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Theo class: A backwards history

| Wednesday, August 26, 2015

It was the last day of my sophomore year and I was sitting in my Introduction to Theology professor’s office. It had been a tradition for two years: his office is always the last stop before I leave campus. The conversation went like this:

“April, have you heard that they want to change the theology requirement,” my professor said. “They say that some international students argue that it is forceful and useless for them to learn about Christianity. Some of the students even say that they do not want to be ‘brainwashed’ by the university. What do you think?”

“Well, I hold the opposite opinion,” I said.

“Can you do me a huge favor? Write something about it.”

I do not intend to write what I think. I will, however, write what I have experienced. I am going to tell the story backward, because in my native Chinese writing, it is a good method to unveil the cause for a phenomenon.

 4 Months Ago

I went to Easter Vigil Mass with my best friend. We watched many students being baptized.

“April, have you ever thought about converting,” my friend said.

I said, “Yes, I have, but I don’t think I am ready yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I believe that there is a higher intelligence than human being, but I am not yet sure if it is God or Allah or the Buddha or something else.”

“I thought you said you love your Intro to Theo…”

“Yeah, I do. It introduced a whole new world to me, but more importantly, it taught me how crucial it is to discover the many other worlds still hidden. I want to ‘struggle’ a little bit longer.”

 8 Months Ago

I was working in the Writing Center and overheard the conversation next to me. A girl was talking in a half-joking, half-serious way: “Sometimes I just cannot understand. Do atheists believe in anything? I mean, if not, how can they even love?” I was offended. After work, I had a conversation with my fellow writing tutors.

“What do you think love is, April?” one of them asked.

“A very precious gift only for human beings from … um … God? Still, I never doubt my grandparents’ love for me and they are atheists,” I said.

“I would not doubt that either,” my colleague said. “I can feel that everybody, regardless of religious beliefs, nationalities, races and all those things can love. According to my Intro to Theo professor, this is precisely what reassures us that we are sent here for a purpose and it must be a good one, since we are all given such an extraordinary ability. For me, the purpose is to seek my faith in God, and for other people it means other things. What does it mean to you, April?”

“Good question,” I said. “I need to think about this.”

12 Months Ago

My twin sister and I were back home in China for the first summer since college and over the dinner table, my sister finally decided to tell my parents her decision.

“Mom, Dad, I made up my mind,” she said. “I want to declare a Theology minor.”

“Minor in Theology,” they asked. “You sure? Why?”

“Yes I am sure,” my sister said. “Theology is core to humanity and I think I can know both myself and others better by learning it.”

20 Months Ago

By the end of the fall semester of my freshman year, my theology professor wrote me an email, saying that of all the students he had taught, I was the one that gave him the most troubles. I was always challenging his convictions with logical arguments. He said he was not prepared for it, but now he appreciated it more than anything. “Seeing someone like you, so eager for knowledge and so ready to embark on an honest truth-seeking journey,” he wrote, “I could see God dwelling in and speaking through you.”

23 Months Ago

My theology professor said our first paper would be due after the weekend. The topic was to compare Enuma Elish and the book of Genesis on their different accounts of good and evil. I was more frightened than ever, so I went to my professor’s office hours for the first time. I gathered all my courage and made my first rebellious comment on Christianity.

“Well Professor, we learned Genesis this week,” I said. “It sounds fantastic, but I just don’t think it is useful…”

“How so?” my professor asked.

“In Enuma Elish, it is obvious that good and evil occur when extremes are reached, therefore it provides us a way to control them: do not go for extremes,” I said. “Then in Genesis, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil comes into existence before mankind is even created, so we cannot know how and why good and evil are generated. Then how can we ever know how to control them? Why is God always trying to hide something from human beings?”

My Theology professor thought for a long time, and smiled.

“April, great question,” he said. “Allow me some time to think about it. Why not argue for Enuma Elish in this upcoming essay? I am very excited to read it.”

“But Genesis is supposed to be the better one, right?” I asked.

“Oh April, please do not think that you need Genesis to get a good grade. There is no right and wrong answer. Oh, and last thing, I suggest that you read my favorite sentence again. It is on the syllabus.”

The sentence, from St. Augustine, was “Doubt is but another element of faith.”

24 Months Ago

I walked into my first ever theology class. I was holding a famous storybook called the Holy Bible. I sat down and made small talk with the guy sitting next to me, trying to look prepared.

“I’ve been taking this kind of class since high school,” he said. “I went to a Catholic School, you know.”

“Oh wow,” I said. “So I guess you already know all about God? Can I ask you a question? It has been troubling me for a long time.”

“Yeah of course, go ahead,” he said.

“Um … who is Jesus and who is Christ?” I asked. “Are they the same person?”

He burst out laughing. The gate to a whole new world opened in front of me.

25 Months Ago

I was in my home in Beijing, checking emails from someone under the title of “First-Year Advisor.”

“Mom, it seems like we HAVE to take theology classes for two semesters,” I said.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“Study about God, I guess,” I said.

“And you said it is required,” my mom said. “Like every student has to take Marxist Philosophy in Chinese universities? Are they trying to brainwash new students?”

“Perhaps,” I said. “I just do not think it is necessary for students like us to learn about that kind of religious stuff.”

May Notre Dame always be, as Fr. Hesburgh envisioned, both a lighthouse and a crossroads where the toughest questions can be asked in the safest community. May my fellow students never use this campus as a place to escape from doubts, but one to face problems with undying hope.

Author’s Note: Parts of this story belong to my twin sister, Rebecca Yuan Feng, and her Introduction to Theology professor, John Betz, whose beautiful stories continue to inspire me.

Dan (April) Feng is a junior Political Science and Economics double major. She is from Beijing, China and lives in Lyons Hall. April welcomes all comments (or complaints :P) and can be reached at dfeng@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Becca Self

    April, you have a gift for writing and you’re a gift to this community! Thanks so much for sharing.