Christianity and Higher Education

John Fea, chair of the History Department at Messiah College, blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and contributes weekly to the evangelical portal at patheos with a column Confessing History. His column last week addressed the question of Christian higher education and explored what this may mean and how it is to be achieved. Dr. Fea begins his column with a quote from Mark Schwehn in Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America:

The quest for knowledge of the truth, if it takes place in a context of communal conversation, involves the testing of our own opinions. And we must, of course, be willing to give up what we think we know for what is true, if genuine learning is to take place. At times, this will be easy, as when we learn that we were mistaken about some geographical detail or another. But much of our self-knowledge as well as our beliefs about what is truly good for us are not simply matters of what we know but matters of who we are. We thus often risk ourselves when we test our ideas. (p. 49)

I have not read Schwehn’s book but it is in the library here and has moved to the top of my “to-be-read” list. It is quite likely to form the basis for another post or two down the road. Right now I am intrigued by this idea of the quest for knowledge and truth taking place in the context of a communal conversation. I will reflect on this more after the jump in conversation with John Fea, or more accurately in conversation with that he has written in the post entitled How to Get a College Education.

To start the thought process though:

Is it important to search for truth in communal conversation?

What does this mean for Christians at Christian colleges and universities?

What does it mean for Christians at secular colleges and universities?

Dr. Fea is a professor at a Christian college and he goes on in his post to reflect on Christian higher education in particular.

Unfortunately, too many students today are unwilling to engage in the kind of risk-taking that is essential to education. Many Christian parents think that college is a place where “cherished beliefs” should be affirmed, not challenged. They want their children to have a four year experience in which they are told that everything they have ever believed about life, God, society, science, etc., is true.

Education is not a painless process. It requires that we grow and growth means change and revision in the rather simplistic ideas developed in childhood and youth. We all need to learn how to ask the right questions and how to evaluate the answers to these questions.

Real education happens when students are so engaged with a new or foreign idea, and take that idea so seriously, that they discuss it with friends in the dorms, in the dining hall, or on their way back from practice. They spend time praying before, during, and after they open their textbook. The process of discerning whether or not they can incorporate such an idea into their own way of viewing the world might even cause them to lose some sleep. Sometimes wisdom might lead them to embrace this new idea because they conclude that it is true. Sometimes wisdom leads them to reject the idea, because they conclude that it is not true.

The communal nature of the quest for truth can be a positive experience – when the questions are faced in the context of a wise community. Christian colleges have the potential to provide this kind of community. They have the potential for students to learn and explore new ideas under the guidance of professors who take faith seriously and know the state of knowledge and understanding in their disciplines. Christian colleges have weaknesses as well. They can provide an environment where certain ideas must not be entertained and addressed – and this can compound the crisis of faith for some. Human evolution and the question of Adam is one case in point here, but is far from the only flash point issue.

Secular Universities. The challenges are different in secular colleges and universities. This is where I am situated. Here the majority of the students, and the vast majority of professors, are non-Christians. A substantial percentage are vocally anti-Christian, ridiculing Christianity as a naive ancient superstition which we must outgrow. The expected life style and priorities are often in serious conflict with  Christian ideals. It only gets worse as we move up the ladder from undergraduate to graduate student and beyond.

Dr. Poplin, in her book, Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service relates how she found her Calcutta in the secular University where she had been teaching. As she thought about her teaching and looked into the eyes of her students she realized that the university completely ignores the Christian viewpoint – that she and others taught from a context of naturalism, secular humanism, and pantheism (spiritual but not religious) as the major and often the sole allowed points of view. She began intentionally to introduce a Christian view to stand alongside the others. I am going to discuss more of Dr. Poplin’s experience and approach in a later post, but this it is quite rare in the university to find professors who will, whether believers or not, intentionally introduce a Christian view into the discussion in a neutral to positive fashion. Most of the time it is simply ignored.

Scot had a post yesterday, You Lost Me 2, that commented on six major elements that lead to a disconnect between some younger people and the church. Several of these center around a theme that connects with the ability to reconcile Christian faith with intellectual questions and challenges. Issues regarding the depth of doctrine,  the ability to deal with doubts, and struggles with an anti-science, or better an anti-intellectual approach.  Within the secular university, the absence of a core group of peers and professors, educated Christian thinkers, to work through the issues in community contributes, I think, to the problems that many people, both young and older, have with Christian faith and the church.

College ministries generally concentrate on providing Christian community, on worship, and on mentoring students on an individual or small group basis. I know many people active in college ministry who do an outstanding job of interacting with and mentoring students. Relationships are the key ingredient to any effective college ministry.  Many in campus ministry, however, are not well-equipped to address the tough questions that arise from the intellectual atmosphere of the university. They don’t have the education or the experience. Yet the student often need to be able to answer or analyze questions on the interface of the Christian faith with biology, neuroscience, history, anthropology, geology, classical studies, sociology, ancient near eastern history, and much more.

I am going to come back to more of these issues in future posts on Dr. Poplin’s book. Today I’d like to stop here and start a conversation about some of these issues.

Do you find it easy or difficult to work through the questions that impact our Christian faith?

How can we teach people to think “Christianly” and rigorously?

Should we be doing this, or does it open a door to more problems than it solves?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you have comments please visit Christianity and Higher Education at Jesus Creed.

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