Christians in higher education today

In his second C-A-N 2002 conference talk Peter Lewis considered the role of the Christian Academic in a post-modern educational environment.

Christians In Higher Education Today
(Peter Lewis)

One of the most profound and agitated questions of our time is 'Is there a purpose to life, to my life or to anyone's life? Is life going anywhere, does it have a point, is there a plan, do I want a plan, can I have any freedom if I believe that there is a plan, and can I have any real peace or satisfaction if I believe there isn't?' Most commonly the answer is that there is no plan, no purpose, no ultimate goal to human life. But most people wish there were. Our philosophy says one thing and our longings say another.

The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias recently visited the Wexner Centre for the Performing Arts which is on the campus of Ohio State University. It is proudly claimed to be the first 'deconstructionist building'. I think you will agree with Carl Henry that in deconstructionism, 'Absolute relativism prevails [and] objective truth is intolerable and non-existent'.

When you enter the building you 'encounter stairways that go nowhere, pillars that hang from the ceiling without touching the floor, and angled surfaces configured to create a sense of vertigo. The architect, we are duly informed, designed this building to reflect life itself - senseless and incoherent - and the 'capriciousness of the rules that organise the built world'.'
When the rationale was explained to Ravi Zacharias he had just one question: 'Did he do the same with the foundation?'

The point of course was that he would not have dreamed of putting his philosophy into real practice because actually the rules of the built world were not capricious. There was such a thing as purpose, order, design that worked and to ignore it would soon be fatal. There was a philosophy above the ground that clashed with the philosophy below the ground.

So it is with many who almost automatically say 'No God, no sense, no meaning, no purpose' who also say in a secret place, 'But I wish there were' and actually live their lives in a quite ordered and purposeful way and in a quite ordered and purposeful world.

The tension for post-moderns lies between the heart and the mind. 'The mind tells them that nothing is real or trustworthy, but the heart longs for clarity of meaning and purpose. For many, the good news of Jesus Christ is quickly dismissed as too good to be true. An example of this can be seen at a wine-tasting evening hosted by Christians to reach out to the community. As people gave their testimonies, a woman professor leaned over to evangelist and theologian Michael Green and whispered, 'You know, I don't believe any of this.' Michael then replied, 'Yeah, I know, but wouldn't you like to?' With that remark, tears welled up in the woman's eyes. Her head told her 'no', but her heart yearned to hear'.

But still the anxiety remains. How can we be sure that life has a purpose, an ultimate purpose, not just the convenient purposes we put into it? And whom can we trust to tell us or show us?

You here today are close to the foundations of young lives which are being built day by day in determinative ways during their university years. Many will be the product or the victims of these years. Some are already building crazily in their personal philosophies and life-styles: drink, sex, drugs, alienation, despair; others are building more sensibly but periodically ambushed by disappointment, uncertainty, confusion and anxiety; others are high fliers, career-seeking and confident but without the one relationship that redeems life from ultimate sorrow and loss.

You are in the midst of it all: there to spot the talent, commend the brilliant, encourage the faltering, guide the promising and, when you have a spare moment or two write the odd paper or book. I jest, with heavy irony. That is how it should be and how you would like it to be. But you too are victims of our times: pressed by the need to give your students the best help in their field, pressured by expectations of others to promote the name of the university or institution by writing a stream of publications or joining a chain-gang of committees and projects, and depressed by the feeling you are not doing what you came into education to do.

This is the world as it is and there is no room for self-pity though you could try yoga or kicking the cat. However there may be another way......

Whenever I think of friends in high places I think too of Daniel in Babylon. The cream of Jewish youth had been relocated to Babylon for careers in the civil service of Nebuchadnezzar ( a truly great leader and one who would today be a great vice-chancellor). Out of those able young Jews, Daniel rose supreme and, in a position of huge influence and power, served around five regimes in the greatest power on earth, for about sixty years until in his eighties (they knew how to keep a good thing in those days, retirement was not an option and anyway is of very uncertain biblical legitimacy!).

Now think of the pressures of serving in a culture of corruption, prejudice, despotism, superstition and pluralism. He had to survive and get on with everyone from shrewd astrologers and occultists to powerful Babylonian nobles and officials. The court was a snake-pit and the civil service a system covering a vast and varied territory.

