We Millennials are steeped in irony, unwilling to commit to anything, yet we’re also supposed to be idealistic reformers. We are less politically engaged but more likely to volunteer. We are fascinated by the arts, supporting independent YouTube musicians, but we line up to work in finance. The one thing the entire commentariat seems to be able to agree on is that Millennials are secular. We are less likely to go to church, believe in traditional morality, or defer to any authority beyond ourselves. We overwhelmingly support the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
It seems inescapable that traditional Christianity has proven irrelevant to the young. Both progressive intellectuals, always eager to identify the arrival of the “end of history” and the vindication of secularization theory, and religious conservatives such as Rod Dreher, have announced that the rising generation has repudiated the heritage of Christendom.
But even at so secular a campus as Columbia, historic Christianity continues to serve a vital role in the ecosystem of campus life among my classmates at Columbia. Undeniably, we Christians are not the mainstream. Marking my forehead with a cross on Ash Wednesday drew stares and awkward questions. And it’s true that our moral convictions can set us apart. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was recently banned from colleges across the University of California system because it upheld the traditional view of sexual ethics.
Yet vital and dynamic Christian groups enable the university to fulfill its highest ends. They do so because they are Christians, and faithful Christianity serves the ends the university desires at its best.
Christianity Enabling the University
In an era of ballooning tuition fees and tight job prospects, the whimsical and non-technical humanities seem increasingly irrelevant. Canonical study of Western Civilization appears retrograde, and university administrators struggle to give a better justification for reading Plato than the prestige-value of erudite allusions at cocktail parties.
It is Christian groups like the Veritas Forum that, by bringing together public intellectuals, professors, and students for the classic quest of philosophy—relating goodness, truth, and beauty and to our everyday choices—draw enthusiastic responses from secular students all across campus. As Christopher Noble has argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Christian colleges distinguish themselves by their enthusiastic dedication to traditional liberal arts programs and the intellectual skills such programs require.
In part, Christians can uniquely respect the study of human mysteries because of the anti-utilitarianism implicit in any supernatural faith. If you already believe that the most important realities in the universe are immaterial, you are more likely to prioritize Aristotle over accounting. But there is a deeper, more theological, reason: As “people of the book,” Christians are shaped to look to text for wisdom. And as believers in the incarnate Word, we make the deeply humanistic assumption that every life reflects divine meaning.
Most observers would assume that diversity is low on the priority list for social conservatives, but diversity is another end of the secular university that Christians fulfill from different premises. My evangelical fellowship, Columbia Faith and Action, is the most diverse group on campus. CFA brings together people not just black and white, but also Latin American, Pacific Islander, Korean, Chinese, Southern, and Yankee. We unite athletes and philosophers, engineers and English majors. No other student group comes close in terms of ideological and intellectual variety.
Of course the situation is not analogous on every campus. But I think Christianity, as a uniquely universalist creed represented on every continent, has the power to unite believers around a common loyalty to Jesus Christ that transcends every other particular allegiance. This kind of solidarity has the great advantage over contemporary diversity-speak that it provides a common end to beautifully order the coming-together of diverse people and cultures. Diversity for diversity’s sake, on the other hand, quickly becomes ideological conformity or incoherent rhetoric.
Crucially, the priorities of Christianity and of the secular university only align in these two ways when Christian students uphold their countercultural convictions. To the extent that Christians refuse to give in to the nihilism of identity politics and proclaim a universal human nature and the universal relevance of the Gospel, we can become a mirror of diversity. To the extent that we emphasize the reality of the sacramental, mystical, and miraculous elements of our faith—the anti-utilitarian elements—we can preserve liberal education and reassure our classmates that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
That is a message of good news. The era of Obergefell does not mean we Christian college students need to see ourselves as victims of secularism and yield to despairing withdrawal or pure polemic. Empowered by Gospel hope, we remain as agentive as ever and more needed than ever.
Luke Foster serves as Director of Operations for the New Haven, CT-based Elm Institute for the Study of Ethics of and Economics. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in May 2015 from Columbia University, where he studied English and history. His senior thesis focused on G. K. Chesterton as a literary modernist who preserved a heroic tradition in the trench poetry of the First World War.
Rebekah Spearman’s Faith and the Fate of the Liberal Arts
Ryan Shinkel’s Interview with Robert P. George
Michael Bradley’s Interview with William Deresiewicz
Alexandra DeSanctis’s How to Leave College a Catholic