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Why Christians shouldn’t abandon universities

I didn’t expect applause when the student presenter said, “I’m the resident heretic for the Divinity School.” To say I was hesitant was an understatement.

This was my introduction to graduate studies in religion as I was touring prospective programs. As a committed and theologically conservative evangelical, I was a bit unsure. However, I would eventually join this self-professed heretic and study with those who chose the program for its decidedly liberal perspective on matters of faith and religion. Over my two years in this program, I discovered important things about the need for Christians in educational spaces and the ability to dialogue with one another across theological lines

Depending on who asks, I get two responses when I tell them where I went to school. The conservative Christians I know always ask follow-up questions to ensure that I am still one of them. Those on the opposite side of the theological spectrum see it as a marker that I have at least learned from those different from me. I may not agree with them, but I at least understand why they think as they do. The degree grants me a position of influence and a hearing that I would lack if I had chosen another school.

What our influence looks like

So what does influence look like for a prophetic minority in culture?

It looks like the student who is an evangelical explaining to his liberal friend why he believes in the inerrancy of Scripture while they study for a Hebrew Bible final exam. It is the conversation between the Christian and their co-worker at their campus job. It’s the kind of influence that comes from friendship, proximity, and care for the other person. It is not quick, and it is not easy, but relationship discipleship rarely is.

It’s remembering that those who disagree with us are not our enemy. In this era of outrage and polarization, it is easy to write off the other side as the enemy or evil. But the people I encountered weren’t evil. We disagreed, but we also found places of communion. They didn’t believe in a literal resurrection, but they were committed to ending racial injustice. They didn’t agree with my views on marriage, but we both agreed that the church should care about the poor and marginalized.

Even the angriest of my classmates were not without cause. I could not fault them for being angry at an evangelicalism that met their skepticism with rejection, not love. As Christians, we should acknowledge that just as often as people reject the message of the gospel, they are also rejecting the messengers who they believe don’t care about them.

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” He then follows it with a warning that if the salt loses its flavor, it’s not good for anything. At the same time, salt is no good if it is left in its container. If it is never used, then it is just as problematic. Salt that isn’t salty, and salt that is never used have the same effect: nothing.

In the same way, Christians should not be isolationists and withdraw from culture. We do not practice a form of monasticism in which we purposely avoid the world. Christ did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be protected as we were sent into it (John 17:15-19). The church is the place where we withdraw so that we might be renewed and prepared; but we withdraw so that we might go out.

How we engage the university

Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian and statesman, said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” This includes universities and colleges. Christians must not absent themselves and cede their influence and vision in the realm of education. While Christians should not think of this influence as based on a model from the years of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right,  these groups did correctly understand that to absent yourself from the conversation is to give up a say in the outcome.

So we should help Christians, especially those making decisions about education, to look for the ways that their influence can be leveraged for the kingdom. While there is merit to seeking an explicitly Christian education, they might prayerfully consider how the same degree could be leveraged at a state or private institution that does not share the same commitments. Their time at college could be a time of engaging those around them who might never listen otherwise, and who they might never be around in such a concentrated number.

It could also be a time when they learn something they did not expect. My time with high church students gave me a deeper love for the liturgy of church history. Also, issues such as race, justice, and poverty were emphasized in ways that I had not heard. I did not always agree, but I came away with a new layer of how the gospel affects all of creation.

Christian parents, you should be thinking even now about how to prepare your children for their future education and vocation. It is important that we not simply fall into the trap of choosing a good college because of the name or prestige. At the same time, those colleges carry social capital and can give students access to a mission field that is untouched. So, you should be training the young Christians in your household to see every sphere of influence as one in which they can work for the advancing of the kingdom.

Christians of the past have always recognized the importance of education. The Jesuits would found schools as a means of evangelism when they entered a new region. The early European universities were begun to train clergy. Christians should not be afraid of the world of academia. We should not abandon it. It is not the realm of the world, but that of a God who calls us to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind (Lk. 10:27). For in every classroom, Christ’s declaration of “Mine!” still rings true.

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