Monday, July 25, 2011

Academics and Church Membership

Thank you, Freda, for beginning an important discussion. In this post, I would like to highlight the connection between academics and church membership, by first telling my story and then giving some suggestions.

I grew up with the assumption that the world was cleanly divided into two camps: people in North America were either members of a Canadian Reformed church (CanRC) or they were heathens. How this thinking arose in me is quite unclear, as this was certainly never taught explicitly by parents, teachers, or ministers. But neither was it, as far as I recall (and my recollection is not perfect), taught against, and I have spoken with many who felt similarly, as well as many who didn’t. This remained my view until somewhere during my graduate studies in physics, just under 20 years ago. This despite attending a public school in Fergus for Grades 11-13, where many others attended who belonged to other churches, and where my geography teacher invited me to a discussion of faith & geology (which I ignored impolitely; after all, he couldn’t have been a Christian). Furthermore, as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, a number of my classmates and even the professor with whom I interacted most were Christians; their invitations to talk about Christianity were equally impolitely rejected. Of course I could not attend Redeemer College where the devil walked in slippers; in Waterloo he walked in wooden shoes. I did not get involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). Fortunately, matters of faith and academics were not entirely sidelined, as I was involved with a Canadian Reformed student fellowship which met in Hamilton about once a month during the academic year and held a retreat during most years. When considering which graduate school to attend, I recalled the map of North America on which “all” the churches were plotted, and its vast USA wasteland: except for Grand Rapids, Laurel, and Lynden, there were no Christians in that heathen land.

So it appears black-and-white thinking was solidly entrenched in me, likely due not entirely to denominational influences and perhaps more due to my own immature personality.

It was not until I received from an elder in Langley CanRC a copy of an early issue of Modern Reformation (I think it might have been the issue themed “Wanted: Thinking Christians”) that I realized my false dichotomy: there were actually confessional, Reformed Christians in North America outside the CanRC. And eventually, I grew to understand that even Baptists, Pentecostals, and Mennonites (etc.) are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Around the same time, thanks to an erudite high-school teacher friend, I became aware of books such as Creation Regained by Al Wolters. And suddenly I soared into the world of academics and faith with newfound wings, and have learned to appreciate (although not without critique) the Reformational philosophy of Dooyeweerd (and his colleagues Schilder and Vollenhoven), and entered with confidence the world of InterVarsity as well as other broader networks of academics and Christians. Along the way, I have grown in my regard for the Reformed distinctives, and am committed to confessional Reformed church membership.

I believe few are today walking in my shockingly insular footsteps of some twenty years ago. But there is still more I think we could grow in, in the area of academics and church membership. We could better prepare our university-bound students to appropriately engage their classmates, their professors, their discipline, rather than stick to those they know. We should send our students into public or Christian universities with confidence, grateful for their background, and not be afraid that too much interaction will dilute their faith. We ought to encourage our students who go to university to be appropriately open to new and challenging ideas, and not just to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get a good job. We should not expect our students to simply carry on the cultural traditions and notions of their fathers, but rather to discern, develop, and deploy their talents for the glory of God and the advancement of the Kingdom in its cosmic scope.

I am encouraged by recent developments in both BC and Ontario in which a student retreat is held prior to the new academic year. But I am discouraged that these discussions are not routinely followed up in regular meetings throughout the year. I would like to encourage those organizing these retreats to set aside time to discuss matters such as those I’ve raised in the previous paragraph, and to promote ongoing conversations perhaps led by members of their own community who are experienced in academics.

Being a Christian and an academic can be an isolating experience. As a member of a congregation, you may be one of only a few who take advanced studies. As a university student, you may be one of only a few Christians. But perhaps our vision is not large enough to see and engage with more of our fellow academics who are Christians, and perhaps we can do more to encourage diligent and significant scholarship.


Arnold Sikkema said...

In the above post, when I wrote, “We ought to encourage our students who go to university to be appropriately open to new and challenging ideas”, I was thinking in particular along the lines of Ben Faber, who wrote a very interesting piece called “As a Stranger Give it Welcome” for Cardus in March.

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Your description of your student years no doubt resonates with many Canadian Reformed people who have attended university. I myself was an undergraduate in the 1950s (when the CanRC was just being established), and isolation for me was simply a given; I had no idea that any Christian resources were available to help me with the challenges of secular scholarship. And neither, apparently, did our theologians. The situation certainly has improved since then. Reformed and other Christian study societies and conferences have been helpful, and so has our ever-growing acquaintance with wide-ranging Christian scholarship and literature. I agree with you, however, that much more could and should be done. Particularly, as you write, “We ought to encourage our students to be appropriately open to new and challenging ideas, and not just to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get a good job.” (Thanks, incidentally, for your reference to Ben Faber’s relevant essay “As a Stranger Give it Welcome.”)

I wonder if in recent years we as Reformed people have not regressed. I am thinking of 19th and 20th century Reformed scholarship in the Netherlands, but also of a man like John Calvin, who was able to laud the work even of unbelieving scholarship. Remember the oft-quoted statement, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God” (Institutes, II , ii, 15 – I suggest reading the entire paragraph and chapter). Let me also quote once again (I have done so more than once before) the warning which the Lebanese diplomat, scholar, and Eastern Orthodox Christian Charles Malik issued to American evangelicals:

“At the heart of all the problems facing Western civilization…lies the state of the mind and the spirit of the universities….” And therefore, “The greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism…. Who among the evangelicals can stand up to the great secular or naturalistic or atheistic scholars on their own terms of scholarship and research? Who among the evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does your mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode of thinking in the great universities of Europe and America which stamp your entire civilization with their own spirit and ideas?” (quoted in Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, pp. 25, 26).

Malik spoke in 1980. Since then intellectual life in the American evangelical world has blossomed. Perhaps his warning contributed to the change. May we also be inspired by it. Thanks for once again drawing our attention to the need and the challenge.