The Challenges College Students Face on Secular Campuses

by Steve Singleton, Campus Evangelist
Lions for Christ, Texas A&M-Commerce

What is happening on the campuses of secular universities across America? Thousands of Christian students are losing their faith and non-Christian students are becoming entrenched in their unbelief. Why is this happening? Have they discovered that God, in fact, does not really exist, that we live in a careening universe with no divine Pilot at the wheel? Or does something else explain this trend?

The Intellectual Challenge

Christian students on a secular campus face a great intellectual challenge. The underlying principle of the university classroom is naturalism. Students find it everywhere, not just in biology, physics, anthropology, and geology, but also in chemistry, astronomy, psychology, political science, and so on. University faculties defend this pervasive naturalism in two ways: by banishment and by confrontation.

The Banishment Approach

The banishment approach is, of course, the more venerable and the less aggressive of the two. A science professor will state at the beginning of the semester: "Science involves the gathering and analysis of data as the basis for forming hypotheses regarding the nature of reality. It must, therefore, exclude any reference to the supernatural as out of bounds for scientific inquiry. Whether or not God exists, or angels, fairies, pixies, goblins, or the Boogie Man is irrelevant to scientific investigation. Hold to your religious or superstitious beliefs if you want to, but don't bring them up in this classroom. It is off the subject; we don't have time for theological debates here." Students instantly get the idea that believing in God is anti-intellectual or at least one's faith should be compartmentalized and not allowed to spill over the transom into the science classroom. Be a believer elsewhere if you want, students learn, but come to science as a naturalist.

We Christians cannot accept this banishment. We have made Christ our life (Col. 3:4; Phil. 1:21), and His Lordship extends to every part of our lives. Certainly the One who created the universe at the beginning (Col. 1:16) and who even now sustains it moment by moment (Col. 1:17), has a right to enter a room where his handiwork is being examined and admired. It is His macro- and micro-planning, organizing, systematizing, and engineering, after all, that makes all science possible. If we did not live in an orderly universe our scientists would be reduced to historians and statisticians who record the millions of haphazard events as they transpire, but can make no deductions, inductions, or educated guesses about what would happen next.

The Confrontation Approach

A more recent and increasingly popular approach in the university classroom is to take the creationist bull by the horns and attack belief in the God of the Bible by any possible means. This is the strategy of journals such as Creation/Evolution and The Skeptical Inquirer. Professors claim the mechanistic/materialistic explanation for origins removes all need for God. Naturalists in the classroom are not above using illogical arguments to win over their students. For example, they may employ ad hominem arguments, associating belief in a Creator/Sustainer with witch-hunting, skinheads, and the Ku Klux Klan. Or they may use reductio ad absurdum arguments, such as asking how many dinosaur couples went onto the ark, or how Noah could be sure he had both male and female mosquitoes. Or they may knock down straw men, such as claiming victory if they can prove even the slightest changes occur, or limiting creationism only to those who believe the world began in 4004 BC. Or they may commit non sequiturs, such as claiming that since finches differ from one another, therefore, complex, mega-celled organisms evolved from single-celled life forms, and those from non-life.

Of course, we too must be cautious how we make our case, taking care to avoid the same mistakes. But it is difficult to wrestle with an opponent who refuses to fight by the rules.

We need Christian campus ministries because someone must stand up in our university community and affirm the biblical view of origins and of the ground and purpose for our existence.

The Bible clearly affirms these truths about our universe: (1) it had a beginning, all three persons of the Godhead being involved in its creation (Gen. 1:1-3; John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-17); ( 2) at the beginning, it came into existence out of nothing (Heb. 11:3); and (3) its interdependent systems are all by God's design and under His ongoing control (Job 38-39; Ps. 19:1-6).

The Bible has a name for those whose dizzying intellects lead them to atheism. Psalm 14:1 calls them fools, referring not to the Stupids, but to self-deceived rebels against God. Just to ensure that we don't forget, the same psalm recurs as the fifty-third. Paul describes those who have given up their knowledge of God as those whose foolish hearts have become darkened and who then become arrogant (Rom. 1:21-23). In all three of these passages, the intellectual rejection of God's existence leads to a moral rejection of God's will (Ps. 14.3; 53:3; Rom. 1:24-32).

The Results of this Naturalism

This prevailing naturalism (or anti-supernaturalism) has at least three far-reaching results. First, our college students are taught that truth is relative. Without God as the everlasting, immutable ground of all reality, truth becomes little more than one's subjective perception of it. Those who hold to absolute truth are ridiculed and harassed. In a recent speech entitled, "The Trouble with Being Open-Minded," Bruce Lockerbie said: "In today's university environment, absolutes dissolve into absolutism and are scoffed at with contempt. Ironically, however, today's students have been taught that some absolutes survive. Here is a sample of these campus absolutes, of which today's students and many of their teachers are absolutely certain! (1) I think; therefore, I am [RenŽ Descartes]. (2) God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him [Friedrich Nietzsche]. (3) There are truths but no truth [Albert Camus]. (4) We have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone, without excuse [Jean-Paul Sartre]. (5) Life is hard, then you die. [bumper sticker]."

