From my perch on the wooden sled, I gazed down the snow-shrouded mountain.
What could go wrong?
I’d hiked to this chalet with my surrogate Swiss parents, who’d taken me in after my (lack of) travel plans left me stalled in Athens with no next destination. At that point in my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences, my itinerary had become entirely nonexistent—I mean—flexible. So, I’d strayed into snowy Switzerland utterly unprepared for winter, save for a second-hand coat I’d bought in Greece to replace two jackets I’d lost in Turkey. (Given that the coat possessed no hood, no pocket zippers, and no insulation along the entire front panel, I could understand why it had landed in a thrift store!)
Completing this questionable coat with borrowed boots, borrowed snow pants, borrowed mittens, and a cheap pair of aviators from Australia, I surveyed the alps from my borrowed sled. Behind me, scores of competent chalet-goers downed sausage and beer at picnic tables, from which they could best behold both the mountain vistas and my imminent demise.
“Ready?” asked my surrogate mom, sliding onto the sled behind me.
“I hope so.”
With a mighty push, we surrendered our sled to the whims of gravity—for a few glorious seconds.
The sled, now a squealing mass of wood and snow clothes, ground into a snowbank. I emerged from the wreckage and dusted off my thrift store jacket, jarred but alive. And good thing! I still needed to research what local students had to say about following Christ in Switzerland.
Worldview and Evolutionary Beliefs in Swiss Culture
Switzerland, like most other Western countries I’d visited, once embraced Christianity. As I explained in my last article, Switzerland’s culturally Christian roots extend back to when Rome occupied the nation just a few centuries after Christ. Except for some brief periods of pagan influence, Switzerland remained largely Roman Catholic until an event dubbed The Affair of the Sausages kickstarted the Swiss Protestant Reformation. The Reformation reset many people’s thinking back to the foundation of God’s Word rather than human reasoning, ideas, or traditions as the authority for truth. But about 300 years later, Darwin’s infamous book On the Origin of the Species, which was translated into German the following April,1 gave many Europeans a seemingly scientific reason to once again drift away from (or totally reject) absolute trust in God’s Word.
While Darwinism swept through academia in Germany like a firestorm, Darwin’s ideas encountered more mixed reviews among Swiss Scholars. While some 19th-century Swiss zoologists, like Ludwig Ruetimeyer, embraced evolution (if not natural selection and materialism), others including Louis Agassiz—one of the most influential scientists on earth at the time—outrightly rejected it.
Since then, Switzerland’s general public hasn’t necessary embraced evolution as fiercely as many other European countries may have. In one study surveying evolutionary beliefs across 34 countries, Switzerland ranked relatively low (22nd place) for public “acceptance”2 of evolution, with about 60% of Swiss adults believing in human evolution, compared to at least 80% in countries like France, Denmark, and Iceland.3 Shortly after the survey, another poll found that 75% of Swiss respondents were in favour of “equal rights” for teaching creation and evolution in biology classrooms.4 Some education researchers have also reported that 7th grade-level Swiss biology curricula in 2007 presented the biblical creation account, “creation myths,” and evolution as equivalent, and that Swiss students continue to encounter evolutionary teaching in grades 8, 9, 11 and 12.5 This makes sense, given that Switzerland is one of 60+ nations whose science education foundations signed that “scientific evidence has never contradicted” human evolution.6
Swiss Students’ Stories
So, how does all this affect Christian students in Switzerland today? To find out, I began by interviewing a young woman my host family connected me with, a teacher who had recently studied biology.
“What challenges did you encounter as a biology student?” I asked as we sat in her home.
“Most people asked me about evolution,” she responded, “about how I could study biology as a Christian. That was really question number one. To be honest, most Christians don’t really know what the evolution theory is about. But being one of the only Christians in biology gave me an opportunity to talk about those topics, and to show others that science and faith can go together.”7
Understandably, when Christians are such a minority that their presence is questioned in the classroom, campuses can be a lonely place for Christ-followers. As the biology graduate explained,
During my studies, I only knew maybe one or two Christians in my courses out of about 300 students. I still had Christian friends outside of university, but not in my classes. Being one of the few Christians was sometimes a bit challenging; sometimes I felt a little alone.
“Did you have a Christian group at university?” I asked, remembering how most students I’d interviewed had extolled the benefits of connecting with like-minded friends.
“More at church,” she said, “We had a student group that I went to in high school, but at university, not so much.”
“Did you hear negative comments about Christianity on campus?”
She grinned, tensing her lips as though trying not to laugh aloud. “We had a math lecturer who was clearly not a Christian. One time during the lecture, he said, ‘There is no God.’ Then, his power point crashed. He couldn’t start it for 10 or 15 minutes! When it started, he said, ‘Maybe there is a God!’ But during the other lectures, he often made negative comments against Christians and Christianity. Other professors, not so much.”
When I asked what her advice would be to other Christian students, she explained that when she studied abroad at Oxford, she drew incredibly valuable training from seminars by guest apologetics speakers. (Apologetics, or the rational defense of the Bible, is a type of intellectual foundation Christian students worldwide had been telling me helped them keep their faith at university.) In the biology graduate’s words,
I’d tell other students to make use of (apologetics) resources, and to not be scared of scientific topics.
“How can the church equip students to think about these topics?” I wanted to know.
“I think definitely by offering those types of talks about (worldview) topics,” she replied, “and by addressing those topics in church—questions that are difficult, but really important. As students, we are daily challenged with those types of topics and questions.”
As a real-world example of such daily challenges, a Swiss education student I later met at a church shared that when people learn she’s a Christian, they often ask her the same sorts of questions—especially regarding the Bible’s teachings on sexuality. These recurring questions provide gateways for gracious discussions pointing to God’s Word and the hope it presents. But to help students be ready for sharing this hope, churches and families must actively disciple youth to know what the Bible teaches, why those teachings are true, and how to communicate biblical truths in gentleness and respect, like 1 Peter 3:16 mandates. As the education student explained,
I once went to a church that had a training course which showed students how to discuss their faith with friends. Churches can use programs like that to prepare students to talk to people. Then we feel better too, knowing that we have an answer. This isn’t just important for college students, but also for everybody in the church.
The Moral of the Story
Because Switzerland, like so many other Western countries, no longer makes God’s Word its culture’s foundation for truth, Swiss Christian students naturally find themselves in the minority for their biblical beliefs. Now founded on man’s word, Swiss culture’s current consensus is that humans evolved apart from a Creator who defines truth, leaving moral values up to humans to decide.
Where cultural consensus, beliefs, and values conflict with the Bible, Christians are bound to encounter questions (if not direct challenges) from society. Christian students can expect to face this reality on campus as surely as tourists can expect to encounter gravity on mountain sleds. But like the Swiss Christians reminded me, apologetics and discussion training can help students launch into higher education prepared for the weather, rather than crash into the secular snowbanks with nothing but a jacket of second-hand convictions.
What other insights did European Christian students have up their coat sleeves?
Stay tuned for Part 22!