A Reflection on a Spiritual Pilgrimage, or “What UBC did to me and for me”
Growing up in a Christian home and in a predominantly Mennonite community can bring with it many benefits and blessings but also some consequential, even daunting, challenges. For me and for many young Mennonite students in the 1950s, part of the first major Mennonite student presence at the University of British Columbia, then the only public university in BC, the foray into the academic world became an extremely important undertaking. The interface of an agrarian-based Mennonite worldview with the culture of a secular university generated major challenges.
In my university studies I encountered challenges and intellectual temptations. Some aspects of my tradition and sheltered training were inadequate, others were very beneficial.
THE BENEFITS OF MENNONITE COMMUNITY
My somewhat sheltered upbringing in the Fraser Valley inculcated in me a New Testament-rooted ethic, a service-oriented mindset, and a strong sense of ethno-religious community and identity. In addition the values in our home gave me a focused commitment to work hard, and a strong motivation to achieve as much as possible and, if possible, to excel. The combined home and church environment taught me the importance of integrity, nurtured a sense of accountability to God and constantly emphasized developing a right relationship with God.
In my home community the dominant threads of the social fabric included a functional family which provided unconditional love and support and a large and fairly interactive clan. Families visited frequently. They also included the church with its religious and social roles, an ethno-religious social community consisting almost entirely of Mennonites of similar stripe, and a mostly homogeneous circle of church-based friends. This milieu generated broad agreement on ethical values and appropriate behavior. In addition, for better or worse, there was an emphasis on affirmative rather than critical thinking. I also absorbed an underlying but mostly unspoken expectation that everyone in the community, but especially the younger set, should take advantage of opportunities for material and vocational advancement. It was important to “get ahead.”
At the time I greatly valued such a background. I continue to value it today even though I acknowledge that it was less than perfect. The significance of such a package of benefits should not be minimized or forgotten. Whatever its shortcomings and gaps, this typical Mennonite background provided me with some fixed reference points, a moral compass, and some habits which have stood me in good stead ever since.
The values and perspectives which we absorb during our formative years influence us for life, whether we continue to accept them, modify them, or reject them. I mainly continued to embrace those which nurtured me while also modifying others as necessary. The ideological and religious environment in which I grew up did not give much place to critical inquiry. It was not that the adults, especially the leaders, did not possess the intellectual capacity, it was rather the case that they had very limited personal academic experience in such matters and that they were mostly pre-occupied with moving up from the socio-economic lower class to the more respected middle class. They cleared land, established modest mixed farms, took side jobs, slowly penetrated the vocations and then even the professions, and generally worked very hard so that the next generation would have better opportunities.
Most of the religious leaders—preachers and church teachers—spoke clearly and forcefully about the faith but generally not about academic questions about the faith. They emphasized Bible study and prayer and a holy walk with God. They did this well. Granted, in the local Mennonite high school and Bible School—most Mennonite young people seemed to attend one or the other or both as I also did for a total of six years—we were introduced to some controversial theological issues but here, too, the focus was more on learning the truth and proclaiming the truth than on analyzing the truth. Thus I developed a defensive mindset but I also did acquire a set of values to defend!
While the university and university education were generally held in high regard, there was also more than a little suspicion and fear in the community climate. Although I never heard anyone say that Christian faith requires suspending the intellect, there was some anti-intellectualism in the air. One certainly encountered humor, in Low German and High German, which leaned in that direction. In the Niebuhrian spectrum of how Christ can relate to culture, the most prevalent option as I sensed matters was not “Christ of Culture” or “Christ and Culture” but “Christ against Culture.” 1 It would have been helpful for me and for many others if in those years someone had pointed out that the university movement was created by the Christian church and that the knowledge of ancient times was preserved, propagated and expanded by church clerics associated with advanced learning centers.
But I must not be too critical of the religious and intellectual trendsetters in my home community. Their character, their ethics, their integrity, their value system, and their readiness to serve others compare very favorably to the traits I observed in most of my university professors. Probably that is a more significant measure of significance than the level of academic achievement.
The challenges when I arrived at the university were substantial. I had developed sound study habits, had a strong academic preparation, was highly motivated, and had been well schooled in economic resourcefulness. This last element was exceptionally useful given my meager student budget. I had not, however, been adequately prepared intellectually, defining the term broadly. Concerning university studies I had received more warnings than preparation. Neither high school, nor Bible School, nor church involvements of many kinds had prepared me for the culture shock.
