Note: At the risk of looking like the guy at the party talking way too loud about a topic he knows little about, I offer this reflection on Christian professors on secular campuses. It’s based solely on my personal history of attending a state university and working on or alongside several colleges since the 1980’s. No research; one decent book reference; a few memories. I wrote it for the Emerging Scholars Network (IVCF) at the request of a dear friend of The Row House, Inc. I’m not sure she could even use it, but it was encouraging to me as I thought of fellow Christians I’ve known who are expanding cultural horizons on campuses. Godspeed to them!
It used to be that a Christian professor in a secular university was an anomaly. My English teacher at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania was one of those. He advised our InterVarsity chapter, of which I was President for two years, and taught a course called “The Bible as Literature.” I recall that Dr. Bill Bailey wasn’t exactly a freak. He was known as a conciliatory, introverted, and gentlemanly type who attended the First Presbyterian Church. Still, he was unusual.
Another professor who was an active Lutheran starred in a stage production of Waiting for Godot, not exactly a faith-building night out. He carried himself with grace and humor. Good thing. In those days, the 1980s, I also met an eager, young Math professor at a different state university who was known for his outspoken, even charismatic expressions of faith. I did in fact think he was a true anomaly, but not in a good way.
I was a new Christian student then, but if I were a professor, I think I’d have feel like a soldier on the day after the battle, counting casualties and tagging bodies. The war for any kind of systemic Christian influence was lost to the Enlightenment-led, post 1960’s cultural elitists. For instance, Bloomsburg also offered a course on Human Sexuality. It was all the rage. Why, who wouldn’t want to watch and discuss straight-up pornography in college? Of course, a lot of serious research was discussed as well.
Meanwhile, under the influence of significant cultural visionaries in the church like Francis A. Schaeffer and Pope John Paul II, a weather pattern of believing influence was building on the horizon. Ex-hippie professors were facing retirement (most of them are gone by now), and a new wave of academicians were in training. This time, many more Christians coming out of IVCF groups and the like were going to graduate school and heading back to the universities, not as missionaries so much but as culture shapers.
Two students I worked with come to mind: Jason Baker earned his PhD in theology and is now ensconced in the decently-respected Regent University in Virginia Beach. Marty Makary practices advanced laparoscopic surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and teaches health policy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. You may have seen him on TV.
In the late 1980’s an enterprising gaggle of Christian academics called Probe Ministries was making the rounds. They would offer a few days of lecturing, garnering face-time in classrooms secured by Christian students. This did much to not only reach biblically illiterate undergrads with a worldview they may not have otherwise heard, it also emboldened the Christians. “Hey, I might actually have a ‘Reasonable Faith,’ ” as Anthony Campolo’s book of that era argued.
The Probe fellows were the ones that got me fascinated with the totality and inclusivity of the Christian faith. As the Psalmist says, “In your light, we do see light” (36:9). C.S. Lewis argues the same way, reckoning Christianity the lens through which all of reality may be viewed because it is the True Myth. And Abraham Kuyper, my hero in these things, went all the way to show us how. These educated, guiding lights were being rediscovered, and a lot more Christians were coming out of th Fundamentalist cocoon.
Young professors, even in the 1990’s, were emerging. For instance Michael Murray taught philosophy at Franklin & Marshal College, across the street from my current home. When I worked for IVCF at Bucknell, he was famous in our Christian group for speaking intelligently and passionately about the possibility of Truth in fraternity houses.
It’s not unusual these days to find Christians peppered throughout Academia. One of my seminary associates, Ned O’Gorman, earned his Master of Theology and skipped right off to Penn State to work on his PhD in Rhetoric. A few years ago, I noticed a fine volume by him on the “New Arrivals” shelf at F&M College. There he is, doing the work where it matters most, in the field of Political Rhetoric.
I’m sure there are rooms in the Academic library where Christians could be more involved, but I’ll leave that to those in the know. New challenges for the ancient faith exist these days too, but it seems the sheer number of available believers has increased to meet the opportunity. And for that I”m thankful.
In that vein, one of my friends, Annalisa Crannell, mathematics pop star at F&M College, does more to advance Christ’s kingdom by her modest lifestyle and genuine compassion for people than she might if she tacked preaching onto her courses on Chaos Theory. Her vivid trust in Christ makes her a guiding light on a campus that is way “beyond” its German Reformed roots.
As James Davison Hunter argues in To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), we don’t have the option to leave vast swaths of our culture fallow. We must get in there to influence, to lead, to do.
25 years ago, I began to be hopeful that Christians might one day be less like freaks and more like a generative community of brothers and sisters laboring for the common good and pointing to their faithful Savior in word and deed.
If you aspire to Academia, know that your calling is a high one. It could also be a dangerous one. But our world desperately needs a community of thinkers who still believe in the possibility of beauty, goodness, and truth found in our treasured Christ. Press on by faith. Many seekers, like myself, will thank you for being a guiding light.