Advice for Students in Unsafe Places

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“But, Professor, I learned in church that God wrote the Ten Commandments himself on stone tablets and gave them to Moses. Isn’t that what happened?”

“It is unscientific and absurd to believe that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

Such went the confrontation of traditional Christian belief and confident modern thought at Syracuse University—in 1909. And such collisions have resumed again on campuses throughout North America.

As Christian students return to universities across Canada this month, they, and perhaps their parents, will worry about whether their education will cost them their faith.

Ironically enough, our campuses nowadays are awash in worries held by lots of different kinds of people about being confronted with ideas and experiences they don’t like, from “trigger warnings” to “speech codes” to “safe places.”

It is easy to mock such worries about the big, bad, secular university, even as studies show that, in fact, religious belief and practice does not tend to wane as one gains higher education.

The whole Christian educational complex, to be sure, both Catholic and Protestant and from kindergarten to graduate school, can be seen as a gigantic “safe place” for Christian faith. As Adam Laats reports in his recent book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2018), fear of non-, sub-, and anti-Christian influences was always a high motivation in producing Christian colleges, from Harvard, founded in 1636, to (Patrick) Henry, founded in 2000.

And just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you.

A recent study of American professors in a wide range of disciplines—from physics to anthropology—revealed a definite bias against both political and religious conservatives: specifically, against Republicans, evangelicals, and fundamentalists (George Yancey, Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education [Baylor University Press, 2011). And there’s no reason to think the situation is better here in Canada.

Most Canadian Christians, however, have not yet been sufficiently alarmed that they enroll in safely Christian schools. When such students attend secular universities, therefore, and come across people and propositions that cut sharply against their religious convictions, what should they then do?

As a veteran of secular universities, may I offer a few tips as a new year academic begins:

1. Don’t go it alone. Immediately, right away, first week on campus, start searching for a vital Christian church—and one close enough that you won’t mind getting yourself there in the dead of winter. Also: Check out any Christian club on campus that looks likely to be interesting, and quickly join one.

You’ll never have more time and freedom to make such choices than in your first term, and studies show that students who connect quickly with good Christian groups report a much better experience of university than those who take too long and end up mostly floundering alone.

2. Do speak up—but appropriately. In particular, ask questions rather than lead off with assertions.

Professors and students should always be willing to entertain a serious question. Universities are built to ask serious questions. So always feel justified in asking questions such as “Why did you say that?” and “Why do you think so?”

You honour the other person by inquiring further into his or her thinking. You will show that you mean to converse, not just preach. You will almost always learn something. And the reciprocity implied in such conversation will give you an appropriate opportunity to offer thoughts from your different outlook.

3. Avoid confrontation. Taking on a professor or a fellow student in front of the rest of the class is a risky business. Most of us are not noble enough to prefer the honest exchange of ideas to the defense of our dignity, and we’ll fight for the latter at the cost of the former. It’s just human nature.

Better to make an appointment in office hours or ask for a coffee together and, away from the pressure of performing for an audience, put your queries to him or her about

anything said in class that troubles you. And do so, again, by asking questions, not just blazing away in your outrage.

4. Confront, however, if you must. One of the most interesting and fruitful conversations I enjoyed in a lifetime of studying religion arose out of a confrontation.

A young lecturer fulminated against a little group of conservative Catholics who had pestered him throughout my “introduction to world religions” class forty years ago. He concluded his peroration thus:

“To believe that Gandhi died on the streets of Delhi and then went to hell, all because he had ‘Ram’ on his lips instead of ‘Jesus’ is just…racist!”

The silence in the room was heavy as the impassioned professor stared hard at the hundred-plus wide-eyed students. Taking a quick breath, I said,

“That’s an ignorant thing to say, and you’re reduced to just name-calling.”

And then I thought, “Holy smokes! Did I just say that? Is it correct? Do I need to apologize? Is my career over before it’s begun? Holy smokes!”

But then, to his vast credit, he just smiled and said, “Well, I suppose you could say that. Come talk to me after class.”

I did, and we had several hour-long conversations as a result—certainly to my benefit, and I hope somehow to his.

But, my goodness, be sure you really do have to speak up. No one likes to feel unsafe at university…

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).