Studying Reality at the Secular University
A New Year of Study
About this time, a new year of study has just started in schools, colleges, and universities. In all these institutions of learning, the object of study is what one could call reality. It is what God in his creation has given us (see the editorial in the previous issue). Especially at the universities, the different fields of study and the amount of knowledge constantly increase. This can make studying an exciting business. The goal of all study is to gain knowledge, dependable true knowledge which builds up life.
Most universities and colleges are secular institutions of learning. Few are Christian. I am not dealing here with the question whether one should study at a Christian or at a secular university. My aim is to help Christian (and other) students studying at a secular university to realise what they should be aware of in this place which does not reckon with God and his Word. When involved in studying an aspect of God’s creation apart from the Creator, Christian students should watch out and be on the alert. They are the LORD’s covenant children and servants of Christ. Therefore, they must take heed not to become an integral part of this world and its mind set, but to remain different.
Maintain the Antithesis
The calling here too is to maintain the antithesis which God instituted in paradise after the fall in sin between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). The apostle Paul describes this antithesis in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17,
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For ... what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What has a believer in common with an unbeliever? ... ‘come out of them and be separate, says the LORD. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you. And you will be my sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.’
God’s Word concludes: “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence to God.” Loving the world means enmity toward God.
The Lord does not mean to say that his people cannot work or study in this world alongside unbelievers (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-11). However, He wants them not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). Believing Christian students will (and are to) apply to themselves what God’s Word says in 1 Timothy 4:4-5,
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer.
This picture of the Christian believer expresses well the contrast with a non-Christian. Christian believers reckon with God and his Word and live in close communion with their God in their studying while the non-Christian does not do this. The secular university presents in this respect a typically non-Christian environment. This, in fact, means an anti-Christian surrounding of what is called in God’s Word, “fools.”
The aim of this article is to aid the student in being aware of the character of the secular university “as God sees it.” Hereby I refer to two books. The first one is from Francis A. Schaeffer, a well-known Christian author. It was published some twenty-five years ago and has the title, How should we then live? 1
The second book is about ten years old and written by Eta Linnemann, a Christian New Testament scholar who turned from a fully liberal student and follower of her liberal professor into an “evangelical” believer. The title of this book is Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology. 2
I will quote extensively from this book. Because the author has been an insider, both as student and as professor, and has been converted, she is quite sharp and outspoken, yet usually correct in her judgments as far as I can see. I mention these books because both are written very specifically for university students, with the very goal to help them to see what they should see.
Both books show the roots of the secular character of the present university and give the historical philosophical development up to our time. Even though I do not stand behind everything that is written, I wish that both books, especially the booklet of Dr. Linnemann (although it might be hard to get hold of), would be in the hands of every Christian student at any university (also Christian ones) for an eye-opener. The title of Linnemann’s book gives the impression that she writes for theological students. In a way, this only applies to the second part. The first part deals with the historical philosophical development of all study at any western university. And even the second part presents instructive information for students in all disciplines. It shows that, at the secular university, theology is studied just like the other disciplines, in a “godless” manner.
Studying Creation the Classical Way
Dr. Linnemann states, “In the university, which from the start was an anti-Christian institution, there was soon no place for thinking which based itself consistently on God’s revelation in his Word” (p. 32). She says further, “Every student who entrusts himself to the university must accept the yoke of the atheistic intellectual starting point as an inescapable necessity ... They are permitted, to be sure, to have their faith in their private lives ... But they are forbidden to retain the living God and his Son Jesus Christ in their academic thinking, or to grant Him any material function therein. So they retain Jesus in their feelings, but they deny Him daily in their thinking, because this thinking follows atheistic, anti-Christian principles."(p. 33)
Both authors see the root of the present-day “anti-Christian” university in the Middle-Ages. About the thirteenth century, the Church of Rome allowed its teachers (especially Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274] can be mentioned, Schaeffer, pp. 51-56) to study and adopt the ideas and concepts of the classical Greek philosophy. This meant not just Plato’s ideas, but from then on, especially also Aristotle’s ideas were being learned. The church itself went along with their learned leaders in accepting those ideas as reliable and dependable truth when it came to the study of creation (man and his world).
