One evening several years ago, a senior at Princeton University telephoned to ask if I would see him. I told him it would be my pleasure. Soon the doorbell rang, and there stood the senior. When he had sat down in my living room he remarked, “I hope you don’t mind my dropping in like this, but I felt I just had to see you.” The senior then went on to unburden himself. He was in the sciences and had achieved everything he had ever dreamed of as far as his university career was concerned. He was one of the top men in his class. He had been elected to the Society of Sigma Xi and had been awarded a very prized fellowship at the university where he was to pursue his graduate studies.

I congratulated him on his achievements.

“But they don’t really mean very much,” he blurted out. “I thought they would. There isn’t the satisfaction in my studies, and in my success, that I thought there would be. I feel empty inside. There must be something more to life than what I’ve learned from science.”

“I’m sure there is,” I replied, “but why have you come to me?”

“Because I thought you could tell me.”

What was I to say to him? Should I develop an argument along the lines of natural theology and hope that it would convince him of God’s existence, and that this would satisfy him?

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” I said; “I’ll state my faith.” This I did in terms of faith as my response to the mighty acts of God, which culminate in the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I had finished he said, “That’s what I needed to hear. I daresay I could have read it for myself in the New Testament, or in one of the creeds, or in a book of theology. But I needed someone to speak it.”

I relate this incident because I believe it illustrates both the nature of students’ concerns and the nature of the answer to them. For the past ten years I have been on the Princeton University campus, spending one year as director of the Westminster Foundation for Presbyterian students and the rest as dean of the university chapel. I have been long enough in this ministry to realize that God works not by statistics but by persons—by those, that is, who bring the Good News to others who are ready and eager to hear. St. Paul has already said this much better than I can: “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:14b, 15a).

The Minister As Word-Bearer

The minister of God to a university is a man under authority. He is the Word-bearer; that is, he is the one entrusted with proclaiming the given Word—not the imagined nor the fabricated word, but God’s Word: The Word that was in the beginning; the Word that was and is God; the Word of creation; the Word that spoke through the prophets; the Word that judges and redeems; the Word that is light in our darkness; the Word become flesh. This Word is the beginning of all things, and without it there would be no great human achievements. This includes such institutions as colleges and universities. Testimony of this, by the way, is usually carried on their heraldic symbols. The shield of Princeton University, for example, displays an open Bible on which is written, Vet Nov Testamentum, and the university motto is Dei Sub Numine Viget.

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Members of the academic society expect their minister to be honest in declaring this Word. They recognize that the Word-bearer is human and therefore fallible, but they expect him to speak as honestly, winsomely, and reasonably as he can. If he falls for the very natural temptation of putting himself and his reason above the Word, he fails not only those who are Christians and those who are seekers, but also those who are in opposition to the Word. Walter Kaufmann, one of Princeton’s professors of philosophy, has pointed out in his book, The Faith of a Heretic, that the agreement among Christians on the salient points of their faith is more apparent than real. Thus men who profess to believe the same scriptural passages may explain them quite differently. His criticism is valid; a yes and a no are not the same thing in anyone’s language. Of certain contemporary popular theologians he writes, “Surely, the beliefs and disbeliefs of our two most celebrated Protestant theologians are much closer to mine than they are to those of their fellow Christians, past and present.… They say No in ways that sound like Yes” (p. 111). Professor Kaufmann’s honesty is not only a criticism of the Church’s uncertain sounds but also a challenge to speak loudly and clearly the Word we have received and heard, and of which we are witnesses.

While many writers within the Church are proclaiming with Bonhoeffer that man come of age may get along rather nicely without God, very often those who are trying to put this conclusion into effect are not so sure. For one thing, the people of our time show more signs of immaturity (for example, the Beatles et al.) than of maturity; and for another, they are trying desperately to worship no-God as God. The passionate concern of the no-God devotee, and his organization of societies for the propagation of this concern, may well indicate that he is not satisfied with his pigsty lodgings in the far country of alienation, and that he would like to find the way home if only someone would tell him.

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The kind of advice that does no more than offer one pigsty for another is hardly likely to be appreciated. The confirmed secularist knows he has failed to raise himself to heaven by his own bootstraps. He knows that godless existence is hell, and that all that the best systems of man’s devising can do is manufacture another variety of the same product. He challenges the Church, by the nature of his despair, to say something other than that which he can dream up for himself. He wants to know about himself—that is, about man—but he has lost faith in himself, and in his means of knowledge.

