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Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith is the result of a major study carried out over the last few years by Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner.  It’s the first project of this scale to thoroughly investigate the ways in which Christianity is experienced and lived by university students, and its conclusions are enlightening and provocative in equal measure.  Big assumptions which many of us make instinctively about this subject – around universities as secular spaces, the relationship between student Christianity and social attitudes or between doctrine and practice – are rigorously tested against empirical data.  Many of them will need to be seriously rethought in the wake of this book.  I would strongly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in the modern university or modern Christianity , or indeed anyone who wishes to be involved with the conversation on these topics which the authors ask their readers to engage in.

student faith

The project set out from the increasing visibility of religious issues in British universities over the last decade, “aim[ing] at discovering what distinguishes university students who identify as Christian and how their experience of university affirms or undermines their Christian faith” (3).  The system of questionnaires and interviews they implemented, balancing quantitative with qualitative study, provided a “snapshot” of Christian students, their “beliefs and values, and how these are similar and different from non-Christian students.”  They examined the sort of religious practices this students engaged in, the regularity with which they attended Christian groups (and what kind of groups) their social and moral opinions and their political and volunteering activities.  They also considered the way the students engaged with the particular challenges of university life, whether their faith was a resource for them to draw on or was itself modified by their student life.

In analysing the responses, the authors contextualised answers by the kind of university attended (elite, Russell Group, post-1992, Cathedrals Group, etc), by social class, ethnicity, gender and age.  They also framed the “student experience” as the combination of activities, situations and networks which make up student life, relatively little of which is spent in the seminar room or lecture room.  Rather than reducing student Christianity to a set of doctrinal propositions to which believers either assented or not, they considered it as a whole set of practices, habits, intellectual and moral influences which were drawn from a wide range of sources.  “Christianity” itself was broken down into the major (sometimes overlapping) forms visible in universities, including Anglican, Roman Catholic, the ‘historic Protestant’ denominations, Evangelical, Pentecostal.  The book seeks to map a diverse and rich interweaving of various religious traditions and influences being drawn on by students within a range of higher education institutions.

The result is a nuanced, precise and thought-provoking study, some of whose most striking findings I will mention below.  It is also written with an engagingly mordant wit at times.  After painstaking statistical analysis of doctrinal and moral issues, Guest deduces a principle that “Whatever the issue, 20% of Christians are unsure about it” (35), whilst Aune remarks elsewhere that “the perception that the CU was Catholic and ‘party-going’ was not borne out by the CU interviewees” (175) and Warner’s overview of national institutions prompts a concluding speculation that “SCM has always prided itself on being ahead of the churches; if current trends continue, the non-viability of SCM may preceded and presage the non-viability of several historic denominations” (204)  The central chapters are entitled “What makes a Christian student?”, “Institutional variations in the university experience”, “Is the university a force for secularization?”, “The challenges of being a Christian student”, “Organized Christianity on the university campus” and “Social differences amongst Christian students: Age, class, ethnicity and gender”.


Hidden Christians

One of the headline conclusions of the study was the way it made visible what the authors call the “hidden Christians”.  The media narrative, and the popular image, of university Christianity is dominated by the Christian Unions.  This is particularly the case given the controversies which broke out in the later years of the last decade, the so-called “CU wars” which saw them in public conflict with the Student Unions of several universities, mainly over issues of inclusion and equality.  However, the research revealed large numbers of students who affirm a Christian faith, but do not regularly attend worship with or participate in Christian groups on campus.  “twenty-first-century students’ ways of being Christian”, they conclude, “are more personal and autonomous, often less visible than conventional churchgoing and more distant from religious institutions and authorities”, despite being “surprisingly resilient” (209-10).  Understanding Student Faith sheds light on the existence of a significant proportion of Christian students who have simply been overlooked in the past.  (This was illuminatingly discussed in an article by the group entitled ‘Challenging ‘Belief’ and the Evangelical Bias’, published in Contemporary Religion in May.)

The numbers on these students provoke a whole series of questions: for example, some 40% of those identifying as Christians consider themselves “religious”, whilst 31% ticked “spiritual but not religious” and a full 15% opted for “not religious or spiritual”.  When it came to matters of doctrine, 13% consider Jesus “God disguised in human form” whilst 24% went for “a human being who embodied divine virtues”, and there was a surprising number who did not believe in a personal or triune God, or who simply considered themselves atheist/ agnostic.  These figures go far beyond any local misunderstanding of classical doctrines, nor do they seem to represent a fringe of malcontents or speculative thinkers grouped at the periphery of institutional orthodoxy.  Whilst the study does not indicate the existence of actual Docetic or Arian churches within the British university system, there are clearly ways of “being Christian” which have been generally overlooked up until now.  Perhaps even more strikingly, it seems 30% of those who affirmed a Christian faith in this survey rarely or never go to church, ruling out the idea that there are batches of “social” Christians padding the numbers but not getting the point.

