“What is a university for?” Where I live, people rarely ask this question. If they do, the answer is practical. Getting a university education is the way to a well-paying job and therefore the way to a comfortable life, a good life. But there is a quiet persistent thought at the back of my head—surely, there is more?
I sit in what was my first philosophy lecture ever. The lecture hall is large and surprisingly filled. This module is popular, because it has a multiple–choice question paper for exams. Almost unheard of. Most people take it to fulfil university requirements. I take it out of interest. I zone out a little as he introduces the concept of metaphysics. I look around and most people are on their devices. Shame, he’s quite interesting and very bright. Then he says something that will shape not just my philosophy, but my theology for a long time to come. “You apply your mind! Unrelentingly ask difficult questions, pursue truth, and then sometimes you reach a point when you realise, there are mysteries in this world. There you sit down in quiet, and marvel.”
“So, I heard you want to serve in the Christian student’s group? Why? What do you see in the university?” A senior sat me down for coffee and began like this. I confess I was slightly caught off guard. I look into the distance and probed my mind. I explored how I felt and took a look at what I thought.
I looked at her.
She raised her eyebrows.
“The potential to shape hearts, and to shape thought. The potential excites me greatly.”
I did not know then, but I would go on to give the next eight years to serving students in the university.
“I hate the library,” I mutter to my friend, as we walked into the heavily populated yet unnaturally quiet place, our arms full of books and our laptops.
“Why? I thought you like quiet, and you like the smell of books?”
“It’s coerced. It’s oppressive.” I grumpily reply.
We make our way down to the study tables, where we see some friends. I pass shelves and shelves of books I had always ignored. A title at the corner of my eye catches my attention. I ignore it and go to sit by the window. I gloomily look out at the people crossing and hurrying to classes and other things. Perhaps it is the light, or maybe the time of day, but Proustian-like, I am transported to high school again.
It was after class, we were hanging out when we see a teacher, Mr. H. He joined us and asked if we’re ready for university, I shrugged and mumbled something about no expectations. He looked into the distance and then cheerfully said, “I never went for my classes! I spent all my time in the library. I tried to read everything I could, on anything. Especially things outside my discipline,” He lowered his voice, “and try to download as many online journal articles as you can, you’re never going to get such access again.”
I get up and go to get that title that caught my eye. It read: Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia.
I am an introvert. I enjoy attending lectures on my own. There was a boy who seemed intent on following me wherever I went. It would ordinarily seem creepy except he was rather charming, generous and kind, and I knew him from the Christian group on campus. He inundated me with questions. What tutorial slot did you choose? Why do you go to lectures by yourself? Do you want to be in the same group for the Plato assignment? Have you read this philosopher called Martin Buber? I really like Heidegger. What do you think of Confucian ethics?
I began to understand that there are people in the world who are different from me, and I began to take joy in meeting all sorts of people. One thing this particular friend would teach me was to always read people as charitably as you possibly can. I would often cheekily add, before taking down the strongest formulation of their argument. This friend would also show me that all of us are broken, but there is power in a love that meets a hurting life. It is a power to transform, a power to make new. When I came to face my own brokenness, it was having observed his life that I found renewed faith in a God who makes beautiful things out of us. The bread was broken, and then it multiplied and nourished. The alabaster jar was broken so the scent and its beauty could come forth. Christ himself was broken, that we might behold! God is making all things new.
PS: I married him.
It is dark, and I am about to walk through the empty cafeteria to go home when I spot a friend. The few stragglers finishing their dinner had long gone; she had been sitting there and doing her work. I head over to sit with her. We chat about niceties before the conversations takes a significantly deeper turn.
“It’s not pornography per se, but it’s just as bad I reckon. I’m struggling with erotic literature. It doesn’t help that sometimes I have to study it in this discipline. Can Christ redeem this? Or even literature as a field? I don’t know. It’s hard. And I don’t know enough theology maybe.”
“Maybe. Our theology got stuck in Sunday school, even though our studies move on to university. I don’t know why it doesn’t grow too.”
We sit in silence for a while.
“Could you pray for me? There is so much shame I feel I can’t go to God.”
“Can I sing?”
The night got heavier, and we spend the rest of that evening in an empty cafeteria, singing light.
“Go for it!” I was slightly surprised. I was young and female and for some reason I really did not think this committee was going to take me seriously. But here was my chairperson encouraging me to do it.
