A Boring Problem

Week of Monday, April 30, 2001

A few years ago I received an email from Diane Komp, former chief of pediatric oncology at Yale. She had visited our Stanford faculty fellowship, returned home, and written me this note:

“Lunch with you all was a crowning joy. You probably have the same boring problem that I do of boring Christians acting as if your university is a Christ-free hell-hole. Bah-humbug to them. Praise be to our Lord who loves to move in the Stanfords and Yales.”
I printed out her email and taped it above my desk where it has hung for several years. Diane's note not only encouraged me; she articulated a phenomenon that I have experienced as I travel around the country to churches and universities.

The problem is the myth, fostered by conservative Christians, that the university is, as Diane put it, “a Christless hellhole.” I hear different versions of this narrative. One Christian radio personality with a national audience who wields enormous influence among evangelicals has counseled Christian parents to send their children only to Christian colleges. This same person interviewed Kelly Monroe, founder of the Veritas Forums which have now been held at over 70 universities. Whereas he kept taking the storyline back to how dismal and godless the university is, Kelly spoke with enthusiasm and optimism about the powerful work the Spirit of God is doing on campuses.

True, the university context presents special challenges to followers of Jesus. One could easily identify overt prejudices and blatant hostilities toward Christians, as illustrated by the recent incident at Tufts University between an InterVarsity chapter and the gay community. Some of these clashes represent honest and deep differences that need to be addressed, but others are no more than popular biases. You could also plot the waning Christian influence of many universities, as George Marsden has done in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Unbelief (Oxford University Press). But to make these observations is not much different than to articulate the unique set of circumstances faced by any Christian in most any setting—law, business, medicine, farming, the factory, and so forth. At best the myth of the Christless university is only part of the story. The truth is more ambiguous.

The problems caused by the myth of the Christless university are several. It isn't true, so we should stop bearing false witness. It has the unfortunate side effect of creating a victimhood mentality among evangelicals. Finally, it fosters an us-against-them mindset that views the university as an Other, an enemy, an opponent to be battled rather than as a distant cousin to be loved, embraced, and understood on its own terms. Altogether, the myth mires us in our legacy of separatism and cultural isolationism.

Like Kelly, as I travel around the country and visit university campuses and fellow InterVarsity staff people working with graduate students and faculty, I am repeatedly amazed at the number of saints I encounter.1 Here at Stanford we have about 40 faculty involved in three small groups that meet weekly, and I dare say that if InterVarsity had the right personnel, this story would not be too unusual. A few years ago Stanford's admissions office had so many inquiries about opportunities for religious life on campus (not only from Christians) that they asked the dean of religious life for help.

Recently I visited Cornell University for a conference among grad students and faculty, and it occurred to me that its history provides an interesting example of the good things God is doing in the otherwise ambiguous university context, despite misconstruals by both Christians and unbelievers.

Cornell was founded in 1868 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), who served as its founding president for 17 years. Their vision, radical in its day, was to reform higher education by founding a university that would be totally emancipated from the pernicious effects of religious dogma, sectarian control or ideological influence. Cornell, they hoped, would be a university truly liberal with respect to religion, race, co-education (they were the first university to admit women), and especially science unencumbered by religious dogma.

Cornell and White did not see their project as irreligious, and understood rightly and carried out fairly, it is not. But opposition arose almost at once, with charges that their enterprise was godless and atheist. Growing frustration led White to give a series of lectures, eventually published as articles, in which, he said, he intended to teach his religious opponents “a lesson which they will remember.” The eventual result was White's infamous book A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). The basic warfare, as White saw it, was between “the liberality between the scientific outlook and constraints imposed by sectarian dogmatic theology.”2 In his Introduction he writes, “[In] this book...I simply try to aid in letting the light of historical truth into that decaying mass of outworn thought which attaches the modern world to medieval conceptions of Christianity...My hope is to aid—even if it be but a little—in the gradual and healthful dissolving away of this mass of unreason.”

What we have here is the sort of mutual misunderstanding that still plagues us today.

Christians misunderstood the educational reforms of White and Cornell and the nature and rationale of a consistently liberal or secular university in which truly free inquiry reigns. For his part, in addition to a simplistic account of the nature of science and the history of its relationship with religion, and despite his stated intentions to the contrary, White's book promoted what he tried to prevent—the stereotype that science is good, free, and impartial, whereas religion is pernicious, prejudiced, and backwards, and that the two are necessarily opposed.

Echoes of this ambiguous history still reverbate at Cornell. On the one hand it is home to the outspoken atheist biologist Will Provine and former astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who in a classic slide from science to metaphysics opened his television show Cosmos with the comment that “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” But on the other hand, as I experienced at the conference, there are at least a couple dozen openly Christian faculty glad enough to identify with the IVCF conference, Cornell graduate students, and the larger cause of the Gospel.

I conclude with a historical footnote. Frank H.T. Rhodes, a former professor of geological sciences, served for 18 years as Cornell's ninth president, retiring in 1995. During his tenure the university increased its percentage of minority students from 8 to 28%, doubled the number of women and minority faculty, and tripled research funding to 0 million. No wonder the city of Ithaca proclaimed October 29, his birthday, Frank Rhodes Day. Rhodes is also a Christian.

Chemistry professor Bob Fay, a Christian professor who has loved Christ and Cornell for 40 years, tells the story how each year at Cornell's Christmas service Rhodes reads the majestic prologue to John's Gospel, John 1:1–14. Upon being complemented by a faculty person after one such public reading, Rhodes responded, “well, it helps when you believe it.” A saintly remark like that might surprise some Christians, but not the likes of a Diane Komp who really understands what God is up to at our universities.

  1. For the Christian journies of university faculty see Kelly Monroe, ed., Finding God at Harvard (Zondervan); Paul M. Anderson, ed., Professors Who Believe (IVP); and Kelly James Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe (IVP).
  2. James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, CUP, 1979), p. 37. See pages 29–40.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.