Speaking Truth on Campus

For much of my life, I have been defending historic and traditional Christianity against those who would mock it or who would replace it with something more timely, more in tune with the present times. When I began this journey, I was graciously given an opportunity to start off on the right foot.

Forty years ago I was a college sophomore, studying at a liberal arts college, majoring in religion. My first two semesters I had taken classes on the Old Testament and New Testament, with the rare opportunity also to study the Apocrypha during our brief January term. Now, in my second year, I finally enrolled in the course that was supposed to be an introduction to religious studies. This class happened to be taught by the Academic Dean of the college, one of his rare appearances in the classroom. His teaching style was more typical of a Masters’ level course, given the amount of reading and writing he expected from us, and the depth of material he assigned. Our textbook, The Philosophy of Religion, contained essays from all the great names in the field, ranging from Plotinus to Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Feuerbach, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Dewey, James, and Wittgenstein. Topics included the definition of religion, the existence of God, and the problem of evil. We were required to write a short paper on each topic and a longer paper on one of the seven topics, with a comprehensive final at the end of the course. The professor, in classroom lectures, informed us that anyone who still believed in the Bible and traditional Christianity must picture God as an old man with a long white beard, sitting on a chair up in the clouds. He offered his own definition of God as “an oblong blur.”

Outside of class one day, I met with the professor and informed him that I was a believer in the Bible and traditional Christianity and that God was not, to me, an old man with a long white beard sitting on a chair in the clouds. We talked for a time about religion and faith, and the professor suggested that I might appreciate some additional reading. He offered a list featuring one of his favorites, Kierkegaard, but also focusing on Karl Barth, whom he thought would appeal to me. (He also revealed his partiality toward Paul Tillich, like Barth an heir to Kierkegaard’s thought.) I found the recommended books in the library, checked them out, and read the suggested essays, about eight hundred pages added to my assignments for his classes and for the others I was taking that semester. I became, at that time, a fan of Kierkegaard, and remain his fan today. Barth, on the other hand, left me cold. Although he used traditional words, he emptied them of meaning, offering nothing worthwhile in place of the traditional and Biblical message they convey.

In the last week before the final exam, the professor began to pull the themes of the class together into one master lecture. (He distributed an outline for us to follow his thoughts.) Religion, he proposed, came from three origins: from human relationships with nature, from human understanding of history, and from human encounters inside our minds. All religious thought and expression, the professor said, came from those three sources. It took more than one class session to summarize the three sources, and then he was prepared to discuss how these three sources of religion handled the topics we had been pursuing all semester.

With his outline in front of me, I saw where the transition occurred from his summary of sources to their response to the topics, and I raised my hand during that transition. When the professor called upon me, I directed his attention to one of the assigned essays read earlier in the course, one from the textbook. Written by Rudolf Otto, from his book The Idea of the Holy, it described God as “Wholly Other,” a reality distinct and different from everything humans encounter in themselves and in the surrounding world. The professor admitted that yes, that assigned essay did take a position beyond the three sources of religion he had described. With that admission, he proceeded to complete his intended lecture.

When we met to take the final exam, we were given blue books (ask your parents or grandparents if you don’t know about exam day blue books) and a mimeographed sheet assigning our essay, due in two hours. The assignment began, “There are three sources of religion…” and told us to choose one of the three sources, describe it, and explain how it responded to one of the topics we had covered. But, following those three points, the assignment continued, “It has been suggested in class that religion can also come from the Wholly Other. Evaluate that possibility from the point of view of the source you have been describing.”

I sensed (correctly) that the professor’s preferred source of religion was human encounter within, a Freudian view that people create religion to replace our parents when they fall short of our idealized concept what parents should be. If your human father is less than perfect, well, then you have a perfect Father in heaven (but you will one day outgrow that Father as well). I described religion coming from that source and proceeded to demonstrate how a religion coming out of that source completely fails to answer the problem of evil. From there, I wrote how a God who is Wholly Other can be the center of a better religion, a religion that provides acceptable answers to the problem of evil in our lives. I knew the risk I was taking, telling the professor that he was wrong, but I had no intention of writing anything different in my blue books.

Even though I disagreed with the professor, I did so in his own language, using the vocabulary and the approaches that were modeled by his lectures and his assigned readings. In the end, I received a strong A for the final exam and earned an A in the class. Of course, I did not convert the professor to traditional Christianity, but I did demonstrate that a traditional, Biblical Christian could function effectively on his academic playing field. That, for me, was part of the joy of a liberal arts education, at least as those existed on college campuses forty years ago. Students could remain true to themselves, defend their beliefs and opinions, and—so long as they followed the academic rules about communication and mutual respect—receive full credit for being capable scholars and thinkers.

