Can an institution of higher learning, which claims to be dedicated to academic excellence, still maintain a commitment to Christian values? Faheem posed this question to me a few weeks ago. It’s not a new question. It’s constantly being asked by school administrators, book authors, and many fine minds within the world of Christian academia. Personally, I think the answer is: yes, within limits.
I believe an honest search for truth is at the heart of academic excellence. Many schools, such as Gonzaga University, George Fox University, and Wheaton College, maintain a religious function and provide an education of prestigious quality. Clearly, the majority of students who graduate from these institutions are adequately acquainted with the “truths” of their chosen fields, be it physical therapy or jurisprudence. However there are boundaries to how philosophical truths are pursued in Christian academic communities. By nature of their mission, these colleges cannot turn students loose to seek all truth freely, they must encourage the student towards a predetermined end-point, namely, understanding and acceptance of the theology upon which the school was built. Thus the truth presented to students at religious institutions of higher learning must necessarily have parameters. These parameters often come in the form of “mission statements”—sometimes including lists of preferred beliefs, or creeds—which delineate the precise brand of Christianity at the foundation of the school’s ideology, and state their intention to encourage or require this ideology (and its associated practices) of their students and employees. The school administrators believe their truth (be it Catholic, Quaker, Evangelical, or Adventist) to be the truth, but are not confident students will arrive at the truth without checks, buffers, and barriers to keep inquiry within the proper bounds. If they did, they would not require attendance at religious services (as though true worship could be reduced to an academic exercise), or restrict rigorous academic discussion of the founding ideology in any way. I know from experience, however, that this is often not the case.
I attended Adventist institutions from the age of three; first a pre-school, then an elementary school, an academy, and eventually a college. In fact, it’s possible for a person to attend Adventist schools from pre-school through medical school, and never have any meaningful social or academic relationships with non-Adventists. This is not always the result, of course. While Adventists have their own schools, businesses, and communities, they are not quarantined, and continue to exist in the world—and be affected by the surrounding culture—much the way Jews or Mormons do. For me, however, “living in the bubble” (as my friends and I referred to it in high school), while not as isolating, has been a suffocating experience.
This suffocation was eased when my partner, David, transferred to a public college last year. For the first time I’m living outside of my religious community. We used to attend a nearby church, but neither of us have been in over a month. I’m not a full-time student anymore, but I’ve become involved in campus activities, and even joined the campus Secular Society. My experience “on the outside” has been quite different from what I was led to believe.
Many Christians are raised to see a sharp distinction between themselves and “the world.” They are members of the body of Christ, while “the world” is the dangerous domain in which Satan has been given temporary leave to operate. People of “the Book” or “the Church” or “the Body” are encouraged to maintain a sense of holy separatism, derived from John 15:19 and 17:13-16, which enables them to act in society without the ills of society acting upon them. The notion of being “in the world, but not of it,” is often accompanied by an image of those who aren’t apart of the preferred religious model as morally inferior, lost, purposeless, and dangerous to one’s spiritual health. Secular colleges in particular were portrayed to me by some members of the Adventist community as dens alcoholism, casual sex, and relational turmoil (sometimes with a dash of illicit substance abuse thrown in for good measure). I haven’t personally found this to be true.
I know many people who consume alcohol regularly, but most have never approached drunken escapades on the level of “TiK ToK” or “Last Friday Night.” There is a more casual attitude towards sex and relationships, but these attitudes don’t automatically lead to exploitation or strife. Faith is challenged, and even mocked in some circles, but primarily in irreligious circles. Likewise, atheism is viewed as a perplexing minority position in other circles. Like any experience, my time at this public institution has been strongly influenced by the types of people I’ve sought out. My personality, and my values, attract certain types of people and repel others. As a result, I’ve primarily come into contact with thoughtful, responsible individuals who care about their studies, their futures, and themselves. In other words, I found what I was looking for.
I’ve found it and loved it. Not only does this public university provide me with an above ground secular community, but I am readily able to find other people with similar life goals, academic interests, and personal values. Unlike my previous school, this one doesn’t care if I get a drink at the local pub or patronize establishment that serves alcohol. My personal life is my own, including my entertainment choices and sex life. I haven no curfew and no restrictions on whom I may have in my residence. All of this is new to me, and I don’t want to leave it behind, but I have to.
In a few months I’ll be returning to my old school to finish out a degree. I’ve had the opportunity to live my life as an adult, to be open about my beliefs, to make personal decisions without worrying if they conflict with the ideologies of school administrators, and to seek out the truth without worrying about where the path may take me. I don’t know how I’ll go back. ♦