How To Keep Collegians from Losing Their Faith, Part 3

Written by Mark Farnham

On January 6, 2015

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]

What They Need to Hear about the Relation between Faith and Knowledge

Losing_faithIf secular college teachers mention faith at all, they treat it as the opposite of knowledge; they think it means believing things without having any reasons. From this point of view it seems that faith hinders the search for truth; it gets in the way of reasoning. Too many of our college students assume this to be true.

People who say they rely not on faith but on reasoning alone haven’t carefully considered what reasoning is. Reasoning itself depends on faith. How could this be? Easy. Suppose you tried to prove, not by faith but by reason alone, that reason works. You couldn’t do it. The only way to show that reasoning works would be to reason about it. But in that case you’d be assuming ahead of time what you set out to prove– the reliability of reason. Circular arguments prove nothing. How then do we know that reasoning works? We take it on trust. On faith.

This argument is not the same as saying that no good reasons can be given for reasoning. Many good reasons can be given for reasoning and for other important things as well. We should heed them. The point is that having good reasons does not remove the necessity of trust. Augustine understood this point well; he said, “I believe in order to know.” If you don’t believe something, you will never understand anything.

An example most students understand comes from relational knowledge. I know many things about my wife that I never could have learned unless I trusted her enough to make an irrevocable commitment to her-to enter into the relationship of matrimony. Matrimony, then, is a high-rolling faith commitment. To be sure, before I leaped I had good reasons to think there was solid ground on the other side. But I couldn’t see it; not even a hundred good reasons could have made it other than a leap. Only by trusting her could I know that my trust had been justified.

Why leap at all? Why trust in anything? The option of not trusting is not available. To refuse to leap is to take on trust that you will be all right if you just remain where you are-and that, too, is a leap. The difference is not between leaping and not leaping, but between a leap that knows itself to be a leap and a leap that pretends it is not a leap.

What They Need to Hear about Moral Judgment

“How dare you judge my opinion?” “By expressing that belief you’re judging me.” “What hypocrites you Christians are. Jesus told you not to be judgmental, but you judge more than anyone does.”

It is ridiculously easy to explode these fallacies. When Jesus said, “Do not judge,” he didn’t mean we were not to judge opinions as true or false (for he did that all the time), that we were not to judge behavior (he did that, too), or even that we were not to make judgments of character (remember what he said about the Pharisees).What he meant was that we are not to preempt God’s final judgment at the end of history, when the saved will be separated from the damned; we are not to treat anyone as outside the circle of God’s love. Paul puts the point in these words: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5 RSV). Jesus models it. His final words to the woman caught in adultery were “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). He did not condemn her, yet he obviously “judged” that she had sinned.

If these fallacies are so easy to explode, then what gives them their grip on our young people? Have they never heard the distinction expressed in the slogan “Hate the sin but love the sinner”? They have. Then what is the problem? The problem is the false ideology of “identity politics;’ which refuses to allow the distinction between sin and sinner in the first place. Consider, for example, gay activists. They make their sexual feelings and behavior the very basis of who they are. If a young Christian says to an activist, “I’m not condemning you but loving you–I am trying to say that what you do is killing you,” they reply, “Your love is meaningless. I am what I do. By judging what I do, you are condemning me.”

To enable student believers to keep their heads in such confrontations, you must add two elements to their preparation. First, for the guarding of their understanding, they need to know that no human being has the liberty to make up his or her own identity. God has defined our identity already-and not just by words (though his words are power). He has given to every human being an identity by creation (see Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6), and he has given to each believer yet a deeper identity by redemption.’ Second, for the guarding of their hearts, they need to distinguish their love for their neighbor from their understandable desire to have this love welcomed by the neighbor. There is never a guarantee that true love will be recognized as true love by the beloved (see Matthew 5:11-12).We must please God, not people (see Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).

What They Need to Hear about Offense and Defense

It’s true that college Christians are outnumbered by their non-believing classmates, but “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). When Christians have no need to fear violent persecution, as in this part of the world, some begin to expect the world to be a friend. Then they slip into seeking the world’s approval instead of God’s. When a classmate or coworker rolls his or her eyes, they go hollow.

