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Everyday Life

Reclaiming the Mind

By Stephen McGarvey

The deep concerns faced by the parents of college bound children are many. Such apprehension is usually focused in the typical culture of college life. Young adults with newfound freedoms and little discipline make the college atmosphere across America a hotbed of licentious behavior. As ideals of absolute truth concerning moral behavior continue to deteriorate in society, the checks and restrictions placed on college students have largely disappeared.

Renowned author Tom Wolfe’s new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons recently focused new media attention on the issues surrounding college life. While many believe the book overly sensationalized student life, no one could deny that the pressures faced by students are all too real. For young believers, the excitement of venturing away from home for the first time comes with temptations to stray from a path of righteousness.

Yet observers of the college lifestyle sometimes forget, or ignore, the fact that behavior problems of students are often rooted in the uncertainty of belief, according to Steve Froehlich, pastor of New Life (PCA) Church in Ithaca, New York. “What is truth?” appears to be the question of our age. When the only answer a student receives is, “truth is of your own making,” his sinful nature and the influence of others can lead him to forsake the wisdom of Scripture for wisdom of his own devising.”

The contrasts between the life of faithful Christian believers and the life of the average college student are stark indeed. So stark, in fact, as to have caught the attention of TIME magazine. For the May 2, 2005 issue, the newsweekly sent a reporter to Indiana University to meet some Christians on campus and explore the question: Can devout Christians reconcile their beliefs with the college culture? Yet TIME overlooked the more crucial questions that Christian parents cannot: How can believing students reconcile their faith with classroom instruction that is often hostile toward it? What good can be learned from professors who by and large doubt the intellectual veracity of the Christian faith? Do the dangers of attending a secular college or university outweigh the benefits?

The Academic Life Should Not Be Anti-Christian

As Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, so too our society has struggled for years with the perceived conflict between faith and reason. Many pastors and authors believe that Christians, especially in the United States, tend to fall victim to post-modern thinking. They see their faith as something personal that has little bearing on the larger world around them.

In his classic 1963 book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires describes the outlook of British Christians on the diminishing influence their faith was having on the world around them. His thoughts are still relevant to us today, over 50 years later: “Each of us, when confronted with the insuperable difficultly of thinking Christianly about the… social and political set-up in the 1960s, is tempted to look back nostalgically to the days when things were different.”

Even today many publicly long for the days when Christian truth and morality were more respected in society at large. As Blamires warns, this can cloud our minds and leave us incognizant of today’s problems and how Christianity can answer them. “Where is our Christian duty, our Christian aim, our Christian programme,” Blamires writes, “…. We do not know: we cannot say. Yet our ignorance and silence are not, certainly not, due to the fact that the Welfare State has made Christian thinking out of date and irrelevant. The reason we have nothing to say about the contemporary situation is we have not been thinking about the contemporary situation…. We stopped thinking Christianly outside the scope of personal morals and personal spirituality.”

The academic world, as represented by non-Christian colleges and universities, has certainly become a prime example of a place where faith has left the building. One can find abundant anecdotal evidence from Christian students across the country of college professors refusing to accept the intellectual validity of Christianity.

Students will find a combination of two worldviews at most non-Christian colleges, according to Marvin Olaksy, professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and an elder at Redeemer (PCA) Church in Austin. The first is modernism, a worldview that believes all the answers to life’s questions can be found in naturalistic processes, and that mankind can and will discover all those answers on his own.

Most scholars believe modernism was the prevailing ethos of the 20th century, until giving way in recent years to post-modernism, “Which is overly suspicious of modernism and materialism,” says Olasky. “[According to post-modern thinking] all different beliefs and worldviews are equally fine, there is no truth out there, no ‘true truth,’ anything goes.”

These ideas, quite contrary to the Christian worldview, are what most of today’s college students will face in the faculty and textbooks of secular schools. “It is more difficult for Christians in some ways if there is a modernist belief that dominates. That’s very antithetical to Christianity, nevertheless it’s there, and it’s a clear position you can fight,” says Olasky. The newer post-modern thinking offers Christian students a better position from which to contend for God’s truth. According to Olasky, postmodernism is not as contentious to religion, since it finds that all beliefs have value, yet espouses that absolute truth does not exist.