When I enrolled at UBC I found myself in another world, socially, ethically and intellectually. My traditional ethical values were challenged, my worldview was questioned, and the perspectives on faith were decidedly liberal. Moreover, almost all of my new role models—and I quickly developed great admiration for several very knowledgeable and personable professors—challenged what my previous and still continuing role models had preached and practiced in my home community in “the Valley.” I soon observed how the spiritual dimension was, by and large, trumped by the intellectual. The categories and fixed boundaries, which I had acquired as a child and which had been carefully nurtured, now gradually became less self-evidently true.
In my interaction with professors and students I found it difficult to become part of a community which was much more inclined to reject the evangelical sector than to understand it. It was painful to hear, in barely camouflaged words, the assumption that smart people outgrow God. At the time I had neither the knowledge nor the courage to reply with Charles Malik’s candid assertion that “The universities would not have come into being in the first place without Christ.” 2 While few professors took advantage of their status to belittle student beliefs, those who did illustrate a trend which I have encountered in many academic situations during the intervening years, namely, that anti-evangelicalism is the anti-semitism embraced by many intellectuals. In this regard I am reminded of Iain Benson’s comment that “A blinkered secularism is no better than theological dogmatism.” 3
LIVING IN TWO WORLDS
Scores of young Mennonite students from the Fraser Valley, and a handful from the big city of Vancouver itself, suddenly found ourselves living in two worlds, the university world and the familiar home community. In part this was a time-bound and location-based bifurcation. Weekdays we were on campus; most weekends, especially in the first year or two, those of us from the Valley retreated to the familiar and psychologically supportive home sanctuaries of the heavily Mennonite home communities. Back home our traditional values and worldview were reinforced. Family and friends continued to impact us. Bringing substantial “care packages” from home helped to sustain these family and community ties. During the week we functioned in the partly daunting and partly liberating UBC milieu. In part this bifurcation was also intellectual. Some of us, at least, with part of our minds clung to the fixed notions of the past but with part of our minds we also accepted the new values we encountered.
For some of us, perhaps many, this environmental and situational duality became frustrating as we progressed in the intellectual life and training offered by the university. Even though we became rather comfortable in the academic setting, we faced numerous challenges.
For some Mennonite students the university campus was largely, if not primarily, a place where we should witness to others about Christian truth. How should we do that? I recall that one day I asked a new friend whether he thought that the Bible was inspired. He thought a bit and then said, “Yes, just like Shakespeare.” My approach had not been very successful. I had not prepared myself for that response.
As young adults we faced the challenge of how to develop greater autonomy within our families. As frequently absent members, we also struggled with the challenge of applying our independence of thought in our churches without becoming rebellious or, equally important, being perceived as rebellious. Some of us began asking a lot of questions. That raised some eyebrows and, as I recall, some hackles.
We had to learn how to question some things without questioning all things. The questioning mode is quickly learned and easily applied. Both we and our erstwhile church mentors at times found it difficult to determine what issues fell within the boundaries of responsible dialogue and questioning. At times the line between merely holding differing views and actually rejecting assertions became blurred. Like sophomores who relish the headiness of initial but limited discovery, some of us found it hard to maintain an other-worldly orientation while spending most of our time studying this world and honing our skills at doing so. On the one hand we still held to the notion that God’s Word is truth and that the Spirit guides us in knowing truth but, on the other hand, we were investing heavily in alternate routes to truth.
AN OPEN MIND
More than a few of us struggled with the dilemma of developing an inquiring mind without setting aside all acquired commitments. Some of us struggled with a religious way of life, and with some religious tenets, which we had inherited more than we had chosen. Was it now necessary to reject much of such an inheritance and make our own decisions? Initially, at least, I was very reluctant to set aside anything of that which I had learned. My situation would have been less frustrating if at that time I had already encountered James Russell Lowell’s maxim that “Only the foolish and the dead never change their opinions.”
As students we quickly learned to focus on questions but we did not want to question all things and we certainly did not want to make questioning the highest intellectual virtue. We tried to reconcile our faith in Christ with our growing commitment to abstract reasoning. Some of us had not yet learned that there is no inherent contradiction between Christian faith and the use of God-given reason. But in our first and second years we had not yet learned to fly.
To put the matter another way, it was difficult for some of us to combine having a deep faith commitment with having an open mind. Can a person make confident claims about ultimate questions while also cultivating a critical mindset? And what do we do if a search for truth threatens to undermine our earlier learned truth? Most of my earlier Christian mentors, great saints that many were, could provide only limited help as I tried to integrate faith and learning. With the exception of some high school teachers, most had not walked that road.
Those of us heavily involved in science courses usually, in my case I think always, had professors who did not identify with a religious faith commitment. They simply assumed the validity of the theory of evolution and rejected any notions of creation. In such settings we had to process the challenge of subscribing to the validity of scientific research without making the scientific method the only route to truth.
