A man in the Outer Hebrides asked me why I traveled. I shrugged. “Adventure, I suppose.”
He shook his head. “That’s not what I mean,” he said. “What are you looking for?”
I said something that sounded nice but wasn’t true in any true way. I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. How did this journey begin? I left the States last July, in a container ship bound for Antwerp. I left Montana two months before that. A journey is a story, a segment of life with a narrative arc. Its beginning is up to the storyteller.
The story of this trip begins in rural Montana. I was nineteen, idealistic, fascinated with life, and very religious. I wanted to write. I wanted to change the world. I’d done very well on my standardized tests, and I had invitations from schools all over the country, including some that would have let me get my degree without ever having to work or take out a loan. Despite that, one school stood out from the others: Patrick Henry College, a tiny Christian liberal arts school near Washington, D.C.. It advertised itself as an evangelical alternative to the liberal Ivy League schools, with classes in Greek, Latin, philosophy, history, and political theory, and it catered to home-schoolers like myself. Ambassadors from the school attended home schooling conferences all over the country, and at a conference in Idaho one of them told me that PHC’s stated goal was to train the nation’s next generation of leaders.
A thrill ran through me. I’d secretly fantasized about writing brilliant essays that would show people the truth of God’s love, the meaninglessness of atheism, and the way forward from a war-torn twentieth century. If any school was going to give me the training I needed, PHC was it.
I told my parents and my church that I’d made my decision. My high school Greek teacher slapped me on the back, telling me that I could help push back the liberal agenda, and an old woman at church called it “going to West Point for God’s Army.” I was full of pride, ambition, and nervous excitement. On the cross-country flight, my first alone, I felt like the future was laid open in front of me.
The PHC campus was built on a green spread of land surrounded by rich fields and D.C.s ever-expanding suburban area. Its buildings were red brick and whitewash, with names like “Monticello” and “Founder’s Hall.” A full-length portrait of Patrick Henry adorned one wall of the main building’s entrance, and the cafeteria was full of students wearing modest dresses, high-belted pants, even a few suits. There was none of the party atmosphere I’d heard about at other schools, just dedication, vision, and faith. I was immediately entranced.
My first semester only served to confirm my opinion. I made friends and had conversations about philosophy and literature I couldn’t even have dreamed of back in rural Montana. Back home, kids talked about getting to the top of a construction crew or becoming a manager at McDonalds; here, they wanted to write books, serve on the Supreme Court, run for President. George Bush had mentioned the university by name, and several students served as aides in the White House. What we were doing, I thought, was nothing short of revolutionary, and the camaraderie that seemed to create was intoxicating.
I decided on a degree in literature. Classes presented secular thought through a Christian lens; we asked if Jesus could be seen as Nietszche’s ubermensch, if there were Christian themes in Hemingway, and if the Athenian god of Socrates could be the God of the Bible. I was exposed to more new thought in that first year than I had been in the entire rest of my life, and I devoured all of it.
The glow faded a little as the months wore on, of course. Some of the political students, the ones who wanted to be President, had a tendency to parrot talking points rather than discuss issues, and nearly all of the other literature students seemed to want to be writers more than they actually wanted to write. I ignored that, assuming the same would be true in any university, maybe more so. Life settled into a comfortable routine. I woke up every morning at six to write for two hours on a science fiction mystery novel I wanted to publish, went to chapel, where we’d pray and sing and read scripture (attendance was mandatory), then go to classes until evening, when I’d head to the local coffee shop to draw or read or study. On Saturdays, I’d sometimes go hiking on the nearby Appalachian Trail, and on Sundays I’d go to church. I went home for Christmas, and though it was great seeing friends and family back in Montana, I looked forward to coming back to PHC.
In February, a new coffee shop opened up in town, and the path of my life shifted. A good friend of mine got a job as a barista there, and so I switched allegiances; the coffee was better, and I had a bit of a crush on her. I was talking to her one day about the book I was writing, in which an artificial intelligence takes over a spaceship. She was nodding along gamely, then said that actually a friend of hers had just been telling her about AI, and I should meet him. She shouted across the shop to an older student sitting and reading in a corner. “Stewart!”
He gave us a flat look. “What?”
“Tim was just talking about AI being used as a terrorist weapon.”
Stewart’s face lit up. “Oh, yeah!” he said. “Seriously, with all the crazy AIs in movies? Why couldn’t a government do that on purpose?”
He came over and I outlined the plot of my book, which moved on to world-building whole science fiction scenarios. When the coffee shop closed, we moved outside and talked for another few hours. We met pretty regularly after that. Stewart was a philosopher. He could read Latin and cite obscure German thinkers, had a soft spot for controversial thinkers like Marx and Thomas Payne, and enjoyed causing trouble in conservative classes by defending things like socialism and reincarnation. He had a sixth sense for bullshit, too — one of the would-be presidents would be talking, Stewart would give him a look, and the president would trail off with a nervous laugh. That look said more than you’re not making sense; it also said, you should know better.
