Written By Daniel Ang, Indonesia
One of my most vivid memories of college was my Sunday morning routine. I would wake up at 7:00 a.m. to attend a rehearsal before the early service at my local church, where I played the cello in the ensemble. We were blessed with a good number of talented musicians and an industrious musical director, who created beautiful arrangements of classical tunes and traditional hymns for the service. The melodious music, coupled with our pastor’s hard-hitting but inspiring sermons, would always leave me with warm and fuzzy feelings when the service finished. I would have my week’s fill of Christianity, so to speak.
However, the vibe and atmosphere would change dramatically when I returned for breakfast in my college’s dining hall. There, the rest of my hall mates would be just waking up. I would be greeted by the sight of many in their pajamas, and some in their party clothes, still hungover from the revelries of the previous night. Once, a friend asked me why I was dressed up in my Sunday best. I replied that I had just come from church. Her face broke into a frown. “Church? You go to church?”
She looked bewildered—not hostile nor disapproving, just simply puzzled. Apparently, at my college, “Sunday” wasn’t associated with “church” anymore. I felt that I had just stepped out from the little sacred bubble of my church into a world of the profane, where nobody talked about the Bible, God, or the afterlife.
That’s just the way it was at my former school: an elite liberal arts college in northeastern America. There was no overt hostility against religion, but it was a taboo topic. The predominant attitude was “don’t ask, don’t tell”. The atmosphere was so stifling that a friend even did a research project on it, interviewing people about their experiences with personal faith there. One interviewee described the time when he, unaware of the college’s social mores, committed the grave error of sharing about his Catholic faith and the role it played in his life. It was greeted with an awkward silence and embarrassed expressions.
Looking back on my college days, I am reminded of Daniel of the Bible. As a young man, he was forcefully taken away from his family and people to the heart of Babylon, where he was educated in Babylonian literature and culture so as to be useful in the king’s service (Daniel 1). In the midst of this foreign environment, however, Daniel was bold enough to maintain the faith and traditions that God had commanded the Israelites to follow. He refused to eat the unclean Babylonian food put before him, sticking instead to vegetables and water. He continued to pray to God three times a day, despite an official decree being made against it (Daniel 6:10). For this, he was thrown into the lions’ den, but was delivered from death by God.
My own experience was not as intense as Daniel’s, but it has similarities. Before going to college, I had spent most of my life in a Christian environment: going to Christian schools and having friends who mostly came from Christian families. In such an atmosphere, I was reminded daily of God. But I also took it for granted. Everybody spoke Christianese—regularly praising God and talking about His supposed will in their lives. Being a Christian myself, it was easy to go along with this. In fact, talking about God became an easy way to gain approval from parents and teachers.
It was a totally different story at college. Even revealing that you “went to church” was something odd. There were classes about religion, but it would be frowned upon to talk about your personal experience with religion. While few people attacked religion openly, most didn’t bother about spiritual matters at all, caring only about material concerns in their lives—a sort of pragmatic agnosticism.
At the same time, there was a thriving Christian fellowship. I attended its meetings once in a while, and would be surprised to find some of my friends—whom I did not know were Christians—there. Up to that point, we would have talked a lot, but never about our faith. It was almost as if we were all “closet Christians”.
I noticed that some Christians, when faced with this situation, ended up hanging out with fellow Christians most of the time. While it was understandable, I didn’t think that this was the best way to go. So I tried making friends regardless of their beliefs, which led me to one extremely memorable exchange in the dining hall.
I was having dinner one evening with a group of friends who were fellow math and physics majors. We usually talked about the latest insurmountable homework problem and topics in physics and science. This time, however, the conversation somehow drifted to the topic of God. Someone remarked, “Who believes in God nowadays?” He shook his head.
So far, I had rarely talked about my faith, but I was determined that if the occasion ever arose, I would not hide the fact that I was a Christian. I was inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
So I piped up, “I believe in God. I’m a Christian.”
My friend was incredulous. “Really? But why? And how?”
I started to explain my beliefs. Being an avid reader of apologetics – my favorite books were those by Christian philosophers and theologians like William Lane Craig, Alistair McGrath, and Alvin Plantinga—I was delighted to have this golden opportunity to put my knowledge to good use, especially in a context where we were discussing science. I explained and defended arguments about my theistic beliefs. My aim was not to share the gospel, but to simply show them that there were, in fact, “normal” students who earnestly believed in God.
I could see my agnostic friends’ incredulous reactions. They had known me so far as a fairly competent fellow physics and mathematics student, and did not see me as being one of those “weird religious people”.
The conversation lasted way over an hour, and we had to stop only because the dining hall was closing. It felt like a mini “lions’ den” moment: I was the only Christian at the table, answering objections to my arguments that were coming from multiple directions. While nobody was completely convinced by my answers, no one was able to rebut me conclusively, either. I felt that I was able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
Eventually, we all went our separate ways. I still hope that my friends will eventually find God, or at least be moved to think about those questions a little bit more. But more significantly, that conversation had momentarily broken the icy ocean of indifference at college, and thankfully, God had granted me the courage to keep my faith, even in public.
Looking back, I can see that small moments like these were indispensable in strengthening my faith. In such an environment, every small act I did that was even remotely “Christian” helped in reminding me of my faith. Instead of being a routine act, every Sunday service served as a genuine source of weekly spiritual renewal. Even little things like not hiding the fact that I prayed before every meal in the dining hall became significant to me.
In the end, this Daniel survived college, just as the biblical Daniel survived Babylon. While there were times that I felt I should have been even bolder about my faith, I believe that I handled my first experience of being thrust into a secular environment well, and I pray that God continues to give me strength to sustain my faith wherever He places me in the future.