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Further Reading

Department: Basic Training

College Prep II

How Students Can Thrive in Their Faith

by Sean McDowell

On the first day of class, one of my former students, Hannah, found herself in a precarious situation: Should she speak up and defend her faith? Or would it be best to stay quiet? The professor had begun the class by explaining how—within thirty years—robots with artificial intelligence would take over the world. And the professor hoped that the intelligent robots would care for and protect their less-evolved human ancestors.

Hannah simply couldn't stay quiet. She raised her hand, and when the professor called on her, she asked, "How can physical robots develop self-consciousness?" The professor responded, "Do you actually believe there's a soul? What's your evidence for that?" And the whole class laughed at her.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 39

If you are a Christian student, and you want to live out your faith in college, you will inevitably find yourself in a situation like Hannah's. Studies show that liberal professors outnumber conservative professors by roughly five to one.1 And there are roughly three times as many atheist professors in the university than there are atheists in the public as a whole.2

Certainly most secular professors are not on some secret mission to crush the faith of Christian students (although some certainly are). Most professors enjoy researching and writing in their discipline and genuinely want to help students grow and learn. These kinds of professors may not be out to wreck your faith, but there is often conflict between your views and theirs. In such classes, Christianity may be subtly dismissed as outdated, unsophisticated, and not worthy of serious consideration. If you don't recognize it, and aren't prepared to see through it, such flippant dismissal can slowly erode your confidence in the faith.

So, how can you best stand strong for your faith in the classroom?

Be Prepared

First, realize that the most important preparation happens before class begins. Talk to other students and read teacher reviews online. As best you can, enter class with an understanding of the worldview and expectations of the professor. Consider a few questions: Might there be any direct conflict between the content of this class and Christianity? How have other Christian students experienced the class? Is the professor known to be cordial to students of faith? Will the assigned reading pose a challenge for your faith? Without being unfairly biased against the professor and the class, aim to enter class prepared.

Find out the content of the class, and read at least one Christian book on the subject beforehand. For instance, if you are taking a class in philosophy, consider reading a book such as Thinking About God: First Steps in Philosophy by Greg Ganssle. If you are taking a class on neuroscience, read a book such as The Soul by J. P. Moreland. And if you're taking a biology class, consider my book with William Dembski, Understanding Intelligent Design. The more prepared you can be upon entering a class, the more you will learn, and the more you will be able to ask informed questions graciously.

Ask Questions

Second, ask questions rather than make statements. Instead of standing up to a professor in class and trying to win an informal debate, the best tactic is simply to ask questions. But you can only do this if you enter class prepared, do the assigned work, and pay careful attention. The benefit of this approach is that it keeps the burden of proof on the professor rather than on you. If you ask pointed questions, and the professor pushes back and tries to put you on the defensive, don't take the bait.

That's right; don't try to win a debate with a professor in class. You are not the expert; he is. Your professor likely has a Ph.D., and he or she has probably dealt with many well-intentioned but uninformed Christian students in the past. The goal is not to make your professor look bad. But if you ask thoughtful and clarifying questions, you can help other students in the class see holes in the secular worldview, and you may even be able to encourage other Christian students along the way. If you want to learn how to ask good questions, and how to recognize poor thinking, check out Tactics by my friend Greg Koukl.

Talk with Your Teachers

Third, visit your professor during office hours. In my experience, most professors are eager to talk with inquiring students outside the classroom. Many love it! But be careful not to approach a professor in anger or defensiveness. Treat him (or her) respectfully, and realize that he knows much more than you do. That doesn't mean he is always right, but he does deserve respect as an accomplished authority.

If you approach your professors with genuine kindness and thoughtfulness, you will be amazed at how many are open to discuss even the most controversial subjects. But don't forget—teachers know which students are really engaged in class. If you are a good student who is engaged in the classroom, your professor will be far more likely to listen to your thoughts and concerns outside the classroom.

Be Persistent

Fourth, if you face a difficult question, don't rest until you find a satisfying answer. Given the breadth of classes you will take, and the varying worldviews of your teachers, you will undoubtedly encounter new questions concerning your faith. These kinds of questions can be quite unsettling, sometimes even painful. As a student at Biola University, I remember facing new questions and challenges that caused me to wrestle deeply with my faith.

Don't freak out when you encounter a new challenge to your faith. Take a deep breath. Pray for wisdom and patience. And then go find someone who can help. Find a Christian professor. Track down a minister on campus, such as someone from Cru, Navigators, or InterVarsity. Or do your own research through organizations such as Stand to Reason, Cold Case Christianity, Reasonable Faith, Ratio Christi, the Discovery Institute, or my own website: SeanMcDowell.org.

Wrap-Up

Do you remember Hannah from the beginning of this article? Well, I left out part of the story. When she first wrote me about the class laughing at her, she also said, "But I loved it." That's right, she loved being challenged in her faith. Why? Because, like Daniel, she had prepared both her heart and mind beforehand for the challenges that she would face when she was outside of her faith community (see Daniel 1:8). Hannah built a great relationship with her professor, flourished in the class, and encouraged other Christians along the way.

The college classroom does not have to be devastating to your faith. In fact, it can be a time of tremendous growth. If you prepare before class begins (like Hannah), learn how to ask penetrating questions, visit your professors during office hours, and refuse to rest until you find satisfying answers to tough questions, you will not only survive the college classroom, but you will thrive in your faith. •


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