Another challenge arose. As Christian university students we had to learn to be tolerant of other people’s views, whatever they might be, while simultaneously rejecting certain beliefs as false and certain behaviors as evil according to our understanding of biblical teaching. Alongside this challenge came the realization that there was value in understanding other religions and perhaps even learning from them instead of simply combating them. In my opinion the “False Cults” I had studied in earlier years were still “False Cults” but I now had friends who belonged to them!
Our intellectual dilemmas were exacerbated by two realities. First, the comparative dearth of Mennonite academics who had trod this path before we embarked on it afforded us very few role models and thus also almost no one to whom we could turn for wise counsel. I must, however, note that there were a few exceptions and they did provide useful input. In particular I want to give credit to a few graduate students and a few recent graduates who organized some Sunday afternoon or evening discussion sessions in Vancouver area residences or in Fraser Valley parental homes. These were very helpful. The second reality was that our own home congregations and our own Mennonite conferences generally remained aloof from our concerns and intellectual struggles.
Significantly, the fine preacher and Christian gentleman who pastored the one Vancouver Mennonite Brethren church then in existence, the one I attended when I remained in the city for weekends, could hardly function as a major resource for us. On the one hand he had never himself been a student at such an institution and, on the other hand, his congregational employment situation was such that he needed to work, as I recall, full-time, in a local lumber mill. Doubtless there were Christian leaders in Vancouver, presumably in other churches, who could have provided the kind of assistance and counseling which many of us needed to hear but I, for one, did not connect with them.
As the academic years passed, our roots in the big city grew deeper and our attachments to our Fraser Valley communities and churches slowly weakened. This change brought both positive and negative consequences relating to church attendance, our ethics, nurturing of our faith, and our sense of accountability.
Towards the close of the 1950s the BC Mennonite Brethren Conference made considerable effort to minister to UBC students. The Conference engaged a campus minister or advisor but fine gentleman that he was, he was actually more a peer than a mentor. Although he contributed significantly to the Mennonite campus scene, much of the problem remained. Expectations had been too high. For me this important initiative had little consequence because this mentor arrived only after I had left the campus.
For many of us the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship became our most significant spiritual support. It helped bridge Christian and academic communities, it provided campus-based spiritual nurture, it constituted a reservoir of Christian friends, and it functioned as a supportive Christian community. Recent scholarship has shown that for university students, especially those not living at home, the need for community looms large, especially if they try to process retention of some traditional community values and the simultaneous gradual loss of that community. I can attest to the fact that the need for community is especially urgent for the many students who live on their own off campus.
For many of us, particularly those students who came from sheltered communities, a side benefit of involvement in IVCF was the interaction with believers from other Christian traditions. The exposure to other theologies and even other ethical views, reinforced by occasional attendance at other Vancouver churches, was part of a liberating experience and a broadening of understanding.
During our university years most of us retained membership in the Valley churches where we had made our congregational commitments. Beyond stoking nostalgic memories, this connection brought with it some sense of still belonging to a community and usually also strong affirmation from our families. The challenge, however, of functioning in two ethically distinct, intellectually disparate and, in the main, religiously antithetical communities was a major one for many university students at UBC in the 1950s.
RECONCILING FAITH AND LEARNING
As we sought intellectual integrity and coherence in our lives, we Mennonite students responded to higher learning in various ways. Some students opted to compartmentalize their thinking and, at times, also their ethical behavior and thus maintained some sort of dual existence. For some of my friends such duality continued until they left the university compound, for others it continued for additional years. Some students modified their faith commitment so that they could, in their own minds, come to terms with the new intellectual realities which they had embraced. Most of these tended to loosen or even terminate their connection to the churches in which they grew up but they did not abandon their own faith commitments. In some instances, however, this distancing from the faith of their earlier years created tensions with their previous home congregations and with their families.
A minority of students clung firmly to their traditional faith and ethical norms. These people tended to see the campus largely as enemy territory, a place to do spiritual battle. Many of these were excellent students but they never really engaged the intellectual issues in their university milieu and thus short-changed themselves in getting the full benefits for their tuition fees. Dare I say that, as I see it now, these defensive students had not yet learned that tension is a goal in learning and that for a Christian student challenges and tensions can make one a better student as well as a better Christian witness. Even as I now make these observations I must add that a part of me identified and still identifies with their stance.
It has been observed that unless there is an acknowledgement that a person could be wrong in his or her beliefs, “there can be no serious life of the mind,” as Richard Hughes puts it. 4 But how can a person simultaneously be fully convinced of Christian truths and at the same time consider those “truths” possibly to be false? For me the solution was that while I could and did adopt such a stance on many issues, I could not and did not adopt such a tentative stance towards the essentials of the Christian faith.
