Becoming a Thoughtful Christian in the Secular Academy

University of Montana. Photo taken by John Hundley.

One month ago yesterday I walked the stage to pick up a diploma in Religious Studies at a secular institution. And I’m a stronger Christian than ever. In the Religious Studies department at the University of Montana I learned how to study history with careful eyes, how to debate subtle philosophy with gentleness and confidence, how to respect professors and peers with opposing views on foundational beliefs, and, perhaps most importantly, I learned how to critically examine my place in and beliefs about the story that I’ve come to recognize, more and more, as truth.

Because of its students’ deep love for The Beatles and its reputation for encouraging “progressive thinking,” the University of Montana is known by some as “Little Berkeley.” As you know, so-called academic progressive thinking doesn’t include positive thoughts of the Christian God. Overt anti-Christian agendas are not uncommon from the front of the classroom. But, as much as you might suppose that such agendas are destructive for the young Christian, these provided the fuel for the examination of my own deep beliefs. One of the most antagonistically atheist professors at the U of M said this in an email correspondence between us some time ago:

The problem is not when interpretations are challenged, but the opposite – when students simply assume a supposedly authoritative interpretive tradition and don’t think and ask about it.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Tim Keller said something quite similar in The Reason for God:

It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.

As one who has been pressed to the edge of critical analysis concerning my own faith, I can tell you that the more you question the Way of Jesus, the more it displays the most sublime truths. The other day I was talking with a good friend, a friend who is not a Christian, about my faith. I said that, having studied the other major religions of the world, I have come to a much deeper respect for those who follow them. Then I said:

“But I’ve also seen the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the other religions clearly, and am —” I paused, searching for a way to say what I wanted to say without sounding provincial.

“You’re glad that you’re a Christian?” he finished my thought with precision.


And then we started talking about the clouds or the breaking wave in the river, or something like that. (We’re both outdoor activities guides at a 5-star resort for the wealthiest people in the world who come to Montana to experience the Wild West. We talk a lot about the beauty of creation.)

Religious Studies at a secular institution as a Christian has not been easy, however. There was a constant spirit pervading the brightly-lit classrooms and the long, eyes-straight-forward hallways of my home in the Liberal Studies building that whispered — or sometimes screamed out — “You’re wrong. If you were smarter you’d be an atheist.”

But I am not an atheist. And I have discovered, at a secular institution from secularist professors, that this is a wise thing. Not in the eyes of the academy, certainly, but in the eyes of the Author of Wisdom. I have come to know, through thousands of cups of coffee and dozens of hazy-eyed mornings after sleepless nights, that Christianity is founded upon desirable, reasonable, rational, logical and experientially true doctrines. I have found that critical, so-called “conservative” Christianity (whether Protestant or Catholic) is the most reasonable, rational, logical and experientially true. Take that last point as you will.

JESUS MAFA. The Crucifixion; Jesus dies on the cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 8, 2013].

At the end of these five years in the Religious Studies department at the University of Montana I must say that I stayed because I loved it. I loved the challenge. I loved being the Christian voice in the atheist classroom. I loved my professors, even the ones with whom I strongly disagreed. I loved studying the heart of humanity and our perplexing views of ultimate reality. We all want to live forever in love and justice. We all yearn for the cross.

As I go forward with my studies in religion and philosophy and theology I trust that I’ll continue to learn and grow, and agonize over loss of sleep. And I’ll continue to yearn for the cross.

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John Hundley

My wife and I live in South Hamilton, MA where I'm pursuing an MDiv at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and she's serving as Intervarsity staff on campus at Northeastern University. I study Theology and History and Philosophy "as ends in themselves" (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as for a further, more complete end: a deeper understanding of my King and, thus, a more dynamic relationship with him. I graduated this past spring (2013) with BA in Religious Studies (Hinduism and Buddhism concentration) and a minor in Classical Greek (Homeric/Ionic/Attic/Doric/Koine, appx. 8th BCE - 5th CE). The study of the ancient world in its original context and language fascinates me, especially that of the Early Christians, Ancient Jews and Hellenes. For more of my writing, see my blog @

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    Andy Walsh commented on June 20, 2013 Reply

    Glad to hear you found the university experience a positive one.

    You mentioned that your Christian faith is stronger as a result of the experience. Did you find that aspects of your theology changed during that time? To put it another way, were there any shifts in what you believed along with how strongly you believed them?

    John Hundley commented on June 22, 2013 Reply

    Hey Andy, thanks for your response.

    Check out my first ESN post for a start to the answer of your question ( Also, I’ll be following up with a second part next week.

    I suppose it might seem odd, but nearly all of my theology has grown and developed outside of the classroom. I’ve learned a great deal of methodology and gained a critical eye, both of which I apply to the way I do theology. For example, for the first time I did start to really think about heaven and hell, using the critical methods I’d learned both through classes and through personal research and reading. I came to believe more and more in the realities of heaven and hell, but came to understand them as realities quite unlike those which Dante represented. That’s probably not a very good example.

    Again, as far as I can tell, all of my theology has developed in personal and mentored Bible study and prayerful consideration of the Greek text and respected commentaries (Wright, Dunn, Moo, Keller, etc). The methodology I use was influenced by my classwork.

    Was that the type of answer you were looking for?

      Andy Walsh commented on June 23, 2013 Reply

      Sure, thanks! Actually, I’m not entirely sure that I was looking for anything in particular. I was just musing that we (Christians broadly) talk a lot about strengthening/deepening our faith, and I wondered if that was a general phenomenon, or if it correlated with particular beliefs. In other words, is it possible to have a strong/deep faith in anything, or are there certain beliefs which are more amenable to that kind of reinforcement.

        John Hundley commented on June 26, 2013 Reply

        Sorry for the slow reply! I would venture to say that pretty much all of the strengthening/deepening of the many facets of my faith has grown out of trusting in the perfect character of God. When people are convinced of the reality of heaven but don’t know what God is like, what kind of heaven could they imagine? Heaven is being with God. So what would that be like? Who is the God of that heaven, the one of love and grace, peace and truth? That’s where theology and the study of religion get good.

    Robert commented on July 12, 2013 Reply

    Hi John, Thank you for writing this. It is very encouraging to hear about your “finished race” and thankful retrospect. I look forward to reading your other posts/blog! Peace, Robert

    Rebecca swartz commented on January 16, 2017 Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this 🙂 it has been a great inspiration to me. God bless

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