Does Academia Act as an Incubator for Faith Struggles?

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People sometimes talk about how universities are hostile places for Christians and how they lead people away from faith. Yet, I think this idea of universities being anti-Christian is too simplistic an understanding of how faith and academia relate. At the same time, I believe that a lot of people who participate in academia go through faith struggles, especially at the start of graduate school or the beginning of their career.

The following are a few potential reasons why graduate school might act as an incubator for faith struggles:

– Universities expose one to a lot of new ideas, experiences, and people. This then challenges one’s beliefs. Most people become more solid in their beliefs or find something better. If one’s faith is primarily therapeutic moralistic deism (See Christian Smith’s work), chances are something better can be found. Thankfully, sometimes historic Christianity is one of the better options people find. The wonderful memoir, Surprised by Oxford, illustrates that well, as do the reports of new conversions given by campus ministries.

– Graduate school or a new career in academia often involves a significant change in location (University/college and a career outside of academia do as well, but to a lesser degree). One leaves friends and family and church community, and finding new community is hard. Potentially negative experiences with trying to find a new church can lead to cynicism and dissatisfaction with church and faith in general.

– Deconstruction is a significant part of any serious academic program. Being trained to question everything in one’s own discipline naturally leads to questioning faith. This can lead to a deepening understanding of faith or it can lead to a profound questioning of the tenets and relevance of one’s own faith.

– Graduate school can be lonely and isolating. Many people get depressed. While some people find God a solace in difficult times, others are prone to question where God is in the midst of this, and why it is this way.

In the midst of this, campus ministries ought to be safe places to talk about faith, especially those struggling with faith, whatever that struggle looks like.

Published by permission. This blog was originally posted on the Campus Edge Fellowship blog at campusedgemsu.com/

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Agree 100% - especially since I became "reformed." If God is the ultimate determiner of regeneration/reprobation then the "Christian" concept of evangelism and some of our prayers is defective. We need to learn the difference between our will and God's. We don't know God's . . . everything that happens is God's will in the long run? 

 

Community Builder

As a practicing Christian I attended two different universities and neither weakened my faith. But before I got there I had attended Bible studies at church for quite a few years and read extensively.  So attending university or college is not necessarily a grave-digger for Christian faith as long as people prepare for it spiritually. Especially institutions that are not Christians.  Because unbelieving faculty and classmates will challenge you, and kids who don't prepare for it are foolish.  I only attended a religious private school for one year after which I was switched to the public sector because I was too slow to keep up with the others, so I never experienced the sort of greenhouse environment that kids who get all their primary and high school education in Christian schools do, and I suspect those kids tend to rest on their spiritual laurels. Or they try to ride on their parents' coattails.  The problem with that is when you're away from home--and possibly a significant distance away--for a long time, the landing can be quite rough.

That would explain why some kids lose their faith at universities, but such a tragic event is entirely preventable if parents ask their kids why they believe what they believe if the kids don't know enough to do the work of preparing for those challenges themselves.  It is a fairly spread out belief now based on research that people's brains don't reach their full maturity until age 25, and the last part of the brain to reach that maturity is the part that can visualize the consequences of one's choices and plan ahead.  Since most kids that go to college leave home around age 18, that means most of them have not yet reached that maturity....By the way, when I started my first B.A. I was 26.

Thanks Brenda for your article that asks if a secular education contributes to the erosion of Christian faith.  From both Bill and Michelle’s comments, there are different ways to look at the possible problem of secularism’s impact on Christian faith, as well as the solutions.  I don’t know the figures, as to how many are losing faith in a secular education system, but I would venture to say that many more fall by the wayside in secular colleges than in Christian colleges. But of course there is a different approach to education in these two kinds of colleges.  Christian colleges insulate the Christian perspective or philosophy and the secular college challenges it.  In the secular setting, if Christianity (or any religion) doesn’t stand up to a logical scrutiny, a reasonable explanation of facts, then it is questioned.  If the tenets of the Christian faith cannot stand on their own in making logical sense, then they will find little room in a logical educational system.  Much of education has to do with applying reason and logic to any given topic or discipline.  Christianity (as well as other religions) often fall short on that front.  That is why Biblical creation is never taught in a secular college or university.  Christians may believe in Biblical creation but such a view is less than logical.  Instead of fact based, it is faith based.