More than a few students, unfortunately, set aside their faith completely. The line of reasoning I heard from some of them was this: “The type of faith which I accepted as a child no longer works for me. It may work for you and it obviously works for many people in my family and my home community but I have moved on to a different, more liberating, worldview.” These students generally gave themselves whole-heartedly to their intellectual pursuits. Previous pastors and sometimes their own families called them “the lost ones,” the spiritual casualties. Maybe that is what they were.
A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE
My academic and spiritual sojourn at UBC, and later at several other universities, was a life-shaping experience. The undergraduate years at UBC were especially significant because at that time I had not yet developed my own Weltanschauung. I was still in the early phases of integrating my Christian commitment with an academic career. Later, in graduate school, I was more fixed in my orientation and whatever tensions I encountered were less consequential.
Although at times, especially in the very early years of my academic pilgrimage, I toyed with the notion of abandoning my long-held faith commitment and accepting a secular worldview, I never actually came close to doing so. I was sustained by family, personal faith, supportive friends and excellent books. While the winds of secular humanism buffeted me, I think that I can with integrity say that the net effect was that my roots were sunk deeper and that uprooting of my faith was never a serious danger. I am grateful to God and to many friends for supporting me in various ways. In this connection I must make a point which for me became a source of stability and sustained me in the essence of my traditional spiritual faith and ethic. I soon realized that most of my fellow students and professors who challenged my traditional faith and ethic, actually had very little of substance to put in its place. In them I observed an ethical relativism and a lack of spiritual telos which did not appeal to me.
Many evangelical Christians, including evangelical Anabaptists, have long assumed that higher education in a secular setting, with a secular agenda, secularizes Christian students. Of course, this can and does happen. Whether it needs to happen is another question. Perhaps, with appropriate denominational support and guidance, there need not be negative outcomes. Looking back on more than a half century of academic involvement on various campuses, I can say with conviction that a Christian’s experience of higher education can be strongly positive. The pursuit of higher education by Christian students need not involve a Faustian bargain of selling one’s soul for academic success. Nurturing the soul and the pursuit of an intellectual goal can progress simultaneously.
Let me make another general observation. While my university experience in the 1950s was, on balance, a positive one, it also convinced me that the secular campus is not the best locale in which to learn a high code of ethics. Evidence that this remains true can be found in a report in a recent Maclean’s article, “The great university cheating scandal.” 5 The authors report on “the first comprehensive investigation of cheating in Canadian institutions.” We learn that more than fifty percent of undergraduates admit to cheating. We also discover that an American survey revealed that that the highest rate of cheating, fifty-six percent, occurred among business students. In fact, plagiarism in writing essays was widespread. Clearly, such an ethically challenged learning environment is hardly ideal for Christian freshmen!
But the evidence is not all negative. On the other side of the ledger are the results of an unscientific poll reported in the August 4, 2007 website of Christianity Today. 6 In completing the statement, “During my time in college . . .” fifty-nine percent of respondents opted for “my faith grew.” Twenty-one percent checked “my faith floundered.” Seventeen percent agreed with the statement that “my faith stayed about the same.” One percent of the respondents reported that they were still in college and three percent indicated that they had never gone to college. Although this survey made no distinction between secular and Christian schools and while the respondents were probably mostly middle-aged or older, and perhaps disproportionately still active in the church, it is still noteworthy that well over half of the respondents indicated that college had a positive rather than a negative effect on their faith.
In The Idea of the University, Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan comments that “within Western culture . . . [the university and the church] have been and still are in a special way the custodians of the common memory for everyone. [. . .] The vocation of preserving the common memory represents a moral obligation for the ethos and the curriculum of every school and department of the university.” 7 To which I would add the challenge that evangelical and evangelical Anabaptist churches and conferences, precisely because they take Christianity seriously, have a God-given obligation to take the university seriously, to stand alongside their young people who attend the university, and to do their part not only in preserving the common memory but also in supporting and promoting the pursuit of higher learning.
- H. Richard Niebuhr develops these types in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1951).
- Charles Malik, “The Other Side of Evangelism,” Christianity Today, 7 November 1980, 39.
- “Religion on campus [editorial],” Times, 18 November 2006. Quoted by Iain Benson, “University Free Speech, Ivory Towers and the New Sectarianism,” Christian Week, 15 January 2007, 7. Also available at http:/www.christianity.ca/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=3345&srcid=1836.
- Richard T. Hughes, The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 62.
- Cathy Gulli, Nicholas Kohler, and Martin Patriquin, “The Great University Cheating Scandal,” Maclean’s, 12 February 2007, 32-36.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 112.