Christianity and Higher Education (RJS)

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]

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  • Susan N.

    “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.”

    When our churches become places where questions can be asked without fear of condemnation or rejection, and healthy, respectful, edifying dialogue occurs as a result instead, then the spiritual/religious bind that secular college students must be confronted with as it now stands will be greatly mitigated. IMHO…

    Campus Ministry on secular university campuses is a beautiful idea, *if* it is the kind that allows and encourages questions and provides a community of encouragement to remain true to one’s faith/values. I like the idea of providing alternative social activities (vs. say drinking parties).

    “Education is not a painless process…” It’s not just the subject of chemistry that requires a great amount of work and perseverance to master; the spiritual life is hard work — often a struggle — as well. We wrestle with our own weaknesses, we wrestle with God, and many times, we hash out our angst with one another. Wherever you go, be it a Christian or secular college, it’s to one’s own benefit to face these struggles and *commit* to the hard work. The hard places of life are always better with friends and mentors.

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

    Ha ha, I often wonder whether Scot regrets asking some of the questions he poses. Whoa, that was a great big can of worms to open! You can’t entirely control the ensuing dialogue, and “steer” it to a desired conclusion. I believe it is vitally important, though, that such discussions are initiated and allowed to take place in the Christian / evangelical venue. It may seem like we’re going around in circles for a long time, but eventually, I have faith in people to resolve inner- and interpersonal conflicts and crises 🙂 Go Scot! (Thanks RJS… Back to Chemistry for me!)

  • Joe Canner

    “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.”

    This is a concern of mine. Christian colleges that avoid exposure to real-world issues are just delaying the inevitable crisis. On the other hand, parents who have been sheltering their children and send them to a Christian college in order to continue sheltering them are often in for a rude awakening when the college turn out to be more “liberal” than expected. Parents need to help kids engage the culture before college and need to continue supporting this process throughout college.

    Incidentally, my daughter and I visited Messiah last weekend. She wants to go to a Christian college and study nursing, and Messiah is one of the few Christian colleges in our area that offer nursing. I was impressed with Messiah’s commitment to academic and intellectual rigor as well as to helping students build a strong faith. Because of their Anabaptist heritage, they have a strong emphasis on social justice and peace, as well. For these reasons (and perhaps others) they have a reputation for being one of the more “liberal” Christian schools in the area, which is a plus in my book, as my daughter will be encouraged to think and to make wise choices, while still having a strong Christian influence in her life.

  • Rick

    Joe #2-

    “This is a concern of mine. Christian colleges that avoid exposure to real-world issues are just delaying the inevitable crisis.”

    What crisis? Is there always a crisis?

  • Rick

    Let me clarify #3 slighty:

    What “crisis are you speaking of”?

    And, do many go through life not experiencing such a crisis?

  • Rick

    Ooops- my quotation marks in #4 should just be on “crisis”.

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #3-5: Sorry, that was probably overstated and sloppy. No, there is not always a crisis, but there are probably plenty of potential crises, during which young adults face temptations, doubts, attacks on faith, etc. My point is that it is better to start dealing with them earlier on, when there is a more controlled environment, than later when there may not be as much support.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    You can’t entirely control the ensuing dialogue, and “steer” it to a desired conclusion. I believe it is vitally important, though, that such discussions are initiated and allowed to take place in the Christian / evangelical venue.

    Too many of us fear exactly this, that “you can’t entirely control the dialogue, and “steer” it to a desired conclusion.”

    Blessedly I have experienced many situations, some of them theological, where I have not been able to control the dialogue or steer the conversation. I find that the Spirit really works when we recognize that we don’t have to and that we cannot. It is a true blessing when we can listen instead of steer and learn what others have to teach us.

    Randy G.

  • rjs


    I agree that you cannot entirely control the ensuing dialogue. I think it is useful though, to have it carried out in community with people who have thought carefully about the issues before. This allows avoidance of some pitfalls and can keep the dialogue more productive.

    We need to listen and converse rather than steer to the “correct” answers.

  • Susan N.

    We need to listen and converse rather than steer to the “correct” answers.

    Sooner or later, people (even kids!) catch on when others are manipulating a “conversation” to steer to a particular answer. Sometimes, it’s just about having the conversation, that is beneficial to community, than “arriving” at all the right answers. Older, wiser, trustworthy mentors to be supportive and offer guidance are a very good thing at any age.

    I’m especially interested in this conversation, with a teen and pre-teen who will soon be headed off to college. More than likely, public/secular, vs. private. Not that I would necessarily be a big fan of Christian private college at this point. We’re working toward equipping our kids to be responsible and mature enough to send them off by that time with a reasonable expectation of success/survival in a college (even secular, liberal — gasp!) setting 🙂 Obviously, giving all these things a great deal of thought and planning, and discussing with the kids!

