Today, in many college classrooms, Christianity is not just ignored-as it might be in a public secondary school leery of violating court decisions-but actively attacked and ridiculed. Even many Christian colleges have risen up against the churches that founded them and have become indistinguishable from their secularist peers.
Christians-whose faith centers in a Book-have always championed education, from teaching children to be able to read God's Word to the training of pastors to think theologically. The university was invented during the Middle Ages for the cultivation of learning. The medieval universities followed the tenets of the classical liberal arts, but added a distinctively Christian dimension, organizing their curriculum around three "sciences," or types of knowledge: natural science (the study of the created order); moral science (the study of human beings and their relationships in history and society); and theological science (the study of God).
Theology was the queen of them all, integrating all knowledge in terms of its Creator. The medieval universities-at Oxford, Paris, Cologne-became the training ground first of all for the clergy and then for other professions. Though some may have encouraged a rationalistic scholasticism, it is also true that the Protestant Reformation began in a university, with a professor discovering the gospel while he was preparing to teach a course on the book of Romans. Later, he posted a notice for an academic debate on 95 Theses.
Christianity continued to be an energizing force in higher education for centuries. Scholars at Cambridge gave the English-speaking church the King James Bible. In the American colonies, Harvard was founded to train ministers. The first president of Princeton was the great Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. (Today, Jonathan Edwards's institution has on its faculty an ethicist, Peter Singer, who believes in not only abortion but also infanticide and the killing of the handicapped.) As the nation gained its independence, moved west, and continued to grow culturally, colleges sprouted up throughout the land, with nearly all Christian denominations founding colleges of their own.
Though the Enlightenment of the18th century began the fissure between intellectuals and the church, universities remained supportive of the Christian faith through much of the 19th century. In Oxford and Cambridge, both students and faculty had to subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England until well into the 19th century. Administrators expelled the poet Shelley when he identified himself as an atheist. The policy was finally changed not to accommodate atheists but to accommodate Catholics and Christians of other confessions. But the 19th century also saw the rise of a new kind of university. In Germany, new institutions that centered around the claims of science replaced the classical Christian liberal arts model of higher education.
These German universities were organized around scientific research. They offered an education that was highly specialized. The faculty was divided up into departments. Students chose specific majors. And the new queen of the sciences was natural science. Truth was what could be empirically verified. Religion was, at best, an inner, subjective state, which could make no claims of objective truth. As other disciplines adopted the assumptions of scientism-including the new liberal theology that tried to apply naturalistic assumptions even to the Bible-all transcendent authorities, including God, were excluded with methodological rigor.
By the 20th century, most institutions of higher education in the United States-including the liberal arts colleges founded by churches-had adopted the model of the German university. Later, something of a synthesis occurred, with a liberal arts core curriculum being grafted onto the specialized major. But the academic climate tended to be skeptical, rationalistic, and resistant to the very concept of revealed religion. Professors factored God out of scholarship, and saw faith as unworthy of a truly educated mind.
For most of the 20th century, Christian students-and faculty members-had to defend their faith against rationalistic attacks. Philosophy classes critiqued the proofs for the existence of God and sought to prove the contrary. Science departments force fed the dogmas of Darwinism. The arts and humanities, in the meantime, cultivated genteel bohemianism, with its rebellious poses against social, moral, and religious traditions.
Today, though, there is a different climate on university campuses. In the aftermath of the '60s and the paradigm shifts of postmodernism, rationalism no longer rules. Such notions as reason, empiricism, even objective truth-which were absolutely fundamental to the heirs of the Enlightenment-are routinely taken apart in classrooms and academic journals. The new queen is social science (a weak descendent of moral science), with its reduction of all knowledge-including scientific data-to a cultural or psychological construction.
With relativism comes the celebration of diversity. Differences are to be tolerated. Surely such attitudes should make room for Christianity, shouldn't they? But if the modern university attacked Christianity for being insufficiently reasonable, the postmodern university attacks Christianity for being too reasonable-for believing in objective truth, for positing a "metanarrative" (a story to account for everything) that does not accept the validity of other positions. Postmodernists portray Christianity as intolerant and oppressive, insisting on absolutes that are limiting and restrictive.
Christians used to hear reasoned arguments against their faith, which they could respond to with apologetics of their own. Those are much less common now. Instead, Christians have to put up with moral arguments against them and assaults on their moral beliefs. The modernist universities may have cultivated agnosticism, but they at least kept men and women segregated in the dorms and upheld certain standards of conduct. Many of today's universities, in contrast, have co-ed dorms, classes on pornography, and sensitivity training to cure "homophobia." And woe to the student or faculty member who expresses doubts about feminism or who dissents from the party line about abortion.
Christian colleges are not immune from academic fashions. In his book The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches, Catholic scholar James Burtchaell documents how Christian colleges slide down the slippery slope to secularism. He shows, for example, how colleges change their self-descriptions from a clear identification with a church or theological tradition ("a Methodist college") to generically Christian ("a Christian college")-to being "church-related" or "historically connected" to a church body, to being generically religious ("a values-oriented college"), to being flat-out secular.
Along with this shift in mission statements is one in hiring practices (from hiring only faculty members who are members of the founding church, to hiring other Christians, to hiring faculty members of strong character, to hiring faculty members who have no religious beliefs at all). Mr. Burtchaell studies other factors-churches reducing their financial subsidies, faculty members shifting their loyalty from the church to their professions, and the conflict between the church's theology and the faculty members' research interests-that, in case after case, turn a church college into just another secular institution.
