“Lord. please guide my steps,” I prayed, ascending a university stairway, “because I have no idea what I’m doing.”
It’s not like I knew anyone on campus. But before beginning my mission (to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days) documenting how Christian students keep their faith in secular education, I’d decided to “test run” the project at some Canadian universities. All I’d have to do was show up at a few campuses, investigate what spiritual pressures students experience, and find some Christians to interview. Easy, right?
As I approached the first campus’s imposing structures, “easy” began looking a touch optimistic. But perhaps, posters around campus could tell me about the university’s spiritual climate. So, with the hopefulness of a hamster determined to find a single peanut in a city-sized maze, I began wandering around campus just scanning bulletin boards.
At this campus (and other Canadian universities) I surveyed posters promoting everything from Bible studies to eastern spirituality classes to nightclub crawls. Political propaganda waved from various signposts, including one poster telling students to join Canada’s Young Communist League. Meanwhile, highly secularized messages about sexuality papered many hallways, presented together with assorted pamphlets, buttons and other free paraphernalia.
The ideas I found rioting on the bulletin boards reflected how Canadian culture has long abandoned God’s word as its source of authoritative truth. When we dismissed the Bible as a scientifically irrelevant myth, we presumed the right to establish truth ourselves. Concepts of right, wrong, personhood, family and other core human elements became ours to define, interpret, re-define and re-interpret however we chose. Without God’s word as our culture’s absolute foundation for truth, “truth” became a Jell-O salad of subjective personal tastes.
Almost 10 years had passed since I’d first heard Ken Ham explain all this in an Answers in Genesis seminar. He’d described how the foundation for our thinking—God’s word or man’s word—affects our approach to every area of life. Now, looking at the bulletin boards, I could see what he meant. All these posters were symptoms of Canada founding its thinking on man’s word, believing that, as one of my own professors asserted, “People created God.”
This belief, together with all the secular worldviews it spawns, requires unguided evolution to explain human origins. So, the sight of evolutionary messages throughout the campuses hardly surprised me. From fossil displays in science buildings, to posters outside labs, to cartoons on professors’ doors, the story rang consistent: Evolution created us. And if evolution created us, then the Genesis account of human origins is mythical. Yet, as I’d also learned in that seminar by Ken Ham, Genesis 1-11 directly or indirectly provides the basis for every major doctrine in the Christian worldview. A worldview based on myth would be something to ridicule, not discuss. Perhaps that’s why I found not only evolutionary messages outside some professors’ doors, but also cartoons explicitly mocking Christianity.
Memorably, one cartoon depicted Moses and Jesus with the penciled-in caption, “When fables collide.” If God inspired Moses to write Genesis, yet Moses is a fable, then why shouldn’t Christ’s teachings be fables either? As Jesus told the Pharisees,
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”1
Despite this point, even the religious studies building at one major university I visited featured a display of faculty-authored books promoting theistic evolution—the idea the God used evolution to create humans and every other living thing. Unfortunately, this reflects how often Christians feel compelled to embrace the very paradigm which those who reject God must uphold to dismiss His word as irrelevant.
While still in the religious studies building, I decided to find someone to interview. But what could I say— “Hi, I’m looking for information about the spiritual climate on campus?” That would never do.
“Can I help you?” a lady suddenly asked, stepping out of an office.
“Hi! I’m looking for information about the spiritual climate on campus!” I essentially explained.
First, she just blinked. But eventually, she pointed me to chaplaincy centre, where I noticed business cards for a Wiccan chaplain posted on the walls.
“Are you looking for someone?” a voice inquired.
I turned to see a bearded man, who introduced himself as a Christian Chaplain and former youth pastor. Now here was someone to interview!
When I asked what most people believe on campus, he explained how the norm is pluralism—the idea that all “truth claims” are equally valid (except for Christ’s claim to be the only Way to God).
“There is some hostility reserved specifically for Christians,” he observed, noting that this hostility varies by faculty, with fields like anthropology being among the most difficult. Recalling my own experiences studying anthropology, where my professor questioned Christ’s existence, advised students who didn’t accept evolutionary human origins to reconsider attending class, and suggested that there’s no difference between teaching kids about Jesus and Santa, I had to agree.
“A very painful thing for me to watch,” he confided, “is when people that I’ve walked alongside as a youth pastor and tried my best to prepare for life at university lose their faith. I find most often that it’s because they were sheltered from very real ideas that others buy into as truth, like evolution…When students get to university, they meet this theory held as valid for so many, and they feel like they’ve been betrayed by their faith community. They reject their faith because it has no traction in the world that they’re in now.”2
Interesting. I remembered that the book, Already Gone, reached the same conclusion, documenting that a main reason why youth leave the church is a lack of training in apologetics, or the defense of the Christian faith.
As a student in secular university myself, I’d learned firsthand how apologetics training is crucial for building intellectual foundations to respond to questions, opinions and arguments that challenge a biblical worldview. But in addition to intellectual foundations, I’d also experienced the importance of having interpersonal foundations—a strong Christian support network. The chaplain observed this too, citing research which showed that religious teens who had strong relationships with religious adults were the most likely to stay religiously committed into young adulthood.3
“Having just one committed Christian adult in a student’s life makes a huge difference,” he summarized. “I want to be that one adult.”
Interestingly, Christian students I later spoke with in another Canadian province offered this same insight: Christian students want and need meaningful connections with godly older mentors who will pray with them, encourage their faith, and discuss their tough questions.
Certainly, my Canadian “test run” of 360 in 180 gave me much to consider. First, the posters around Canadian campuses revealed what happens when a culture founds its thinking on man’s word instead of God’s. Second, the universities’ evolutionary emphasis, combined with cartoons mocking Christianity, reflected why so many Canadians found our thinking on man’s word: we’ve dismissed God’s word as scientifically irrelevant. Third, the theistic evolution books in the religious building reminded me how Christians may also feel obligated to dismiss God’s word regarding origins, reinterpreting Scripture around the evolutionary story. Fourth, the chaplain’s observations about youth leaving church confirmed students’ need for apologetics training to defend their worldview. But finally, the chaplain and Christian students offered a hopeful message too: with apologetics resources and biblical mentors, youth can build the foundations necessary for keeping their faith throughout university.
Would these same lessons also be clear in the next countries I’d visit?
There was only one way to find out.
“Please guide my steps,” I soon prayed, ascending the ramp to an Australian-bound jet, “because I still have no idea what I’m doing.” (Stay tuned for Part 5!)