I am in the middle of a 6-part series helping Christian students think through how to prepare for life at a big university. This topic is particularly relevant, I hope, given the number of high school seniors who are in the middle of deciding where they will go to college in the fall.
This little series is based on a recent lecture I gave to the Regents School in Austin, Texas, where I laid out 6 principles designed to help rising college students think more clearly about what’s ahead. It’s also based on my book, Surviving Religion 101. You can read the prior installments here, here, and here.
We now come to a fourth thing that rising Christian college students need to know: “People don’t believe things simply because of the facts.”
OK, let me lay out what are probably the toughest questions being pondered by Christian college students: If Christianity is true, then why don’t more people believe it? And why does it seem like the smartest people around are precisely the ones who don’t believe? If Christianity was really true, if Christianity really made the most sense of the world, then wouldn’t most people accept it?
These questions will be particularly acute when it comes to professors. There they are, trained in some of the finest research universities in the world. Brilliant. Smart. Filled with knowledge. And there is the Christian student. A nineteen-year-old with no advanced degrees, no letters after their name, no credentials.
What are the chances that Christian students are right and these professors—nearly all of them—are wrong? It might seem that the chances of that are pretty low.
Indeed, if this issue is left unaddressed it will begin to gnaw away at you, like a sliver in your mind, creating doubts about what you believe. So it’s important to have an answer. It’s critical to understand why the intellectual landscape is what it is.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
The solution to this problem is to understand how people come to believe something is true. We tend to think that we discover truth by simply gathering facts together. And once we’ve gathered enough facts, we can know things about the world. This includes knowledge about small things, such as who invented the cotton gin and how planes fly, as well as big things, such as the origins of the universe and the existence of God.
It’s all very “scientific,” we think. To discover truth, you just have to put on the white lab coat and collect information.
But there happens to be a little problem here (and by little I mean big!). Science simply doesn’t work this way. In 1962, the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote a groundbreaking book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In that book he argued that science doesn’t work in this linear “just the facts, ma’am” sort of way. Instead, facts are collected, sifted, and interpreted in light of a person’s preexisting worldview—what Kuhn calls a “paradigm.”
Worldviews involve our most foundational commitments: where the world came from, our place in it, the purpose of life, the meaning of “right” and “wrong,” the existence of God (or gods), what happens when we die, and so on. Although everyone has a worldview, most people have not really thought much about their own. It’s just there in the background, conditioning and controlling their search for knowledge.
Having a worldview is kind of like wearing colored glasses. It affects everything you see, and you don’t even realize it. What counts as green, red, and orange is distorted by the lenses through which you are looking. So a worldview is not so much something you look at as something you look through.
Seeing What We Want to See
So, what does this mean for Christian students at college? It means that their professors (and their fellow students) are not neutral. They accept or reject beliefs because of earlier and more foundational beliefs they already hold. And if those more foundational beliefs are fundamentally hostile to Christianity, we should not be surprised that they reject the claims of Christianity when presented with them.
Sometimes we see what we want to see.
C.S. Lewis captured this reality well in his book The Magician’s Nephew. While Narnia is a land filled with magic—where animals can talk and even sing—not all people can hear them. Indeed, Uncle Andrew cannot. When the animals speak to him, Uncle Andrew hears only animal sounds. Just noise, not words. Why? He is closed to the idea of a magical world. He assumes (in his worldview) that animals are nothing but dumb creatures.
Thus, when Aslan sings, Uncle Andrew is able to rationalize it away: “‘Of course, it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’”
Then Lewis (as the narrator) offers the most profound insight: “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
Here’s the big point: the widespread rejection of Christianity by intellectual elites has nothing to do with whether Christianity is true. People cannot believe without the help of the Holy Spirit.
So, for those Christian students heading off to college, take a deep breath. There’s no need to panic about being so much in the minority. To some extent, that’s to be expected. Be patient and humble, trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to help people see the truth.
And that patient humility flows naturally from remembering that we, too, were once blind and in the dark. But God showed us his grace and opened our eyes to understand. We are Christians not because we are smarter or wiser than others, but because God was gracious to us.
As Augustine said: “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”