“Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason... The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.” (GK Chesterton)
College students who are utterly passionate about God are as rare as raindrops in the Sahara. Having worked with college and graduate students for about 20 years, I have searched diligently for students single-minded in their devotion to God—zealous for prayer, the Word, fasting, evangelism, and the church. Yet my search has been met with great disappointment. Simply ask yourself, “How many college-age students do I know who are on fire for the Lord, rejecting sin and using their youthful vigor for exploits in the kingdom?” How many of us look with astonishment at young people consumed with zeal for God’s house?
Yet often we see college students enraged, not about mockery of God’s name, but over a changing tide of political correctness. “You should not sleep at night – you are disgusting!” screamed a young woman at a Yale University professor in a video that went viral in 2016. The professor’s crime was asking students to tolerate and dialogue with other students over differences of opinion and practice. In a strange Orwellian manner, today’s university (with student support) often strives to destroy certain beliefs—especially those about faith.
What has gone wrong? How could institutions that were once deeply rooted in Christian faith now be snuffing it out? In the opening quote, Chesterton contends that people were once doubtful about themselves and confident in God’s truth. Today, they are the reverse: doubtful about God’s truth and confident in themselves. Basically, there has been an exchange.
The word exchange should reflexively carry the Christian’s mind to that memorable biblical passage, Romans 1. Few passages better portray the trajectory of our modern derangement. In the downward spiral, society exchanges the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). In such a manner, modern universities have exchanged what should be at the foundation of education, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” with “Expressing myself and seeking pleasure are the beginning of wisdom.”
Because society has rejected Christianity does not mean that society has exchanged dogmatism for skepticism. Chesterton elsewhere writes, “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is skeptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” I often meet people who confidently bellow about contradictions in the Bible, yet when you ask them to name one, they sheepishly admit they haven’t read the Bible. Yet how did they gain the confidence to make that statement? Their dogmatism has evaded even their own perception. How many times have you heard, “All paths lead to God”? Yet in the real world, do all roads lead to the same city? Where does such confidence come from to make such assertions? The confidence comes from the belief that if I think it or like it, it must be right. It is a pernicious form of self-worship.
In the book of Romans, the consequences of this exchange are chilling. “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:29-31). Pictured here as vessels being filled with noxious liquids, people are drained of faith and filled with every manner of evil.
The modern university has exchanged the truth of God for a lie. The fear of God is no longer the beginning of wisdom but the opponent of wisdom. Instead of confidence in God’s truth, students have a misplaced confidence in themselves. Today, the god of self-expression reigns from the Cloud. The nonprofit organization Common Sense media estimates that teens on average spend 9 hours a day on media (not counting time spent using media for doing homework). Instagram, Facebook, and the like are the new pulpits of our day.
It should be obvious why we do not have more young people passionate about God. The fear of God has been exchanged with self-expression and pleasure seeking. While self-expression and pleasure-seeking may be entertaining, it’s scarcely worth dying for. And they compete as idols for the affections that God desires.
Education is supposed to ground students squarely on unshakeable strength, but now grounds them in self-worship, man-made ideas, and the fleeting trends of cultural relativism. Little wonder that college is so often destructive to faith. Luther put it well, “I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth.”
There is a way back. We can remake higher education, starting with fear of the Lord and careful discipleship. With humility before our all-wise God as the foundation, learning can again strengthen the faith of students, rather than destroy it.