Does Academia Lead to Losing your Faith

“Why is it that, from what I’ve seen and heard in general, otherwise conservative and/or reformed students and scholars who delve deep into the biblical languages and biblical studies tend to end up with a more liberal view of the inerrancy/infallibility of scripture? Is it inevitable that, with a high knowledge of the languages and ‘issues’ within the text and amongst the manuscript criticism, etc., one ends up with a weaker view?”

My favorite T-shirt from the University of Virginia contains the following quotation from its founder, Mr. Jefferson.  “Here we are not afraid to pursue truth wherever it may lead nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”  Certainly Thomas Jefferson was no staunch defender of orthodox Christian faith, but I agree with him in this viewpoint.  Far from needing to fear the very best of scholarship, Christianity benefits from it.

Although it is certainly possible for one to lose one’s faith through a rigorous academic program, and you are correct in noting anecdotal evidence for such a thing to happen, it is by no means inevitable.  I know of more evangelical students, who have moved from solid seminaries and graduate schools to pursue doctoral studies in the mainstream of respected academia, who have kept their faith than who have lost it.  From my observation over the years there seem to be three conditions that need to be present for someone to profit from higher education rather than to be harmed by it.

The first of these conditions is a strong foundation in God.  Those scholars who have laid the groundwork for commitment to Christ and his Word under the tutelage of evangelical mentors seem not to get rocked off their moorings when the storms and stresses of doctoral work come crashing down on them.  As in the parable Jesus told in Matthew 7, these students are committed both to hearing AND to doing God’s word.  Their’s is a faith of the heart as well as of the head.

The second condition that I have noticed in academics who keep their faith through graduate study is a strong sense of the call of God.  They are not pursuing this program because of prestige or the prospect of a higher salary but because they feel persuaded by their own internal conviction and the confirmation of others they respect that they have the gifts and the obligation to serve humanity through and perhaps in higher education.  Like Daniel, they have resolved not to defile themselves through the king’s choice food, so when the strong temptation to “group think” comes to them, they are able to resist.  They are not seeking the approval of their instructors nearly so much as they are seeking the approval of God, who is honored by careful and diligent scholarship.  They are respectful of their tutors, but they are not in awe of them.

The third condition I have in mind for helping someone emerge from graduate study stronger rather than weaker in faith is a strong tie to the people of God.  Balance in life, regular worship, and commitment to other believers in a local church go a long way to maintaining encouragement in that difficult course.  In I Corinthians 8:1 Paul observed that knowledge puffs up but love builds up.  Scholars need the edification of brothers and sisters just as much as anyone else.

I am not suggesting that anyone who has fallen from faith in graduate school must have lacked one or more of these conditions.  Why anyone falls away from following Jesus is a complex explanation known only to God.  But I do believe that with these three conditions in place, it is not likely that one will stumble to the hooding ceremony.

David Bowen, PhD
Vanderbilt University