I recently heard about a Pacific Union College (PUC) professor who invited atheist and former Seventh-day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell to speak in class. PUC administration ultimately stepped in and prevented Bell from coming on campus. The online responses to this issue have been varied and interesting, but rather than wading into the controversy surrounding this specific issue, I want to instead draw attention toward what seems to be the main underlying question: What type of environment on our Adventist campuses will best encourage durable and enduring faith in students?
I have thought over this question many times during my days as a student leader on two different Seventh-day Adventist campuses, and would like to share a few things I’ve learned from my own personal journey and observations.
First, truly authentic faith must be present on campus. I’m not just talking about whether professors and staff are kind and decent people or even necessarily about whether they all espouse the 28 fundamental beliefs. That stuff matters, to be sure, but the great need is for people who are vividly Christian—indeed, so shockingly loving and full of divine love that their lives are irrefutable arguments for the truth of Jesus. I had professors like that in college, and it was this kind of faith in real life that most impacted me.
Second, intellectual challenges from the “outside” world cannot be ignored or pushed away.* A siege mentality in which students are supposedly “protected” from challenging ideas will ultimately cause more harm than good. Believe me. A large number of my good friends have left Christianity altogether after graduating from a Seventh-day Adventist college and encountering the real world and its demanding questions for the first time. College had not prepared them for these questions. College had not even told them such questions existed. We cannot simply repeat the oft-quoted text, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 14:1, KJV) and sail merrily on. Such “faith” can be downright poisonous to a genuine walk with God, as my many ex-Christian friends will attest.
Third, we must teach students how to arrive at convincing and satisfying answers that help to establish their faith. Teachers can (and should) provide such answers when specific questions are being brought up, but students should also be taught how to generate answers for themselves and see the great value in doing so. Too often teachers dwell on the virtues of critical thinking and the skills of deconstructing a belief when what the world really needs is thinkers who contribute with creativity rather than mere criticism.
I believe that a campus environment as I have outlined would challenge but ultimately nurture and establish student faith. It would be open and accepting of other viewpoints but also unabashedly and brilliantly Adventist. Most importantly, authentic and living faith would truly pass “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17).
*I am laying out a general principle here: Adventist college students should be exposed to ideas outside the Adventist Christian bubble. Determining just how much exposure (and exactly what kind) is well beyond the scope of my piece, as is the question of whether or not PUC administration made the right judgment call in dis-inviting Ryan Bell. I am certainly in no position to judge.