Dad and Mom and their high school son or daughter sit at a table piled with college catalogs, applications, and scholarship forms. “I would really like to study chemistry or biology at the university, Dad.”
“But you know the big news stories coming out of the universities are about professors not getting tenure or even being fired because of their Christian stand on contemporary issues. What are your chances of having classes under an instructor who isn’t an atheist?”
“All I hear is how the university is a negative influence on Christians. Not the place I want to send you,” Mom adds.
“But I enjoy physics and chemistry and math, and I get good grades in those classes. I could help find a cure for cancer or work with plants and find a source of food to end hunger around the world.”
So the discussion goes as parents struggle to help their young people make the right choice of a place to study to be what God wants them to become.
Christian young people who wish to take advantage of the programs offered by a secular university, who wish to study under professors who are leaders in their areas of expertise, who want a diploma from an outstanding institution of higher learning are going to have to confront ideas that challenge their Christian beliefs. These are found in most areas of study, but highly volatile topics come under scrutiny in the sciences. Biology, archaeology, chemistry, and physics classes will force Christian young people to examine what they believe.
Two Christian men, David Boylan and Craig Wilson, have studied science and spent their careers teaching on secular campuses. They can provide an inside perspective on the rewards and challenges of being a Christian, a teacher, and a scientist in a secular university. Boylan was dean of the engineering department at Iowa State University for 18 years. Wilson teaches students at East Stroudsburg University (Pa.) to be science teachers. They willingly shared their experiences and observations, which leave us encouraged yet aware of challenges.
Boylan, a member of Faith Baptist Church, Cambridge, Iowa, has fond memories of his years at ISU. The university had a Christian faculty association with more than 120 members. “They were from most disciplines across the university. We met regularly in great fellowship. A Christian faculty member can find a blessing in just knowing other Christians are working in similar non-Christian situations. They can support each other and enjoy fellowship. And it is an opportunity for the university at large to see the testimony in the lives, as well as in the words, of those who are Christians.”
A graduate of Baptist Bible College and member of Heritage Baptist Church, Clarks Summit, Pa., Wilson finds that a variety of faiths are represented in his department. He says they have a close relationship. The campus also has an active group called University Christian Fellowship.
Both men referred to the opportunities to interact with students. Wilson has this opportunity through monthly Student-Faculty Staff Luncheons. “The purpose of those luncheons is for Christian students, faculty, and staff to get together and ask for prayer requests and then have a short devotional.” He has been able to organize and be involved in that.
Boylan points out that Christian professors can be a help and support for Christian students. Also, believers can find Christian-oriented activities on the campus. These should be an encouragement to families considering sending a young person to a secular campus to study.
Christian professors, groups, and activities notwithstanding, a young person entering a secular university needs to know there will be adversity. Some challenges are inevitable. When addressing biological topics in both grad and undergrad courses, Wilson presents an overview of evolution and creation. He points out “that it takes faith to believe either evolution or creation. So it’s important to decide where they want to put their faith.” Students “listen intently and take down notes. Sometimes a couple stay afterwards and ask for clarification,” he says.
Wilson realizes that when taking “the specific proficiency test that teachers are required to pass to become ‘higher qualified,’ they are to ‘identify evidence that supports the theory of evolution.’ ” They are not asked to point out errors in evolution or to provide evidence that supports creation. This is indicative of “the bias that exists in favor of evolution and makes Christians and non-Christians alike feel that they must choose between the Bible and science.”
While the controversy presents an intellectual and moral challenge, a more personal challenge is the possibility of being attacked for Christian beliefs. Boylan has experienced such attacks. “That is a sad part about a university,” he says. He recalls that his attackers were simply expressing an individual philosophy of life. “When a Christian who is a scientist takes a position that differs from the views of those who don’t believe in God, the believer is considered a bigot or something. Some people take that seriously and use it as a way of attacking. I’ve been attacked, but that is part of the experience of being a Christian. We are to expect this. A non-believer is opposed to a believer. That has been true from Bible times down to the present.”
Contrary to some beliefs, scientists who are Christians are not unusual on a secular campus. Boylan says, “There were always, in my experience, professors who were identified as Christians by their lifestyle. It is a great opportunity for a person who is a Christian to be a scientist. You don’t hear about them in the newspaper, for they are not trying to force their beliefs on other people. They are living a Christian testimony and sometimes that offends people.” The university is a composite of many kinds of people. They are not all atheists; they are not all agnostics; there is room for Christians. But there are enough atheists and agnostics to cause some problems with what might be called a Christian testimony.”
To young people who are interested in studying science, these men have advice. Wilson strongly encourages them to enroll in a university where they can receive an excellent education in the science of their choice because there is clearly a need for Christian scientists. He suggests that they “learn how to think critically, which involves the sciences of observing and inferring. Learn to use those effectively.” He also suggests listening to Christian radio, because quite often preachers speak about philosophy and worldview. He says, “Watch the news and read the newspapers; read and listen critically. Be prepared.”
Boylan’s advice to young people interested in becoming scientists is to make sure that their own personal beliefs are established and that they don’t have questions concerning their own beliefs. He warns, “Make sure that you understand that there are oppositions in the world and understand the Christian position on those worldviews. Be strong enough so you will not waver from that position. I just read a portion in Psalm 119 that says teach me your commandments so I won’t be ashamed” (Psalm 119:5, 6). He points out that Christians should not be wishy washy about their own beliefs and that they need to be established in the Word. They have a responsibility—a responsibility to be a worthy Christian—“and that,” he says, “includes understanding the culture and staying within the bounds of culture, yet not backing away from being a strong Christian. That will show up in the life. You don’t have to be a buttonholer as a Christian. But you need to have a strong Christian life, and then you will be the greatest testimony. That is more telling than words sometimes. So I encourage anyone that wants to go into science, just make sure you understand that you are in the world and the world is not in itself a theistic world: it is an evil world. The Bible clearly teaches it: there is a worldly culture and there is a Christian culture. They interact, but one does not except [exclude] the other one in its interaction.”
Reflecting on the profession in which he spent his life, Boylan says that “science is a human endeavor directed toward the world that we live in. It’s a human endeavor. Humans carry it on, so anyone that pursues in a scientific fashion the understanding of the world in which we live can do that: Christian or non-Christian. Some people don’t believe that is true. There is no requirement to believe in God or to not believe in Him to be a scientist. Some of the great scientists of the world in the past and present are Christians.”
Parents, go ahead and help your future Nobel Prize winner fill out the application and scholarship forms for a secular university. As a part of settling your young person on the campus, seek out solidly Biblical Christian organizations in the area and visit a local church that supports the values you have been instilling in your child. Encourage your young adult to identify the professors who live Christian values, such as Boylan and Wilson, who are examples of the positive influences available on the university campus.
Liz Gifford (MA, Iowa State University) teaches English at Faith Baptist Bible College and formerly taught at Ballard Community H.S. and Iowa State University. She is a member of Slater Baptist Church, Slater, Iowa.