Karl Johnson, a post-graduate student at Cornell University who attends New Life Church adds that, “In general faith is tolerated so long as its privatized or compartmentalized … if it is only of private and not public significance. The challenges come when someone says their faith actually matters, in the classroom, in public policy, etc. You can be as religious as you want as long as it is limited to Sunday worship. When you suggest that faith has meaning beyond quiet time, that when the problems come.”

Such alternate views are not rationally superior to Christianity. “Christianity holds all the intellectual cards,” says J. Budziszewski, author and professor of Government and Philosophy, also of the University of Texas at Austin. Budziszewski has written extensively on the subject of how students maintain their faith in college. “After a long time of timidity, Christian students are beginning to point out the holes in the secularist armament,” says Budziszewski in a recent issue of BreakPoint Worldview magazine. “They are rediscovering the intellectual traditions of their faith and becoming more aggressive in exploring and defending them.”

Study for God’s Glory

Karl Johnson became one such student. Johnson arrived at Cornell University in the fall of 1985. He had grown up Presbyterian, in a family where faith was not a controversial issue. But at Cornell, he quickly discovered that it’s not easy to be comfortable as a Christian. His faith was challenged regularly by professors and other students who pushed him to conform to a secular perspective.

During his early years at Cornell, Johnson didn’t have a very deep faith. He began to believe Christianity was intellectually weak, the impression he got from most of his classes and fellow students. Over time, however, he discovered the broad intellectual heritage of the historic Christian faith. By reading such authors as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, he discovered many of the deeper Christian thinkers. As he began to understand the intellectual traditions of Christianity, he felt “gypped,” first by the university. Christianity was dismissed out of hand by so many professors without acknowledging the facts of history. And secondly he felt gypped by the Church, since the churches he knew had not investigated the life of the mind or the intellectual traditions of the faith.

Johnson began to collect books and resource materials, lots of them. Soon his 400 square foot apartment was filled, and he became a resource of sorts to fellow students. In time, Johnson began to develop the idea to start a Christian study center. Over the next few years he learned about and traveled to other centers situated near colleges across the country, many of which are staffed by PCA church members. “As with most of the Christian study centers, the relationship between local PCA churches and each center is unofficial, yet substantial,” says Steve Froehlich.

Inspired by the example of others, Johnson and several likeminded friends started the Chesterton House, a Christian study center outside of Cornell University. Chesterton House, according to its mission statement, exists to facilitate discovery of the intellectual riches of the historic Christian faith, thereby empowering more faithful Christian living. The other study centers have similar goals. Until this year, the now five year old center has been operated entirely by volunteers. Johnson, now finishing his doctorate degree at Cornell, will start as the first fulltime staff member in August. In addition to running a reference library, Chesterton House sponsors lectures, conferences, round table discussions, movie nights, and various other meetings to discuss issues of faith, life, and vocation.

“We want to explore Christian studies to sustain faith and mature faith,” says Johnson. “And we want to influence the campus culture so that it can no longer dismiss Christianity as intellectual bankrupt.”

Drew Trotter, President of the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville, Virginia, hopes the study centers will help students understand that all of life comes under the lordship of Christ. “[Students] are encouraged to see their study as their calling, and then reconcile what is taught in class with the Bible,” says Trotter, a PCA teaching elder who attends Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville. The Center for Christian Study was founded in 1976 to “foster serious consideration in the university environment of a biblical worldview, and to facilitate wise discussion of the Truth in light of the challenges of contemporary culture.”

The Church and the Academic Life

In his book Love God With All Your Mind, J.P. Moreland, a professor of philosophy at Biola University, points out how two movements in America’s past contributed to the current decline of Christian intellectual thought. First, the anti-intellectualism movement of the middle 1800s which overemphasized, “…immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationship to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teachings and ideas.”

And second, as a result, evangelicals began to withdraw from the pursuit of cultural influence. New philosophical and scientific ideas (Darwinism for example) arose and the historical authenticity of the Bible was questioned. Moreland believes that, “Instead of responding to these attacks with a vigorous intellectual counterpunch, many believers grew suspicious of intellectual issues altogether.” These views gradually imbedded themselves in the consensus of the Christian community.