  • Kevin

    I, too, teach at a secular institution. I disagree with the assessment that the university ignores the Christian viewpoint. Instead, the university is unwilling to acknowledge the Christian viewpoints it adopts. All of us teach standing on the shoulders of giants, and many of those giants are Christians. Whether it is Newton’s view of the universe, Marx’s appropriations of Luther’s arguments against usury, or even evolutionary thought (which Darwin, himself, said was influenced by Paley’s mechanistic theology). Secularism is particularly skilled at covering its tracks so that nobody knows from where its borrowed ideas come. When we suggest that the secular university is at odds with Christianity, we are simply catering to the purposeful ignorance of history . . . and that’s not the sort of critical thinking we in the university seek to teach.

  • Susan N.

    Kevin (#10), thanks for these thoughts. We know many teachers and professors who profess and practice a strong Christian faith. On the job, they are only allowed to say so much of their personal beliefs in the context of teaching and interacting with the students. My daughter is using a secular high school history textbook this year, and commented to me earlier this week that she detected a hint of Christian perspective on a particular topic. I responded with the question, “Do you suppose that no one who writes textbooks for secular consumption is a Christian by faith, and that none of his/her theological perspective would be reflected in writing? Just because a book/textbook is not overtly “Christian” does not mean that it is thoroughly a-theist.”

    College campuses in this day and age are microcosms of pluralistic society, I would say. Certainly there should be an atmosphere of “mutual appreciation” (or at least respect?) if not so much “tolerance” (the word implies avoidance / distance to me) for diverse cultures / religions. I think that can be a really good experience for young people, actually.

    On the other hand, as I try to remember back to my 20-something days, it was a pivotal time in my life of discovering my “adult” identity. Balancing the weight of responsibility with the weightlessness of freedom (the agony and the ecstasy!) is a huge aspect of this time, imho. It would be great for my kids to never “waffle” on their faith during this time, and to steadfastly continue following Christ with no detours, but I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both of them go through a “crisis” of sorts during this time. I would hope for them to have wonderful Christian mentors and friends who wouldn’t freak out, but allow them to openly explore their faith, plumb the depths of thinking through their doubts and questions, and come through stronger and surer of themselves and the One in whom they have placed their faith. I pray that during these formative years at home, I am helping them to lay a foundation of faith that will be an anchor during the whirlwind college years.

  • Chris W


    Great post. I’ve worked in campus ministry for the past 10 years, and I agree with your statement that many campus ministries are unable to faithfully help students work out their faith alongside deep intellectual questions.

    There is an annual conference put on by the CCO in Pittsburgh that addresses this very matter. Breakout sessions include speakers from most major fields and they discuss out they work out their faith in their academic work. A major emphasis is used to direct students to the bookstore on site, run by Byron Borger and his staff from Hearts and Minds Books. Instead of Christian fluff, the aisles are full of books about math, art and the sciences.

    I’ve heard architects discuss how they build stadiums and high schools out of their love of neighbor, artists discuss the difference between art and propaganda, and Bible teachers celebrate Christ’s reconciling work in all areas of life.

    If you have students with big questions, send them to Jubilee or directly to Byron.


  • rjs


    Thanks for the links. I don’t know much about CCO – but from what I do know, they see that the issues here are significant and are making a serious effort to find ways to integrate academic endeavors and Christian faith.

  • rjs


    When the science offering at a place with a mission such as this (here looking at the hearts and minds bookstore) does not contain Francis Collins’s books or other such books for a balanced look at the questions it is seriously flawed. I am not saying only include people I agree with – but address the questions fairly. And I also see that the online listing is old – but this kind of image is part of the problem, not really part of the solution.

  • AHH

    RJS @14,

    Actually, there are a couple of pretty constructive books on that list. Richard Wright’s Biology Through the Eyes of Faith is quite good (and accepts evolution as a means of God’s creation); I have recommended it to people in that field. Ratzsch’s Battle of Beginnings is probably a bit dated now, but IMO was a good contribution when it came out about 15 years ago.

    With that said, some of the comments made about the ID books on the list worry me, and I would hope a more up-to-date list would include the books by Collins, Falk, and especially the Haarsmas. And maybe Denis Alexander’s Rebuilding the Matrix. But as such lists go, I’ve seen much worse.

  • rjs

    Thanks AHH.

    It wasn’t what was included as much as what wasn’t included that concerned me. But the real issue may be that the list is dated.

    I must admit as well that I’d not heard of Wright’s book and didn’t look it up. Your comment has me interested in it now.

  • rjs

    Wright’s book looks good -Amazon appears to link to a 1989 edition, but there is a 2003 updated version. Presumably buying it new will get the new edition.