At University: Wrestling with new ideas

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by Professor Karen Petersen Finch

I have always loved 2 Corinthians 10.5: the verse about “taking every thought captive to Christ.” It was part of the graduation ceremony when I received my Master of Divinity degree. I remember standing there in my robe and hood, feeling mesmerized by the verse while realizing that I had no idea what it meant.

Many years later, I have not conducted any deep exegesis of this verse—but I think I have a practical idea what the Apostle Paul was asking of the Corinthian Christians. He was asking for a stewardship of ideas. When a thought enters your mind and your life that you have never experienced before, how can you be a good steward of that thought?

This question is important for all Christians, but especially urgent for university students and those who support them: family, pastors and other church leaders. We professors drop students into the intellectual deep end and expect them to know how to swim. Some might say to them, “Just float, and let the ideas wash over you.” But that advice does not fit the experience of the many college students I have known.

You can trust that Jesus is a wise teacher

One of the best characteristics of human thinkers is that we naturally judge the value of the ideas we hear. We want more than just any ideas; we are seeking true ideas because we genuinely want to know. This is my experience of Christian college students who spend many hours talking to each other, talking to family, and talking with professors and mentors as they practice the stewardship of ideas. It is a stewardship fueled by questions: “Do I believe this information is true?” “How does it accord with my Christian faith?” “How would my faith change if I believed this?”

For students doing this essential work and those who support them, I offer some suggestions from my own experience and from mentoring Christian students.

  • Imagine every new idea as a person with whom you are in dialogue. In the practice of dialogue, we listen to one another, but we listen as ourselves. It would not be good stewardship simply to dismiss an idea without giving it a chance to speak to you; on the other hand, you also bring your own beliefs and values to the encounter. What you have learned so far, especially in your life in Christ, is just as important as the new idea you are entertaining. Try to listen to both.
  • Create an idea journal. You can simply write down the idea and your initial response to it and record any changes in your perspective as time goes by. Or you can use your journal to create a written dialogue between you and the idea, or between you and God. Writing is an excellent way to clarify meanings and to let your deeper insights and feelings bubble up to the surface. You might start every entry of this journal with a short prayer such as: “God, show me what is true.”
  • Open your discernment process to wise friends, family, or people in the church. Look for mentors in the university context. I would not recommend selecting a mentor because that person agrees with you in every way. Rather, choose someone whose thinking process you respect. The ideal mentor will provide a good example of how to steward ideas while leaving your conclusions up to you.
  • Go slowly. There is no map or deadline for taking every thought captive to Christ. If a new idea is distressing you, but you do not want to ignore it, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I will think about this another day.” You can trust that Jesus is a wise teacher: if he wants you to consider it deeply, he will bring the idea back to you at the right time.

Whatever area of study we might be in—whether philosophy or economics or commerce or even theology—there will always be new ideas to explore and with which to wrestle. It can be both exciting and daunting. And a final and most important thing to remember here is that, wherever we find it, all truth belongs to God.

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