“I hope no one blows us up,” said the Bosnian student in the front row of my Problem of God class. I had just finished going over the syllabus with the class, explaining what we were going to be reading, thinking and talking about for the rest of the semester. I asked if there were any questions and up went his hand.

For a second, I thought he was kidding. But just for a second. The look on his face and on the faces of many of his classmates quickly made it clear to me that something serious was going through his mind.

His comment gave me pause and set me to thinking. Over the past week or so I have come to realize that beneath the easy, warm daily interactions of Georgetown in Qatar there’s a current of concern.

When I signed up to move to the Middle East, I knew of course that I was moving into one of the world’s more dangerous neighborhoods, but I believed then, and I still believe that Qatar is a relatively safe corner of that neighborhood.

So, then, why is my student fretting about being blown up in Problem of God? I asked him what gave rise to his question. He explained that he has lived in Qatar for the last two years and that he knows plenty of folks who think that the idea of inviting American universities to Qatar is just plain wrong-headed, amounting to little more than opening the gates of the city to the invading marauders.

While this fear apparently comes to some with the opening of any American university to the Gulf region, there’s something particularly neuralgic about the coming of a Catholic university which invites its students into the intellectual and personal challenges of a course like Problem of God.

He pointed out that he knows many people – some deeply good, some not so good – who firmly believe that when it comes to faith and religion, things simply have to be believed and done without questioning. So, he looked at the syllabus, reflected on his experience as a Bosnian Muslim with experience living in the iddle East, and he began to worry about being blown up.

We talked more and, in the end, came to the conclusion that when it comes to terrorism, no one in Doha or Washington can claim to be free from worry.

That discussion stuck with me all through the night and into the next day. As I reflected on our conversation and on the many individual conversations I had with students after class, it struck me that there was more to the nervousness and tension in the classroom that day than simple fear of terrorism. There was a sort of nervousness that was born of the syllabus itself.

I had explained to the class that one of the aims of the course was to enable us to look critically, intelligently, carefully at what we believe and why we believe it. We were setting out to examine beliefs that we may have taken for granted all of our lives. We are about to ask tough questions of ourselves, of our inherited traditions, of our religious sense – questions that can enable us to move into the faith of adulthood.

That kind of questioning makes an intelligent, young person of faith understandably nervous. Growing in understanding and deliberate, intelligent possession of a faith tradition is hard work. It requires a willingness to live through some tough patches during which you can come to doubt things which you previously accepted without question.

I recall feeling at times as an undergraduate that my own neatly constructed understanding of my faith had been “blown up” by something I had read, by a lecture a professor had given, by a late-night conversation I had had with smart friends. I must admit that I didn’t much enjoy sitting in the internal rubble that sometimes resulted from such encounters, but I wouldn’t trade that experience and the growth that came from the subsequent rebuilding for anything in the world.

In a sense, as we begin Problem of God at SFS-Q, I hope we do get blown up.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown’s campus in Doha, Qatar. He can be reached at rjm27georgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It . appears every other Friday.

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