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Does Scholarship Erode Faith?

December 1, 2014
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Working on a college campus I am familiar with a trend in which church-going, apparently-devout young men and women leave the faith in college. I am also familiar with several explanations for this trend.

The first explanation is simple: college is openly anti-Christian. The horrible liberals/enlightened humanists (pick your side!) who run college campuses pour anti-Christian thought into young people’s heads and it changes what they think. This is certainly a real thing but only an occasional one. It’s pretty easy to go to college and run into this sort of thing only as a sort of sideshow. I don’t think it explains enough of the trend.

The second explanation is more complicated: in college young people both learn more about the world (including being exposed to ideas very different than the ones they grew up with) and are forming their own identities separate from their parents. Inevitably some students form identities that align them with the new ideas they run across and not the faith of their fathers.

This has a second twist: some young people come to college with the world figured out. Then the world doesn’t fit that mold. They meet a gay person who doesn’t breathe fire and worship Satan. Their roommate has sex before marriage, perhaps even quite frequently, but does not rot from the waist down with hideous STIs[1]. These young people then leave the faith since it seems clear that everything they were told was crap. (By the way, this is a brief version of my manifesto against the Christian bubble.)

There’s a third, related, explanation: temptation. Away from the watchful eyes of their parents young people can explore heavy drinking, heavy petting[2], and heavy partying. However, to indulge with a clean conscience said young people must ditch their faith.

I would like to propose an additional explanation (just an addition, not a replacement). This particular one may be more of an issue in graduate school but it is certainly an issue for the studious. Many people leave high school with a child’s faith. That’s what they bring to an adult world. It just doesn’t stand up.

Imagine, for a second, sitting in an English class and analyzing what Milton really meant in “Paradise Lost”. Now go on to a science class and attempt to discern patterns in a huge pile of data. Now hang out with some friends and discuss politics because hey, you’re an adult now (and you think you can solve all the world’s problems at 18). In all of these discussions you are challenging ideas. Ideas are brought up, they are tested against the data you have available, and some die. Now you go to Bible Study. You don’t test ideas because God should not be tested. You read the Bible and maybe it looks a bit like a text from English class but you know you shouldn’t apply those methods to it – that’s being critical and you shouldn’t be critical of the Bible. At no point in Bible Study or in the discussion with your Christian friends afterwards do you take your faith and test it against data. Your faith never lives or dies in the trial – you simply don’t submit it for that kind of judgment.

That is the problem. In an academic environment everything that you would consider expressing as a belief goes through the trial of testing. If you expressed a belief about, say, the superiority of organic food and someone challenged you and it became apparent that you had not submitted this belief to testing then you would look stupid[3]. This creates a problem: you may believe that Jesus Christ rose from dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures but if you’ve never tested it you will feel fairly sure that your smart friends will figure this out and declare that belief stupid. And these are your smart friends – they help you punch holes in all manner of dumb ideas and clarify your thinking about difficult topics. Maybe their belief about your beliefs should be listened to, even if you’ve never had that particular conversation. Sooner or later you end up living in a world in which you know that your faith is a relic from your former life as a naïve person who believed things for dumb reasons and so you leave your faith behind.

This is the beginning of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Does scholarship erode faith? It can – if there’s no Christian scholarship to counter it. In graduate school I found a group of fellow Christian graduate students and we discussed the Bible with all the rigor I brought to the rest of my life. In science classes I might compare two ideas from noted thinkers in ecology and comment on which side I favored and why. In Bible Study I might compare great thinkers in the Church, ancient or modern, and comment on which side I favored and why. While I did in fact deal with the very first issue I mentioned in this article, an advisor who was openly hostile to Christianity, the irony was that his criticisms of Christianity were functioning on a lower intellectual level than my Bible Study. I remember distinctly his criticism of the Bible as an all-powerful book that removed the need for any further thought. It was easy to dismiss this criticism – I was surrounded by Christians who thought extensively about the Bible and I could articulate why the reading of the Bible that he disliked was philosophically naïve and did violence to the text[4].

Christians need to do serious thinking about Christianity. Christians have done this thinking for centuries but in the West it is often forgotten for a more populist, simpler message. The price of not thinking seriously is that we become a church where our brains are not engaged and that we subtly train ourselves that our faith is stupid and will not survive scrutiny. The problem of scholarship is not an inherent one whereby more careful thought leads to less faith. Instead, it is a problem of mismatch – if Christianity has no scholarly gear and the world around us does then switching into that gear will mean leaving Christianity. The solution to that is better and more Christian scholarship.

[1] These are what used to be STDs. I’m not entirely sure why we’ve switched from “sexually transmitted diseases” to “sexually transmitted infections” but it’s what the clinicians and epidemiologists I know say so we’re going with it.

[2] If you are unfamiliar with this term you probably didn’t go to a Christian youth camp. However, it’s sufficient to say that if you do heavy enough petting with the wrong person you might end up with an STI.

[3] Thankfully, on many colleges campuses the superiority of organic food is a dogma known to all and so you may believe it without evidence for you will never be challenged on it.

[4] I did not articulate this to him, though. Sometimes you need to recognize when someone is on a rant and sidestep that train rather than try to head-butt it.

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