College Students and Conversion
Each year hundreds of thousands of students from more than 400 colleges and universities complete the Freshman Survey of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), sponsored by the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. Students are queried about demographic factors, academic and social aspects of their lives, and their attitudes and beliefs across a range of issues. The results are then reported so that students at Catholic colleges and universities can be viewed as a single group and compared with students at other types of institutions. The results provide a snapshot, if you will, of who our students are and, in a limited way, of what they hold dear.
A Profile of Students
The latest results available are those for the Class of 2003, surveyed during the summer and fall of 1999. Some of the findings are not surprising to anyone who has spent time at a Catholic college in recent years: a majority of students are white, affluent, Catholic, bright and ambitious, are somewhat anxious about the cost of a college education, want to get a good job upon graduation and believe that a college education is an important advantage in doing so. Less obviously, most students come from intact families, describe themselves as middle of the road politically and rate themselves as superior in academic ability, competitiveness, drive, self confidence, initiative and emotional and physical health. They also think they understand themselves and others well, but are rather less confident about their artistic, mathematical and writing abilities, their computer skills, and both their public speaking and popularity. Somewhat surprisingly, given popular caricatures, most watch less than five hours of television a week and do not play video games at all. Rather, they spend a great deal of time socializing with friends and working for pay, perhaps to the detriment of other pursuits. As seniors in high school, the majority spent no more than five hours a week on homework and less than an hour a week reading for pleasure.
Taken at face value, these results would seem to suggest that entering students at Catholic colleges and universities are generally talented, privileged, confident, healthy, and middle class, middle of the road and middle-brow. A closer examination of the data, however, suggests a more subtle complicated portrait. For instance, although a majority rate themselves as above average in mental health, fully a third indicate that they frequently feel overwhelmed by all that they have to do. Many have overslept and missed a class or appointment, nearly 10 percent feel depressed regularly, and half as many take a prescribed anti-depressant, while many more feel overwhelmed or depressed at least occasionally. Notably, women acknowledge feeling more stress than men: 41 percent of female students but only 21 percent of male students frequently feel overwhelmed, and more women than men often feel depressed.
Not surprisingly, a majority of the students in the CIRP survey acknowledge drinking alcohol at least occasionally within the last year. However, the meaning of occasional use must be seen in light of a recent report by the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly two thirds of the college students under the age of 21 who were surveyed had consumed alcohol within the last 30 days, and of those who had, 42 percent binged by having five or more drinks on a given occasion. Indeed, the report suggests that there is a growing polarity on college campuses with regard to drinking, as both the percentage of those who abstain and the percentage of those who binge are increasing, while the percentage of those who drink socially and non-abusively is decreasing.
When students at Catholic colleges and universities are measured against national trends for freshmen in these areas, they differ more by degree than direction. The authors of the CIRP note record-high levels of academic self-confidence among students nationally coupled with increasing levels of academic and civic disengagement, and point out that the percentage of students who feel overwhelmed has been increasing steadily for the last 15 years. Thus, although students at Catholic colleges and universities may be more self-confident than their peers elsewhere, and although their reported rates of feeling overwhelmed and using alcohol are higher than for students nationally, they arelike freshmen in generalcaught between potentially unrealistic estimations of themselves and the not infrequently difficult realities of college.
The religious portrait that emerges is equally complex. We might be heartened to learn that 89 percent attend church at least occasionally, 27 percent discuss religion on a frequent basis, 73 percent pray and/or meditate weekly, and 45 percent regard the integration of spirituality into their lives as essential or very important. An overwhelming majority perform volunteer work, believe that racism is still a major problem, think the government should do more to control the sale of handguns, and do not believe that a man is entitled to have sex with a woman. At the same time, very few students consider priesthood (0.2 percent) or religious life (0.1 percent) a likely career, and only 15 percent indicate that the Catholic identity of the institution was a very important factor in their decision to enroll. Likewise, 46 percent believe that abortion should be legal, and a substantial majority believe in the death penalty. They also believe individuals are relatively powerless to bring about social change, that same-sex couples should have the right to marry and, among males, that sex among casual acquaintances is morally acceptable.
What the results of the CIRP survey suggest is that the current generation of students at Catholic colleges and universities is talented, generous and privileged, but also stressed and sometimes compromised. Their native religious inclinations and moral sensibilities, while strong and searching, diverge at points from those of the church. An obvious question is how to bring these students into fuller communion with the church. A less obvious (but not on that account less important) question is what students’ native capacities may suggest to Catholic higher education. If the psychology of religion is to be believed, the data may point to a conversion already underway, a conversion that may be unsuspected, but one that is in need of guidance if it is to result in a genuinely Catholic identification.
A Psychology of Spiritual Conversion
Nearly 100 years ago, William James observed that college students and adolescents in general are particularly open to religious experience, especially to a kind of conversion that is less about a change in denomination than about a change in the quality and depth of the experience of the sacred. Achieving that, this firmer hold on religious realities can take place in two ways. There are sudden and dramatic experiences of conversion in which God breaks in on and seizes hold of ordinary consciousness, and there are conversions that proceed from the slow, incremental progress of faith. And while some conversions effect the healing of a sick or divided soul, others confirm and extend an innate health and optimism. Often following upon a period of stress in the life of an adolescent, such conversions owe less to the specifics of denomination and creed than to what James called the passage from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity and what we might term the press of psychological development. Thus, whether sudden and dramatic or slow and progressive, a changed relationship to God and the sacred, and a changed sense of self, go hand in hand.