That’s how it was then. That’s how it should be today. J.

25 thoughts on “Speaking Truth on Campus

  1. Wanted to add something. In reading many of C.S. Lewis’ books, I saw where he shared some of his education (On his own, with his brother, the myriad of books in the house, in school, all the way up to Cambridge I believe, the university.). I must say, the amount of reading, together with discussions with professors, then later with colleagues, lends itself to much information with which to ponder. And along the way, questions came to him which required answers, and he continued. **I wonder how many of our youth would love, perhaps not at the beginning, but with time, to have such an education with real materials and thoughtful discussions? Sometimes, many years pass before questions are answered, leading to other questions and answers.

    Like

  2. Like you, we need a no-pressure, simple honesty that lifts up Christ in everyday life. ‘Making disciples of all men’ begins by BEING a disciple. “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also want to know ‘Jesus Christ is come in the flesh’ (to be crucified). A life decided to do God’s will.
    Christ taught this resolve to his disciples, rebuking their disgust, ‘that the Son of man must suffer.’

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good stuff, Salvageable. That’s not just true of college campuses, but everywhere. Mutual respect, civil discourse, and communication should be standard operating procedure. It’s never been perfect, but at least there was once a time when most of us agreed that was a good ideal to try to hold dear.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Fascinating. account of your honest and bold defense of the faith. The freedom.to do this in academia was still intact only a few years ago. My son attended a “Christian” university at which he was sometimes the only one in any given class speaking the language of Biblical Christianity but he wss never penalized or marginalized. I doubt this would still be the case. By the way, the experience honed his skills in apologeticz.

    Liked by 4 people

    • A real liberal arts school will always allow this kind of academic freedom. When they penalize and marginalize certain kinds of thought, they lose their right to be called educators, especially in the liberal arts. J.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. In the reference to the “Wholly” was that including or mean the “Holy Spirit”? I have to chuckle how you presented your work in style taught in the classroom. Professor’s so “educated” with minds so focused on their on way and style to be right. Good post. 👍

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Denise. No, Rudolf Otto used the term “Wholly” without intending a pun regarding the Holy Spirit (although he may have intended to imply a pun regarding holy and wholly–I’m not sure). Yes, this professor had his one way of looking at things and needed a bold challenge even to admit that other ways could still be valid. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A VERY interesting accounting of a moment in your past. I am curious… did you view his class as a challenge to your Christian faith, or more a class in theological philosophy?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Will you accept “both” as an answer? I went to college to get an education, not to fight for the things I already believed. But speaking up for the truth seemed only right and honest to me, to the other students, and to the professor. I don’t know what I would have done if he used his authority to silence me. I might have stayed quiet, accepted a C, and moved on. Fortunately, I did not need to make that choice. J.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s been my observation that educators of philosophy can be of two types (likely more than just two.. but who’s really counting). The first is the arrogant one. He’s the educator who thinks he’s seen it all, done it all.. and knows more about the past philosophers than you will ever know, even on a good day. The second type… the one you were lucky to have… seeks philosophical thought because of an insatiable quest/desire to find what the study of philosophy is all about.. the love of wisdom. To borrow a definition from online…
        “In a broad sense, philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other.”
        I think your instructor was making his students THINK in order to find perhaps that one.. or more than one.. who could be inspired enough with the will to question, then conclude from it, and challenge back in turn… thus feeding the instructor’s own existential search for possibilities. I might guess you got your “strong A” because you tantalized him by, as you put it, having played on his academic playing field.
        Of course I am just speculating. I don’t personally find that Freudian view of grasping religion as a rule by any stretch, although certainly possible on a lesser scale given the variety of man. In the end.. you got an “A”… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. This professor did not come across as a seeker of truth. He sounded more arrogant, like someone who had figured everything out to his satisfaction. But he still did not find it necessary to reprehend me for disagreeing, so long as I followed the academic rules he used and expressed myself in his kind of vocabulary. I have always tried to be the kind of teacher who seeks to learn with the students, even if I know the material better and have studied it longer and more thoroughly. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook, and I let them know that they could disagree with the textbook, or with me, or with both of us, so long as they could back up their opinion with facts and do so in an academically respectable style. J.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s