An Improper Contrast
Herewith pagan thinking was adopted as truth in and by the church of Christ. For it meant, on the one hand, that a contrast (not just a distinction) was made and maintained between God/ spirit/grace and earth/physical-biological life/nature (influence of Plato). On the other hand, it meant that the world and the different phenomena in the world received separate attention and became objects of study by themselves, apart from God, their Creator and his Word (Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, see Schaeffer, pp. 51-56). As a consequence, the academic world of those days accepted a contrast between the way to obtain knowledge about God, redemption, and eternal life, and the way to obtain knowledge about earthly man with his earth and life on it. Dependable knowledge about God and his salvation is gained through revelation in the Scriptures by faith. Dependable knowledge about man (as part of this earth) and the earth is gained through man’s own careful scientific observation and logical (rational) reasoning, apart from God’s revelation in his Word.
What Aristotle meant is made clear from the description by Samuel Enoch Stumpf in his book about philosophy, Socrates to Sartre. He informs us that Aristotle:
invented the idea of the separate sciences. For him, there was a close connection between logic and science ... Science, as Aristotle understood it, consisted of true statements that accounted for the reasons why things behave as they do and why they have to be as they are. In this sense, science consists in the knowledge of the fact that and of the reason why. It includes both observation and a theory that explains what is observed. For example, one can observe steam coming from a kettle on the stove, but this mere observation does not by itself enable us to define “steam” in any systematic or scientific manner. A scientific statement about this observation would reflect a careful sorting out of the essential elements of this observation, setting aside all irrelevant details or “accidents” such as the particular fuel used for the fire and the kind of vessel used for the water, focusing squarely upon the special kind of event this is, the production of steam, and giving reasons for the occurrence of this event by relating heat, water, and steam in such a way that one can know, have proof, why and under what conditions heat and water produce steam. The most important thing in science is therefore the language in which it is formulated.3
This theory of Aristotle about the method and principle of obtaining dependable knowledge has been the rule at the university since the late Middle-Ages until our time. It is only now losing its force (at least somewhat) in present-day post-modernism (see the articles of Dr. F.G. Oosterhoff 4).
The result of Aquinas’s introduction of Aristotle’s philosophy was, thus, a principal division in man’s body of knowledge. The study of the knowledge about God (theology) was separated from all other study (philosophy, then the collective name for all other study). This foundational rift between grace and nature, and consequently between the assumed subjective faith-knowledge about God and salvation through revelation, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the assumed objective, neutral, scientific knowledge about man and his world and life here on earth through man’s own rational, critical observation and scientific reason, was at first very subtle and hardly visible.
Practically all scholars in the academic world in the Middle-Ages and immediately afterward were Christians. They believed in God. They believed that the earth was created by Him. For them theology was the “queen” of all knowledge and study. Philosophy was her “handmaid.” But gradually, the rift grew deeper and became more visible. This happened in the first place through the Renaissance (the 14th to the 16th centuries). The word means “rebirth” and points to the “rebirth” of the humanistic philosophy of the classical Greek and Roman period.
The thinking of Greek and Roman philosophy is characterized by the saying, “man is the measure of all things.” In the Renaissance, the “handmaid” began to liberate herself from her subservient position under the “queen” and to conquer a position of independence and equality. In the subsequent philosophical movement of the Enlightenment (about the 18th century) and afterward, the “handmaid” became the “queen.” The “queen” theology was subjected to her former “handmaid” human philosophy (including, among others, the sciences). Human reason, not God’s revelation in his Word, determined what could be and was true and what could not be true. (The beginning of the rule of human reason over God’s Word is visible in the struggle around the Canons of Dordt.)
Rejection of God and his Word
The movement of the Enlightenment led eventually to the total rejection of God and his Word in all scholarship, not only in all the natural sciences and all humanities, but even in theology. Man again became entirely the measure of all things in academics. Man determined what his “god” had to be and was. The “god” he formed for himself in his rational thinking was his man-made and manlike idol.
This result is still present in the 19th and 20th centuries. Man does not give a place any more to the living, active Creator in the study of his creation. But also the liberal theological scholar has dismissed the living God from the study of theology and of the Bible. The Bible is no longer the book of the self-revelation of the living God. The study of theology is viewed as the study of the mythical faith-contents of what people in the Old and New Testament times believed. Theology has become the study of human religion as a human phenomenon. Man has also here become the measure of all things. Knowledge about God from above has become knowledge about the history of human religious ideas and concepts about “god” coming from below, from man himself. This knowledge about the religion of Israel and that of the early church could also only be obtained through historical critical (scholarly) observation and rational critical reasoning. Only the results of such study are said to present dependable truth. This point of what liberal theology is and how it works is the topic of the second part of Dr. Linnemann’s book.
