that-then-I’m-an-agnostic” and never re-examine or recover something very precious.  What needs to be held in tension is the courage to examine faith claims and the knowledge that such examination and subsequent doubt is the essence of a robust faith. The theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that faith questions are not acts of unfaith but acts of bold faith, observing, “The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness from its religious enterprise.  It embraces the darkness as the very stuff of new life.” [ii]  Many Psalms lament a missing God; Job cries out, “Oh that I knew where I might find God … I go forward, but God is not there, and backward, but I do not see God” (Job 23.3-4; 8-9); the centurion tells Jesus, “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief (Mark 9:24);” St. John of the Cross speaks eloquently of the dark night of the soul; the recent movie Doubt attests to questions of faith. Beyond apologetics, there is real comfort in the knowledge that for thousands of years other believers have also walked along this same road.  Such knowledge often gives distressed students necessary breathing space to embrace doubt as an essential part of faith.

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Posted by Janine Paden Morgan (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary). Janine is chaplain and instructor in Bible, Ministry and Missions for Abilene Christian University’s ACU in Oxford program and contributing author of Transformations at the Edge of the World.  

[i] Briel, Don.  “An Intentional Roman Catholic Community.” In Transformations at the Edge of the World, eds. Ronald Morgan and Cynthia Smedley (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010:105).

[ii] Brueggemann, Walter. Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984:25).

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