My friend found me on campus after his first political science class. He told me his professor began the first day saying, “There is nothing in the world I hate more than young, white, Republican, Christian men. If you are one of those you are going to have a tough time this quarter.” My friend was all of those.
Earlier in my college career I sat in a world history class where the professor cooly explained that any Christians in the room would learn over the course of our studies that what they have been taught is history is in fact a lie. At the time I was an atheist and couldn't care less if our subject matter bothered Christians, but I remember looking over the syllabus and not seeing anything in our class outline directly related to Christian history or even tangentially relevant. Why was this professor talking about that?
In a performance art class we took an instruction period to watch a supremely intellectual show like Ricky Lake or Phil Donahue – which talk show it was escapes me now – where the format pitted homosexuals against ministers from black churches that identified homosexual behavior as sin. After a particularly bad exchange between the two parties our professor stopped the tape and asked the class, “What do you all think about that?” You can imagine that a performance class instructed by an openly gay professor had some rather harsh criticism for the Christians on the show, but they saved their most intense attacks for the two Christian students in the class who attempted to defend the ministers. In short time, only one was left defending the ministers as the other crumbled under the pressure.
Those are just three stories demonstrating the challenges that await Christians on college campuses. Notice that you had three different subject matters with professors all intentionally bringing their class focus to a direct criticism of Christian beliefs. Whether it was in theater classes, journalism classes, business and professional speaking, or world lit every class offered challenges to the foundational beliefs that Christians bring into the university with them. Obviously some of the professors – like that political science teacher – were more direct than others, but the consistent thread of college life was challenge. This may surprise you, but I think that is to be expected.
This is not some dire warning about evil universities. I went into college an atheist and came out a Christian. My friends that most enjoyed the class with the previously mentioned political science professor were the objects of his initial rant. When push came to shove, they enjoyed an environment that demanded they learn to defend their views. The professor most influential on me was as politically liberal as anyone I met on campus. He was also a good man who cared about his students. One very politically liberal professor I met after my conversion helped me to reevaluate the importance of entertainment that builds community rather than tearing it down even as she recognized that we both had different ideas about what we would like to build towards. If you are prepared, the challenge of college life can give you the chance to reach out to more people than you can imagine.
Scott and I recently worked with the leadership of Students for Life of America. We trained and talked to some of the brightest and most committed young people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The purpose of their meeting was to equip their leadership to not only withstand the challenge of university life but to challenge right back as it pertains to the sanctity of human life. They know that intelligent and committed students can make a difference on college campuses and rather than shying away they are preparing to engage.
We only have two options. Withdraw or engage. Well if you have seen Battle: Los Angeles or are familiar with the motto of the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines then you can guess how I feel about retreating. To quote – and look away if salty language bothers you - “Retreat? Hell we just got here!” That quote is attributed to Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams when a French officer advised his battalion to pull back at the Battle of Belleau Wood in June of 1918 in World War I. He did not survive the battle but “Retreat Hell” permanently became the motto of 2/5. When I meet the passionate and engaging students on college campuses organizing events and encouraging dialogue or when I talk to skeptical students willing to listen to reasoned argument and reconsider their views I am inspired. We don't need to pull back we need to train more people to engage effectively.
Besides complete retreat doesn't work. I once heard J. P. Moreland give a presentation about when evangelical and fundamentalist Christians pulled out of universities to open Christian schools in response to the rapid secularization of the major university environment. Ronald Numbers - an agnostic - similarly discusses a retreat in his book The Creationists where he relays that after failing to defeat Darwinism and the perceived attack it represented on traditional Christian beliefs in the academic world:
“rather than surrendering, they turned their energies toward developing a separate institutional base from which to evangelize the world... despairing of ever converting the scientific community to their way of thinking, they set about to create their own societies and journals.” (Chapter 6)
What was the result? Well we left the campuses entirely to those we most radically disagree with and in the absence of challenge a worldview developed unchecked that we are only now seeing fully expressed in our society. That is not to say that there is not a legitimate place for Bible institutes, Christian universities, and Christian academic journals but their must also be a concerted effort to prepare the young men and women that are going to public and secular universities to think critically and understand their own worldview. Circling the wagons and disengaging not only hurts the campuses that need well prepared Christians within their communities but it also allows ideas that need to be shed - that would not survive critical inspection - to be exposed. We all need that or else we never grow.
Challenge is unavoidable. Parents tell me their middle schoolers already have little outspoken atheist friends. In my church, I have had more than one occasion when lay teachers were saying something that they were completely unaware is contrary to traditional Christian doctrine. In one class at church I had the bizarre experience of defending evolutionary theory from straw man attacks. As the class grew ever more frustrated with me, I insisted that nothing good could come from their preparing to engage a view of evolutionary theory that doesn't exist or in convincing themselves that people that believe in Darwinian evolution are stupid. They would be sorely disappointed and embarrassed when they met an actual defender of actual evolutionary arguments and they realized they were not ready for this conversation. At work - both in secular business and in ministry – my beliefs were and are routinely challenged by coworkers. And this doesn't even get into the daily challenge my kids put to our beliefs. Why? Why? Why? Why? It never ends.
Since challenge cannot be skirted then the proper response is to be ready for challenge. We must instill in ourselves and our children the value of studying our beliefs and being prepared to articulate those beliefs to those who question us. As the oft quoted 1 Peter 3:15 commands: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” To be certain, we may have to watch a little less TV. It may require we sacrifice some of what we call “free time” or “me time” or “down time.” It most certainly will require that we read and interact with literature that forces us out of our comfort zone and may put at risk cherished personal beliefs that cannot withstand scrutiny.
I tell every group that I work with that no one – not one single person – ever left Christianity because it was proven false. They either left for emotional reasons as opposed to intellectual reasons or – as Bill Craig says- because some belief within Christianity was strongly challenged and though it wasn't foundational to our faith it held an unnecessary level of importance in their personal understanding of Christianity. I have found that a proper and basic understanding of the foundations of Christianity and the evidences and basis for those beliefs establishes a faith that is strengthened by challenge.
In my next post I will start to talk about some of those foundational beliefs.