As Michelle suggested, a wall of protection might be helpful in protecting faith’s erosion.  That’s what Christian education tends to do, it’s a shelter against non Christian thinking.  But I don’t know if living a sheltered life is an honest approach to what secular education has to offer.  I don’t think that secular education is as much against Christianity (or any religion) as it is for a logical approach to life and living.  Miracle based religion does not resonate in a logic based educational system.  Christian higher education tries to maintain both (logic and faith in the illogical) even though the two are not a good fit.

So I agree with Brenda, that secular higher education is not, so much, against Christianity as it is for logic and reason.  And perhaps that is the strength of a university education. But only the strong and sheltered survive.

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Thanks for the comments. I have to admit that I'm not sure what's best in terms of attending a Christian college or a public university. I went to a Christian college (Redeemer), and it was very formative for my faith and for who I am as a person. I don't know how well I would have done at a public university, although looking at the campus ministries of my colleagues in Ontario, I think I would have received very good care and formation in the faith.

The question I'm raising here is less whether public university or Christian university is better. I think that has a lot to do with each person's situation and what people make of either experience.

My point, instead, is that I do not believe public universities can be seen as a primary cause for people losing faith. Yes, people do turn away from Christianity at public universities. But I have 2 points to reiterate in response:

1. Sometimes they are not turning away from Christianity, so much as they are turning away from a belief that "Jesus makes me a good person and makes me feel happy, peaceful, safe, etc." Such a a belief is what Christian Smith calls moral therapeutic deism and is not actually Christianity. Our culture and our churches and our ways of doing belief seem to encourage significant number of young people (and their parents from whom they learned it!) to choose this "feel good but doesn't cost much" kind of religion, instead of Christianity. Those ministering at both Christian and public universities encounter this kind of belief and are doing their best to challenge and disciple people in the context they are in.

2. As much as I would agree that more people probably turn away from Christianity (however you might define it) at a public university than at Christian universities, I am fairly certain that many more people convert to Christianity at public universities than at Christian colleges.

When we talk about public universities, we Christians (especially Christian Reformed folk who focus on the importanceof Christian education) tend to focus on negatives.  My question for us, though, is whether we focus so much on keeping "our folks" safe that we have forgotten about how the gospel can and is being shared with those who might be open to new ideas.

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 I attended public universities because they were closer to home than Redeemer or Calvin would have been and also the tuition fees were a lot cheaper.  Since I was depending on loans and grants to finance my way through school the difference was not trivial.  Since I was 26 at the time I began to attend the University of Montreal, my personality was pretty much defined already.  Maybe it's not a great loss if the kids who turn away from "Christianity" are actually turning away from a feel-good version of Christianity, as long as they eventually turn to the real thing, but we don't know that they will, right?

Public universities didn't cause me to lose my faith, and they don't have to have that effect on people, so I'm not saying they're better or worse than Christian institutions. It depends on the individual.  While I was attending the University of Sherbrooke and living on campus I attended IVCF meetings as well as services led by a local Presbyterian minister, which just goes to show that if you want to keep in shape spiritually there are ways of doing it, and no one is on their own unless they want to be.  At least in Canada. 

 

 

Thanks again for your thoughts on faith formation in the college/university setting.  If I understand you, Brenda, you seem to be discounting a nominal faith relationship (Christianity in name alone) and questioning the depth of commitment that is made to Christ, whether in the secular college/university or in a Christian college/university setting.  Individuals can believe in the tenets of Christianity (whether the Apostles’ Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism) without having a full and life changing commitment to the God of those creeds and confessions.

If people do turn to Christ in the public university, it is not likely due to the academic program of the school, but rather to the extra curricular Christian programs on campus, especially programs or groups that are evangelistic in nature.  Those are the programs (extra-curricular Christian groups) that are not logic or reason based but faith based.  These are the kind of programs (groups) that stress making a commitment to Christ.  Whereas many of the faith based programs of Christian colleges are knowledge based (faith based knowledge) and do not focus on making a commitment to God but on the faith-based content of the Christian religion (Christian Doctrine 101, 102, 103, and 104).   

But, of course, it might be reasonable to question the enduring quality of a faith that is extreme in the short term but has little endurance because it lacks in content.  Maybe it’s the church that is supposed to promote both faith-based knowledge, as well as faith-based commitment.  But, of course, the church doesn’t operate well if it wants to offer an education in academia.  I’d still opt for a secular academic education and find a good church to attend while pursuing your education. Thanks, again, Brenda for a thoughtful article and comments.

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