Saturday, February 08, 2014

Evangelicals shouldn't be anti-intellectual


The Guardian carried an article today from an Anonymous academic. The subtitle alleges: Evangelical students cannot tolerate diversity of opinion and resist secular critiques of their views.. The story essentially being that Evangelical Christians at a Russell Group University are playing up in class... manipulated by a student-approval-centred model of education.

It feels a bit laughable that this Anonymous Academic makes Evangelical Students and their societies the bogeyman who is ruining Universities. We long to turn the world upside down but if we were I think someone would've noticed.... usually Christians
"As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers" Letter to Diognetes
The early church out-thought, out-loved and out-served their contemporaries...
The academic also says: "The fee-paying culture has given rise to a predominantly white, economically-privileged, middle class student body, in which any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity" ... I suspect most top Uni's were already mostly white/privileged/middle-class... I think diversity is rising rather than falling, and evangelicalism really isn't overpowering anyone... Evangelicals are probably 1-2% of the student body.

My guess is that this Academic might be from Exeter (where I work with the CU!) though it might be one of a few other RG Universities. The CU at Exeter is relatively large, visible and currently has a good reputation.

Nonetheless I want to take some of the critique on the chin.

Christian Unions are the unnamed target of the article, promoting a cheap and shallow evangelicalism that refuses to engage in academic rigour. I find myself challenged - Christians Unions spend a lot of time thinking about sharing their faith ('evangelism') but we need to think seriously about engaging with people, about being intensely curious people, about being those who value everything.

A great many evangelical students do exactly that - working hard and serving others. I know of evangelical students who've been elected to Students Union president, who serve on the academic committees in their departments, who get first class degrees, who do postgraduate study... and so on. They're great examples, on which more later.

I'd already been chewing on this subject for a seminar in March... 

1. We need to engage positively
The article says "a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set..." Any student can do this but they should expect to fail. That'd be fair. That's not evangelicalism that's disgraceful immaturity dressed up in super-spiritual clothing. I can well imagine some who would carelessly brand others as heretics and celebrate any hostility returned on them with a persecution complex... Not the posture an evangelical (gospel-centred) person should be taking.

Christian students need to get their heads down and work hard, really hard, being really committed to their workplace (the University) and to learn from those placed above them. [I say that having failed to do that. I take the responsibility and career consequences of that. I simply wasn't good enough at my subject to achieve highly, but with a bit more personal responsibility and perhaps some good mentoring I could've achieved a low 2:2 instead of a 3rd class degree in Maths.]

Christians should never be afraid of engaging with other people's ideas That's shallow and unthinking. If you can't handle engaging with other people then you don't want to be at University. If you find it hard then talk to lecturers, talk to church leaders, talk to UCCF staff, use bethinking. You're not alone. But it takes humility to listen to others and to get help.

2. We don't need to be scared of ideas
The different ideas that other people hold are no threat to Christian faith - Jesus came into the world and Paul took Christian faith into the debating arenas of Athens. No need to hide or play power games.

I love it when CU members know that it's ok to put the biggest questions on the table. I've been a a follower of Jesus for nearly 17 years. I think I have more questions today than I did back then. And that's really not a problem.

If you don't know your faith well - think harder, read the Bible, read excellent books - and not just stuff you think you'll agree with. Read widely. Get someone to guide your reading to that end. Someone has said if you read one book you think you're an expert, two and you're confused... but read ten and you start to find your own voice.

There seems to be an anti-intellectualism in evangelicalism (as, one might argue, there is in British society more widely...) But it's nothing to do with the roots of the Christian Unions... though I'm not sure we always live up to our legacy.

The Christian Unions early moves include founding a Cambridge University research house (Tyndale House, and later the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics) and a popular & academic publishing house (Inter-Varsity Press). This is no anti-thinking movement.

The Christian Unions, these evangelical societies, are a movement founded on theological precision (especially over the atonement), an outpouring of the Spirit and a divinely given vision to see generation after generation stand for Christ in the University.

We can do more.

3. We should listen to more people
A suggestion: We have too many pastors teaching at CU meetings. We need entrepreneurs and academics and accountants and linguists and and engineers and educators and administrators and many more to come too. UCCF staff and church leaders will know who these people are in your locality, or who are Alumni from your Uni etc.  Stories of the origins of CUs include significant training and evangelistic input from local business people and senior academics.

Pastors can talk about these things (and should - see below) but invariably they only get asked to do Bible exposition. Please do that - nothing feeds like exposure to the Scriptures. But, we need people who can model what it means to live that out as student and a graduate and a Christian. There are some outstanding Christian academics, and students who go on to postgraduate study in all kinds of fields as well as excellence in their field.

