When I started my undergrad Arts degree in 2001 at the University of Adelaide, I hadn’t thought much about how my study and my faith went together beyond working in all things as if for Christ and being ready to give an answer in whatever situations arose. I had never really experienced a clash in the way that, say, Science students do.
Very early on, however, I discovered that, at least in the eyes of my lecturers, there was a very significant clash. My lecturers were at best disdainful of Christians and the Christian church, and at worst vitriolic. Studying post-colonial literature, I learned that missionaries are the great destroyers of culture; reading feminist literature, that the church is the single greatest patriarchal institution; exploring life after the Black Death that Christianity is indistinct from pagan worship; in modern European history, that all historical atrocities have religion (especially Christianity) at their core; and in German literature that the church was the great enemy of sexual expression.
I did not come to university suspicious of learning or of the institution itself, but I soon discovered that I and people like me were its great enemy. I felt attacked day in and day out, and so I started looking around for ways to defend Christianity.
I looked for opportunities to set the record straight about what ‘real faith’ is, in contrast to the straw man religion purported by my lecturers. I spoke up in class and in tutorials, trying to explain that the so-called Christian ideas of my lecturers had little to do with Jesus. This won me the respect of some of my peers. Most of them, regardless of religious affiliation, simply appreciated a different perspective and were frustrated by lectures that were at times little more than rants. To take on the lecturers suited my personality as well: at the time I was described as ‘pugnacious’. However, these were isolated incidents, with little long-term effect.
While I liked to think that these opportunities had some apologetic value, they did not help me to work through the issues raised by my lecturers. Some of the stuff I heard in history lectures was just downright ignorant in my view, but many of the feminist perspectives I encountered resonated with my own experience of the world. Yet, it seemed that Christianity and feminism were diametrically opposed, and books like The Essence of Feminism critiqued feminism without offering a way forward. So I carried my questions and lived with the uncertainty and the ambiguity.
By and large, because my church tradition and my IFES group were highly conversionistic, I did not have to engage those questions. The conversations about faith and work were about how to stay a Christian in spite of your profession, or how to evangelise others in the workplace, especially if there was opposition. Though there was little direct antagonism towards the ‘secular’ world, there was a sense of defensiveness. In a hostile world, our role was to witness to Jesus and grow his church, and that was where I directed my energy. I started on a track towards Christian ministry, which meant I could be fully devoted to serving God as well, without the distraction of secular work.
Of course, as regular readers of this blog will be aware, going to theological college and delving further into the Bible only made my questions about feminism sharper. In an Old Testament course I was exposed to feminist readings of the Bible for the first time, and our lecturer was ready to entertain them, even though (and perhaps because) they were uncomfortable. This was when I realised my big mistake at university. I had been treated like the enemy, and I had accepted the premise.
I had picked up from my lecturers that the university had no place for Christians and Christian faith, that I was out of place, and that I had nothing to offer. It was as if they believed that I was trespassing on their home turf. I don’t think I believed them, but I didn’t have a reason to become a full participant either. I looked to introduce Jesus into a conversation rather than delving deeper into the actual conversation of the topic. In that sense, they were right: I had little to offer to their conversation. I defended, but I did not engage.
I had failed to understand that any conversation in the university world is an exploration of God’s world. You cannot oust God from his own world merely by having the conversation as if he is not there, and Christians need not be defensive about that. I didn’t need to bring Jesus into every conversation, as if the ascended King was somehow shut out from his world. Whether patriarchy is a product of creation or of brokenness or both, it is a part of the world we live in, a world seen and sustained by God. I did not need to ‘bring’ God into that conversation, but to look for how God was already present. A discussion about feminism is not a discussion ‘behind enemy lines’. It can be a collaboration, if we are peaceful enough within ourselves to engage. Of course at some point that means contributing a uniquely Christian voice, both in critique and in suggesting the difference that Jesus makes, but it means doing so as a participant rather than as the defendant.
This was what was missing from my university Christian experience, that sense of engaging the university. This is why I’m excited about IFES‘ vision of engaging the university. It gives room to come to the university, its ideas and the world beyond, as a fellow, a participant, a collaborator. I suspect such an attitude does wonders for the reputation of Christians, but it enriches us too. It opens up the possibility that feminist literary theory can help us to read the Bible better, or that feminist advocacy is a tool for bringing justice. In other words, it gives us the space to benefit from other work that has gone on in God’s world, and through that, to have the opportunity to make sense of God’s world.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.