Many teens are wrestling with doubts about God amid the pandemic; I’m worried about those who refuse to engage – The Dallas Morning News

Posted: June 1, 2020 at 6:47 am


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This column is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find this weeks reader question and get weekly roundups of the project in your email inbox by signing up for the Living Our Faith newsletter.

In John Donnes Ninth Holy Sonnet, there is a terrible moment when the poems speaker blasphemes, suggesting that if God can do anything, then he can certainly forgive any sin (including telling ones creator how to run the universe). The speaker catches himself, and to the relief of faithful readers, utters an abashed rhetorical question: But who am I that dare dispute with thee/O God?

A moments failing is resolved in penitence, certainty is restored, all is well. Except that Donne does not provide instructions insisting the question is rhetorical. If it is not, then the speaker, after his freedom of conscience leads him into defiance, is left with doubt: God, why did you give us the freedom to cross lines you said never to cross?

Doubt pervades Donnes religious art, and the art has survived and is still debated precisely because it evokes, but does not pretend to resolve, this fundamental and sometimes agonizing human experience. Donnes readers have a choice a blue pill or red pill moment in which an unchallenging faith may be restored in a moment of foreclosed options, or faith becomes infinitely more complex and daunting. This choice is a struggle, an open mind confronted with a world that is more complex than can be immediately understood.

I mention Donne because, several years ago, I had a student who, when we discussed the poem mentioned above, told me (in tears) that her minister had proclaimed doubt to be a sin. I discussed the matter one day with a Baptist youth minister who worked with some of my other students. He found it appalling that a fellow cleric had so casually demanded impressionable followers to sever themselves from an essential aspect of their humanity in the name of faith. I will never forget his description of this advice to switch off doubt: A spiritual lobotomy performed without anesthesia.

I have always considered that my primary purpose is to present puzzles made out of words John Donnes are sublime and to ask young people to take the supreme risk of casting aside the comfortable lie that a poem, or the world, comes with instructions for easy understanding. In the best of times, some students struggle with competing standards set by those whom they trust.

This year was the worst of times. Our school closed its doors to students in early March, in response to a pandemic that first seemed likely to be transient and even something of an adventure. Most students were engaged, and many were eager to discuss demanding ethical issues directly connected to the new normal.

But April was crueler, and brought a closure more ominous than the physical shuttering of the school. Isolation, loss of routine and fear of economic uncertainty wrought graver changes, drawing far too many of my students away from any academic engagement and towards despair.

What seemed to challenge my students most viscerally was a faith-shattering confrontation with a world of uncertainty. The pandemic was (and is) relentlessly elusive its purpose and its containment beyond any adult assurances designed to comfort or to engender faith in the capacity of religion or science (or politics) to make the natural world cooperate in preserving the trust and innocence of young people.

In the end, my students have had to confront the same terrible dilemma that tore apart the girl who was ordered never to doubt: There are times, like some poems, too fraught with unknowns to be covered up by any demand simply to maintain faith. As Donne demonstrates, faith is ultimately not a simple thing at all. It demands not infinite awareness, but self-awareness, the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed or even understood.

Some students accepted the profound limits of adult understanding (my own included): They have grown in wisdom and humility. But others withdrew from all attempts to engage with schoolwork or even to be contacted. I am more afraid of what these withdrawn ones have lost than I am of anything else I do not know about the world right now.

David Newman is a high school English teacher in Odessa. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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Many teens are wrestling with doubts about God amid the pandemic; I'm worried about those who refuse to engage - The Dallas Morning News

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June 1st, 2020 at 6:47 am

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