Christianity & the Academy: When Faith Goes to College, What Comes Home?

Presented to UNT Christian Grads, April 13, 2012

The Barna Group indicates that only 20% of young adults maintain a level of spiritual activity consistent with that of their high-school years.[1] If this study may be used to predict, only one in five who were spiritually attentive during high school will remain that way into adulthood. This is more significant, I think, than studies that show young adults leaving the church because they never really engaged. So, why the migration from spiritually serious to spiritually apathetic?

I would suggest that a significant component for the departure is Christians’ general unpreparedness for what they will face at university. Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote “Once did people say God, when they looked out upon distant seas, now however, have I taught you to say Superman.”[2] In keeping with Nietzsche’s “God is dead” theme, Bertrand Russell observed,

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.[3] (emphasis mine)

Just as Nietzsche described self-sufficiency as the means of deriving independence from God (and thereby “killing” Him), Russell understood that science was the ultimate means of self-sufficiency. As Pirates of the Caribbean character Lord Cutler Beckett proclaimed to the metaphysically enhanced Davey Jones, “The immaterial has become immaterial.”[4] Historian of philosophy WKC Guthrie recognizes early influences of naturalism in science and philosophy. He notes, “Philosophy and science start with the bold confession of faith that not caprice but an inherent orderliness underlies the phenomena, and the explanation of nature is to be sought within nature itself.”[5] In other words, the rise of philosophy and science is admittedly rooted in faith that only the natural realm is reality. The Greek natural philosophers were the predecessors to the modern scientific movement, and the defining factor (faith in the exclusivity of the material) has remained central through the years.

Wendell Berry describes the purpose of the university as follows:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. Given the current influence of universities, this is merely inevitable. But what universities, at least the publicly supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words – not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture…Underlying the idea of a university – the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines – is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good – that is, a fully developed – human being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.[6]

Berry’s comments illustrate the interdisciplinary design of university – that knowledge and applications are integrative and connected. Consequently there are significant implications when the university is successful, as Berry describes, at making humanity. Here is the key question then: if the science and philosophy that undergirds university curriculum is decidedly anti-metaphysical, then how does the student survive the inculcation of an anti-God worldview?

Sadly, many don’t, for their own theistic faith often goes unexamined and unsupported, and is easily abandoned when challenged. People don’t often realize what they believe until those beliefs are countered. Sometimes the arguments against Christianity, for example, are so convincing that we may abandon it with little resistance. But for those willing to examine Biblical Christianity and contrast it fairly with the atheistic roots of contemporary science and philosophy (so-called), the process of engaging atheism as a worldview – in all its glory – can be a very productive process. In other words, Christians should not be afraid of engaging other views – but we should engage those views from a vantage point of knowledge, rather than ignorance. We should understand not just what is believed, but why. We should understand the implications of what is believed. We should have a basic framework of worldview that allows us to fairly compare and contrast the diverse worldviews.

I suggest at least the following six components for such a framework, to the end that we can have confidence in what we believe, that we can challenge each other and refine where we need refining, and ultimately so that we can think and walk as we ought. We ought to (1) understand that everyone begins with faith, (2) understand the basis of truth, (3) understand the conflict of worldviews, (4) understand our position in Christ, (5) understand our equipment for growing and walking, and (6) understand our responsibility to unbelievers.

 

Understand That Everyone Begins With Faith

Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 describe the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Psalm 114:1 describes those who proclaim in their hearts that there is no God as foolish. Everyone begins with a first step of faith (a presupposition). Atheists, like theists, are indeed people of faith. The difference between the two is simply the object of their faith, and their methods for justifying it.

To illustrate, Carl Sagan began his groundbreaking The Cosmos with the words “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[7] This is not a scientific statement (the scientific method requires observation), rather it is a faith statement, and one that undergirds all of Sagan’s scientific pursuit. Ultimately, for Sagan, the cosmos is the only god there is. By contrast, the Bible begins with the presupposition that God exists – and never attempts to defend that presupposition (e.g., see Romans 1 and Hebrews 11:6).

Everyone’s first step of investigation is a step of faith. From that first step, all other steps are grounded and their scope is defined. In other words, that first step of faith defines the rules of the game – what is allowed and what isn’t. There is no neutral ground.