Somehow he had to work with everything that was good in the system (and there was a great deal that was far-sighted and brilliant) and work around a great deal that was undesirable and work against much that was bad for the king and his empire. He had to be true to his trust and his faith, his position as an official and his identity as a Jew; he had always to take the larger view of faith while also dealing fairly with the immediate demands of the job.

His success reminds us that this is God's world, all of it, that all work good and well done in God's world is God's work, that Babylon matters, Britain matters, the present and the future matters, that as evangelical Christians you are not professional religionists and amateur everything else but God's Daniels on God's campuses crucially preparing the next generation for God's world. Your work is part of your worship, your embodied lives your essential sacrifices renewed each day in prayer and faith.

But just because you have a properly holistic view of life and the world, you cannot treat your students, or your subjects in isolation from the larger world or from a particular world-view. After all no one wants to send out civil engineers who have no great concern if their bridges collapse one day with terrible loss of life, or doctors who have little respect for life but find their work fascinating or prestigious. No one wants that, Christian or non-Christian.

But the world-view of the non-Christian when under certain pressures is likely to be much more vulnerable than that of the Christian.

And you are there to say it matters, it all matters, it matters profoundly and even eternally: from the rain forests of the Amazon to the love-starved kid in the children's home and from the world of the molecular biologist or the chemical engineer to the world of the teacher, the nurse or the social worker. And it matters profoundly because all knowledge finds its source in the all-wise God even in an imperfect and dangerous world.

God is not to be kept in a Harry Potter enclave of private fantasy and wishful thinking or in a weekend of national trust religion full of nostalgia for a world gone by but empty of significance for the world around us. It is not that God makes sense of nonsense but that God makes sense of sense. It is his existence that gives truth and worth and values their character and their foundation. And it his existence that validates the concrete world of the engineer and the builder. He is the God of our working world projects as well as our week-end past times.

But more frequently in our society laws are replacing shared values as the only way to protect the citizenry and increasingly people are explaining their care for responsible behaviour and high standards in terms of legal come-back rather than inherent moral demands. The idea that we must one day give an account of our lives to a higher power and a supreme Lawgiver is increasingly scarce. But if her Majesty the Queen could openly give that as one of her main motivational forces and strengths in her Christmas talk a year or two back then we see that there are still people who can make that part of the public discourse, startling and challenging as it may be. You are there, where others can ask you what is your world-view, your motivational spring, your horizon of faith, your different attitude.

In order not to encourage the idea among your students that you really are from a different planet you need to explain your world view against the background of theirs and also as one who shares much of their experience. And as they are very much children of a postmodern age, your own study of that will give you an insight and even a route into their minds and their dilemmas.

In his book Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self, Anthony Thiselton identifies three strands within post-modernism: power, despair and conflict.
First it is obsessed with power. Postmodernism has learned from Neitschze that all human beings are motivated by their 'will to power'. Consequently the children of postmodernism fear and suspect all claims to truth as bids for power.

But at the heart of Christianity is the cross of Christ. Here the weakness of God proved stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25), as the resurrection of Jesus showed. His self-substitution was the self-substitution of God in our place. The Judge also became the prisoner in the dock, the Judge judged in our place, that we might go free and be at peace. All of us want justice in the world: well, here is the justice of God in which the Highest Being pays the highest price for our cruelties, our selfishnesses, our rebellion and our unbelief so that we could fulfil the destiny he had planned for us, the eternity he had planned to share with us.

Consequently, for the Christian now, the will to power is countered by the will to serve; where Nietschze's Supermen built concentration camps and gulags, Christ's true followers wash feet, care for the dying and take the message of Jesus wherever they can. If some cynical student asks you whose feet are you washing you might point out that at that moment it is a metaphor for you talking to them for the renewal of their hope, in which case the answer is 'yours'.

The second strand Thiselton identifies in postmodernism is despair. It has no hope. 'If all world views are the result of social construction, if the highest ideals we have are no more than the product of language games, what hope is there? If human beings are capable of misunderstanding the world around them and the world within them, why can we look forward to the future? If morality depends not on absolutes but is totally relative and culturally conditioned, how do human beings respond to their sense of right and wrong? If science and objectivity cannot be trusted, where can we look for the future?

The greatest loss of modern and postmodern times has been the loss of hope. In the Bible God is called the God of hope, and faith hope and love are presented as the three greatest things in human life. To lose any one is a catastrophe which fractures our existence and makes the others unable to sustain themselves. The message of the Bible is that the God of hope has not left our broken and fallen world, that he has spoken into our despairing silence, that truth and hope are living options in human lives, that faith and love can flourish, the one well-founded and the other a daily experience.

