Here’s today’s question: “Dear Pastor John, I’m a female student at a secular university. I’m normally pretty joyful in my relationship with God and in day-to-day living. However, the wickedness of my surroundings continues to grieve me.
“Today in lecture I could barely keep from crying as we discussed a novel so full of depravity I decided to just read the Spark Notes of the book instead of the book itself. But even the summary is hard to read. My heart is so weighed down and broken. I feel that I am the only one who even senses the evil around me, and I mourn that I am in a setting that is forcing me into a knowledge that seems premature.
“I don’t understand their pragmatic justifications. Every poem, short story, and novel we have covered is filled with sex, rape, grotesque and graphic depictions of murder, infanticide, slavery, and cursing. It makes me so weary. And they call those things ‘morally ambiguous.’ What can I do? What should I do?” Pastor John, what would you say to this female college student?
Shaping a Mind
Wow, there are so many different angles that we could come at this. I mean, I could camp on that word morally ambiguous and say, “Are you kidding me? Just have one of their children raped and see if they call it ‘morally ambiguous.’ That’s a lot of baloney.”
“Almost everything we need to know we get by learning and education.”
But I’m not going to come at it that way. This may be a good occasion to give a few thoughts about my understanding of the way Christians should seek to be educated. That’s the direction I’m going to go, and I just apologize ahead of time if that’s not what she needs most. But it just felt like I should do this.
When I say “how we should be educated,” I mean, first, How should our character be formed from the time we’re little to the time we’re eighty? Second, how should our worldview be shaped? Who should shape it? How should it be shaped? Who should shape the way we view everything? And, third, how should we be equipped with the necessary skills for the particular calling we have? Those three things are what I mean by education.
Every Parent a Teacher
I start with the conviction that human beings don’t come into the world like birds and squirrels, with incredible instincts built into their DNA that enable them to fly and hunt and jump. I watched a squirrel outside my window jump from limb to limb. I said, “That’s just absolutely incredible that it can do that and know exactly where to land, even though the limb that he’s jumping from is going to give way under his feet, and he has to know how hard to push off.” You can see I’m just amazed every day.
Human beings come into the world with virtually zero education, except maybe the sucking reflex, right? Thank God for that. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. But we poor human beings have to learn almost everything through what others show us or by trial and error. So almost everything we need to know we get by learning and education.
All our education comes to us by someone or some experience that we have. The Bible charges parents first and foremost with this job of educating little bitty human beings who don’t know anything and would perish if you left them alone. Deuteronomy says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). That’s one of the most important instructions in the Bible.
Here is Ephesians 6: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4). Don’t leave them to find things out by themselves. It is just crazy to treat children as though they shouldn’t be instructed in the way of the Lord.
Learning from the Wise
Then besides parents, the Bible says that there are sages or wise men or wise women from whom we can gain much wisdom and knowledge. It’s another dimension of education:
“From the time we are children, we are to keep on growing in the knowledge and understanding of the Lord.”
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life. (Proverbs 13:14)
The lips of the wise spread knowledge. (Proverbs 15:7)
Then the New Testament says that God has ordained that there be teachers in the church, and they help us grow in knowledge and understanding.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers. (Hebrews 5:12)
God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. (1 Corinthians 12:28)
From the time we are children, we are to keep on learning — keep on growing in the knowledge and understanding of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18). Education, therefore, is not just a phase of life. It’s not that we have to go to school for twelve years or sixteen years or whatever. It’s part of life to the very end.
Up until now, all I’ve said is that the Bible points toward the shaping of our character, and the learning of our worldview, and the gaining of our skills from fellow believers, parents, wise people, and teachers. That is the main point.
Unbelievers will not be able to teach us the most important things we need to know about God and about his ways in the world. Nevertheless, that’s not all that the Bible has to say about education. It tells us that we should have our eyes open and become serious observers of the world.
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. (Proverbs 6:6)
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin. (Matthew 6:28)
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 6:26)
Or “Study the weather” (Matthew 16:1–4), “learn to read” (Ephesians 3:4), “use your reason” (Isaiah 1:18), “do not be children in your thinking” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
In general, we could say that there are two kinds of knowledge Christians gain in school and in lifelong education. One is knowledge of God and his ways and his world. That is distinctively Christian. The other is knowledge that overlaps with what unbelievers know. For example, two plus two is four, grammatical rules, chemical processes, laws of physics, human anatomy. These are the thousands of aspects of common experience of the world that we share with unbelievers.
You’re wondering, “Where is he going with this?” Well, now I’m starting to get to her situation a little bit. To the degree that a body of knowledge can be known by an unbeliever, to that degree can we be educated by an unbeliever — keeping in mind of course, that this body of knowledge will be fully understood only in its relation to God’s hand in creation, his hand in providence, his hand in leading it to its ultimate purposes. But there’s an overlap between knowledge that unbelievers have and knowledge that we need. We can be educated in some dimension to the degree that that knowledge is shared.
“Unbelievers will not be able to teach us the most important things we need to know about God and about his ways in the world.”
Now here’s the flip side of that point. It sounds like she’s in a class of literature maybe, say modern American literature. To the degree that a body of knowledge is misunderstood and wrongly evaluated by an unbeliever, to that degree should we avoid being educated by an unbeliever.
In other words, it’s a matter of degree here. To the degree that they’re giving bad information and bad evaluation, they’re going to be less useful for the believer — or really for anybody for that matter.
What this means in the university, generally, is that in the hard sciences, the overlap of knowledge between believer and unbeliever is greater. In the humanities and social sciences, the overlap is smaller and becomes increasingly problematic. In other words, these disciplines reveal almost immediately that value judgments form the warp and woof of the subject matter — value judgments, for example, about what is beautiful and ugly in this literature, what’s right and wrong, good and bad, helpful and harmful, just and unjust, loving and unloving.
To the degree that a teacher sees the subject matter in a way that is contrary to the Scriptures, and contrary to a biblical worldview, to that degree it will be difficult to get the kind of education in that class that the Lord wants us to get.
All that to say to our friend who is so distressed in her university class that glories in shame: try to discern ahead of time which teachers and which classes will distort the body of knowledge that you want to get. Try to discern which distort the value judgments that you want to form, and avoid those classes and teachers by and large. This might mean changing schools. It might simply mean being more selective in the courses and teachers you choose.
I’ll close by saying that I personally am jealous for young people, especially Christian young people, to be exposed to great Christian thinking.
Most students in secular schools don’t even get exposed to great Christian thinking. To me, that’s a tragedy. I would encourage college-bound young people to make that a priority. Find a school where you can be exposed to the greatest Christian thinking about the subjects you love.