 

Understand the Basis of Truth

If everyone begins with faith, then the Christian need not feel uneasy being a person of faith – if the object of the faith is worthy of that faith. One major distinguishing point between Biblical theist and atheist is how the object of faith can be known – how the data is to be interpreted. We are all dealing with the same data (atheist and theist alike), but how we interpret the data leads to very diverse conclusions.

In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes concluded that the only way to have true knowledge was by the guided use of reason. He developed a method whereby, he believed he could guide his reason into truth. Unfortunately, Descartes did not seem to account for the finitude of human reason, and thus his rationalism is not a flawless vehicle for gaining knowledge.

David Hume, in the eighteenth century, argued that the senses were the key to the discernment of knowledge. Sensory experience was superior to and guided reason. Hume’s epistemology did not allow for any metaphysical reality, however, as only that which can be sensed can be considered to be real.

Whereas Descartes’ rationalism considered reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and Hume’s empiricism relied solely on sensory experience, the Bible acknowledges that the message of God and His work of salvation is foolishness to those who have not been saved by Him (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Nonetheless, it asserts that the resurrection of Jesus, for example, occurred (e.g., Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20; 1 Corinthians 15). The Bible presents this event as both rational (Luke 24:44-46) and empirically verified at the time (John 20:24-29; 1 Corinthians 15:6-8), still the Bible does not present either of those aspects (rational or empirical) as final arbiters of truth.

These three approaches to truth (rationalism, empiricism, and what I will call Biblicism) all have to deal with the same data – for example, there is a cosmos, that all three approaches have to interact with, but they interpret that cosmos differently. If the first step of faith is that there is nothing beyond the cosmos, then an explanation of God as creator is not allowed. The question, then, is not the data itself, but rather what we consider our final authority for ascertaining the truth about the data.

Understand the Conflict of Worldviews

If we begin with a first step of faith, and then interpret the data based on that first step of faith, then clearly, certain conclusions are not allowed – they would violate the rules of the game. Both the atheist and the theist have to come to grips with this reality. Consequently, when an atheist defines science, the definition might be as follows:

…science being the scientific methodology — the method and practices used by scientists to acquire reliable knowledge about the world around us. The superiority of science over other attempts to acquire knowledge lies in that methodology. Developed over the course of many decades, the scientific method provides us with information that is more consistently reliable and useful than any other system that humans have ever tried to develop — including especially faith, religion, and intuition.[8]

By contrast, consider this description of science by theistic thinkers,

The first issue needed to be covered is whether or not the definition of science even allows for theistic cosmology. But what is science? The National Science Teachers Association decided its standards for science with a position statement adopted in 2000. In the statement, the organization laid out that “science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge,” (Nature). To say then that the natural world was created by God’s hand completely contradicts this organization’s central doctrine, nullifying the value of any reasoning for creation. If one decides to agree with the NSTA, then of course it is going to be impossible to give evidence that the world has a divine creator.  One must be open to the possibility that God made the world in order to accept scientific evidence for creationism. To simply say scientists must only value the natural world is to limit oneself from the possibility of discoveries that support theism. In other words, only an open-minded individual will be able to interpret data that contradicts evolutionism.[9]

These two perspectives of science are totally incompatible with one another. Likewise, the implications of these perspectives are also often mutually exclusive. There is a conflict of worldviews evident at every level of inquiry, because the rules of the game have been defined with the very first presupposition. Again, there is no neutral ground.

 

Understand Our Position in Christ

As Biblical Christians we need to understand the impact of our position in Christ. We have been saved from the world system (Ephesians 2:1-10) and the spiritual blindness associated with it (Romans 6:1-11; Colossians 2:20-3:7). We are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). All that we are and have is rooted in Christ. Consequently, we are not bound by the anti-metaphysical rules demanded by atheism.

Further, in the process of engaging worldviews contradictory to the Biblical one, our standing as children of God (1 John 3:1) allows us to approach God as a child would a father (Romans 8:15). It is OK to examine, to evaluate, and even to question. The Bible presents many examples of people who questioned God – some did it in rebellion, others did it as children seeking to understand the truth.