Today, the pressures against Christianity are not so much reasoned intellectual arguments (which are nearly always exceedingly weak to any well-instructed, thinking Christian), nor even moral temptations. Rather, the biggest challenge to Christianity turns out to be social pressure. A Christian student or faculty member wants so much to belong. Christian doctrines and moral teachings are the obstacles to full acceptance in the dorm rooms, the frat houses, and the faculty lounge. The cool people in the student union and the professional organizations don't have these limiting beliefs. To be socially acceptable, Christians in academia often internalize their beliefs, not speaking up in public, parroting instead the party line. Sometimes, they jettison their faith completely, finding lots of excuses in the "hypocrisies of the organized church."
These apostates-who were once religious, only to reject and turn against their former faith-often turn out to be the most virulent enemies of Christianity on campuses. While many professors are surprisingly ignorant about what Christianity is-and so ignore it-the professors who make a crusade of "opening their students' minds" against their "narrow-minded superstitions" are often ex-Christians themselves.
This last teaching technique-"opening the minds" of the "fundamentalists"-is also a favorite device of many Christian professors on Christian campuses. This sometimes creates the impression that some of these professors and colleges are more liberal than they really are. It is true that education is about opening minds. It is also true that many Christians are maddeningly resistant to using them. Mr. Burtchaell and others lay part of the blame for Christians being out of the marketplace of ideas on the church itself, for neglecting its own intellectual tradition and abdicating its responsibility to engage the influential ideas of today with a positive biblical response.
Christian teachers do need to open minds. It is not necessary, though, to assault their students' settled theological beliefs-even if the promise is to "rebuild" them later on in the course. This tactic has the effect instead of driving pious students away from the intellectual life. Christian teachers need to teach their students how the biblical worldview is, in fact, bigger than they may have realized, and far more wondrous and comprehensive than any secular ideologies. Today, the true anti-intellectuals are those who reject reason entirely. Those who are really narrow-minded are the relativists. Those who are truly parochial are those who think all knowledge is just a matter of one's culture. The minds that need to be opened are those of contemporary academia.
Today's academic climate has become so anti-intellectual that a reaction is setting in.
Conservative scholars are finding their voice. New organizations, such as the National Association of Scholars, are standing up against the relativism, the political correctness, and the rejection of the Western intellectual tradition. New professional organizations-in some of the most tarnished fields such as English, history, and art-have been set up as alternatives to the mainline groups that have vandalized their own disciplines.
Ironically, sacrosanct academic principles that were once established to protect the voice of "minority" positions such as Marxism and other unpopular ideas now serve to protect the voice of Christians and conservatives, now that they are in the minority. "Academic freedom" means that a professor can advocate virtually anything he wants in his own classroom or his own research, without fear of censorship or reprisal. Today academic conservatives are wrapping themselves in the mantle of academic freedom, against attempts to silence them from the left.
When English professor David Clemens at Monterrey Peninsula College in California objected to a mandate that all courses must include treatment of "race, class, and gender issues," he argued that this requirement was imposing a particular ideology on a course that had nothing to do with it. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that poses legal challenges to assaults on free speech and religious liberty on college campuses, Mr. Clemens made the case that the requirement to be politically correct amounted to a "loyalty oath." Just as patriotic loyalty oaths during the Cold War were seen as an impermissible infringement on academic freedom, the requirement that professors genuflect at the altar of racial and gender ideologies should also be impermissible. The college changed its policy and made the requirement voluntary.
With the postmodernists rejecting such academic staples as truth, goodness, and beauty, they are, in effect, abandoning the field to those who have a worldview big enough to embrace them. Emerging lines of research, such as Intelligent Design theory, are showing that the universe may not be meaningless after all. One could make an academic career just in shooting down the bogus research put out by scholars who, by their own admission, are "constructing" truths to advance the agenda of particular interest groups. (No, goddess worshippers did not treat women well. No, the Greeks did not steal all of their ideas from Africa. No, scientific facts are not just a construction of male, patriarchal scientists oppressing the female Mother Nature.)
Some Christian students and faculty members, to counter peer pressure, are banding together themselves through campus ministries and local churches.
Christian Leadership Ministries-a division of Campus Crusade aimed at faculty members-and the organization of apologist Ravi Zacharias organized a conference in June that brought together 317 professors and graduate students from 16 different countries. Attendees envisioned a Christian professors network that would provide mutual support, stimulation, and help. A new website (Facultylinc.com) allows scholars to participate in forums and e-mail discussion lists, according to their disciplines, interests, and concerns.
Despite all of the hostility to Christianity on college campuses, Christianity keeps thriving. College is still the place where many young people come to Christ. Christian graduates tend to look back on the college years as the time when Christian fellowship with other believers was most intense and urgent, a time when their faith seemed particularly real. Christian students who have to contend for their faith daily in a hostile climate often come out of college as battle-hardened warriors of the cross. Christian faculty members exist on most university campuses in most disciplines. Though sometimes beleaguered, they continue to serve their students and their fields in Christian vocation.
God keeps calling Christians, both as students and as faculty members, into the academic arena. For all of the attempts to exclude God from academia, He refuses to go away.