Thursday, August 24, 2023

College / University Survival Guide [Part 1]

It won’t be very long now until universities and colleges in North America begin gearing up for the year. And with this, a whole new cohort of Christian young people will enter post-secondary life for the first time.

Are they ready?

Parents often worry about that. Everybody knows that university can be a challenging place in which to hold to your faith. It’s full of new ideas — most of them secular, and not a few genuinely anti-Christian — and new experiences — not all of them perfectly healthy and safe. But it’s also a tremendously exciting time for many young people; and when we consider it part of a natural process of moving from parental control to full independence, then there’s every reason to be positive about it. (And parents, when you consider the alternative, what’s better?)

I know this stage of life. Every year, for more than a quarter of a century now, I’ve helped prepare students for this transition. At the same time, I’ve spent more time as a university student myself than most people will ever spend — six different universities and colleges, as a matter of fact, and in the process have acquired five degrees and certifications in a total of four different fields. I wouldn’t say you can ever be in a perfect position to guide through all the challenges of this phase of life, but I think perhaps I’ve learned a few relevant things.

Could I share them with you? They might be quite helpful to a parent wondering how to support a child going into university or college, and even more helpful to the student himself or herself. And if nothing else, then talking through these points should help drop the anxiety level on all sides.

The challenges are part of the growth process. An untested faith is weak. University will definitely put some important things to the test. But if we believe that God is true, and that he can still lead faithfully in all generations, then really, what is there to fear?

The Legend

Well, there’s the legend to fear. And what is “the legend”? It’s the belief that universities are furnaces of God-hatred. Its most recent manifestation is the film God’s Not Dead (2014). In the film, a venomously anti-Christian professor sets out systematically to undermine the faith of every young believer in his class. Against him, and all alone, stands a single boy willing to speak up for his faith, at the risk of his academic standing and total public humiliation. It’s every student’s worst nightmare.

The problem is, it’s just not reality — at least, it’s very unlikely to be. And the problem with preparing kids with a worst-case scenario is not only that it’s terrifying, but that it fails to help them prepare for the reactions they will likely experience as young Christians on campus.

The Reality

What reactions are those? Well, they’ll run into a variety. But basically four:

1/ Indifference

They will likely soon come to realize that Christianity is not ordinarily brought to bear on any of their studies. Whole realms of knowledge go forward every day without any reference to Christians or their values. They’ll be faced with the question “What difference does my faith make to my life and studies?” It will look like it makes none, and this can trouble a young Christian.

2/ Curiosity

In most cases, when they mention their Christianity this will be the first reaction. It will go, “You’re a Christian? At university? How do you do that?” There will be surprise that anyone would want to be, or would be capable of retaining a viable faith while pursuing academics. And people will want to know how you make that work. (Hint: “I compartmentalize” isn’t a good answer. You need to think this through.)

3/ Confusion

Whenever the word “Christian” is used at the university, it’s almost always used in a vague way. In history classes, it’s used to refer to the Catholic Church most often, and to any politicized or institutional church available. Even academic specialists don’t know the difference between real and nominal “Christians”, and their generalizations about “What Christians believe” are frequently wrong. This will mystify the Christian student.

The reason for this is twofold. In history, the easiest “Christianity” to locate, document and identify is composed of whatever groups left documents, built monuments and left a mark on the political landscape: non-politicized Christianity is very much harder to study, and private faith is very nearly impossible. But to study a thing, you need first to locate and identify it: fudging the idea of “Christianity” allows academics to make the sorts of general statements that work best for them, such as “Christianity dominated the Middle Ages” or “Christians believe in school prayer”. Doctrinal differences, especially those they perceive as niggling, just do not interest them, and problematize general conclusions. So naturally, they often take the easy route.

So that’s one part of the reason. The second is their reverence for the right of self-identification: liberal bias holds that it’s unpardonably rude to question the identity anyone wishes to claim. So if anyone says, “I’m a Christian” then you have to agree that they are, and agree that any fair general statement about Christianity must include him or her. And “Christianity” is a very broad term indeed: it has been claimed by a great number of people and sects, from major movements to minor cults, and from formal denominations to private, pietistic believers. It has even been used to characterize whole cultures and nations composed of people actually holding wildly diverse views. According to the liberal belief, all of these claims have to be treated as equally truthful. Thus Catholics and Cathars, Mennonites and Mormons, Uniteds and Unitarians often get balled up into the same category — and yet at other times, they are formally distinguished. That’s pretty confusing.

4/ Dismissal

This is the classic “Well, no one believes that nowadays” response. Some academics treat Christianity as merely an element of the superstitious past, one beyond which we have presumably evolved socially. Contempt, rather than confrontation, is the hallmark of this reaction.

Specifically because inclusion is in and prejudice is out, politically speaking, it is highly unlikely that even professors or peers who dislike Christianity will be inclined to manifest their irritation as outright hostility. More likely, they’ll just wave the back of their hands, and then move right along. Singling out and harassing a particular student for his or her chosen identity is one of the few things likely get a professor censured or fired in today’s politically-correct university, and don’t think the professors don’t know it!

Corrosive Indifference

So the legendary fear is just that: legendary. Most students will not experience outright hostility to their faith from very many — or perhaps any — of their professors or peers. But they will very likely face one or more of the four reactions I’ve listed above.

However, in a way, some of these alternate reactions can be even more debilitating to one’s faith than outright hostility. It can actually be harder and more confusing to see your faith treated as unimportant, jumbled or irrelevant than it is to see it confronted as a serious issue. It’s one thing to find your faith taken on as a formidable opponent to a secular alternative: it’s quite another to find it routinely treated as irrelevant or overlooked entirely.

Most of the “persecution” Christian students experience at university or college is of this indirect kind: and it gives them no clear opponent to challenge, and no clear method of response. After a period of months or years, an environment characterized by these kinds of attitudes can really wear on a young believer’s nerves, gradually eroding his confidence. And it’s that slow, gradual and cumulative loss of focus that young Christians must really be on their guard against — not the sort of single shattering stroke that a movie like God’s Not Dead teaches them to expect.

Useful Preparation

Now, having established that there are some dangers inherent in going off to a secular university as a Christian student, there are a great many useful things that can be done to prepare.

Firstly, the best inoculation against the challenges I’ve outlined above is a living, active and personal faith. By this, I mean not that you retrench into your parents’ faith or the faith of your local church, or even the faith of your best friends, but that you have your own reasons for being a Christian, your own practices of being a Christian, and your own definite sense of what you are at the university to get as a Christian.

Realistically, though, the late teens and early twenties are, for most people, a time of self-discovery rather than rock-solid certainty: and it may be too much to ask that every Christian student arriving at university or college should already have both feet firmly underneath him or her. After all, you do need some latitude to find out who God has made you to be, and what you really want as your life commitments and focus: and having all that settled before you arrive is likely more than we can expect in all cases.

All that being admitted, though, there’s a great deal you can do to make sure that your faith is not eroded or undermined for no good reason, or that the challenges of being at the university do not illegitimately overwhelm your developing convictions. To focus on that preparation is the focus of my next post: what can you do, practically speaking, to maximize the health of your faith while you explore the exciting and mind-expanding world of academics?

Come by next Thursday, and we’ll find out.

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