The God of the Bible is the God who guarantees the future, who opens it out to us as our future, who calls us on to a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness, justice and peace will be the condition of all human society and where an intimate and open relationship with him, unspoiled by unbelief and selfishness, will be the crown of our existence. It is the historical fact of Jesus which makes this the concrete fact of the future. It is based on his atonement and rooted in his resurrection. It is not a dream but a history: a new history but a history nonetheless; a future history in continuity with a past history, a future which does not obliterate the past but validates it, it is creation renewed, the rest of God shared. It is the ongoing story of the unique human race which God first pronounced 'very good'. It is all we were made for as the image of God.

Much in modern psychotherapy says we are determined by our past to a great extent. But biblical Christianity with its theology of hope calls us to be shaped by our future. That is the victory of faith which overcomes the world. Eschatology is a key biblical dimension and perspective and force from Genesis to Revelation. It is there in the Law and the Prophets, in the Promised Land and the prophetic Vision. There is no escapism here either from the past or the present. In biblical mindset the past is revered, the present is consecrated and the future is celebrated 'until he come'.

But every attempt to live in the present without either the past or the future is folly. It is rootless and pointless; an exercise in amnesia and blindness, there is no instruction from the past or light from the future our little candles are preferred to God's rising dawn. The defining figure of our times becomes, not the spaceman but the adman, and triviality takes over.

The third characteristic of the truly postmodern self, says Thiselton, is conflict. 'Borrowing from thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Nietschze and Freud, the postmodernist essentially sees the world as a set of competing metanarratives which are fighting for attention until they are relativised into humility.' A metanarrative is a description of reality, a world-view, which runs alongside events and seeks to explain them in terms of its own philosophy or belief-system. The postmodern looks at Communism, for instance, and also at Christianity, and sees them both as attempts to impose their own metanarrative, their own scheme of things, on others with the limitations on freedom and even persecution that has entailed in the past. Postmodernism is the avowed enemy of all matanarratives and insists not only on the right of the individual to follow their own self-chosen and even self-constructed belief system but that that there is no final authority or ultimate, objective truth outside of the individual which is true for everyone at all times and to which all individuals must subject themselves.

Yet, asks Thiselton, 'how do they cope with beliefs that refuse to fit into this liberal, western, democratic model? Is it to brand it 'fundamentalism' or 'bigotry'?' [Cavan Wood].

The heart of the matter is that postmodernism is the very thing it criticises: it is itself a metanarrative, a description of reality, that seeks to interpret all things by its own logic. It is offered as one description among many but clearly works to be all-embracing.

Post modernism, with its opposition to all metanarratives, and its elevation of tolerance, pluralism and relativism, is proving to be the most all-encompassing metanarrative of all with its insistence that all truth is relative except its own and that all metanarratives are threats to freedom except its own.

That puts you in an awkward position, rather like the liberator who has come with the keys to the prisoner's cell only to be accused of being the jailer by someone convinced that it is they who are free and the outside world which is a prison. That needs time and trust and, on you, a good healthy complexion which shows up the pallor of confinement where it really lies.

If one of the main characteristics of the postmodern self is conflict - Jesus Christ is our peace. The peace he gives is a peace that is linked to truth, to objective realities that will not fail or pass away: 'You will know the truth and the truth will set you free' (John 8:32). It is the peace of an eternal relationship with the known God: 'Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God' (Rom. 5:1). And it is a peace whose effect on earth wherever it is truly known and consistently followed is peace in the church of Christ: 'He himself is our peace...and has destroyed the barrier' (Eph.2:14).

In a post-modern generation which values community and in a world which longs for peace, the churches are called to be communities of peace and love and our individual lives wherever life takes us - on the campus, in the school, on the wards and in the office - are to be visible demonstrations that by God's grace and with God's power we can be at peace with ourselves and with others because we have found peace with God: the God of the spirits of all mankind!

The Rev Peter Lewis is Senior Pastor at the Cornerstone Evangelical Church, Nottingham, a city with two large universities and medical school, where he has sustained a teaching ministry for 33 years. He trained at the London Bible College and is married to Valerie with two sons. Peter also has a wider conference ministry in Britain and overseas and has written a number of books including The Glory of Christ, The Lord's Prayer, God's Honours List, and The Message of the Living God.