The Christian Professor’s Opportunity in the Secular University


In this article Dr. Reid of McGill University, Montreal, puts up an impressive argument for his point of view on the subject of appearing in the title. Some of our readers may disagree with Dr. Reid’s line of argument. The editors of TORCH AND TRUMPET will be glad to place another cant issue if a reader wishes to express either agreement with or dissent from Dr. Reid’s position.

It is a commonplace today in Christian circles to think that when a student enters a “secular” university he is in imminent danger of losing his faith. This is an opinion which has indeed much to be said for it. Consequently Christian colleges have arisen on all sides, in the hope of bringing education to the Christian, without the danger of his faith being destroyed. It is intended that a Christian point of view on all of life, will by this means be inculcated. How successful these efforts are depends upon many factors which are not germaine to this article. The important thing at the moment is the purpose for which such institutions are established.



The all too frequent attitude, however, of those who teach in, or have graduated from such Christian colleges, is that the “secular” university is a place to be avoided, except if one wishes to obtain such a thing as a Ph.D. Indeed, such people will often go even farther, regard ing it as coming close to sin to teach in such an institution. More than once the present writer has observed looks akin to horror on the faces of people when they have learned that he teaches in a “secular” university. They could understand it even less when he stated that in such a position one is faced with a tremendous challenge and a unique opportunity. Apparently the “secular” university, today’s most important home mission field, is to be neglected while Christians snuggle down in the cotton batting of their own Christian colleges.

Christian Students Do Attend Secular Universities!

Yet one must face the facts. For one thing, there are today in “secular” colleges and universities many Christian students. This may be because they do not care for some of tile characteristics of contemporary Christian institutions. It may be because they have not thought through the logical implications of their own faith. Or, it may be that they must go to a state institution because of financial needs; or because it gives courses and possesses equipment not available at the Christian schools. But whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is that despite the existence of Christian academic institutions a large portion of the Christian young people on this continent attend the ordinary college or university for their higher education.

There are many Christians who bemoan this situation. Something should be done, they feel, to prevent Christian students from being lost to the Christian college. Others seem to believe that nothing can be done. Since the students will enter the “secular” schools, let us forget about them and concentrate on those who follow their academic path through Christian schools. There the matter must he left, such people feel.

Neither of these points of view, however, would seem to be valid. What is needed is Christian processors on all campuses throughout the country. To say that Christian scholars should stay away from the secular halls of learning is, in the first instance, the forsaking of a great number of Christian young people in what may be their hour of need. Some may hold that these young people should not be there. But that does not solve the problem. They are there, and the only person who can help effectively is a Christian professor. He can, for instance, be a great aid to an organization such as the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Although at times its members do not make use of his services when available, when such support is lacking the need is certainly acute. The author can think of one occasion a year ago when, on a campus destitute of known evangelicals, he was simply bombarded for hours on end, with students’ questions. There is a terrible need, therefore, for the Christians’ sakes. for Christians to return to the secular university.

Secularization is a Recent Development

The term “return” is used advisedly, since it would in truth be a “return.” The original universities were not “secular” institutions. They commenced their existence usually as Church schools, attached to an episcopal palace. They were designed, in the first instance, to train the clergy in their du ties, and secondly to prepare men as singers for the cathedral. After the Reformation many other such institutions were set up, most of which had until 1820 a definitely Christian objective. The history of the founding of such schools as Harvard, Yale, McGill and others shows this only too clearly. Secularization is actually a comparatively recent development.

With secularization, however, the outlook of the universities was considerably changed. The idea of the well-rounded Christian, trained to serve both God and man, tended to disappear. The humanities were soon overshadowed by the natural and the social sciences. The “practical” subjects which train students for making a living have become the important matters in the curriculum. This has led to university expansion both in the number of institutions as well as in the size of the average unit. New laboratories, cyclotrons, physical science centers and the like, have been erected to meet the ever increasing demand for greater facilities. Yet withal, the universities cannot seem to meet the real needs of the students for “living.” They give them technical knowledge, even facilities for learning languages, or for appreciating music. But when all is said and done, the university is not really preparing men and women for life.

The reason for this is that while secularization has brought physical and scientific expansion, it has destroyed the soul of education. This movement goes back some two hundred years to the 18th century, the era of the so-called “Enlightenment.”

It was at this time that men began to feel confident of their ability to explain everything by their own reason. Man became the measure of all things, the highest object of man’s research and interest. The Newtonian idea of the ultimacy of God fell into the background. As Laplace said, there was no longer any need for such an hypothesis. God was ushered out of the picture, and man stepped into his place.

The following century saw a further development. While the 18th century trusted in reason and ignored God, the 19th century turned to matter and denied God. Matter became the sole arbiter of all things. Karl Marx made popular the idea of the economic interpretation of history, declaring that all thought, religion and politics were ultimately determined by the contemporary mode of economic production and distribution. About the same time Charles Darwin set forth the idea that everything which existed biologically was the product of natural forces, so that everything man did or thought was the outgrowth of heredity and environment. Thus economic determinism and biological evolution coalesced to give a completely naturalistic interpretation of existence. Physical science became the king of the sciences, and economics his queen. Religion, and especially Christianity, became the laughing stock. Materialism was accepted as the ultimate explanation of all things.