Contemporary research largely confirms James’s observations. In their 1998 study of Catholic, Protestant and nondenominational Christian college students at a state university, Brian Zinnbauer and Kenneth Pargament found that among students who considered themselves religious and who had not changed denomination, 61 percent reported becoming more religious in college as a result of a changed experience of God and the sacred, something Zinnbauer and Pargament termed spiritual conversion. As James predicted, two forms of this conversion were evident. Both those who underwent sudden and dramatic conversions and those whose religious faith and practice deepened more gradually over time were more likely to have experienced emotional stress than those whose religious experience remained unchanged. At the same time, however, students who experienced either form of conversion were more likely than students who experienced neither to score higher on measures of self-esteem and a sense of the self as coherent and integrated. Considered, then, as a process leading to a deeper experience of God and the sacred, conversion is surprisingly common among college students. It is equally effective in either guise that it assumes and psychologically distinguishes those who undergo it from those whose religious faith and experience remain unchanged.
The results of the CIRP survey suggest the relevance of this notion of spiritual conversion for students at Catholic colleges and universities, as well as for students in general. Many of our students, like those studied by James and by Zinnbauer and Pargament, experience considerable emotional stress and are religiously inclined. They are therefore ripe for a deepened and more intimate experience of God and, in its wake, a transformed sense of self. Yet as James suggested and as can be inferred from the results of the CIRP survey, there is no guarantee that this conversion will take place within the ambit of the church. The challenge, therefore, is to baptize this conversion with a Catholic sensibility not from a misguided sense of denominationalism, but from the conviction that students’ native capacity and need for spiritual conversion can be served by the grace embodied in the church. To do so, we must attend closely to students’ desire for a deeper experience of God and to a broadly conceived notion of the sacramental.
The Sacramental Context
Lewis Rambo, a professor of psychology and religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, has studied the literature and research on conversion. He argues that conversion is the result of seven interactive elements. Conversions 1) take place within a given personal and social context, including the symbolic; 2) are catalyzed by a crisis, which can assume many guises; 3) involve an active search or quest for an answer, provided the potential convert is intellectually, emotionally and religiously ready; and 4) are mediated by an encounter with an advocate for a particular resolution, whose strategy and methods must match the needs of the potential convert. Conversions also require 5) interaction with the community of faith and result in both 6) a commitment to the new faith in the form of experienced surrender to it and 7) significant personal consequences through the exercise of it.
Although all seven elements are necessary for conversion to take hold, Rambo maintains that in any given instance one or another may prove decisive. For students at Catholic colleges and universities, the decisive element may be the context in which their conversions take place, a context that is symbolic as well as personal and social, and that necessarily invokes the sacramental.
The sacraments of the church (its rites, rituals and liturgy) and a distinctively Catholic culture (art, music, images and icons, the language of faith and the history of ideas) offer not only a context in which conversion can take place, but the experience of God and the sacred that is at the heart of that conversion. The sacramental experience shapes the interpretive frame of reference for a student’s ongoing conversion in ways both conscious and not, and informs every other element of the process. It matters, for example, whether a student introduced to meditation in a class on Asian religions has access to sacred space and silence on campus in which to pray. It matters whether a student anxious for a friend’s well-being can light a candle, or that a nascent poet has been formed by the language of confession and mercy. It also matters that discussions about race, gender and diversity, about investments and endowments, and about athletics or research not be limited to the argot of utility but embody consideration of the good and virtuous, the formation of persons as moral agents and the Gospel imperatives of faith and justice.
In each instance, the absence of a sacramental contextthe actual space, wax and flame, words and Gospelrenders the intimation of the sacred liable to alternate identifications or, worse still, to the evanescence of mood, fashion and politics. By contrast, when a deepened experience of God occurs within a sacramental context, it becomes difficult to maintain the common disjunction between the spiritual and the religious, as the God who is found is the same God who is manifest in the space, wax, flame, words and Gospel.
Drawing attention to the sacramental dimension does not suggest that the other elements of conversion that Rambo delineates are secondary, nor that the academy should substitute for the parish. But it is particularly salient to students and their experience if their conversions are to result in a genuinely Catholic self-understanding. At the same time, it is also important that the sacramental truly be such and serve the students’ more intimate acquaintance with God. The provision of the external trappings of Catholic ritual and piety in the absence of a genuine community of faith, or the subversion of sacramental sensibilities to a proselytizing agenda, will fail both church and academy and fail to meet students’ needs. It will also betray the promise of sacramental grace.
What James noted, and what Zinnbauer and Pargament document, is something to which anyone acquainted with college students can attest. Implicit in the questions they ask, the struggles they endure and the challenges to convention that they mount is a search for both a creed to live by and a self to inhabit. In helping to bring a sacramental context to bear on the search for a more intimate acquaintance with God, Catholic higher education not only provides the means by which they might find God, but also mirrors the effects of what they find. For at the heart of the Catholic and sacramental vision of reality is the Incarnation, that knitting together of the disparate and divided in a unity that heals and redeems. And is this not what a student’s search and discovery of God is meant to entail: a healing of what may be divided, the joining of the disparate, and so the union of faith and reason, mind and heart, God and the self?