If you're a CU Leader of a reasonably large CU... especially a Russell Group Uni... Include 3-4 meetings a term that directly engage developing a Christian Mind, thinking about leadership and learning in the workplace, offer multiple choices that let people explore their passion for business or politics or education etc. and pick the brains of those who are running well ahead of us.

I think we need to help first years (and sixth-formers...) particularly to develop a Christian Mind. UCCF pioneer and evangelical statesman Dr. Oliver Barclay spent his life helping others develop a Christian Mind - a deeply rigorous faith. It's easier than ever to access stuff today - see UCCF's Bethinking and Theology Network resources and L'Abri Ideas LibraryThe OCCA, Theos, CARE, to name a few.

4. We must know that work is good
There is a (sometimes unspoken) assumption that spiritual maturity is church leadership. The fact is one or two percent of Christians may be set apart from normal work to equip the saints for ministry: and note well that most people will spend a substantial amount of their waking hours at work. We need to think hard about equipping people about attitude at work, about engaging their Christian worldview with those around them.

Work is good so you can resource the church. But work is more importantly good because you want to eat. And even more importantly because work is what divine-image-bearers do in this world, to cultivate this world, to resist the futility of this world, and to spread goodness in this world in all parts of society.

I can imagine naive and well meaning students, mentioned in this article,  wanting to make a stand for Jesus... but I think they'll live to regret failing to engage more deeply - it'll cost them an opportunity for their lives to be enriched by learning, it'll have defamed the gospel where they could've adorned it, it'll have harmed those who might've been led to consider Christ...

I weep when I fail to represent Christ well, and I feel motivated to go up a gear. 

If Christian Unions are serious about giving every student the opportunity to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus then serious participation in the life of the University is essential.

7 comments:

  1. Great post, Dave -- I hope lots of people read it and take it on board!

    As an aside, I used to work as an academic at Exeter. One day a concerned colleague showed me an essay written about existentialism (of the atheistic variety) by an evangelical student. It was a bad essay (poorly argued, expressed, and referenced) and the colleague thought it should fail. But he was concerned that the student might think she was being "victimised" because of her faith (her basic argument was that existentialism was all nonsense because it didn't agree with the Bible). So, knowing I was an evangelical Christian, he asked me to read the essay and tell him what I thought. I agreed it should fail and told him he should give the essay the mark it deserved, but explain to the student how she could improve her work. He did this and, to her credit, the student took his comments on board -- accepting that the best way for her to honour God at uni was to work and think hard, not simply dismiss things she'd never taken the trouble to try and get her head round.

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  2. Thanks Paul, really helpful example. And good to know (as would be hoped!) that there is wisdom in the system to not just rightly fail someone for poor work, but to help them to progress.

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  3. Great post Mr Bish,

    Basically this lecturer seems to be experiencing that not all 19 year olds are mature, well-rounded human beings with great moral courage and sensitivity to others. Which is not exactly news whatever you believe is it?

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  4. Excellent post, Dave. This is something we're trying to grapple with again & again in Cambridge. The fine folks at Christian Heritage are also great at helping us try to plug the gap. All strength to your arm.

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  5. Academia, the joys of life and rich, diverse, and complex human nature all so often seems neglected for a simpler understanding of human nature. Our culture and background is also important to consider. Where are the days where independent thinking was cherished, and knowledge was shared and debated in a humble way, where disagreements were respectfully made?

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  6. It seems to me that this lecturer is on to something which is very important.

    Before they go to a university most students (especially in this case naive Bible believing Christians) have never been confronted with truly rigorous adult thinking. Let alone the Universal Wisdom contained in the reports of all of the great minds of humankind from all times and places, including the ancient philosophical and Spiritual Wisdom of the non-Christian Eastern Traditions of Hinduism & Buddhism.

    The entire Wisdom Tradition of humankind is of course now freely available to anyone with an internet connected. Indeed you can now access it all on your I-Phone or I-Pad.

    On the contrary most of them have little more than a Sunday school (or what they were taught by mom and dad) (mis)-understanding of quite literally everything. They suffer from a dim-witted essentially childish, even infantile religious provincialism.

    It seems to me that the very first questions that should be asked in any rigorous philosophy 101 course are:

    Who or what are you as a concious being?

    What do you really know about anything at all? Or what is your relationship to all of the beings and things that spontaneously arise on a moment-to-moment basis in your field of perception, both out there or external to the body, and inside the body as feelings, emotions and ones sense of the body altogether.

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    1. Hi Anonymous Commenter... I think you're right - we need more rigorous thinking. As a Christian I see no need to fear that. Wisdom is much needed.

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