The contemporary upsurge of religious interest has engulfed also the campuses of North American colleges and universities. The favorable response to Billy Graham’s Christian messages by Yale University students has been narrated in a previous issue of Christianity Today. Evangelical campus missions sponsored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and other witnessing groups are enjoying similar results.

Not to be discounted in less sensational but steadily increasing student participation in denomination-centered worship programs—those of the Canterbury Club for Episcopalians, the Westminster Foundation for Presbyterians, the Lutheran Student Association and Gamma Delta for National Lutheran Council and Missouri Synod students respectively, and others. According to Time (November 21, 1955) the Rev. Frederic Kellogg of Cambridge, Mass., counted only about 35 Harvard students at the Sunday Episcopal services in 1936. Twenty years later 500 attended the Sunday worship. At Memorial Lutheran Chapel in Ames, Iowa, the Rev. Wilbert J. Fields sees more Iowa State College students at average Sunday services than he has names on his list.

The quickening spiritual pulse is sensed by many observers of the campus scene. “I’ve been in the dean’s office for more than 20 years,” says Nicholas McKnight, dean of students at Columbia College, “and never have I seen such a wide interest in religion among the students” (Time, November 21, 1955).

University authorities themselves have taken steps in recent years to give religion a favorable hearing. If not by administrative implementation, they at least give their blessing to such campus-wide observances as Religious Emphasis Week or Church Night during New Student Week. At increasing numbers of state-supported colleges ways and means are found to offer religion credit courses, either by bootlegging them into the curriculum via philosophy departments or by approving the open establishment of chairs of religion. To assist students and campus pastors in their spiritual enterprises, some college administrations have created the office of coordinator of religious activities. Short of being an ordained chaplain, the coordinator lends counsel and aid in giving respectable status to campus religions. The enlightened policy is to recognize all religions on a frank, pluralistic basis. This gives evangelical groups an equal chance to make their unhampered Christian witness.

Greater support to campus ministries comes, and properly so, from the national church bodies themselves. Instead of considering the campus program an adjunct of the nearest parish, denominational headquarters today think more in terms of maintaining fulltime pastorates for college folk. Well they might, for just around the corner lurks the largest student population America has yet seen. The first ripples of the tidal wave of tomorrow’s students are already lapping the coastline. The present college enrollment of three million is but a shadow of things to come.

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Optimum use of these unprecedented opportunities is contingent on a realistic appraisal of factors contributing to the crisis of the modern university. The survey will show liabilities along with the assets, opposition as well as opportunity. By honestly facing the facts and reckoning with them, we take the first step in channeling nondescript religious interest into meaningful commitment to the Christian religion.

Encounter With Scientific Humanism

Alongside the search for personal security in religion, there continues the trend to build creeds on secular philosophies. In the early 1950’s the Newman Foundation (Roman Catholic) at a mid-American university issued a manual in which it was stated, “Many people think of the university as a place where atheists and communists swarm like flies, waiting to pounce upon innocent and unsuspecting students. This is a gross exaggeration. One wishes one might say it was absolutely false, but that is not true either.”

The writer goes on to point out that positivism is a militant philosophy rejecting all absolute truths, such as the existence (or relevance) of God and the primary principles of morality rooted in revealed theology. He says that positivists are found in the departments of philosophy, education and social sciences, shaking the accepted beliefs of Catholic students oftener by innuendo and contemptuous comments than by direct assault. That is how a Catholic writer sees the picture.

There are instances of the acclaimed academic mind, pledged to the open pursuit of truth, becoming a mind in captivity to a hard and fast creed, with as many postulates in it as in any creed of the church. It is a creed that demands total commitment, and in many cases a blind faith. There is no open-mindedness about a “liberalism” that arbitrarily and categorically rules our Christian thought. It is a one-way street, and at its terminal a dead-end alley. What we are concerned about is not science itself, but the philosophic constructions put on science and the attitude of secularists and scientific humanists who want to close the doors to the legitimacy of Christian revelation. Roy LeMoine, Director of Religious Life at Iowa State College, has well stated, “The University knows no revealed truth.” It should be pointed out that this, perhaps necessary, principle is in itself a statement of faith.

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Biblical, Spiritual Illiteracy

There is a set of retarding circumstances not originating on the campus but dating back to the student’s home and home church in the community from which he comes. Dr. Homer Rainey, formerly president of the University of Texas and of Stephens College, in a recent address pointed to the appalling condition of religious illiteracy. He stated that in former years a speaker could enrich his remarks with quotations and epigrammatic expressions from the Bible. But nowadays, according to Dr. Rainey, such references fall as duds and the speaker flat on his face because the modern generation doesn’t know the Bible. A curious anomaly is here recognized: A widespread interest in religion but a scant knowledge of the Bible.

