My college years were marked by a spiritual aimlessness, a drifting. My wife and I, in our early twenties, were annoyingly happy and content with one another and with life... in love, and with only those responsibilities that college students know. Though we never had any money, those were carefree days.
Always, though, there was this knowledge that there should be more to life, even as happy as we were. I always had that sense that is summed up in the phrase "A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for", or better still by the words of St. Augustine, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee". I realized that coasting along contentedly was not what humans were put here to do.
I began to cast around and look at other beliefs, other faiths, and shallowly dabbled with this or that aspect of pop spirituality, New Agey ideas like Transcendental Meditation, or Tibetan Buddhism (I kid you not) and my own spin on Christian devotion that attempted to alloy these kinds of things with the faith of my youth. I was young and ignorant and saw no contradiction.
This shallow faith that went in search of novelty became more and more a problem, because while I always thought of myself as a Christian, the environment I was in - the university - was hostile to this faith in numberless ways both subtle and overt. In that modern academic atmosphere, the folly of religion was an assumption, something taken as already well known and proved. Every mention of Christianity in that setting came with this subtext. Someone, probably lots of people (smart people, professors and scientists, more than likely), had long ago proved that Christianity was a primitive superstition, just like all the other religions (except, like, the cool eastern ones). God was a story people had invented to make themselves feel better and to scare their children out of having too much fun. A number of my close friends were plain atheists, into Nietzsche or whatever else they suspected might shock or upset ordinary folk. It was terribly important to be separate from (that is, above) the Herd, and to make this known as often as possible.
In this environment, my faith and my Christian witness became so watery and tepid that it could have challenged or upset no one. Those who knew me might have said, "Yes, I guess he is a Christian, but not one of those bothersome dogmatic ones. He's more sensible.", meaning that nothing I gave witness to among my peers bore anything but the most superficial resemblance to the real Christian faith. I think whenever I did venture to bring up Christ, it was like as not merely as some kind of enlightened master or great sage. I didn't want to come off as, you know, one of those Christians. This means, too, that I sometimes failed to defend even the things I did believe, burning inside but keeping silent when jokes were made or when more naive (that is, open and orthodox) Christians were slandered. In short, I was a coward.
In all this, though, in my heart of hearts, I truly never lost my faith in Jesus Christ. I may have tried to graft in some very weird additional stuff, I may have begun to mythologize or dilute or spiritualize great swaths of the bible, but there was one thing that I couldn't dismiss, and that was what I knew of the character of Christ. His words and actions were stubbornly unassailable, like a giant railroad spike in the middle of a desert of blowing sand. I realized, thanks to what exposure I did have to the gospels, that Christ spoke "with authority, and not like one of the scribes.". This I could not escape.
Chesterton gives some sense of this in his book The Everlasting Man. He notes how the words of Christ are -
I had been infected with the gospel, and it had somehow taken root and made everything else pale and weak by comparison. I could neither prove or disprove anything about the life of Christ, but I knew for certain that a world in which the gospel was not true was a smaller and duller world, not a greater and more interesting one. If the gospel were false, then the greatest thing in the world was false. If history had not been sharpened to a point in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then it truly had no point at all.
I knew darn well that Jesus was more than any enlightened master or sage. Next to him, Nietzsche was a toddler having a tantrum and all the modern philosophers were mumbling in their sleep or drawing pictures in the air (or maybe on the walls of their padded cells). If Jesus was not who he said he was, if his teachings were false, then I could not be certain that anything was true. Or perhaps more accurately, if anything else was true it hardly mattered that it was true.
I couldn't have put these thoughts into words at the time, though. All this is what I now understand in retrospect. I was a poor Christian, but I could no more stop being a Christian than I could convince myself that up was down or that black was white.
Sometime during all this we graduated and moved to Fayetteville (to the University of Arkansas) to start our graduate degrees. One of the circle of friends I had at our former school (Arkansas State U) had made the same move, and so we got together when we could, though we were all pretty busy. One day he introduced me to another acquaintance of his; a student, a bit younger than we, but with an agile, wide ranging and imaginative mind, a lover of comic books, science fiction and old movies, possessed of a good natured humor and unaffected manner, talkative but a careful listener as well. He wore Birkenstocks and tie-dyed shirts, sometimes with a fedora. Over the next few months he became a true friend and we remain good friends to this day.
When my dad died later that year (1984), I was surprised to receive a card addressed to me in the mail at my parents house (five hours away) where we had traveled for the funeral. It was the only gesture of sympathy I can remember from within my own set of friends at that time. I was deeply touched. It was from my new friend, Jimmy Akin.