Modern American campuses are similar to the ancient Athenians, whom Luke describes in Acts 17:21: [They] spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Since Christianity, with its beliefs and practices, is nearly 2000 years old, they believe it should be jettisoned by all who intellectually have come of age. Second, the faith of our students is challenged in and out of the classroom. As the Apostle Peter anticipated, people sometimes ask students the reason for the hope that they have (1 Pet. 3:15), and our students should be prepared with a good answer. But Peter also said in 2 Pet. 3:3-4: "in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, Where is this coming he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." This is naturalism's doctrine of uniformitarianism, contradicted at creation itself and a myriad of times since by the catastrophes and the disasters of nature. Our students must learn the flaws in naturalism's model so that their faith can stand firm and not erode away by wave after wave of faculty banishment or confrontational ridicule and the peer pressure from other students.

Third, our students are being taught that not only truth is relative, but morality is relative. Isaiah cries: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight" (Isa. 5:20-21).

The Deifying of Tolerance

On campus, tolerance is praise as the highest virtue, and intolerance as the greatest vice. Senator Dan Coats of Indiana spoke recently on the virtue of tolerance. Quoting G. K. Chesterton: "When the world next tries persecution seriously, it will probably be under some new name," Coats stated that persecution's new name is tolerance itself. Our students are taught not to be judgmental, which has the effect of encouraging them to have no moral judgment at all. Coats recalls that the poet Ogden Nash confessed: "Sometimes with secret pride I sigh / To think how tolerant am I / Then wonder which is really mine; / Tolerance, or a rubber spine."

This deifying of tolerance demonizes any who stand up for moral absolutes and who have the courage to say in love, for instance, to a homosexual, "What you are doing is wrong and is destructive both to yourself and to society."
A colleague of mine told me of a Christian student we'll call Ann, whose work at a local AIDS screening clinic brought her into daily contact with practicing homosexuals. She made up her mind to be salt and light in that place, and as a result, struck up a friendship with a lesbian we'll call Florence."

After Ann was confident that Florence could sense her friendship, she asked her why she became a lesbian. "When I was growing up," Florence said, "I was always wanting to play rough, climb trees, go hunting, and other 'guy' things like that. I wanted to be like my father a lot."

"That's funny," Ann said. "I was a tomboy too. I used to follow my dad around trying to do whatever he did."

"You did? And you're straight, right?"

"Yeah.""I thought only lesbians had my experience."

Ann left it at that for awhile. Then, a few weeks later, when Florence was sharing about her first sexual experience (a lesbian one) and describing how strange it all felt, Ann said, "That makes sense. Maybe it's like when I first went on a diet and had to drink Diet Coke. No one who first drinks that stuff likes it, but after awhile they get used to it, and then it doesn't bother them anymore. Maybe gay sex is like that. At first you don't like it, but if you keep doing it, you get used to it."

Florence didn't say anything for a moment. "Yeah, maybe you're right," she finally replied. These two conversations Ann had with Florence brought the lesbian a long way. Not yet all the way to Jesus Christ, but light years closer. If Ann had just shown "tolerance" and ignored the moral difference between her and Florence, nothing would have changed.

Coats says that the irony is how the virtue of tolerance has been stolen from us Christians. It's time for us to reclaim it. We serve a God who makes his sun shine on the evil and the good and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Into an intolerant world Jesus introduced tolerance as something revolutionary. He was branded a drunkard and a glutton and the friend of tax-collectors and sinners. Our friends in academia act as if mulitculturalism were something recently invented. But Paul announced it as the way of the Christ: There is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, male and female (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

No one has more experience in multiculturalism than the church, which for 2000 years has been taking the gospel to every nation and culture as it fulfills the Great Commission.

We Christians believe in tolerance. But our tolerance is not shallow like that of the academic community. In his speech Coats points out that tolerance has two extremes: permissiveness and persecution. Our non-Christian colleagues on campus stand on the permissiveness extreme--standing for nothing and falling for everything. They believe that Christians are at the other extreme, equating us with racists, ethnocentrists, and homophobes.

But we are not there. We hold Coats' middle ground: persuasion (2 Cor. 5:11, 14-21). It is not that we try to force people into conforming to our (really, the Lord's) standards. To the contrary, we have learned from our Master that outward conformity has little value if the heart is not in it. Rather, we try to change people's thinking, confident that with changed hearts, their actions will follow.

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