To summarize the above, the secular university has agreed on this axiom, this foundational presupposition for all its study, that mostly all true dependable knowledge is and only can be obtained through observation of the world and through careful logic reasoning about what is observed. Dependable knowledge is that knowledge which is scientifically verifiable and verified. Here is not just the denial of God’s active involvement in the world; here is the denial all together of God’s very existence. Man has reasoned himself into an atheist, the “fool” of Psalm 14.
The above is a brief rendering of the picture of the historical development toward and the present condition of the secular university and all study there, including (Christian) theology, as Schaeffer and Linnemann paint it before our eyes. On this basis Linnemann comes to her conclusion that the secular university is “anti-Christian” and “godless.” Both authors protest against this studying of reality which is not the real, true reality, since the living God has no place in it. We must agree. This protest is correct. This leads us to the next question.
Can Knowledge be Dependable?
In a separate interesting section (pages 64-71), Linnenann deals with “The Dependability of Thought.” She means scientific, rational human thinking as it is done at the secular university. She begins with stating:
We are accustomed to regarding thought that is disciplined and regulated by scientific principles as reliable. Further, we are accustomed, not only to distinguishing between faith and thought, but also to separating them from each other, so that faith is banned from the realm of thought, and thought deems itself to be excluded from the realm of faith. Both of these customary viewpoints which we have thoroughly accepted are highly deceptive.
This is because it is “through an anti-Christian decision” that “thought is so defined as to exclude God.” What she means is that “in the perception of reality, the Creator of reality is not permitted to be taken into account.” God teaches in his Word that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom.” Over against this truth, the student at the secular university “gains the impression ... that his thinking ... is dependable.” For “the student who undergoes or has completed critical study, is usually profoundly convinced of the dependability of scientific thought.” This is so, even though today “philosophers of science are increasingly aware of the foundational crisis in science.” Dr. Linnemann, then, makes the remark that this conviction of the dependability of critical scientific thinking by itself has no solid basis. It rests on “a confusion between the functional code system (that is, assumed presuppositions, J.G.) by means of which we have agreed to talk about reality and reality itself” (p. 65). These presuppositions, which have to function as a reliable foundation for studying reality, are “highly deceptive” since (she repeats) “in the perception of (this) reality, the Creator of reality is not permitted to be taken into account.” Therefore, the decision to agree upon these presuppositions is “an anti-Christian decision.” (p. 64).
Dr. Linnemann acknowledges that scientific thinking has come and does come with true statements about reality. Science has discovered reliable facts in its research of creation. We can mention as examples many technical achievements in manufacturing machines, in electronic devices, in chemical products such as plastics, in medicines, and so on, which are based on discoveries of how creation works. The application of such “mechanisms” in creation determines our way of life in the 21st century. Thus, there are positive results of orderly thought, through which scientists have produced valid inventions.
But, according to Linnemann, “all valid inventions are imitations or applications of the creation God himself has made. The principles God applied in his creation are recognized and applied. At best, then, the natural sciences are a rethinking of God’s thoughts.”
She presents as examples: “the production of paper out of wood” as “learned from the wasp,” “aeronautical principles from birds,” and “the principle of helicopter flight from the dragonfly.” However, says Linnemann, “there exists the danger ... of perverting the insights gained from God’s creation through influences from tendencies which are inimical to God, man, and creation.” Where man does not reckon with God as Creator, he does not take God’s will into account either. With the insights gained from scientific research of creation, man goes his own way and comes with products that do not preserve and build up life, but have polluting and destructive results.
She mentions the jet air plane. Perhaps the gas guzzling and unsafe Concorde is even a better example. But also many of the insecticides and pesticides as well as certain medicines like the RU-486 have been destructive for life on earth. Especially the last hundred years have seen the extinction of a number of animals and the death of many people. While many inventions have a positive result, often the same basic invention is used for evil and destructive purposes when used for gaining riches or power or both. Looking at the many negative results, the question of the dependability of human scientific knowledge must certainly receive an answer that is negative to a large extent. And when these results are placed in the light of God’s will, this negative answer becomes so much more evident.
