Becoming a Thoughtful Christian in the Secular Academy: Part II

University of Montana. Photo taken by John Hundley.

Last week I wrote about my journey as a developing follower of Jesus in a secular university.  I told you that I’d become a stronger Christian during my time in the academic world, and now I want to tell you a little bit about what happened in my mind and heart during that time. This post is, to an extent, a response to Andy Walsh’s question in the comment thread of last week’s post in this series:

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? […]  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.

I came into college a brand-new believer and left a pretty new believer — going on 6 years now, nearly all of which passed while attending the U of Montana. So you could probably guess that my thinking has been shaped a lot by the academic world. And you’d be right. The methodology I began to put to use in school sparked further personal research outside of the classroom. The critical, “outsider” lens, which is generally employed in the secular classroom, caught my attention. Secular scholars have come up with some really tough arguments that I needed to overcome or adapt if I could continue to believe in the creation of the world — however long that process took — and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Those are two beliefs, creation and resurrection, that my academic research has greatly strengthened.

With this new critical eye I looked (and continue to look) everywhere, from evolutionary biology and the mechanics of the universe to the Greek meanings of pistis and dekaiosyne theou — “faith/faithfulness” and “righteousness of God.” I started to see with my own mind and heart that everything in the universe, physical or not, beckons with a long arm and points the weary-eyed traveler toward a God of rest and love, justice and order, reason and work.

Let me give you an example.

“Somethin’ designed it.” A river and its surrounding habitat gives testimony to the beautiful hand of the Creator. Photo taken by John Hundley in the wilderness of Montana. To God be the glory!

Last week I accompanied my friend Ryan — the one I quoted in last week’s post who guides with me in western Montana — on a canoe trip. We were watching the songbirds shuffle through the brush lining the banks. They were effortlessly replacing the silence of the evening with fluid, peaceful songs in perfect harmony. And I pointed out how beautiful it all was, with the birds and the brush and the water.

He replied with a nod, “Somethin’ designed it.”

This may all sound a bit odd to an outsider, but if one can understand modern science for himself and see that good, academic science can and does allow for the argument of design, then he can begin to see the world a little differently. What if he looked for traces of justice and love in nature? They’re everywhere. This place is stitched through with harmony and justice and love and grace. Apes and ants share and work together. Birds call out smoothly and sweetly at 5am in a damp forest. This place is a beautiful gift.

Plato and Aristotle talked a lot about beauty. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, said that “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness” (1078a36). We live in a very ordered, symmetrical and definite universe. Plato said that if man’s life is ever worth living, it is when he has attained the vision of the very soul of beauty (Symposium).

I can thank my U of M professor and Plato scholar, Hayden Ausland, for showing me those works.

And then there’s the problem of the historical resurrection. If Jesus really is who he says he is, shouldn’t history show evidence of that? Jesus lived as a man in history, right in the mix with the Roman Empire of Cicero and Tiberius Caesar, and the wild Greeks with their extravagant stories and epic battles and relentlessly brilliant philosophies. Jesus was there, in history, and he died and physically rose from the dead, in history. (I’m not going to get into this argument here, but see, for example, N.T. Wright’s critical-realist historical analyses and arguments in The Resurrection of the Son of God). I learned a great deal of world history from my Religious Studies professors, but most of my theology was developed outside of the classroom, motivated by the powerful critiques against Christian doctrine that I heard in the classroom.

My observation of nature and science, and my investigation of the historical evidence for the resurrection, have allowed me to more fully trust in the truth of God’s perfect character with my mind.  And to answer Andy’s question, I think that the only real strengthening of our faith comes through trusting that Jesus did, in the created world and in history, provide a way home to a loving God. All of my critical inquiries into science and history and psychology are most beneficial when they lead to a further trust in the God who entered into this planet’s history to bring us back to himself. Trusting in the character of that God is the center of my faith.

Updated: 6/27/2013. 11:27 AM.

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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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