College and Losing One’s Faith

by Jack Crabtree


Dr. Crabtree made the following comments in a post to the World Magazine blog on August 21, 2005.

Since some of my remarks may be controversial in the context of the current discussion, let me say how much I have appreciated and agree with the recent posts on Christian colleges. I agree wholeheartedly that Christian colleges tend to be a greater obstacle to Christian faith than secular universities. (I have had four children attend secular universities. I guess I’m the old man in this discussion.) Not infrequently, an influential professor in your basic Christian college has, for whatever reasons, had significant emotional turmoil in his “Christian” experience; and he makes it his mission to spare his students the same emotional abuse that he experienced. Unfortunately, such a professor is rarely able to discern authentic Christianity from the Christian culture that “abused” him, so his rescue mission ends up being an attempt to rescue his students from Christianity itself. The net result is a deliberate attempt to undermine the plausibility of the worldview those ignorant Christians embrace, even to the point of attacking Christianity itself. Secular professors, on the other hand, may mock Christianity and hold it in contempt. But mostly they just ignore it, thinking it is not a serious intellectual position and, therefore, not worth debunking. Secular academic environments are certainly a challenge to faith. But, for the most part, they give their students the space to be as Christian as they choose.

So, I believe it is important that a student receive his or her education in an environment that does not render Christianity implausible simply by breathing its air—before the arguments even begin. But I think there is a fundamental mistake that parents make when it comes to Christian colleges: they do not take care to understand the distinction between sanctification and socialization (or enculturation). If other parents are like me, my main desire for my child is that he come out the other end of his college education a genuine child of God, as one who genuinely believes the gospel and is committed to following Jesus. I want this because the stakes are high: Life or Death. And the greatest good I could wish for my child is a faith that results in eternal Life. But, alas, if I read my Bible correctly, the faith that leads to eternal Life is not the choice to remain a faithful member of Christian culture (whatever sub-culture of Christianity that might be). Rather, the faith that leads to Life is the deeply personal, entirely individualistic, profoundly existential choice to hope in the mercy of God and to follow and obey Jesus.

If faith were the former (that is, remaining a faithful participant in the “spirituality” of a Christian culture), then I would certainly want a college that is going to effectively acculturate my child into a particular Christian sub-culture. I would want the college to create an environment that makes Christianity feel so objectively true that my child would not even have to make a decision. He would absorb and internalize Christian culture just by being surrounded by the environment created by the college. But the tragedy, it seems to me, is this: such a scenario can very readily spit out life-long “Christians” who are destined for destruction because they do not believe. They do not believe, and they do not even know that they do not believe. Apostasy—explicitly renouncing the truth of Christianity—is not the only way to fall into unbelief. The other way to fall into unbelief is to remain faithfully “Christian” one’s entire life and never come to know, understand, and believe the first thing about what Jesus came to teach. This is the second way our children lose their faith at Christian (as well as secular) colleges. They become thoroughly socialized and acculturated into a “Christian” way of doing human existence; but they never even confront the claims of the gospel, let alone believe them. This whole thing is exacerbated by the fact that many aspects of our Christian sub-cultures are hostile to the very essence of the gospel and are, therefore, obstacles to genuine faith, not a doorway into it.

Since saving faith is such a personal, subjective matter, and since (as the Bible tells us) it is so alien to any of us if naturally left to ourselves, it isn’t the environment my child enters that ultimately determines whether he will keep the faith or lose it. It is ultimately a matter of how he decides to respond to whatever environment he finds himself in—a decision he will make in his freedom. No environment, no matter how healthy, no matter how perfectly conducive to faith, can make him choose to believe. And yet, no environment, no matter how hostile to faith and destructive of it, can ultimately make him choose to reject the faith. As a responsible parent, I would of course never want my child to deliberately immerse himself in an environment that was destructive of faith, and yet, in the final analysis, by God’s grace, even in such an environment as that, my child will come to believe.

I think it was American Christians’ experience with academia that has done as much as anything to promote the anti-intellectualism with which conservative Christianity struggles. Over the years, well-meaning parents have seen their children go away for a higher education only to come back skeptics and unbelievers. Without thinking carefully about it, they simply concluded that the life of the mind is inimical to faith. If they had believed their Bibles, they would have understood that the life of the mind did not turn their children into unbelievers. It was their children’s own foolish hearts that turned them into unbelievers; the education they received only increased the number of options for how to rationalize their unbelief. They were going to lose their faith anyway. If they stayed on the farm, they would lose their faith by ignoring the claims of the gospel even as they conformed to the lifestyle and values of the Christian culture around them. Since they went away to the university, they discovered and opted for a whole different alternative for how to express their unbelief. Either way they were destined for eternal destruction. Keeping them on the farm wouldn’t have prevented that.

The bottom line of this rant is simple enough: Christian parents are being naïve and ignorant if they send their children to Christian colleges under the belief that there—at a Christian college—their children’s faith will be preserved. Not only are today’s Christian colleges increasingly hostile to faith (as other posts have suggested), but also, even if one were to find the perfect Christian school, that school could not make my child freely embrace the gospel if he or she is destined not to. I know the fear of having a child reject the faith. But no wise decision is ever made out of fear in such matters.

Copyright August 2005 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree