It does not happen all the time, but it does happen occasionally, that my students, after a particular class or conversation, would cry when they realize the importance of the class to their own lives.
This happened most recently when during a conversation one of my students, struck by how important the subject matter was for her life, realized that not all her classmates felt the same way, and astonished asked, in tears, “why don’t they see it?” The topic we had been discussing in class was the credibility of revelation: is it reasonable for a person in the XXI century—with the great scientific and technological advances we now enjoy—to believe that there is a God who might be personally interested in her fate?
Hers was not the reaction of another classmate, who, as a convinced atheist, had been resting comfortably (as much as that is possible) on the assurances of the amazing power of modern human civilization. In fact, her attitude at the beginning was to assume that belief in God was something that only (in her words) “primitive peoples” engaged in, so as to explain that which they did not understand. Thus, they may have appealed to the gods for an explanation of storms, whereas today we know about meteorological conditions that enable us to put the gods aside. When our knowledge is vast, as it is now, so she reasoned, there is no room for God. Science has explained it all or soon will.
The horizon of reason under which my students typically operate—and the last above is but one of the many that come with the same mentality—is one often strictly limited by what science can teach. My students often assume that human knowledge is most clearly demonstrated in scientific, empirical knowledge, and that anyone who does not accept a strict materialistic approach is not really engaged with the truth, since truth “is limited to facts.” This attitude is slightly naïve in non-scientists, such as my students. I say naïve because I know that there are many world-class scientists who do not fall into that error, and it surprises my students when they find out: empirical knowledge has its place and great value, of course, but when most scientists leave their labs at the end of the day, they do not make assumptions about their knowledge concerning the other aspects of their lives (their loves and friendships, for example) based on empirical experimentation, yet the truth of love and friendship and their knowledge of those is often as strong and convincing—and reasonable!—as any empirical knowledge.
Some of my previous students, some highly accomplished lawyers and medical doctors or NASA engineers, who came to my classroom in Houston to study about God despite their advanced education, would find my current, younger students indeed to be naïve, and yet representative of an entire class of people whom we can likely call colleagues and neighbors, who understand truth as something that can be ascertained only through scientific study.
My work in the classroom is not so much an effort to demonstrate the reasonableness of the claim of Christianity, and much less to promote some kind of pietism. Rather it is to broaden the horizon of understanding in my students, so that other, non-empirical-yet-reasonable claims may get a fair hearing; thus, that my students may judge the Christian claim for its true significance in their lives, just as the first student I mentioned above did. The second student concluded—and she was troubled in saying it—that now it seemed entirely reasonable that there might be a God who is concerned with her.
Fundamentally, I see my work as planting seeds. They may germinate quickly as with the first student above, they may begin to germinate slowly, as with the second, or they may take years if they germinate at all. In the final analysis, their freedom must engage an expanded horizon of reason in order for them to see truth as what it is: more complex than it initially seems and intensely more significant for their lives.