By John San Nicolas

Research Story Competition
Undergraduate Research Opportunities Conference, 2023

After each lecture, my vision widened, and the ground weakened. I had finally switched majors to pursue my passion of studying religion and philosophy. One of the first courses that I took turned out to be a perfect mix of the two, an introduction to the philosophy of religion. We read many texts written by Christian philosophers, and each day I met a different sort of Christianity that I never could have imagined.

Imagine that you are raised in a religion that matters the whole world over to you. And imagine that, as you grow up, you are taught that you are learning the only ‘true’ version of that religion, and that you must be very careful in getting your religious beliefs right. Imagine that when you finally start studying that religion, you find out that there are far more expressions of it than you ever thought there could be. That is what I learned when I first peered into the vast, vast chasm of Christian diversity.

In the course, I found philosophers who believe that God foreknows everything before it happens, and others who think that God does not know what we will choose for breakfast tomorrow or the next day. On one camp were thinkers who hold that God does not feel emotion, while the other camp says that God feels our pain and suffers with us. There were philosophers who talk of God as masculine, as a Father, and other philosophers who talk about God as gender neutral, as Godself instead of Himself. Some philosophers believe that hell is a place of eternal torment, while others think that hell is only temporary, and still others that there is no such thing as hell at all. Each philosopher had something strikingly different to say than the last one, and each one thought themselves a Christian.

At this time that I began to encounter many other, far more consequential controversies within Christianity. I was confronted with the powerful critiques of the pro-life movement made by pro-choice Christians. I was abashed when I saw Christian nationalists storm the Capitol. I was captivated listening to gay Christians testify of what the call of Christ means for them. These things held so much more sway than the old controversies I had grown up around, such as whether infants can be baptized, or whether Christians can use curse words, or whether Christians can listen to secular music. These old debates seemed like bickering compared to the urgently important questions that Christians nationwide were coming to terms with. But there was that same underlying theme: across these debates, each side believed they were Christian.

Lingering behind all this was the question: if there are so many different sorts of Christians who disagree on so many sorts of (sometimes profoundly important) things, what is it that makes them all Christian? For me, this was an especially important question when it came to what Christians ought to believe. See, I was raised to be very careful with my beliefs, to make sure that they were not ‘false’ or ‘heretical’. Being exposed to so many conflicting beliefs held by people who all claimed to be Christian, I had to ask myself, as Pontius Pilate asked Christ, “What is truth?” This was not an outward question, directed at the philosophers and public figures I was observing. This question was a most inward one, directed at my very self.

That same semester, I took a life changing course in the New Testament. We approached the Bible as a collection of historical documents, learning about what it was and how it came to be. I had a lot of serious unlearning to do. Pastors from the pulpit had always said that the Bible contained no contradictions, that it was inerrant. Yet, I found so many contradictions in the four gospels alone. (Who was Jesus’s grandfather? Was it Jacob, or Heli? Was Jesus silent and misunderstood as He was in Mark, or did He give long monologues and perform spectacular miracles in public as He did in John?) In church I was taught that the Bible was historically accurate, but the claim did not seem to hold up. (The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born during the reigns of Herod the Great and Quirinius, governor of Syria—except that Quirinius only became governor a whole decade after Herod died.) The straw that broke the camel’s back was when we studied Revelation at the end of the course. I had been dogmatically raised to read Revelation as a book foretelling the political future of the world (and for some reason, Revelation was supposed to be especially concerned for the future of America!). Yet, the way that critical scholars read it was far different. Rather than being a magical fortune telling book, Revelation was like a time capsule, addressing a harsh reality that the early Christians were facing in the time it was written.

All this left me with a faith that was nothing like the faith I had started out with. The same concern perturbed me: do I still believe the right things? Have I somewhere gone wrong? This is what set me on my quest to make sense of the sheer diversity in Christianity. How much diversity is too much diversity? How much is too little? What are the common beliefs, if any, that all Christians share? What is so important about belief, anyways?

As I talked with others at various churches, I found that many other Christians shared my concerns. I figured that we needed a way to understand our diversity when it came to beliefs and doctrine. There was one particular way of making sense of our doctrinal diversity that seemed to be pretty popular. We were all familiar with the concept of essential doctrines, which all ‘true’ Christians believed, and nonessential doctrines, which could be disputed. But there did not seem to be any sufficient answers as to which doctrines are essential, and how to tell essentials from nonessentials. With the help of El Puente Research Fellowship, the ASSURE program, and my mentors, friends, and colleagues, I set out on a journey that was every bit academic as it was personal to find out what it means to believe in something, and how to share a beautiful, spiritually transformative journey with people who believe sometimes very differently than I do.

When I first went into research, I had no idea what research was. The one thing I was sure of was that I got to pick the project. Research was sometimes making something that was uniquely my own. At other times, it was coming up with an amazing, groundbreaking idea, then a week later stumbling across a book or article from generations ago that articulated that ‘new’ idea better than I ever could. But no matter what the process looked like, it was a process that was specially mine.

If you have a why behind your studies, if you believe you are at university for a reason, then research is for you. You choose your path, your books, your articles, your schedule, your voice. All along the way, there are incredible resources and opportunities at UNM to help you. There are fellowships, like El Puente and McNair, that equip you with mentors and fellow students working on their own projects. There are programs, like ASSURE, that can help you sustain your project financially (sometimes books and articles can be expensive!) and see how it comes together by writing up reports at the end of the semester. And lastly, there is the UROC conference. When all is said and done, you get to share the amazing things you have learned with others, and you get to learn about all the amazing thing that others have done, too.