I find that the no-gospel of secularism has darkened the minds of many members of academic communities. This, I know, is a fairly obvious statement; but even in this darkness there remains the hope that a light will yet shine and a word will still be spoken. Here is a senior of the class of 1964 speaking honestly about himself and his condition: “The trouble with me is that I can’t believe in anything. On some days I can, but most of the time I am smarter than that. I have been taught to question, not to believe, so I never know where to stop.… What I want is a cause; what I cannot have is a cause, because I know that causes are the opiate of the masses, who fought two world wars and then said, don’t budge a finger or we’ll get ‘zapped’.… This, in essence, has been my Princeton career: running after education which supposedly begets progress while at the same time learning that progress is the apple dangled in the face of the draft horse” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 7, 1963).

In those despairing words is the expression of youth’s hope of the reality that transcends that of our three-dimensional world, and the longing for a word spoken from beyond that will give a purpose, and therefore, a cause, to existence.

Here, in still more positive terms, is the opinion of another senior: “As far as the University campus is concerned, we find an atmosphere that seems to drown a driving personal belief.… Anxieties are swallowed up in the generally soft and leisurely way of life.… Commitment and involvement become two questionable words to be defined in a drowsy precept, but not to be tried nor understood—there just isn’t enough to get excited about to make the attempt worthwhile.” This analysis of campus life was made in a letter. At the conclusion the student expressed his hope for the future, as far as his fellow students were concerned, in these words: “[They] seem apathetic only because they have not found important challenge in the campus life of their fathers. Perhaps they only need the proper goal to strive for to arouse their sense of responsibility and adventure.… They have seen the failure of so many systems and ideas that it seems a bit useless to become too enthusiastic over new ones being offered. If Christianity can but capture their imagination and listless spirits there would be great hope. Suave cynicism and indifference are the signs of their boredom.”

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The Cry And The Response

The campus is crying out for God’s Word. There are those who will hear it and obey, and there are others who will turn from it to follow the desires of their own hearts. That is, the Word is one of salvation and judgment. To deny this by trying to find a word that will be acceptable to all is to insult the intelligence and honesty of those who believe and those who disbelieve. The agnostic has a right to hear from the Church, as the Word-bearing community, the Gospel to which he refuses to commit himself. His agnosticism is in itself an act of faith made in opposition to the news of God’s redeeming work in Christ Jesus. If I were an agnostic, I would be very annoyed to have a Christian tell me that my involvement did not mean very much because the Gospel could be interpreted in whatever way I might choose. This would imply that there was no real difference between us. I would resent having my conscious choice treated as a matter of little importance.

Two years ago when Karl Barth delivered his lectures in the university chapel, I invited a number of card-carrying agnostics to hear him. Their response to his lectures surprised me. I expected them to tell me that Barth’s theology did not make sense to them. Instead they all agreed that he had something to say and that he said it logically. He challenged them to examine more carefully their own faith against faith. One student was so impressed by him that he borrowed my Part I, Volume III, of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, “The Doctrine of Creation,” and returned it only recently.

The kind of challenge presented by Barth, in terms of both his interpretation of the Word and his gracious presentation of it, suggests the nature of the lively dialogue that should be taking place. The initiative for this dialogue should obviously be taken by the community of Christians within the college or university.

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So often the Christians are hiding in a coffee klatch complaining about the death of God when they should be witnessing to the risen Christ in their midst. The challenge of the secular demands something more than self-pity. It demands honest proclamation. The Christian, after all, knows that the choice he has made is the most reasonable one possible. He has entrusted his life and destiny to God, who has loved him so completely that He has given His Son for his salvation.

In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral there is a powerful scene, at the end, in which Thomas, the archbishop, declares his faith in triumphant terms when his assassins are hammering at the great doors of Canterbury Cathedral.

“We have fought the beast

And have conquered

Now is the triumph of the Cross, now

Open the door! I command it,

Open the door.”

This, I suggest, should be the attitude of the Church to the campus. The door is open for the Word to be spoken in ringing tones. It is the Word that gives the campus its reason for being, that gives it a cause to follow, that gives meaning to its existence and substance to its moral concern. And the Church calls the campus to be the community of faithful scholars dedicated to using its knowledge meaningfully for others.

The Word comes to man redeemingly not as law but as grace. In the context of campus life this means two things: (1) The Word gives the university its authentic freedom to be itself, and to use this freedom to increase man’s understanding of the universe in which he lives and of the God who called it into being through the Word; and (2) the Word comes through those who are committed bearers and sharers of it. Rejoicing in the glorious liberty of the children of God, they are free to be authentically human, and authentically gracious to all in every aspect of their academic lives. Such epistles, “known and read of all men,” communicate the living Word to those who are anxious about many things and hungry for the Bread of Life.

The campus is ready for the Word, but it needs those who will speak and live it.

Ernest Gordon is dean of the chapel at Princeton University. He has the M.A. from St. Andrews University, the B.D. and S.T.M. from Hartford Seminary, and the LL.D. from Bloomfield College. His book, “Through the Valley of the Kwai,” is published in seven languages.

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