If we understand our position in Him, then the inquiry has a purpose. We are trying to understand Him better – to know Him more closely (e.g., John 17:3).  Consider Job. He certainly questioned God, yet he was not condemned for it. He was corrected – he was given knowledge of things he didn’t previously understand, but never is he rebuked for engaging the process. Christians, we should not fear engaging the questions. We should engage, but we should do so from a good understanding of where we stand in Him.

 

Understand Our Equipment for Growing and Walking

It is also very important that we understand the tools at our disposal. What equipment has God given us in order to understand truth? Romans 1:16-17 characterizes the gospel as something of which we should not be ashamed, for it is God’s power to save.  2 Corinthians 10:3-5 describes our warfare as not against people, but as spiritual and as against speculations and falsehood. Ephesians 6:10-18 presents the reality of spiritual warfare and considers our equipment for it. The only offensive weapon in the arsenal is the word of God. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 speaks with specificity on the authority of God’s word, and its usefulness for every area of our lives, so that we can be equipped for every good work. 2 Peter 1:3 informs us that we have been given everything pertaining to life and godliness.

In this process of walking and growing, of engaging and learning, God’s word is our final authority. It claims for itself the sufficiency for every area of life. Consequently, if we are trying to walk as Christians, but we use methods grounded in atheistic presuppositions (e.g., Darwinian evolution, empirical science as the highest method for determining truth), then we are sure to be confused. We need to keep our walk consistent with our calling (Ephesians 4:1).

 

Understand Our Responsibility to Unbelievers

Finally, we need to understand our responsibility to those who don’t agree with the Biblical worldview. Peter prescribes in 1 Peter 3:15-16 that believers should, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Our responsibility, as Peter outlines here, is: (1) to always be operating with proper perspective to Christ, (2) to always be prepared to make a defense (apologia) to those who ask about our hope, and (3) to give an account, when asked, with gentleness and reverence. Notice first the centrality of Christ in all this – He is the reason for our standing, and He is the motivation and help for our walk. Also, notice that “apologetics” as Peter uses the term is not an offensive thing, but rather it is a responsive evangelism – sharing the truth about our hope with those who ask.

Consequently, as we encounter and engage worldviews contrary to the Bible, and especially the atheistic presuppositions so prevalent at university, we need to be unafraid, having certainty about the Bible and its representations. In order to have that confidence, we need to be diligent workers in the Bible – worthy students (2 Timothy 2:15) who understand that if we want to walk with Him, we need to get to know Him. We need to recognize that our strength is in Him.

Additionally, we need to be aware that defeating unbelievers in debate is not our goal or responsibility. We are not aggressors going to university to conquer all who would disagree with our views. Instead, we are interacting with those who don’t know God for the purpose that they might get a glimpse of His love, that they might see His character in us, and that they might be drawn to the hope that He offers freely through Jesus Christ.

 

Conclusion

When faith goes to college, what comes home? The answer to that question has more to do with the object and content of that faith than it does with the university process itself. As an atheistic professor and scholar – whom I greatly respect – once told me, “Atheism is a faith, and here (at university), my faith rules.” I would hope that Christians at university would understand that we are in unsympathetic territory; that we need to be prepared and well equipped with the word of God; that we must be always ready to explain our hope, and that we must be always gentle and respectful. Perhaps then those who go to university without any knowledge of God can find Him even there. If we are who we are supposed to be, confident in His word, then God can use us, if He so desires, to help others find what they aren’t looking for.



[1] Barna Group “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years, published 9/11/2006.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, (Pennsylvania: Penn State University, 1999)82.

[3] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” March 6, 1927, http://www.users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html.

[4] Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, theatrical release, directed by Gore Verbinski, Disney,2007.

[5] WKC Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Volume I: The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 44.

[6] Wendell Berry, Home Economics (New York: North Point Press, 1987), 77.

[7] Carl Sagan, The Cosmos (New York: Ballantine, 1980), 1.

[8] Austine Cline, “Defining Science – How is Science Defined?” from http://atheism.about.com/od/philosophyofscience/a/DefineScience.htm.

[9] “Theistic Cosmology” from http://www.spiritualmilk.com/id27.html.

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