The resistance strategy here is not to exhort young people to resist peer pressure; it can’t be done, and it doesn’t need to be done. It can’t be, because all people care what their “reference group” thinks of them. It doesn’t need to be, because peer pressure is good–if it’s the right kind of pressure from the right kind of peers! Our reference group must be our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s also true that college Christians are intellectually outgunned by their non- believing professors. If they already knew everything their professors knew and had developed all the skills their professors had developed, they wouldn’t be in school. But they have two great advantages, the importance of which they hardly recognize. One is that the pre-suppositions that underlie the anti-Christian worldviews of their professors aren’t true; they do not correspond to reality. The other is that their adversaries are self- deceived. The defense of deep untruth is so difficult that defenders are driven time and time again to say things so preposterous that even they cannot really believe them. The key is to call their bluff.

Just how young Davids can take on such Goliaths will be explored in the next two sections. Above all, however, they need to be reminded that the best defense of faith– make that the only defense of faith-is a good (though humble) offense. One way for pastors and church leaders to get this point across is to have their collegians list the items that Paul includes in the “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18):

  • the belt of truth
  • the breastplate of righteousness
  • the footguards of readiness to spread the gospel
  • the shield of faith
  • the helmet of salvation
  • the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God
  • and prayer (which seems to lace the rest together)Now ask them this question: What part of the body is left unprotected? Answer: No armor is mentioned for the back. All of it is for the front. The meaning is obvious. God does not intend his people ever to turn their backs to the adversary. He intends us to advance when we can and stand when we must but to never retreat.The same point is made in John Bunyan’s classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian, the hero of the story, meets a foe far stronger than himself. But now in this Valley of Humiliation poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him; his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back or to stand his ground. But he considered again that he had no armor for his back; and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts.

Therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.”

What They Need to Hear about the Faith Commitments of Their Adversaries

No one has the option of not having faith; the only real issue is whether to have faith in this or in that. Therefore, when young Christians hear from their teachers or classmates that faith has no place in the life of the mind, pastors should remind them of the faith commitments of those who say these things.

In the humanities, for example, many of their teachers will be post-modernists. Postmodernists pride themselves on their “suspicion of meta-narratives,” their conviction that no one gets the Big Story right (the story about who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and so forth). Of course, postmodernists always make a tacit exception for their own Big Story, the story that no one gets the Big Story right. What they really mean, then, is that no one else gets the Big Story right. How can they justify the exception? If no one else gets the Big Story right, how can they get it right? The answer is that they don’t justify the exception; rarely do they even admit to it. The tacit exception rests on a tacit faith that all people are boobs but themselves. In fact, this is just the kind of faith they mock, because they cannot give a reason for it. That’s why the exception is tacit.

The faith commitment of postmodernists is not particularly difficult for students to spot. Many students do spot it. But they think, “This can’t be right. It’s just too silly. There must be more to postmodernism than this. I must have misunderstood the teacher.” No, they understood the teacher perfectly. It is too silly.

In the sciences we more often find a different faith commitment, namely, the conviction that nature-material nature-is all there is. Christians would call this a belief in creation without a creator. Philosophers call it naturalism, or materialism. Confronted with the mounting scientific evidence of intelligent design,” naturalists do not reply with counterevidence; they simply rule the evidence out of order. It cannot count as evidence, they say, because science considers only naturalistic explanations. Did you think that science was following the evidence wherever it might lead? How silly of you, they think. As Richard Lewontin of Harvard has written:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

This is quite an impressive list of “in spite of’s.” The naturalistic faith commitment is just as easy to spot as the postmodernist faith commitment and just as unreasonable: You cannot give a reason for something if its only foundation is refusing to consider all the evidence. Not all faith is blind, but naturalistic faith is blind-blind hostility to the possibility of God.

What They Need to Hear about Calling Bluffs

Every successful calling of an intellectual bluff has two parts-an unmasking and a follow-through. Here’s an example. The bluffer says, “Morality is all relative anyway. How do we even know that murder is wrong?” You ask, “Are you at this moment in any actual doubt about murder being wrong?” He replies, “Well, no.” Now that you’ve unmasked him, you say, “Good. Then let’s talk about something you really are in doubt about.” That’s the follow-through.

Here’s another. The bluffer says, “Nobody knows any truth. “You reply, “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t say it.” He replies, “Why not?’ You answer, “Because then you wouldn’t know if it was true!” Now that you’ve unmasked him, you follow through. “So let me ask you: What do you get out of pretending to think that nobody knows any truth?”

Sometimes the unmasking and the follow-through can be combined. For instance, the bluffer might say, “Okay, so you caught me saying something that has no meaning. So what? I don’t need truth, and I don’t need meaning.’ You reply, “I don’t believe you, because we both know that the longing for truth and meaning is deeply set in every intellect, yours as well as mine. The real question, then, is this: What are you so desperate to have that you’re willing to give up even meaning to get it?”

