Saturday, March 15, 2014

Christians in the Academy

Early in the 20th century, as American Christian fundamentalists perceived a growing threat from modernism, the divide between science and religion, that started in the 19th century (thanks in no small part to the diverse applications of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution) began to rapidly widen even further. Having largely abandoned the arts as a "secular" pursuit following the Second Great Awakening, fundamentalism was already pulling away from higher education in the mainstream. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial of 1925, however, sealed the fate of hopes for the populist devout considering the bastions of science and art to be a welcoming environment. The perceived gulf betwixt science and religion was fueled by fundamentalist and atheist hostilities alike until it became clear that Christians needed their own "safe" schools; thus giving rise to the Bible college movement.

An interesting dynamic evolved from this mixture of antagonizing currents: both the "sacred" and the "secular" seemed to agree that neither territory was right place for each other. This informal truce resulted in science being held with suspicion in Bible colleges (after all, aren't all scientists just atheist, evolution evangelist bodysnatchers intent on undercutting everything our teens learned at Youth Group?), and Christian fundamentalists saw Bible colleges as the preferred (if other options were even considered) option for higher education following graduation from the private school conducted in the local Baptist church. "Don't send your kids to that secular college," grew the refrain, "they'll come home all eat up with the science and won't believe not'in you taught'em." The arts, the sciences and literature were fed them within the confines of the fundamentalist sub-culture of the Bible college movement. In like manner, because of the Fundamentalist pulling away from the universities, mainline institutions became progressively more accustomed to operating without them. Thus, a Christian behaving and thinking like a Christian on the university campus became increasingly counter-culture, out of place and odd.

My own experience is testifying to this rift between education and fundamentalist religion on various fronts. It's one thing to enter an arena deciding not to argue evolution with anyone, but it's another thing altogether to realize that the evolution they're teaching in the mainstream science disciplines doesn't remotely resemble the "evolution" I was taught to hate at the Bible college. To imagine a theological equivalent, it would be as if university professors teach that Christian preachers are still using Bible verses to argue in favor of slavery. The Fundamental Baptist response would be, "What? That hasn't been the case for 150 years!" And yet, Bible colleges similarly misrepresent universities as a means of demonizing the "other." The resulting effect is that when a Christian actually enters the university setting who can "play nice with others," it's something of an anomaly.  But surprisingly, it hasn't taken a lot of "bravery." The "attacks" to my faith simply have not materialized that I was taught were lurking around every marble-columned corner. The "monsters" of M. Night Shyamalan's "Village" just are not pouncing like I was trained to expect.

It's a shame that more Christians (that haven't also shed their faith in order to enter academia; thus confirming the fears of the parents sending their kids to Bible college) aren't moving back into the academic arena. Genuine faith has a legitimate voice among the messages of circulating around campus, and the "ivory tower" could use more input from those that didn't leave their piety at the entrance  - like shoes that are left in the lobby so as not to track dirt into the house. All it takes is an willingness to operate within the unique cultural dynamics of academia, which the proudly counter-cultural fundamentalism is ill-equipped to prepare you for. Many evangelicals are willing to do to this for the sake of missionary work. They adopt the language, fashion and many customs of the "culture" they wish in "infiltrate." The result might not be a rash of growing new churches in the target culture, but at least they will have demonstrated that Christians can function in that culture, being friendly and intelligent. Not that I think Christians should approach academia with the "hidden agenda" of converting those they find here; it would be enough just for more Christians to demonstrate they can function here, advancing the research and contributing positively to the education of young people off of the evangelical "reservation."

My experience is proving positive, and I haven't had to shed my faith to get it. I can only imagine that both academia and the Church would be served well by more having my experience also.