Underhanded Compliment

The New York Times frequently runs a full-page ad for Columbia University—an ad that speaks volumes by what it doesn't say. The university boasts seven graduate programs in Liberal Studies. They're spelled out in bold type across the page: American Studies, Ancient Studies, East Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Medieval Studies, and South Asian Studies. What's missing from this list? There's no program for Christian Studies. This is a common phenomenon today. Western intellectuals are meticulous in their tolerance for every religion under the sun—except Christianity. Why do we so often witness this reverse discrimination? It's due partly to a sense of guilt—guilt over nineteenth-century imperialism, when Europeans colonized other continents, often by force. Today, as though to make amends, the Western intelligentsia bend over backwards to prove their sensitivity to non-Westerners. So Columbia University students are free to study Islam or ancient Greek religions. They are free to learn about Taoism under East Asian Studies, or Hinduism and Buddhism under South Asian Studies. But if students want to study the history and practice of Christianity—well, there is no room for them at the University. But there's another reason for the reverse discrimination—a subtler one. Consider: Given the size of various groups in our country, you might think there would be a much higher level of interest in Christian studies than in, say, Islamic studies—simply because there are many more Christians who live here.   But, ironically, that's precisely why there are not courses in Christianity: because so many people here actually believe it. You see, it's one thing to talk about religions and cultures in far-away countries, practiced mostly by people who look and act differently from us—who wear robes or speak a strange language. Their religion can be held safely at arm's length, as simply an expression of their culture. That's how the secular intelligentsia wants to treat religion: as an interesting cultural phenomenon, not as a genuine truth claim. But in this country, there are many people who really believe Christianity—who think it's true. And that's what makes secularists nervous. See, nobody minds if you present your faith on the level of a personal hobby—if you're "into" Christianity the way some people are "into" crystals or even "into" sports. What makes secularists uncomfortable is when Christians believe the Bible teaches real truth: Truth about the universe we live in. Truth about ultimate reality. Theologian Richard John Neuhaus says it might even be an underhanded compliment when places like Columbia University leave out Christianity. That may be a sign that they recognize its enduring power. Christianity isn't something you can study in a purely abstract way like an ancient dead religion. It's alive. And that makes it dangerous. So maybe the absence of a Christian studies program is not an insult after all. In a curious way, it testifies to the fact that even non-Christians recognize the power of the biblical message.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary