The Spiritual Danger of Graduate School

There is a danger in pursuing the highest levels of education.

It is not, as a few antagonistic atheists suppose, that doing so will teach you to think, and that thought is incompatible with faith.  In point of fact, some of the brightest people throughout European and American history, even recently, have been Christians.  Some of them have even become Christians, not simply grown up with it.  (Indeed, I wish more people, both Christians and others, would learn to think better.)

Nor is the danger, as some Christians suppose, that all Christians pursuing graduate education will be brain-washed by professors who are antagonistic atheists out to destroy their students’ faith.  No doubt there are such professors, but graduate students are supposed to think critically about what they hear from all sources, and many advisers give their students a fair degree of latitude to disagree with them (in certain areas).  Historically, Christians have learned a lot from studying with non-Christians, such as the fourth-century author John Chrysostom from the pagan Libanius.  And of course, Christians worried about such brain-washing can pursue graduate study at confessional Christian schools.  While I have known people who have left Christianity while pursuing graduate degrees, I have also known Christians whose faith grew and flourished even in very secular environments.

Nor is the danger that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33, quoting the pagan poet Menander).  While this is certainly true, in general academics are no more immoral than can be found in any bar, coffee-house, movie theater, sports stadium, large corporation, or other place where people gather.  The apostle Paul made clear that Christians were not to shun the presence of all non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

The danger of pursuing a Ph.D. or similar terminal degree is simply, in the words of the apostle Paul, that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

Pursuing a graduate degree does not only give us a lot of information.  It does not only train us in certain ways of thinking.  It also trains us to think we know the answer, to take a default position of being “in the know.”  This is dangerous.  No one is harder to correct than someone who thinks they are an expert.  No one is slower to listen and quicker to speak than someone who thinks they have the answer.  Paradoxically, some of the people who are most reluctant to learn are those who teach.

But when it comes to God, we are all on the wrong foot.  None of us has it all together, or knows it all.  God is not impressed with a Ph.D. from a top-ranked school: “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight” (1 Cor 3:19).  Instead, Paul advised, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise” (1 Cor 3:18).  Most of our thoughts are so self-serving that we only come to God when we learn to presume that we’re wrong.  Getting a Ph.D., we run the risk of becoming arrogant experts and therefore unfit for the life of humble repentance to which God calls us.

As a Christian with a Ph.D., I don’t think the solution is for Christians never to pursue graduate degrees.  Mine is not a cautionary tale (“Don’t make the same mistake I made!”).  God was very gracious to me throughout my graduate study, and he continues to be as I seek to glorify him in Academia.  Christians are called to love the Lord their God with their minds as well as their souls, hearts, and strength.

But the danger is real.  As I said, I’ve known people who’ve walked away from Christianity during graduate school, some temporarily and some still (although they’re not dead yet, so I hope they’ll take a walk back into Christianity).  What is to be done?

Pray.  If you are a Christian thinking about going to graduate school, pray for the Lord to make clear whether that is the right option for you.

Consult.  Talk to older Christians with strong faith who know you well, and see what they say.  Get a variety of opinions.

Pray.  If you decide to go to graduate school, ask the Lord to guide you to a school, to a city or town, to a church, where you can grow in your love for him and knowledge of him.

Plan.  Even before you move, you can look online to see if there are graduate student Bible studies.  You can email pastors in that town to ask what resources are available (and whether any graduate students attend their church).

Find a community.  Graduate school is not only intellectually challenging, it is sometimes emotionally and spiritually exhausting.  Find other Christian graduate students (fellow nerds) with whom you can discuss what you’re going through, questions that you have, how to deal with tension between your faith and your studies.  Find Christians who are not graduate students who can remind you of simple truths, genuine love, and sincere faithfulness.  Sometimes we overthink things that are really quite simple.

Pray.  As you study, continually ask God to help you increase not only your understanding of your subject, but also your awareness of its connections with his truth, goodness, and beauty (whether you are studying molecular biology or comparative literature).  Pray for increasing gratitude for his many blessings toward us, as well as increasing love for him.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions.  Questions arise.  They must be dealt with.  But don’t just “question your faith”; also question the methods and assumptions that you are being taught in your department.  This will make you both a better scholar (with a firmer grasp on methodology) and a better Christian (for letting go of misconceptions while holding on to the solid truth).

Don’t only ask questions.  Sometimes we need to take a break from asking questions.  Sometimes we need to affirm what it is that we do believe.  Sometimes we need to worship.

Hold on to Jesus.  Whatever happens.

There is a real spiritual danger in pursuing graduate degrees.  But God can also use it to grow us in humility, gratitude, wonder, and love.


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