Among the Christian alumni of Cornell University, Richard Baer is something of a living legend. His "Religion, Ethics, and the Environment" is not only the most popular course in the department of natural resources, it has become a sort of rite of passage for Christian undergraduates. In Dr. Baer's classroom, Christian students wrestle with environmentalists' pointed criticisms of Christianity at the same time as their secular peers examine deeply religious and ethically formative writings from Saint Paul to Wendell Berry.
So when Dr. Baer approached me with a worried look on his face after I spoke to the Cornell Christian Fellowship last fall, I paid attention.
"Andy," he said, "I'm concerned about these students. I have many of them in my classes. I've been teaching a seminar this semester with several Christian students enrolled. We have rollicking debates about human nature, the role of law, the meaning of technology. But the Christian students hardly say a thing. I wouldn't even know they were there—except that they come up to me after class and furtively thank me. I'm trying to create an environment where Christians can participate in these debates—but they won't say anything!"
I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I was puzzled, too. The postmodern academy is more open than it has been in a century to the voices of people of faith. A growing number of serious believers are moving up academia's famously feudal ranks, from graduate students to provosts, contributing outstanding scholarship along the way. But at a time when undergraduate Christian fellowships are stronger than they have been in years, evangelical undergraduates are often strangely silent in classrooms.
But now I have a theory about what's going on. ...