Danger in the Humanities
We read further that what is a danger in the natural sciences (the study of nature, such as physics and chemistry) becomes even more dangerous in the humanities (the study of man, such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics). For the humanities use examples from the natural sciences to establish the dependability of human thinking. In the humanities, however, human reasoning is much less objectively based than in the natural sciences; in the latter the “facts” are much more objectively verifiable.
The humanities lack the guiding safeguard of an external created order, if not always totally then at least substantially. Therefore, “if not grounded in God’s Word, the humanities utterly lack objective footing, while the natural sciences possess a corrective at least in creation.” (p. 67)
Further, this assumption that man is capable of “a neutral, objective and effective” dependable thinking is even more lacking a good basis because of “the reality of the Fall in sin (Genesis 3), along with resulting human depravity and need for redemption” (p. 40). Fallen man is corrupted in his thinking. And his thinking is based on deception when he, in spite of this corruption, maintains that he is not corrupted. Restoration of human thinking toward dependability begins with regeneration through the Holy Spirit and the consequent humble submission to God’s Word. It originates in the fear of the Lord. It has its basis in the gospel which teaches us that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3; referred to on pages 24, 36, 59).
Science in Crisis
I like to end with what Linnemann says (quoted above) as a side-remark, namely that “philosophers of science are increasingly aware of the foundational crisis in science.” This needs some elaboration. “Science” is here the natural sciences. Linnemann most likely alludes to the fact that the old certainties in the natural sciences are no longer certain since the impact of “the revolution in physics.” This revolution was brought about through the relativity theory of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and the theory of quantum mechanics of Max Planck (1858-1947), specifically as the latter was applied “to the structure of the atom” by Niels Bohr (1886-1961). Physics after these scientists is called “the new physics.” The old science was based on the “mechanical model” which is the theory that all things in nature work according to set laws (unchanging mechanics) of cause and effect in a deterministic system. The way in which the laws of nature work today is the same as it always has been in the past and will always be in the future. However, it was discovered that with the atom, things did not work according to this “mechanical model.” The microscopic world of the atom “is unlike the macroscopic world familiar to us in everyday experience.” In connection with this, I refer the reader to The Soul of Science, chapter 9, pages 187-189. 5
The result of this “new physics” is for many a cause of fundamental uncertainty, not only in science, but also in life. With the old “Newtonian faith splintered upon the rocky shores of the new physics,” a certain Mr. Shaw laments, “what is left of it? The orbit of the electron obeys no law, it chooses one path and rejects another ... All is caprice, the calculable world has become incalculable.”6
The Certainty of the Christian Student
Well, as Christians, also as Christian students at the university, we do not panic. Our certainty is not science. It is not our human scientific observation and logical reasoning either. Our certainty and daily guide is the Word of the living, triune God who created all things and upholds them through his Son, who redeems and restores what was created through Him, and who sanctifies this restored creation through his Holy Spirit on the basis of his atoning blood, as a small beginning in this life already (Colossians 1:15-20 and 3:12-4:1).
We return here to 1 Timothy 4:4-5:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected. This includes the study of creation. If, says Paul, it is received with thanksgiving.
This is the first element of the means of consecrating creation again: giving thanks for what God gives. The students receive their study as a gift from the LORD God and they daily thank the LORD for it. Thanking God implies acknowledging Him as your God, your Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier, and thus consciously serving Him in and with your study. In that way of giving thanks for your study, such study should not be rejected. “For,” so the apostle goes on, “it is consecrated by the Word of God and by prayer.” As a believer in God, you believe that your Saviour, God’s Son, reconciled you with God through the blood of the cross and made you God’s adopted child. You believe that He, through the Holy Spirit, regenerates you and makes you live out of faith, so that your life, including your study, is dedicated to your God and his service. This means the glory of his Name, the coming of his Kingdom, and obedience to his will. It includes the building of his people together with your brothers and sisters in and outside the university, being a hand and a foot for each other.
Consecrating your study to the Lord in a hostile, worldly environment is not easy. It means constantly and consistently seeking the wisdom and guidance of God’s Word. For that Word, too, is the means for this consecrating. And this unceasing study of God’s Word is (to be) accompanied by the third means of consecration: prayer. Word and prayer: listening to God and then asking for wisdom and strength from Him.
The Christian students who study in this way may trust that their Lord will guide them, even in godless surroundings.
More could be quoted. Enough has been said. Find the books. Read them, in particular the one of Dr. Linnemann. It will be really helpful for all who study at any university.