I remember entering university in a state of absolute anxiety. So many decisions had to be made, and I had so many questions. Where would I move? What would I study? Were those studies going to pay off someday? What classes should I sign up for? Will I get accepted? These were big questions that I knew had the power to shape my life’s journey, my community, and my mind.
My undergraduate experience was split between two worlds. I began my studies at a Christian university, where dorm worship services and bible classes and church dates were all a thing. I finished at one of the largest universities in the U.S., a school infamous for its party culture. On both campuses I made great friends, received quality education, and stayed in touch with Jesus.
Some parents insist their kids go to Christian universities because, you know, while drugs and sex and raging parties are happening in “the world,” surely nothing of the sort ever makes its way onto a campus with mandatory worship attendance.
While there are many reasons to choose a Christian-based education, I’m not sure shelter should be one of them. Particularly because it’s naïve to think these places actually provide any kind of shelter. But even more so, as Christians, I don’t think our goals should be negative — meaning, I don’t think they should be stated in terms of what we’re trying to avoid and what we’re against. Rather than talking in a way that makes us sound like pompous, holier-than-thou weirdos, why not talk about what we gain with a Christian-based education?
The first thing you gain with any college campus is a community. University is the place where you meet friends that you’ll stay in touch with the rest of your life. It’s where many people meet their to-be spouses, and it’s a place for professional networking as well. Campuses that profess Christian values have a different quality of community. Not that they’re necessarily tighter knit or friendlier, but the community is tied in with the body of Christ. The campus is an extension of the church. It’s where the church goes to be trained.
Don’t get me wrong: we need Christians in public universities. We can’t just go off and hide in our exclusive private schools and turn our nose up at everyone else. We have to relate, and we have to remember that our education is a privilege.
But we also need places where Christian scholarship is taken seriously. And not only that, we need places where the Christian worldview can be fairly critiqued and shaped for our present day.
The Christian mind thinks a bit differently. It has to. This doesn’t mean it can’t engage in meaningful interactions with a secular mind. This isn’t to say that the Christian mind is somehow better or worse, more intelligent or simpler. It just means that every thought and logical process of the Christian is subject to the conviction that humans are created in the Image of God and have been reconciled to Him through the Incarnation and Resurrection. This has some pretty radical ramifications when we enter the academy.
Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis at Oxford, wrote a popular book about this in the 60s, called The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? The basic premise of his book is that Christians have sold out to the secular world. Basically, the secular world stopped respecting Christian intellect and then Christians themselves followed suit, downplaying their beliefs and convictions whenever they engaged in dialogue in a college or university setting. .
He argues over and over that there is no longer a Christian mind. Sure, we still ascribe to certain ethics, and spiritual practices, “but as a thinking being,” he writes, “the modern Christian has succumbed to secularization. He accepts religion — its morality, its worship, its spiritual culture; but he rejects the religious view of life, the view which sets all earthly issues within the context of the eternal, the view which relates all human problems — social, political, cultural — to the doctrinal foundations of the Christian Faith.”
The gist is that we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Christian worldview should be confined to the church. The secular spaces of learning today pretty much demand that you set your faith aside in order to engage in unbiased thought. As if our faith is some accessory we wear. Our faith (and let’s be clear — everyone’s faith in whatever they choose to believe) is essential to who we are, and whether we like it or not, it will shape how we view the world and how we engage in any kind of study. Unbiased thought is something we can imagine, but not something we can actually engage in; it’s impossible.
I’m convinced that a commitment to Jesus and to a present Creator should lead us to ask good questions, engage in sound scientific reasoning, and send us on an insatiable quest for what is good and what is true. The university is a great place for this to happen. And what’s great about Christian universities and colleges is nearly all of them make you take biblical studies or theology courses. That means as part of your general education, on top of basic academic skills and knowledge, and on top of the specialization required for your program, you’re required to think critically and academically about the Scriptures and about the intricacies of God.
When I was first introduced to this, I didn’t like it. I had studied the Bible in church contexts and had been told that every word was written so that God could speak to me. I treated the Bible as the textbook to life, the Good Book with all the answers. In academia, all this was stripped away. I realized that the Bible was not written to me. I learned the messed up history and context and started paying attention to the more difficult parts of Scripture. I was taught how to exegete and pick sentences apart word by word. No longer was the Bible a textbook of any kind — it was a gross collection of stories that barely made any sense. So I stopped reading it.
Until I picked it back up again. And it was then that I realized the Bible was not written to me, but it was — as one of my professors puts it — written for me, and for every believer in every generation to come. I realized that these stories had been passed down for thousands of years, preserving a mystery and majesty that nobody quite understands. Finally, I was approaching the text with humility.
Academic theology and biblical studies, at their best, give you the tools to look at the message of the Scriptures critically, while acknowledging that you are part of the story. You can never be outside of it. And within this story of the people of God, we find a consistent call to wisdom and understanding. We are told that in our ignorance, God has become wisdom for us. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).
Christians these days have a reputation for being ignorant and foolish, and it’s not the good kind of foolishness that topples arrogance and pride like Paul talks about. The Scriptures tell us that if we are teaching Jesus — his life and works — then we are teaching wisdom itself. If we’re going to talk to our friends who are weary about faith and Christianity, we must do so intelligently and humbly, respecting the mysteries of God by seeking out the resources for this discussion.
A good Christian-based education will challenge your beliefs rather than simply tell you what you should believe, or repeat what you’ve always believed. Studying God in an academic context is a bit like pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. What seemed like an intense encounter with a smoky green face in the air becomes a confusing and questionable experience. You realize that the Scriptures didn’t fall from the sky after being penned by God Himself. You realize that church history has been messy and tragic and beautiful. You realize that God isn’t some great legendary wizard, but that He’s a Person. And once you realize He’s a person, that’s when you’ll realize mystery abounds and good learning can begin.
Photo by (flickr cc): Leo Hidalgo