The Urban Legend of the Faith-Loathing Professor

  • Melissa Heide Editorial Intern
  • 2011 16 Aug
The Urban Legend of the Faith-Loathing Professor

Those chain emails... they clog our inboxes, they wake us up with a laugh, they can even offer an inspiring thought or story. One of these often-forwarded emails provides a good launching pad for thinking about and addressing a certain important issue in the young Christian community.

If you are high school- or college-aged, or are the parent or teacher of a student of that age, you've probably seen the legendary one about the atheistic university professor of philosophy who claims that, if God exists, He will prevent the chalk the professor inevitably drops from breaking. This is his perfunctory antic on the first day of classes each semester, until, the story goes, one fateful day a young man of strong faith stands up and claims that God does indeed exist. While the professor’s response is different in each variation of the story, the general offensiveness and lack of professionalism are always the same. While he rants, he proceeds to drop the chalk, which slips out of his fingers, rolls down his torso, off the pleats of his pants, and finally his shoe, unharmed. The professor is struck dumb, and there is much rejoicing.

While this folk tale claims to be a victory for Christ, I wish to examine its effects more deeply. How does this story, among others of similar sentiment circulated throughout Christian cyberspace, guide our minds to think about the secular university setting? Could it be at all responsible for the limitation of some Christian students?

While the increasingly muddy details of this story lend doubts to its actual accuracy, I can't accurately count the number of times I have received the email, or the times this story was brought up in conversation with the introduction of the topic of my own post-high school plans. These stories, a sort of Grimm’s for Christian students, fill young, ambitious Christians with trepidation at leaving their tightly-knit communities and entering certain secular universities where they might instead grow and learn and influence.

Are we too hasty in our judgment, categorization, and caution of secular institutions? When I first entered the public university atmosphere to take a few courses during my senior year of high school, I expected a professor to challenge my God with a piece of chalk. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism of all of my instructors. By the end of each semester, I could not tell what a specific professor’s religious convictions were. If they were Christian or atheist, such views remained outside of the classroom, and only the material at hand remained. This left me free to ponder the course material via a Christian worldview if I so wished, on my own time. Students of other religious backgrounds in those classes were not under- or misrepresented, and neither was I, as a Christian student. Now that I have entered a four-year university full-time, I can only speak more to the professionalism and respect for students which professors demonstrate on a daily basis.

Now, if education is not one’s focus, that is another matter. A competitive collegiate atmosphere may not suit everyone. However, if a student feels that he or she is gifted and called to a career in which a higher caliber of education is necessary, this social pressure of fear can influence this already incredibly difficult decision.

From a young age I have wanted to be a teacher. As I reached high school, I realized that not only did I want to teach, but that I loved school. I loved studying, I loved the classroom environment (a rare treat, as I was homeschooled for most of primary education), and loved burying myself in study. However, my scholastic intentions met with judgment and skepticism from my church at the time, and also from the parents of Christian friends. I was repeatedly told that I needed to guard closely my beliefs, or they would be snatched away from me, as if from beneath my nose. Others warned me not to go near what seemed to be a proverbial lions’ den of alternative theories and belief systems. One need not wonder at my terror and confusion stemming from contemplating the issue.

Christians who espouse these ideas and propagate the myths fail to acknowledge the long list of features about secular institutions that may in fact benefit a student, rather than irrevocably harm them. See, most Christian institutions are private and therefore expensive options for those of average income. Publically funded institutions often minimize the tuition bill significantly. I'm enjoying an education from a ranked university at a fraction of the cost. Larger, public universities also have nearly unlimited resources and opportunities for every student’s interest and involvement, not to mention religious social clubs (my own university seems to have one for nearly every denomination of Christianity, as well as every other religion represented in the student body). Finally, education at a secular university might be ideal for those feeling called to a life of ministry. To widen the perspective and social experience only benefits a student leaning toward a life in the mission field or ministry in church planting or outreach into the community. 

In the light of faith, secular universities can start to appear even beneficial to the personal faith, career goals, and desire to remain debt-free of a Christian student. Away from her parents and her home community, a student is free to take ownership of her own faith, and discover why she believes what she believes. Instead of having to go to church because the whole family is going, the student can seek out his own spiritual environment: discovering what he likes and what he dislikes in a church setting.

College in general is a coming-of-age experience necessary for development into adulthood and maturity in the faith. This can be a frightening thought to some parents, but if the student is well prepared theologically and apologetically to head into a secular environment, then only the best can come from independence and ownership.

So as move-in day approaches, dispel the gloom and trepidation of leaving home, and banish the voice of that chain mail. Replace it with the excitement of looking forward to independence, widening opportunities, and strengthening faith.

Publication date: August 16, 2011