It was Stewart who first seriously made me question PHC. Late one night in one of the dorms he told me about the Purge. It had happened the spring before I arrived, he said. Several professors had been fired for placing too much value on secular thought. One of the kids had complained to the administration, and the administration had sided with the offended student.
I objected, defensive. PHC was supposed to be a bastion of learning, wasn’t it? Surely there was more to the story than that. If Christianity was really True, couldn’t it stand up to a little merely human philosophy?
Stewart laughed. There was a strain of real classical education in PHC, he said, but it was under fire. The founder, a lawyer by the name of Mike Farris, had envisioned the school as a sort of training camp for conservative politicians and pundits. The reason the likes of Fox News and George Bush were so enthusiastic about PHC wasn’t because it provided a rigorous intellectual environment for young Christians, but because it served as a well-oiled cog in the Republican political machine.
I’d heard such claims before, but hadn’t listened. Now, it troubled me. My talks with Stewart were starting to change how I thought. He had a tendency to challenge preconceptions, to question things most of my fellow students simply took for granted, and to engage with ways of thinking contrary with our own. I looked up to him, and we were becoming good friends. Part of that friendship was learning to think critically.
Over the summer, Stewart and I decided to get an apartment. This was actually seen as a questionable move by many; off-campus students had a reputation for breaking the rules, for not living up to that straight-laced, clean-faced ethos that had so impressed me about the university in my first days there. PHC didn’t allow alcohol, smoking, or sex — not just on the campus, but by any student anywhere during the school year. Moving out of the dorms was, in a sense, choosing to live outside of the parental overview of the school’s administration.
In class, I was growing dissatisfied with the literature track. There were only three professors, and only one of those was mildly competent. The others showed a genuine lack of understanding for anything that deviated from the Christian worldview; we read Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s depiction of Buddhism, and my professor told us right up front that he couldn’t even conceive how anyone could believe that “all is one.” A student raised his hand and mentioned that the Christian idea of the trinity is that three is one; the professor shook his head, shrugged, and said “That’s different.”
I was no longer at ease; I was becoming what I’d known in my first year as a “cynical upperclassman.” I worked on the school’s IT staff, having failed to publish my novel, and went to class, but otherwise I was disengaging. I never went to chapel, and only rarely attended the school’s social events. Most of my time was spent in our apartment, where we had walls of books, no television, and dinner parties every week with other off-campus students. Many of them were older than me, and some were outright critical not only of the school, but of the Christian community as a whole. These criticisms bothered me and intrigued me in equal parts; I remember reading articles and watching videos late at night, asking questions that only felt right to ask in the dark. They seemed wrong, somehow, like Thomas asking to touch the wounds of Christ, but my ability to resist them was weakening.
Unhappy with literature, I switched to history. The professors were much better, and for a moment that gave me a glimmer of hope and a renewed respect for the school. One of my favorites was a reservist Marine chaplain who loved, like Stewart, to cause trouble. He was in charge of teaching the introductory history classes to freshmen, and would often bring up the anti-religious sentiments of founding fathers like Jefferson and Franklin, the terrors of the Inquisition, and the moral gray areas of historical narratives that were usually, in the Christian view, black and white.
He challenged me to think. And then he was fired. PHC had hired a celebrity apologist whose preferred method of dealing with a non-Christian belief was to ridicule it for five minutes, then dismiss it. My professor objected, saying there was more truth to be had than just what was found in the Bible, and that the faculty had a responsibility to engage with secular thought, even where they ultimately disagreed with it. He was told to pack his things.
Though I was still a Christian, and still politically conservative, my faith in PHC was gone. I continued to learn, but started reading more on my own. Late night talks with my roommates and classes with professors like the chaplain had ingrained in me a need for the truth I could no longer deny. I remember a hot afternoon in beginning of my third school year — I was reading Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek when a summer thunderstorm rolled in. The rain pounded down in a sudden rush, the thunder crashed, and I had a glimpse — just a glimpse — of the incomprehensible vastness of the world I lived in. I was overcome, and something inside me broke. God, I prayed, I can’t do this anymore. If you’re out there, you know the whole truth, and you won’t object to me trying to find out what it means. Help me. Grant me wisdom, open my eyes, and give me the courage to follow the truth, wherever it leads.
That prayer became a mantra, and the world changed. Something in the sermons at my church rang hollow, and I stopped going. Republican rhetoric seemed calculated and self-serving, and my school’s administration seemed authoritarian, overly parental, bent on creating obedient, unquestioning copies of itself. I needed space.
“I’m going to go somewhere,” I told my roommates. “Take the whole summer.”
Stewart thought about it and nodded. “Do it,” he said.
At a writing convention as a teenager, a literary agent had told me that his favorite city in the world was Damascus, the capital of Syria. That name had resonated with me, and lain dormant throughout my university years. Now, it came back. I looked at tickets, then decided it’d be more interesting to fly to Ireland and get to Syria overland. I took the next semester off to work and save.
I don’t know if the weight of that last week before leaving was real or if I’ve added it in my memory, but my goodbyes had a solemnity to them. Driving to the airport in May of 2009, I was still a Christian, still conservative, and still fully intending to finish my history degree at PHC.
All of that was about to change.