It is not possible to sidestep all of Wesley Schrader’s critiques in the recent Life article “Our Troubled Sunday Schools.” Writes Mr. Schrader: “A young professor of religion at a girls’ college told me that he was disturbed by the inferior preparation young people are getting in our churches. ‘Students from all over the country enroll in our college,’ he said, ‘and they come to us with virtually no knowledge of the Christian faith. Religiously they are in kindergarten. The sad thing is that, in most cases, these girls have been going to Sunday School since they were in the nursery department.’ ”

This delinquency is not the fault of the university, but of the home and home church with its teaching agencies. The latter having faltered in their sacred task of teaching young people the Word of God, many freshmen come to college entirely innocent of Christian knowledge. Indeed, they are then easy prey to loose morals, indiscriminate acceptance of Christless philosophies, and low-level materialistic views toward their vocation.

There is considerable evidence that suggest that a college education does not alter people’s religious habits fundamentally. The pre-college pattern is pretty well preserved throughout life. In They Went To College, Ernest Havemann and Patricia Salter West point out that 46 per cent of the men reared as Protestants attend church regularly, while for women college graduates of the same category 59 percent attend regularly. The authors conclude, “There seems to be little evidence that college training undercuts religious beliefs” (p. 107). In brief: Religious illiteracy and all its fruits is not the product of the university as much as it is a carry-over from the student’s previous experiences.

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An experienced campus pastor, when addressing himself to students, does well to locate the major problems of personal morality and spirituality not in the environment but in the person himself. I have known many Christian students during my ten years at the University of Minnesota who were not at all disturbed by the small but noisy group of budding atheists, agnostics, or what have you. If they wanted to participate in church activities, or could be so induced, they did so without casting lateral looks to see what others were doing. Ultimately, it is up to the individual. What if last Wednesday a professor got in an anti-Christian punch-line; was that a reason why students A, B, and C should sleep in on the following Sunday morning? The professor, who is very witty and probably comments similarly on big business, labor unions, or the Republican Party, should not be blamed for the sleeping propensities of students on Sunday morning.

These Christian students demonstrated that they could be active in church work under their own steam and quite without the parental push. Far from being a place where faith was lost, the campus was for them a community where Christian faith was tested and strengthened, their knowledge increased, the range of their Christian concerns widened, their spiritual insights deepened, while still others found Christ as their personal Saviour.

The Road Ahead

What procedure is indicated, if we would capitalize on present-day campus opportunities? Greater utilization of our most potent means—the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Militarily speaking, the best defense is offense, positive procedure, growth in Christian faith, and its daily exercise in Christian service. Faith is not something one can put in his vest pocket and keep it there for the duration of college life. That would at best be a dormant faith and one well on its way toward becoming a dead faith. It is better to exercise one’s faith and keep it stimulated through the means of grace.

So it is with Christian knowledge. To peg it at the point where it was at confirmation or graduation from Sunday School is to invite spiritual stagnation. It is through personal and corporate Bible study that a student’s knowledge of the Word is articulated and made relevant to life’s problems.

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Students will profit more than they know from taking religion credit courses offered under the sponsorship of their denomination. During the 1955–56 term 1,866 University of Texas students availed themselves of credit courses given under the auspices of the Texas Bible Chair. If 1,800 out of a total enrollment of 16,000 is thought not to be a favorable ratio, it should be remembered that it is a considerable improvement over the 1908 figure. In that year only one U. of T. student took a religion credit course. Similar appreciation is shown on other campuses. Only 20 Princeton students took the first religion course begun in 1939. During the 1955–56 school year 700 Princetonians were enrolled in various religion classes.

There are study projects the student may undertake on his own, such as the reading of books written in the Christian perspective. If David Hume’s essay on miracles is required reading in a humanities course, the Christian student owes it to himself to balance the fare with a reading of C. S. Lewis’ book, Miracles. The last decade has seen the production of a virile Christian literature interacting with all the phases of thought and culture from an evangelical point of view. A sufficient beginning has been made in this direction so that stimulating reading, relevant to psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines, awaits the inquirer.

In my own church body, for example, Ph.D. scholars in philosophy, education, and psychology, one of them the Lutheran head of a Big Ten university psychology department, are working on a project to bring these studies into a Christian framework. Other churches are similarly engaged, particularly the Episcopalians with their Faculty Papers.

Things are looking up for Christian students and staff members at state universities. The challenge of the campus has the potential of a great blessing to Christendom.

Gambling For The Seamless Robe

Shuffling dice to win His robe

Has not ceased today;

Men take His teaching and His law,

But cast His Cross away.

They want His garb without His grief,

His light without His blood;

They want His joy without His pain,

But not the Spirit’s flood.

The seamless robe of deity

They rend with knives of guilt,

Deny His claims but take His gifts,

Betray the Church He built.

They gamble still just what to do

With things they won’t believe;

Deny the Word, destroy the faith

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And simple hearts deceive.


Rudolph Norden is editorial assistant with the Commission on College and University Work of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Chicago. He holds degrees from St. Paul’s College and Concordia Seminary, has done graduate work in philosophy and history at the University of Minnesota, has served as a pastor in Colorado and Nebraska, and as Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Minnesota for 10 years, where he was founder of the University Lutheran Church and Student Center. He is Editor of the Lutheran Campus Pastor and a frequent contributor to other magazines.

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