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:
- Secular universities destroy students’ faith.
- Students need to be protected from this harmful influence.
- 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:
- God calls human beings to join Him in the good work of creation.
- Universities are part of that good work.
- Unfortunately, like all human institutions, universities deviated from God’s goodness.
- 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?