Avoiding Anti-Academic Rhetoric

Over the last two weeks, I wrote about anti-Christian rhetoric coming out of some parts of the academy. This week, I want to address the flip side of that record: anti-academic rhetoric from Christians.

Shortly after I first joined InterVarsity, during a visit to our National Service Center in Madison, WI, I was having coffee with Cam Anderson when the topic of fundraising methods came up. At the time, Cam was the National Director for Graduate and Faculty Ministries; he has since become the executive director for Christians in the Visual Arts. If you ever have a chance to get coffee with Cam, don’t pass up the opportunity.

I forget how this specific issue came up, but Cam expressed concern over a common way of framing the need for campus ministry. The basic argument goes something like this:

  1. Secular universities destroy students’ faith.
  2. Students need to be protected from this harmful influence.
  3. Therefore, we need campus ministries to save students from their universities.

This case can be effective for raising money, especially in the short term. All of us, I’m sure, can readily think of friends or family members who left Christianity during their college years, as well as friends who came to faith through the work of a campus ministry, so — at a gut level — this argument holds up for a lot of people. Further, people tend to give money in response to an urgent, emotional crisis. What is more urgent, more emotional, or more critical than the eternal fate of our college-bound children?

There are two major problems with this argument, though.

First, the truth is more complex. Some students experience a loss of faith in college, but many others experience spiritual rebirth. In a few majors, students actually tend to become more religious during college. College faculty are less likely to be religious than the general population, but it’s not as bad as many fear. Further, faculty are exception among the educated elite: overall, people with advanced degrees are basically the same as everyone else when it comes to religious beliefs. Twenty or thirty years ago, college seems to have had a key role in encouraging students to abandon their religious beliefs, but more recent research questions whether that effect still exists. If we are committed to telling the truth, then we must acknowledge the complex reality of religion in higher education. Indeed, we should even celebrate the role of campus ministry in changing the university climate!

Second, this argument begs the question, “Why even bother with secular universities?” If secular universities are so awful (which, as noted above, they probably aren’t), then why bother? Why not send all students to Christian colleges? Why not encourage students to drop out of college as soon as they become Christians? Is a fancy degree from a name-brand university worth the price of your soul? If we begin with the premise that secular universities are the enemy of faith, these questions are nearly impossible to answer. Indeed, it makes a ministry like the Emerging Scholars Network sound like we’re sending young Christians into the lions’ den.

Cam encouraged me to present my case with a different starting point. It goes something like this:

  1. God calls human beings to join Him in the good work of creation.
  2. Universities are part of that good work.
  3. Unfortunately, like all human institutions, universities deviated from God’s goodness.
  4. We need campus ministries to call students, faculty, and whole universities to follow Jesus and fulfill their true destiny.

This line of reasoning takes a bit more time to develop, because the contemporary American church has largely forgotten that Genesis 2 comes before Genesis 3. In Genesis 2:15-20, God commands Adam to take care of the Garden of Eden — “to dress it and keep it” in the language of the KJV — and then to observe all the animals and give them names. If Adam were writing a grant application, he would say that he had been commissioned to initiate an agricultural conservation project for the Edenic microclimate and to develop a taxonomic system for the local ecosystem through the interdisciplinary application of poetic speech acts.

Later, in Gen. 3:17-19, God curses human work by making it difficult and unproductive — but work itself is not a curse. Universities were not invented by Satan to attack the Christian faith. They were founded — often by Christians — to understand God’s creation, to improve the effectiveness of our work, and even, in many cases, to study God and His word.

By starting with the essential goodness of human work and culture — including universities — as a reflection of the divine image, we can still make a strong case for campus ministry. In fact, I think we can make a stronger case, because now the campus itself has value in God’s economy.

Have you experienced anti-academic rhetoric from Christians? Do you see additional benefits or problems with the way that I’ve presented the need for campus ministry? How do you make the case for campus ministry and the university in general?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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5 Comments

  • williamcutler@gmail.com'
    Bill Cutler commented on March 10, 2011 Reply

    This should be required reading for every campus minister!

  • Kevin commented on March 10, 2011 Reply

    First, thank you.

    The anti-academic rhetoric I have experienced and witnessed has often been more hurtful than the anti-Christian rhetoric.

    Generally, though, most people are puzzled, and puzzlement can be a catalyst for conversation.

    One thing that is shared by the anti-Christian and anti-academic rhetoric is difficulty imagining Christian academic in a secular setting. Among those who don’t know me and encounter me for the first time, both non-believers in a university setting and Christians outside the university assume that I am not a Christian.

    I sometimes wonder of the parallel category, an academic in a Christian setting, is equally difficult for both non-secular-college Christians and secular-college non-believers to imagine. In effect, does the rhetoric against Christians in the secular academy end up diminishing the reputation of academics in the Christian academy?

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on March 11, 2011 Reply

      Thanks, Kevin. Wow – great question. Do you mean the reputation of academics in the Christian academy within the Christian community, or within the culture in general? For the latter, I’ve seen evidence of that in my research into elite liberal arts colleges. Wheaton and Calvin score lower in the US News rankings than my own research suggests they should. Whenever there’s an article about Christian colleges, the online comments at the Chronicle and Insider Higher Ed almost always include truly depressing stereotypes about Christians.

      Within the Christian community? I’ll need to think about that. It probably depends a lot on the particular tradition, with a lot of variety of outcomes. Thinking of my own church tradition, for instance, there’s a very high respect for our Bible colleges – but our professors are rarely consulted as authors and speakers for the general church.

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on March 12, 2011 Reply

    I find that there is a fear of the pursuit of knowledge, as though we must protect God from our advancements. Rather than delight in the exploration of His creation, we fear that we will become too self-sufficient or rob Him of mystery. To me, this line of thinking exposes our pride and lack of faith to think that God is so small that we may approach catching up.

  • jacobandrews@sbcglobal.net'
    Jacob Andrews commented on March 30, 2011 Reply

    You’re absolutely right that anti-academic rhetoric is a huge problem within Evangelicalism. The human mind is a creation of God and its cultivation should never be thought of as anything less than a divine gift.

    However, like you said, the Academy, like every human institution, is corrupted by sin. I appreciate your new explanation of the need for campus ministries, but I think that by reacting to anti-academic rhetoric, one runs the risk of going to far the other way, and ignore the very real threat that secular universities present to immature Christian students.

    The call to follow Jesus is also a call to *not* follow competing religions and philosophies, and we need to explain to students not only why Christianity is good, but why other thought systems are bad (illogical, immoral, inferior, etc.). We need a balanced approach.

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