In several ways, my life is similar to Josh Wheaton, the main character and hero of the recent movie God’s Not Dead. I grew up in a conservative evangelical home (the son of a preacher). I considered myself a devout Christian throughout high school and later when I enrolled at a very progressive state university and chose to major in philosophy. I quickly learned that all of my philosophy professors were either atheists or agnostics (to my knowledge), and that several of them are rock stars in their respective fields. One professor, Clancy Martin, is even considered an expert on Nietzsche, whose famous statement “God is dead” is where the film derived its title. So, from just about every angle, one could easily have expected that my college experience would equal or exceed the combative anti-Christian environment of Josh Wheaton’s philosophy class depicted in the film.
But it didn’t. It was the complete opposite.
All my philosophy professors knew I was a committed Christian from day one. I have the scripture “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” conspicuously tattooed across my forearms. The first day of Intro to Philosophy my freshman year, I raised my hand to comment, and the professor asked what was tattooed on my arm. I showed him (and the approximately 100 other students in the class) and spoke the verse. “Wow!” he said with a smile, “That’s intense!” I was also not shy about participating in class discussions and sharing my perspective, although I always tried to do so respectfully and only when I had a good argument.
When we uncritically accept a caricature of someone, we become less gracious people.Yet, not once did my philosophy professors attack my faith or treat me unfairly. In fact, I found all of them to be extremely kind, patient, and generous. Several of them, including the Nietzsche expert, wrote me glowing letters of recommendation for grad school that, I’m certain, included compliments I didn’t fully deserve. I felt respected, even mentored, by them. And all of this despite the fact that they passionately disagreed with my beliefs.
That’s not to say they never challenged my faith. They did. But it was for a really good reason: it was their job. Part of getting a good education means questioning some of your previously held assumptions. Getting a good philosophy education means questioning all of your assumptions. Many aspects of my faith at that time were presumptuous, ignorant, and needed to be challenged. My professors pushed me to wrestle with the arguments of the great atheist philosophers of history—people like Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others—and to take them seriously. I’m so glad they did. There were some dark moments through this process, for sure. But I came through more convinced than ever that God is real and that belief in him is rational.
So, why am I sharing all of this? Because I’m concerned that the movie God’s Not Dead perpetuates a false stereotype: that of the bully atheist philosophy professor who is out to destroy every Christian student’s faith. I’m sure there are some of those professors out there. But I doubt that they are a majority. Even if they were, though, I don’t think caricatures and stereotypes are helpful. When we uncritically accept a caricature of someone, we become less gracious people. Instead, we become more dismissive, presumptuous, and defensive. We also become more likely to misinterpret an honest challenge to our faith as an “attack,” and react in a way that is less than winsome.Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned from my philosophy professors—besides how to think critically—is something they did not intend to teach me. Through my interactions with them, I learned first hand that the Christian doctrine of common grace is absolutely true. God has revealed some truth to every person. Therefore, we can learn something from everyone; even people who believe the opposite of what we do. Thinking we can’t learn something from unbelievers not only causes us to miss out on some deeply enriching relationships, it also ensures we won’t learn anything.