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Faith under pressure (Nov. 1993)

In an art history class I took during my freshman year, the professor displayed a slide of one of Michelangelo’s famous frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Creation of Man, in which Adam reaches for the hand that God extends to him. The space separating their outstretched fingers, the lecturer explained, infuses the painting with a profound tension, and informs it with the suggestion of intense passion, danger, doubt, fear. I remember being awed at how the painting collapsed an infinity of emotion into a single gesture, and how it elegantly and compactly described the contradictory flux of life.

I recall thinking, too, that for all its beauty and resonance, the image seemed somehow obsolete, expired, impossible. The religious metaphor, it seemed to me, has diminished in meaning and influence since Michelangelo’s time; as a vehicle for human imagination and experience, religion doesn’t work as well as it used to. And yet attempts to “update” an ancient faith, such as the Vatican’s release of a new catechism late last year, succeed merely in making it look ridiculous and undignified. I asked my father, a devout Catholic, if he didn’t think it was silly that an ancient religion had just now declared drunk driving a sin. “Of course not,” he answered, in all seriousness. “They didn’t have cars back then.”

Like me, many of my classmates have found the literal and figurative faith of their fathers in some way untenable. The intellectual skepticism cultivated so carefully at Yale allows that no one, not even the Pope, is infallible. My decision to renounce organized religion altogether is one among many choices about religion which suddenly—and some­­­times bewilderingly—become available to those entering college. There are those who find that the challenges of freedom and independence lead to a renewed reliance on their religious culture and beliefs; still others are inspired by books or teachers or friends, and shed their old faiths for new ones. Whatever the eventual destination, the road to religious conviction or repudiation at college is often marked by both shared rumination and fierce debate.

In spite—or perhaps because—of the overwhelmingly secular nature of my education at Yale, some of the most profound and passionate arguments I’ve had outside the classroom have been on the subject of religion. These discussions have led the way from an uncritical or indifferent approach to religion toward hard, scary decisions about what one believes as an individual—toward a deliberate embrace or rejection of faith. The diversity of religious backgrounds and cultures which Yalies bring with them to college, as well as the enormously varying ideas which they may explore once they arrive, provides fertile ground for such discus­sions. Through these talks I’ve learned to respect the beliefs of others, and have been forced to defend my own.

Perhaps such connections, forged through the frank exchange of ideas, are even more important and more lasting than the conclusions which each of us may reach. Across a chasm of difference and dissent, our fingers may finally touch.

Annie Murphy Paul ’95 is spending her junior year in England with the Yale-in-London program.

Filed under 1990s
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