“You’re the dreamer kind. So … go and try it out!”
It was here that I discovered that university was a place I could test my ideas to change the world. A large sandbox if you will. Because in the university, we all still believe we can change the world, like children believe in magic. What makes it all the more magical, is we also believe we can actually do it!
I was fifteen minutes late. I walked quickly to the café where we had arranged to meet. My step slowed down, and I paused to say a short prayer. I had rescheduled her twice now. Each time, a quiet guilt and resigned desperation lay beneath a growing anxiety at the prospect of meeting. I had not said anything, yet like grace, she reached out first. Her question was gentle and affirming, and I felt the anxiety dissipate as it was met with compassion. It felt like it was okay to say that I was not up to meeting. Today though, was the day. I felt just enough courage to meet the world. Well, in this case, to meet a friend.
We sit quietly around the table with our professor and tutor. My professor gets up as the mother comes over. “Mrs T, I am very sorry for your loss.” I am feeling rather subdued as they speak in hushed tones. We all had lunch last week together and he had seemed fine. It felt surreal to be at his funeral. His sister comes over, and we express our condolences. No one saw it coming. He kept to himself. What caused it? No one really knows. My professor reminds us of all the counselling services the university provides. A classmate mentions he had been devastated about letting down his group in the video game that he played. I discreetly search him on Facebook and scrolled. Perhaps it had been too much.
I sent out a text, “Hey R, could I crash your room tonight? Long story.” I packed my bag and left my home quietly and angrily. I had honestly never done anything of this sort, but tonight I was so very angry. On hindsight I think perhaps the part of my brain regulating self-control or emotions had not been fully formed but in that moment of anger, the only option I could see was to leave. I walked to the university and to my friend’s campus dormitory, calming down in the process. I knew the facts, but it did not help regulate my emotion. I knew it was a stage of life where I am discovering who I am in relation to my parents and my family of origin, but no one said the friction would be so heated. For that matter, I’m finding out who I am in response to all these new exciting voices and encounters. Who am I? What am I here to do? Who am I in relation to my family? My nationality? My country? My discipline? When I leave, do I return, and when I return how is it that I am so changed, and they are so changed, yet so much is unchanged, and I am not sure where or what home is anymore? Does God hear this? Does God care? Who is God? What do I believe?
“Hey, Esther.” Her voice gently broke my flurry of thoughts. “I just have a deadline tonight so I’ll be working here but the toilet is down the corridor and you can use my stuff.” I nodded and obediently went to shower. My angry hot mind was calmed and in that little room, I felt safe. Safe to be myself and safe to not be perfect. I remember thinking as I fell asleep, friends are safe places to which we can run to. I have friends.
I would eventually grow to learn how to interact in healthy and helpful ways with my family and regulate my emotions. They can be them, and I can be me, and we can still be a family.
I grieved when I left the university. Seated in a carpark, between sobs I told God and the car parked in front of me, that this feels like an awful, awful breakup. How could I leave a place I had come to love so dearly? It can’t be the geographical space, was it the people? The intellectual rigour and exploration? The freedom to question and be questioned? The safety of knowing that falling and failing was okay? To have come to discover that I am loved, there exist people who see worth in me, and I do have a role to play in this weird, wide world. It was all of those and more, surely.
We’re scared. Terrified of what is to come, expressed in plans and doing as much as we can but there is always that quiet uncertainty, or that first rejection and failure. The fear of losing someone or something we love. Losing hope in a dream. Afraid of not knowing. Not being in control. Afraid that no one is for us and afraid that when we are finally put on our two feet we fall and don’t make it.
But we’re also excited. University presents a place of new adventure. New ideas, new people, new lands. New worldviews that challenge and excite. A world that is not as it is, but as it could be. We become, as it were, dreamers.
To the fear, and to the dreams, we hear it said – the Word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us. Emmanuel. Christ with us. Further, we hear, and we have hope – behold, I am making all things new. What a glorious, difficult mystery.
- Do people around you ask what the university is for?
- What do people at your university (or a university near you) think the purpose of a university is?
- What aspect of your university (or home or country) needs to hear the news that Christ was made flesh and is with us?
- What aspect of your university (or home or country) needs to hear that God is making all things new?
- What do you dream of the university being?
- Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy. Singapore: FES, 2017.
- Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.