Consequences for Twentieth Century Thought

What have been the consequences to 20th century thought? Materialism carried to its logical conclusion has destroyed itself. If there is no ultimate interpretation or explanation beyond material, how can there be any ultimate interpretation at all? As men have discovered phenomena which are beyond their materialistic scheme of things, they have begun to say that there is no scheme. Even materialism does not explain all things, so there is no explanation, for of course there is no God! Everything is unrelated. All that men can know or see is a series of unrelated angles, reflections and perspectives, so that they can really know nothing. Life is a jumble without sense and without meaning. This is today very much the attitude of academics, whether students or professors, in America.

One must not, however, be too hard on the universities, for they are by no means entirely to blame. One of the principle reasons for their acceptance of this destructive point of view is that they, like the rest of the world, have been through two world wars and a major depression. These events have shaken men, particularly in the Western world, to the center of their beings. Having taken for granted the optimistic conclusions of the evolutionists, they suddenly found themselves confronted with world disaster. At this point the Church of Christ, which should have pointed to the true interpretation, failed miserably. Parts of it were so imbued with materialism that they had no answer; others were so afraid of contamination that they kept strictly within their own borders; and others were so anti-intellectual that they felt it wrong to attempt any interpretation. Thus, the one source from which an explanation might have come failed to provide that which was needed.

The result is that today most students have no hope in this life, or the next. The writer can well remember having four girls wait for him after class one day and pose the question: is there any meaning to life? They had thought about it long and earnestly but had found no answer. Hundreds are in the same boat. They want a philosophy of life, and all that has been given to them is the old materialism of the 19th century or the atomism of the 20th. The result is that despite everything, despite loyalty oaths, McCarran Acts and academic purges, they turn to Communism, which seems to offer some firm foundation. Yet even here they are not satisfied, for frequently they have some remaining vestiges of a Christian training, or there is the pull of economic circumstances, or they see the nature of Communistic weaknesses. This is the end of the line.

The only outcome is cynicism and skepticism. Complete unwillingness to believe in anything seems to be more common today than ever before. Clad in the shining armor of disbelief in God, man or morals, the students, and often the professors, go on putting up a brave show. They are above and beyond the world. They care for nothing and for no one. Yet in truth their attitude is so often merely a cover-up. They are whistling in the dark to keep up their courage. They are not happy, for they have no hope or confidence in anything, not even in themselves. They are truly in despair. This is characteristic of so many who, despite all their bravado and manifestation of intellectual superiority, deep down know that they have neither certainty nor security for this world or the next, if there be any.

Opportunity to Witness

It is right at this point that the Christian professor has his greatest opportunity. If he is prepared to live his life as a Christian be will soon come to be known as such. He will be regarded as one who has something. He possesses a philosophy of life, however strange it may be. He is not just floating around with every wind that blows. Then once this is known, opportunities will soon arise to set forth his philosophy of life. People, even fellow staff members, will be interested in hearing his views and interpretation of life and the world in which it is lived. At this point, however, it must be stressed that the Christian professor must have a “position.” Mere good will or power to thump a table is not enough. To have any effect on students or colleagues he must be sure of his own views. He will have to be able at times even to say, “I do not know.” Equally important is the necessity of his being able to apply his theological thinking. He must think through his own subject, whether history, sociology or physics, so that he is sure that he looks at it from a Christian point of view. At the same time he should try to work out his philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology and ethics—so that he can give bis interpretation whenever the need arises. He must, in other words, be a thoroughly self-conscious Christian.

Coupled with knowledge is that great asset “wisdom.” Before long students may come with problems and difficulties of a spiritual nature. There will be questions of doubts and objections to the gospel and its demands. There will be the intellectuals and the pseudo-intellectuals with whom the Christian professor will have to deal. To do this is not easy, for students often walk in where angels fear to tread. Consequently wisdom is needed, wisdom in handling people, wisdom in handling oneself. Dogmatism, unwillingness to discuss matters or to listen to another point of view, will drive away those seeking help. On the other hand, willingness to be sympathetic, to discuss, to acknowledge one’s own difficulties, will do much to open the way for the setting forth of the Gospel.

Probably as important as either of these two needs, is that of manifesting Christianity in life. If a professor who is a Christian shows unbalance in his life, if either colleagues or students find him hard to get along with, if he makes Christianity seem repulsive, he will wield little influence. People will not go to him. If, on the other hand, he shows Christ forth in his own life as one who has given him “a sound mind,” the effect will be very noticeable. Students want such a philosophy of life, and nine chances out of ten they have never come in contact with this type of Christianity before. Therefore, the Christian professor’s life and intellectual integrity are the only advertisements which they may ever see.

Yet even with all these qualifications, the Christian processor will not have students flocking to him for advice. Christianity properly expounded will never be popular, for it hits the natural man very hard. That is more, to do a good job of witnessing under any circumstances is exceedingly difficult. The Christian professor, therefore, is thrown back increasingly upon the Lord his God. Prayerfully he must face his task, trusting in God to lead and use him, knowing that God through his Spirit alone can give the increase. This is his confidence and should be his encouragement.

Thus the Christian professor in the secular university has an opportunity which is unique. For a century the Church has largely ignored two classes of our society: the laboring man and the intellectual. But its commission is to all the world. This means that it can never surrender any position to sin and Satan. Today in the secular university men are anxiously seeking for a “way of life” whereby they can regain their equilibrium. Nothing is really offered but technical proficiency. What is needed is faculty members “with a conscience of what they are doing,” that even in the secular university Christianity may once again be shown forth in all its fullness as the only solution to man’s needs.