“Are you trying to convert us?! Are you honestly trying to convert us?!” shouted my Church History professor from across the room. I was shocked. More than that, I looked around the room at the other students watching my presentation and they were stunned silent too.
All I could do was stand and watch as my professor pulled no punches in criticising my seminar presentation on Jesus’ resurrection.
The charge against me? Arguing that the end of Mark’s Gospel might actually be true. That the women did indeed walk away from an empty tomb. That maybe…just maybe…Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly as a literary device to make readers consider the truthfulness of the resurrection for themselves.
I went home that day shocked and embarrassed and did everything I could to keep myself from crying and from quitting university. “I’ll give it to the end of my first year, then I’ll decide,” I told myself.
Well, things got a lot better. I ended up loving my studies and graduated with hopes to go further in academic theology.
Looking back at that presentation, I’m so grateful to God for giving me that tough experience since it fuelled me in my studies and gave me a glimpse of the challenges faced by evangelical Christians in secular theology departments across the country.
How did I survive as a Bible-believing Christian at a secular university? How did I keep my faith and write well knowing my coursework would be read by atheist scholars? In this brief article, I hope to show you how God kept me going.
“’When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’” (Psalm 11:3 NIV)
These words were quoted by David as one of the many accusations levelled at him during a particularly difficult time of his life. In verse 1 of Psalm 11, he proudly and boldly declares that the LORD is his refuge. His enemies, however, don’t see David’s personal faith to be very effective against a visible and external problem. ‘The foundations are shaking!’, they cried, ‘So what good can God’s people do?’.
Foundations are important for any building, and even the word ‘foundation’ can be used metaphorically for a base, grounding, or position upon which everything else depends. If the foundation fails, the building falls. If David’s foundation – whatever it was – fell, then David would fall. During my undergraduate studies, I quickly realised that my foundation was the Bible.
The ‘secular’ universities of Britain have inherited a post-Enlightenment mindset which upholds human rationality and autonomy in distinction and opposition to faith. ‘Knowledge’ is separated from any kind of religious awareness. Theology departments in these universities, even if they are not led by atheists or sceptics, may disregard biblical authority, and study and teach Christian theology as primarily social constructions, not as revelation.
The Bible was not only the foundation of my personal faith, but it was – and is – the groundwork of all Christian doctrine, and all Christian hope. If the Bible failed, then I could, and would fall. If the Bible was undermined successfully, then everything would – and should – fall apart.
What did David do? He looked up at a God who sat on his throne above it all. “The LORD is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them.” (v. 3-4). I came into my degree believing that the Bible was that place to which I could go to hear from God and encounter him. I knew that if I was going to survive, I had to know the answers to two questions about the Bible I held in my hands:
1) What exactly do I have in my hands?
2) How did it get there?
I poured my time into researching the authenticity, reliability, and authority of the Bible. In that search I recognised the importance of hearing the answer from God himself, not humans speaking on God’s behalf. Then, I researched carefully how we got to the sixty-six books of the Bible and saw how the Holy Spirit – whom God gave to his church to guide her – was at work in this process. Throughout, I committed myself to praying before and after every lecture. I made Psalm 119, which speaks of delight in God’s Word, my own prayer.
I can assure you that if you don’t take your lecturer’s words as gospel truth but read widely, you will find credible scholars on the side of biblical authenticity and authority. Don’t be deceived by an off-the-cuff comment which shakes your foundations and makes you feel stupid to be a Christian. Rather, remember that PhDs, articles, and books have been written on every topic (and maybe verse) in the Bible, and credible, faithful opinions on God’s Word exist in the academy.
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego…and Josh
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were Israelite noblemen who were removed from their home along with Daniel by foreign powers and placed in a Babylonian academy to learn about the art, culture, philosophy and religion of their oppressors. After three years, they would enter the king’s service teaching Babylonian culture and religion, and inevitably told to declare the superiority of Babylon (Daniel 1:3-7).
However, led by Daniel, these three men maintained their faith while living in Babylon. They integrated well into this new society but did not compromise their faith. I read this story with fresh eyes during my studies.
In some ways, I was like them! Yes, I wasn’t in literal exile from home or forced to do anything (I wanted to be there!), but I was trying to think, study and write differently because of my faith, while surrounded by an academic world view hostile to my own. I was a spiritual exile in the ‘Babylon’ of the university.
I walked into my university building imagining myself walking through the Babylonian Ishtar Gate. I comforted myself in the fact that I, in some distant sense, was like these Israelite scholars.
They were living distinctively while walking the tightrope of a hostile world. On one side, I had the temptation to give in to the prevailing world view. On the other, I met the temptation to turn coursework into pure apologetics for my evangelical stance. Like these three Israelite scholars, I knew the answer wasn’t to run away from the academy, nor to preach in it, nor to adopt its every whim. Rather, like these Israelites, I was called to live in this environment, and to ‘beat them at their own game’, as it were.
I decided to work harder than all my course mates. In my essays, I wrote what my professors wanted to read…followed by critiques, written critically, analytically, and with scholarly evidence and humility. I entered ‘Babylon’, learned ‘Babylon’, engaged with ‘Babylon’, and suggested credible ways that God’s truth might not be dismissed by it.
“‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’” (Job 38:2 ESV)
Finally, because of my increasing love for my course and my own independent research around each lecture and topic, I was able to get a useful glimpse into current academic conversations on different matters.
I realised that books, articles, and conference papers once presented as masterpieces of human intellectual brilliance were, after a few years, being critiqued with the emergence of new evidence. Archaeological discoveries, new hermeneutical movements, new theological developments, new textual artifacts coming to light continually undermined, strengthened, or developed scholarly consensuses.
Like Job (though seeing no storm and sadly no Leviathan), I came to realise that humankind, in some respects, knows nothing. At least, humans think they know everything, then change their mind every year…or decade. Rather than standing confident on any argument which undermined biblical authority, I considered it wiser to stand on the Rock of Ages who inevitably would prove his own interpretation of his Word to be the correct one.
I didn’t want to stand before Jesus on the Last Day and have him ask, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Instead, I wanted to be fully committed to an academic pursuit of truth, while always remembering that truth in the Bible was not hard to find, but rather found in every verse.
Even while the “wise and learned” miss it, little children can, and often do, understand the great and deep things of an eternal God (Matthew 11:25 26). Why? Because it's his Word. He speaks it, he reveals it. And we’re called to received it, obey it, and love it – with our minds as well as our hearts (Psalm 119: 45-48; Matthew 22:37).
These lessons I learned, as well as the support of my church and friends, were some of the ways I survived studying theology in a secular university. Matching my professors’ own keenness for critique and criticism, I was able not only to survive, but to thrive, and to be rightly challenged, pushed and grown in my understanding and appreciation of God and his Word.