For these reasons many Christian young people arrive at secular colleges every year unprepared to face the challenges to their faith, and many turn away from their Christian beliefs. Churches must prepare students for the intellectual challenges before them, something that people of the faith have not done well in recent years.

“Many [students] are not convinced of the significance of their faith, the degree to which their allegiance to Christ affects the whole of their lives,” said Froehlich, who, in addition to being a PCA Pastor, is a governing board member of the Chesterton House. “Most young people come at life in a compartmentalized way. They separate their careers from faith; they don’t have a mature perspective how to correspond the two. Churches must help them understand that the loyalty to Christ demands that the whole of their lives are beholden to Him.”

“Individual churches need to take seriously the life of the mind,” says Trotter. “[They] need to offer a balance of sermons with good substantive content delivered in an engaging and winsome way where people are engaged in the life of mind.”

Froehlich believes that churches near a college campus have the opportunity to cultivate a community that produces “whole” people. “They can minister to those who are the best in the world in specialized areas and enable them to be fully human. This is accomplished through the Christian community, the covenant community, drawing people into the richness of the means of grace.”

He also believes it is important for the church to be a place where people find reasonable answers to the questions of life and the evil in the world. “Ministry to the academy is central to the vision and calling of New Life as a congregation,” Froelich says. “New Life draws graduate and undergraduate students, and we must think carefully about how best to serve them during this brief but strategic juncture in their lives.”

What’s a Parent to Do?

But there are also ways parents can help their kids get ready for their new lives at college. “[Parents] should do all they can to encourage an attitude of humility. Their children do not need to feel as though they have all the answers,” says Froehlich. “Students should remember they can rely on the church and Christian brothers and sisters for encouragement.”

David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University, has seen many Christian students who arrive at the University and don’t take the academic work seriously. “They show disdain for the university, ‘witnessing’ on the beach instead of going to class,” says Woodard. “They mock the professors; they justify their ‘C’ grades because the professors are not Christians.” Parents must instill in their kids a dedication to excellence. Academic excellence must be encouraged, in spite of any personal disagreement with the faculty.”

The same disciplines that make for a strong Christian make for good students, according to Rev. Doug Serven, author and the Reformed University Fellowship campus minister at the University of Oklahoma. “Students should read broadly,” says Serven. “They should develop a passion for learning, and not just go class to pass.”

Serven also believes that it’s vital for Christian students to have the right sense of what constitutes success—success at college specifically—but also success in life. “There’s a lot of pressure to use the world’s definition rather than Scripture’s,” Serven says.

Reclaiming Our Heritage of the Minds

But the most important thing parents can do is make sure their children have a good understanding of the Christian worldview. Students need to understand that faith applies to all areas of life, including those that are academic. If Christianity is to come back to its former respect for deeper knowledge of the faith, more students must be prepared to contend for it in academic settings. They must be ready with a thoughtful response to the problems presented by modernism and post-modernism.

In The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires says that, “One of the crucial tasks of reconstructing the Christian mind will be to re-establish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions; to rehabilitate knowledge and wisdom in contradistinction from predilection and whim.”

“Like all of us, students need to ask themselves that question that Francis Schaffer asked: Why are you a Christian?” says David Woodard. “The answer is that Christianity is true for all reality.” Christianity is not just for our personal, spiritual edification, it is a world and life view suitable for all faith and practice. Christian students and professors have the unique opportunity to wrestle with the deeper issue of the faith in secular academic settings.

Stephen McGarvey is the executive editor of the Salem Web Network. He is also a freelance writer and fellow of the World Journalism Institute. He can be reached at

For Further Reading:

On College Life

  • How to Stay Christian in College, By J. Budziszewski (NavPress, 2004)
  • Fish Out of Water, by Abby Nye (New Leaf Press, 2005)
  • TwentySomeone, by Craig Dunham & Doug Serven (Water Brook Press, 2003)

 On Life of the Mind

  • The Christian Mind, by Harry Blamires (Vine Books, 1963)
  • Love God With All Your Mind, by J.P. Moreland, (NavPress, 1997)
  • Habits of the Mind, by James Sire (IVP, 2000)