Fresh-faced high school graduates all over the country will head to college in a couple of months. Whether their destinations are community colleges or four-year schools, the majority will be leaving home for the very first time. Some will be adult learners, going back to school after having spent some time in the military, or to finish a degree they started years ago but did not complete. Graduates will live on their own or with roommates and will accept a new world of responsibilities they didn’t have before. These young people will have more than a little nervous excitement.
For most of these institutions—from the local community college to Ivy League universities—religion requirements will be minimal. Private schools will feature at least a few religion courses, most likely taught from the perspective of the institution’s religious affiliation. For schools without any ties to a particular tradition, religion requirements will be at a bare minimum, whether they are secular private or state institutions of higher learning.
The religion courses offered at these institutions often share similar features. In many cases, freshman may take an introduction to religions course, or possibly an introduction to the Bible, or perhaps an introduction to OT or NT. In some cases, students may expect to experience criticism of the Bible for the first time, and perhaps the first time in an academic environment. The ideal professor will teach the course so objectively that the students may not be able to discern their instructor’s personal beliefs. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.
Professors can challenge students’ beliefs about the veracity of Scripture. A professor may highlight alleged contradictions, errors, or discrepancies in the biblical text. He or she may argue that history and archaeology provide information that contradicts the biblical account, or that the Bible provides a deficient worldview that promotes racism, bigotry, misogyny, and violence. Before long, incoming freshmen may be shaken, reeling spiritually under his or her professor’s critical assault.
Students sometimes struggle with their faith at college because they encounter new and more aggressive spiritual challenges. Young Christians may begin to fall away from the church at this time (although the process will have started long before for some of them). Some do it because they haven’t gotten plugged into a good congregation. But some do because of attacks on their faith that come from inside the classroom.
There are professors much like this across the academic landscape of the United States. They tend to share the same set of characteristics. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the professorate who have them. Christians can see it in interviewees for documentaries, as well as authors of books and articles that are critical to biblical Christianity.
So what kind of qualities or characteristics should Christians prepare to find? Here are five of the most popular:
- Critical Scholarship. The professor will likely consider himself a critical scholar, unlike the “uncritical” scholars in religious universities, seminaries, and divinity schools who accept the Bible as inspired. His skepticism of the Bible’s veracity will be front and center throughout the course, likely taking the form of questioning the Bible’s portrayal of historical events and emphasizing extrabiblical evidence he considers to be at odds with the biblical text. This will almost certainly include gross misinterpretations of the Bible. Caricature is one of the critic’s most powerful weapons.
- Proselytism. The professor will not be a neutral guide but may attempt to convince his students to accept his point of view. This can take the form of presenting the information as intended to enlighten whatever students are unfortunate enough to maintain their religious beliefs. Belief in the Bible as God’s Word will be viewed as backward, naïve, and possibly even dangerous. Christianity will be portrayed as archaic and outdated. Professors like this will be apologists for their personal worldview.
- Skepticism. The professor will promote skepticism of the Bible, billing it simply and straightforwardly as a modern, educated perspective. While “the Bible says” may work back at home around the dinner table, it will be forbidden in the college classroom. The professor will treat the biblical text with automatic suspicion, even if he or she accepts other ancient texts at face value. Any student attempting to point out this double standard may meet with public reprisals from the teacher and ridicule from his or her peers.
- Anti-Supernaturalism. Students may encounter such claims as, “Educated people deny the supernatural” or “Most people reject the old notion that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.” What students must understand is that a belief is not true based on its number of believers, but whether or not it conforms to fact or reality. It is true that many, maybe even most, college professors deny the inspiration of Scripture, but this does not make it false. This is an example of a logical fallacy known as argument ad populum (“argument to the people”), the fallacy of appealing to the majority point of view as a source of authority.
- Revisionism. Finally, our religion professor may present “problems” with the Bible as if they are either recent discoveries or difficulties without adequate answers. Caricaturing the faith in this manner has the effect of making Christians look gullible and silly as if the only way that believers deal with problems is by ignoring them. In reality, answers to these problems are readily available in any number of sources.
There are academically informed and intellectually respectable responses to all of the above objections. This is vital for students to remember: just because he or she may not be able to answer his or her professors’ points, it does not mean that no answer is available. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Christians apologists have been answering objections to the Christian faith since the days of the early church. They continue to do so today.
Christian parents spend a great deal of time preparing children for the moral and ethical challenges they will face in college. This is indeed a challenge, given the moral and ethical climate of our country. But equally important is the need to prepare students for the academic and intellectual challenges they will face. The Christian worldview is one that has been held by history’s most prominent philosophers, scientists, and other educated thinkers. It is not a worldview for backward rubes. It is intellectually defensible on every level.
What every Christian must remember—from our hypothetical college freshman to seasoned saints in the church—is that opposition provides the opportunity for growth. Challenges to faith give opportunities for believers to dig into recent scholarship, to uncover new worlds of learning they never knew existed. Parallels in other areas abound. Athletes will never reach their full potential without working through grueling physical exercises and learning how to compete against other athletes. Intellectuals will never plumb the depths of their chosen field of study without spending countless hours wrestling with the deepest thinkers in that field—some of whom will share the same viewpoint and others who will be on the opposite end of the spectrum. Similarly, Christians will never possess an intellectually formidable faith without overcoming challenges that present themselves.