Young Christians rarely succeed in calling their adversaries’ bluffs. Anyone may miss an opportunity, but the problem lies deeper than this, namely, they don’t know how. The reason they don’t know how to call a bluff is that they don’t know how to spot one in the first place. To spot it, they would have to know that the bluffer was saying something he or she couldn’t really mean. To do that (unless they were mind readers), they would have to know that there are certain things that everyone really knows. With rare exceptions, college-age Christians don’t know that there are certain things that everyone really knows. You need to tell them.

The theological term for “what everyone really knows” is general revelation. General revelation is what God has revealed not directly, through the Bible, but indirectly, apart from it. This is not an antibiblical doctrine; the Bible itself says that God has not left himself without a witness among the nonbelievers. In fact, he has left himself at least six witnesses among them, and young Christians need to learn how to appeal to each one of them.

The witness of conscience is “written on the heart” (Romans 2:15), and although it can be suppressed (see Romans 1: 18), it can never be erased. The witness of Godward longing whispers to every person that his or her idols can never save but that there is an Unknown God who can (see Acts 17:22-32). The witness of God’s handiwork proclaims the glory of the Creator through his creation-not only in the heavens (see Psalm 19:1-6; 104; Acts 14:17; Romans 1:20), but in his images, namely, ourselves (see Genesis 1:26- 27; 9:6; Psalm 139:13-14). The witness of the harvest is that every sin is linked with consequences; whatever we sow, we reap (see Proverbs 1:31; Jeremiah 17:10; Hosea 10:12; Galatians 6:7). The witness of practical order emerges from our observations and labors in the natural world God has made. For example, a wise farmer knows that certain ways of doing things cooperate with the natural order, while others “go against the grain” and fail (see Isaiah 28:23-29). Finally, the witness of our design is the witness of practical order applied to ourselves, for some of God’s intentions are reflected in the “blueprint” of our physical, intellectual, and emotional nature-either in the general nature men and women share or in the special nature he has given each. These matters bear long reflection.

General revelation is paradoxical because on the one hand nonbelievers know it, but on the other they try to convince themselves that they don’t know it. They are self- deceived. By understanding what the Bible teaches about general revelation, we achieve a strategic advantage: we know what they know better than they know what they know. That’s why even a college-age Christian can learn to call their bluffs.

Then Can We Keep Them?

They are off to college. Can we keep them? Yes! Loyalty to Jesus Christ is attacked in every time and in every land; it is not for nothing that the early church fathers spoke of the church militant. Yet God has carried his people through every tribulation, and the gates of hell have not prevailed.

Just as the art of physical battle changes from age to age, so does the art of spiritual battle. We are going through another transformation. Infantry are no match for iron chariots, nor iron chariots for jet planes. In the same way, the apologetical weapons and catechetical armor that served young Christians during the Enlightenment must be re- forged to meet the challenges of post-modernity. Their pastors and church leaders must show them how to use these tools.

It is probably true that pastors today must be more self-conscious about these matters than in former days. It was once believed that the culture was Christian. Today the nominal church itself is a mission field. Pastors in their own countries and congregations must often be like ambassadors to strange lands.

Yet was the culture ever really Christian? Perhaps not. Perhaps in former days its assaults and temptations were merely harder to recognize because they sounded Christian. Today, by contrast, they are obvious. That’s not bad; an attack that can be seen can be more easily repelled. We can keep our college-age people. Not by our wit but by the grace of God we can keep them. It was he who gave our young people their minds, and it is he who can transform them and claim them as his own. He kept a people for himself through wars and famines, through invasions and inundations, through exiles and persecutions. He kept their souls beneath the swords of their pagan emperors-and if only we serve him faithfully, he will keep our college students beneath the sneers of their teachers.

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]


You May Also Like…

Signals of Transcendence

Signals of Transcendence

Apologetics is changing, and it’s a good thing, too. The old paradigms of apologetics are finally taking their proper roles as one character among many in the apologetic endeavor and not the whole show. For too long the most popular approaches, evidentialism and...

If there is no God, this is all you are.

If there is no God, this is all you are.

"For what are we, my brother? We are a phantom flare of grieved desire, the ghostling and phosphoric flicker of immortal time, a brevity of days haunted by the eternity of the earth. We are an unspeakable utterance, an insatiable hunger, an unquenchable thirst; a lust...

Deconstruction Reason #2: Bad Company

Danger skull icon isolated on white background “Do not be deceived; bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). The second reason I have observed for professing Christians to deconstruct their faith is that they expose their hearts and minds to error (for my...

1 Comment

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *