A Christian University in a Secular Culture
A few years ago, my wife and I traveled from Paris to Madrid. We’ve always loved the European trains. They are quick, clean, and on time. On our first 14-hour trip to Madrid, something very surprising happened. We had our own sleeper room and were sound asleep by midnight. Not long after I fell asleep, I was awakened by the realization that our train had stopped. But, more than that, I had the strange sensation of movement – straight up. I knew trains moved forward and sometimes backwards, but I’d never heard of one moving straight up!
I moved the curtain and saw a telephone pole just outside the train. At first, I thought the pole was moving downward but then I realized that our train was indeed moving upward. My first thoughts were that I must have been wrong about the Rapture, but then we came to a sudden stop. I quickly dressed, left our sleeper compartment, and made my way to the back of the train. I was surprised at what I saw. Our train was being hydraulically lifted, the wheels were rolled out from under us and a new set of wheels rolled in. The Spanish tracks are a different gauge. You cannot get from Paris to Madrid without changing tracks.
The main job of a Christian university is to help students get on the right track. Of course, it’s important to provide a quality education that helps prepare students for employment, but even more important is helping to prepare our students for life. As instructors, we have an unprecedented opportunity to help our students get on the right track.
Studying Our Students
As a university that is built on four spiritual pillars (Primacy of Christ, Priority of Scripture, Pursuit of Truth, and the Practice of Wisdom), we have the track laid out for us. It is a vision that provides guidance through the purposelessness of our secular culture. We need to remember that this vision is not universally appreciated in our increasingly secular culture. The Christian lifestyle our university promotes is regularly ridiculed and demeaned. Our pillars are often seen not only as archaic but part of a superstitious carry-over from the dark ages.
For the most part, our students come to us saturated with a worldview of secularism. This does not necessarily mean that they are secularist. It does mean that they (and we) live in a culture soaked in secular ideas.
What is a Secular Student?
You can find many definitions for secularism. It’s easier, however, to provide a description for it than a definition. In my opinion, the best description for it came from Langdon Gilkey, an American theologian from the 20th Century. In his book, Naming the Whirlwind, he used four words to describe secularism (pp 39-71).
- Contingency: The basic elements for the physical universe have always existed. Everything that is, comes from things that were.
- Autonomy: We are the masters of our own fate and independent of anything transcendent.
- Temporality: All living things die and nothing survives death.
- Relativity: Since there is no God, there is no Divine Imperative. Our morals come only from social conditioning.
To those four descriptors, I would add a fifth word, consumerism. Can anyone deny our obsession with acquiring products? This obsession separates us from most all preceding generations and causes the insane consumer frenzy of our age. Have you heard of “Black Friday?” The chief symptom of Gilkey’s description is an inner void. Augustine’s words are important here, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts will not find rest until they find rest in you” (Augustine, Confessions, Book 1). Augustine should know; he had tried everything to fill the void in his life and nothing worked until he turned to God. Michael Forrester calls this attempt to fill our inner void with “things,” Consumption-Vanity Disorder (05:22 ). What if someone from the medieval period suddenly appeared in 2016 America? Surely he or she would wonder how there could be so much depression, divorce, and suicide in a society which is overflowing with commodities of every kind.
While most of our students, faculty, and administration don’t think in these terms, the truth is, none of us escape these influences. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The last thing a fish would ever notice in its habitat is the water. Likewise, the most obvious and powerful realities of our human culture seem to also be the most unrecognized” (p. 98). The important thing is to understand the factors.
How Did We Get Here?
There is no single date in history that we can point to and say “Secularism began here.” However, we can trace the early beginnings. Let’s go back to Paris, but this time, not to the train station; let’s go to the French Revolution. The guillotine that took off the head of Louis XVI also brought down the last barrier to a new world, a secular world. The religious scholastics who had dominated the thinking of the closing years of the dark ages were finally being shown for the frauds that many of them were. A new morning began to dawn 500 years earlier as the Renaissance sun began to rise. By the time King Louis XVI was executed, it was “high noon” in Europe. Immediately France began to descend into another dark age, controlled not by churchmen, but by secularists. It was an age of anarchy and atheism, an age darkened by the absence of Gospel light. Both kings and clergy lost all relevance.
The path from the French Revolution to 21st Century America is not a straight line but in hindsight, its trajectory is clear. Our students do not come to us unaffected by the influences of secularism. It seems that the chief goal of secularism is to undermine all things spiritual. Since our goal as faculty is to put our students on the track for a higher purpose in life that leads to Jesus Christ, we have to understand the forces that influence them in the opposite direction.
Tucked away in I Chronicles is the story of King David as he assumed rule of all Israel. His leaders and confidants would be “… the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do…” (I Chronicles 12:32, NIV). OKWU is on track. Our vision statement reflects an uncommon understanding of our secular culture and our need for a higher purpose. Our vision statement is not the light, but it can take us to the Light. It is our job to stay on track. It is also our job to help our students get on the right track for life. In some cases, that will mean changing tracks. You can’t get from Paris to Madrid on French tracks. You have to change tracks first.
Gilkey, L. (1969). Naming the whirlwind. New York: Bobs-Merril Co.
Joseph,P. (2012). Top Documentaries. Culture in decline: Consumption vanity disorder Retrieved from http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/culture-decline-consumption-vanity-disorder/
McLuhan, M. (1997). War and peace in the global village. New York: Bantum Press.