Christianity and the University

January 2018 Feature

When the early modern universities were established in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, they were centres of research, expertise and progressive thinking. During those times there was a characteristic thirst for knowledge of all kinds (e.g., law, medicine, science, mathematics, rhetoric and theology) and academic freedom in speech and writing was supremely sacrosanct.

Many pioneering university academics were also devout Christians and their works were inspired by, and often inseparable from, Scripture. Indeed, we can envisage a time when the university was the place where discipleship and learning combined uniquely into a single entity: scholarship in the name of human and spiritual advancement.

In many cases, today’s global universities are equally prestigious and studious but their connection with religious and spiritual matters has either declined, disappeared or never existed. For some, these are matters of grave concern.

In his impactful book titled, Ministering in the Secular University: A Guide for Christian Professors and Staff,1 author Joseph McRae Mellichamp, identifies two reasons for what he calls the ‘demise of Christian thought in universities.’ These are: (i) the inability of academics to agree on the appropriate role of Christianity in their contexts, and (ii) the lack of engagement by Christians in the fight to keep Christian ideas in the university’s marketplace of ideas.

Mellichamp continues with a stinging reprimand: “Christian professors and, to a lesser extent, staff have stood by and allowed Christianity to be pushed aside often without “lifting a finger” or, more literally, “raising a voice” to oppose what was happening.’

In my opinion, even though Scripture teaches us to submit ourselves to our leaders’ authority for Christ’s sake (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13), one of the biggest challenges facing Christian communities on university campuses today is the silent acquiescence of the ways of the secular, pragmatic world in the belief that ‘making waves’ is a barrier to full professorship.

When we acquiesce, we passively accept something without necessarily consenting to it or we accept something without protest. At its worst, is acquiescence any different from surrender?

At times, it seems like a self-inflicted paralysis borne, I think, from a lack of alternatives. We just ‘do’ (or not) because we have no other viable means of doing otherwise. This surely isn’t the Christian way given the urgency and necessity of the gospel.

Christian Engagement with the University

As Christians we are commanded to go in Jesus’ name to spread the good news and God’s peace (Matthew 28:18-20, John 20:21). The great commission applies equally to professors, researchers and staff at universities. As influential and respected members of society, Christian professors especially have many precious opportunities to witness for Christ in their offices, classes, meetings and writing.

Vinoth Ramachandra2 of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (https://www.ifesworld.org) suggests a two-pronged plan for Christian engagement within universities:

  • Forming learning and witnessing Christian communities, comprising students, researchers, faculty and administrators, who engage courageously and dialogically with the diverse academic disciplines and conversations that constitute university life (this entails the crossing of status hierarchies and replicating in universities what can be done in local churches); and
  • Seeking to influence universities so that they become more human-friendly, just and ecologically-sensitive spaces in which to study and work. This implies that we care about the moral, intellectual and spiritual flourishing of individuals, and also of groups and systems.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious and far-reaching proposal with great transformative potential. But I would add two conditions relating to its implementation.

First, we need to understand that unlike informal conversations that can quickly pass, true dialogue is exploratory and helps build lasting relationships. Second, I believe we need even more action to unite Christianity and the University over the long-term.

While I fully recognise and support the ministries and evangelism of Cru (https://www.cru.org), IFES, ALPHA (https://www.alpha.org) and other on-campus small groups, they crucially need the intellectual, spiritual and moral support of others both within and beyond universities to be meaningful and successful.

As an illustration, there are necessary roles to play and functions to perform by the Church through regular intercessory prayer for teachers, professors and students, individual supplications and small-group meetings that model and inspire local missions and community (koinonia); by Christian parents and friends through encouragement, shepherding resources and modelling dialogue on widespread issues; and through schools and society (more broadly) by fostering an active concern for justice, equity, epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially concerning its methods, validity and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion) and ethics (the moral principles governing a person’s behaviour and actions).

Universities are, and will continue to be, sites of tremendous personal, communal and professional growth. They can also present us with opportunities to teach and learn in unexpected and totally surprising ways but we have to be open to, and prepared for, God’s calling and the Holy Spirit’s empowering for this to happen.

I’m suggesting that this preparation in terms of content (theological and discipline-based), and qualities of mind and character, might best begin at an early age and must be continually supported by others outside of the university.

Of course, some might disagree. For sure, God can and does work in miraculous ways on campuses and I have read several uplifting testimonies from students who came to Christ while at university through evangelistic outreach and then went on to serve the Lord after graduation in various work-place appointments.

However, in my experience, testimonies from university professors and members of staff about coming to Christ through their work and living out the Christian life on campus are far less popular or common. That’s a pity.

In closing, I believe the quality, extent and influence of Christianity at the university should be a priority for the Church because what happens there often carries over into a myriad of other professions in the public square where there is high contact with other people (e.g., teaching, medicine, law, social work etc.).

For whatever reasons, Christian professors and other members of staff at universities face a crucial fork in their professional and spiritual journeys.

One path unites vocation, work and ministry in biblical terms.3 Along the other lies fragmentation and sterility that comes from forcing our work and faith lives apart.

The choice is ours: in one direction lies our duty and our joy, the other is potentially burdensome and often too harsh to bear.

 


Notes

  1. Mellichamp, J. McR. (1997). Ministering in the secular university: A guide for Christian professors and staff.Carrollton, TX: Lewis And Stanley.
  2. Ramachandra, V. (2016). Christ and the university. In Engaging the campus: Faith and service in the academy (pp. 37-65). Singapore: Fellowship of Evangelical Students.
  3. Stevens, R. P. (1999). The other six days: Vocation, work and ministry in biblical perspective.Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow (Ed.D., Durham) is a church lay leader with extensive experience in small group work, discipling and Christian education. He is currently a teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher at a tertiary-level institution in Singapore where he specialises in New Media Literacies, Teacher Professional Learning, and Pedagogy and Classroom Practices. Phillip is also the author of the ETHOS Engagement Series booklet, ‘Education and Society: A Christian View of Education in Singapore‘.