This survey can only obviously only go so far in explaining its own figures in the language of Christian self-reflection.  It could potentially point to a swarm of mystics in the British university system, or a network of non-realists convinced by the theology of Don Cupitt and busily practising solar living.  More likely, the language most often used to describe people’s religious practices and identities doesn’t quite reflect the way Christianity and student life intersect.  A third of self-defining Christians not going to church is not a few “backsliders” amidst the “faithful”, nor did it correlate to an ignorance of Christian ideas.  Indeed, those with no established church-going routine or denominational allegiance often provided fluent, theologically sophisticated and even poetic accounts of their faith.  Discussion of “Christianity and young people” now has to take onboard what this study has meticulously and intriguingly detailed, not assume that these groups are “less good” at being Christian.  The language of sociology and the language of belief phrase the world in different ways, but in this case the former poses a definite challenge to the latter which cannot be explained away by what is lost in translation.


Sources and Strategies

The qualitative research carried out alongside the surveys provides some insights into the way students engage with Christianity as a set of spiritual insights, ethical stances and institutional structures.  The case studies provided show students drawing on a range of sources, such as churches at home, Christian family and friends, groups on campus and private reading.  These seemed to cross denominational boundaries without too many problems, increasing the evidence that the individual Christian experience rarely takes place within one particular institution now (if it ever did over the last century.)  Many students felt able to vary their attendance during term-time and the holidays both in terms of frequency and the kind of church attended, without feeling a drastic dissonance between forms of practice or feeling that one was their “real” Christianity and the other a substitute or placebo.  Indeed, some students described attending certain Christian groups with what might once have been called “mental reservations”, being happy to join in with the activities but not feeling that this committed them irrevocably to a creedal statement or the social teachings of that group.  Just because you’re there when they say it, suggested one, doesn’t mean you believe it.  This seems a striking riff on (or even inversion of) of Grace Davie’s oft-quoted “believing without belonging”, if only because it poses the same question about the alignment of belief as an inner state and an outer practice (though in the other direction.)  It demonstrates an equivalent scepticism about the institution’s ability to define and control religious meanings, even to determine the meanings which are made manifest in its own activities.

Many of student Christians whom this project spoke to seemed to be comfortable with (or at least adept at) shuttling between different sources: drawing on chaplaincies, Christian Unions, local churches, connections at home and religious books, and weaving their religious life within this movement.  It’s a model which will seem familiar both to postmodernists and textual theorists, though the study can’t necessarily reveal whether this is adopted out of pragmatism or preference.  It certainly aligns effectively with the way Edward B. Green has written of Christian traditions being reformulated in the modern era from “fences” into “wells”: no longer enclosed spaces within whose margins a whole religious life takes place, but sources of understanding and nourishment which can be drawn upon by anyone, whilst still maintaining a coherence of their own.


Christian Unions

The book’s findings about the network of Christian Unions connected by the UCCF (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) are likely to be one of the more controversial sections.  This is perhaps inevitable, given that the UCCF is not only a institution studied by those researching contemporary Christianity in Britain, but is also an unusually vocal agent keen to offer definitions of the subject.  Though its rhetoric stresses unity, Christian unity for the UCCF goes beyond Chalcedonian orthodoxy into Biblical infalibility and penal substitutionary atonement (148).  The Christian Union is probably the most visible Christian group on a majority of British campuses, and have been the most likely to garner attention from the world outside either Christianity or universities.  Indeed, the book begins by relating some of the notorious clashes between CUs and Student Unions which took place in the latter part of the last decade at universities such as Bristol and Exeter, which subjected some Christian groups’ stance on inclusion and equality to national press scrutiny.  (I personally witnessed the aftershocks of these so-called “CU wars” in the ongoing ideological skirmishes at Exeter during 2008-10.)

The most basic adjustment that Christianity and the University Experience provides on this subject is to point out that CU members represent about 10% of student Christians (206).  Despite the press attention and public profile, Christian Union members are far from a majority of self-identifying Christians on British campuses.  (The project has also received information from people working within UCCF that the numbers of associated members displayed on their website were substantially inaccurate and gave on over-optimistic picture of their network.)  CU members are more likely to fit the traditional image of Christians, with high numbers appearing in the tallies for regular church-going, Bible study and conservative social attitudes.  This surely accounts for part of their high public profile as “proper Christians”, along with the stress on evangelism which manifests itself in visiting speakers, mission weeks and public events.

However, the doctrinal and evangelistic emphasis which the organisation’s public profile demonstrates is not necessarily reflected in the practice of its members.  Put crudely, CUs are failure by their own principles, and successes by other people’s.  The survey of beliefs revealed a considerable number of Christians are involved in some sense with Christian Union events and activities without signing up to even a doctrinal scaffolding within which the UCCF statement of faith could be deduced or developed.  That statement is not only part of the organization’s current profile, but deeply embedded in its institutional history: it was the disagreement on the “atoning blood of Christ” which famously provoked the split from the Student Christian Movement in the late 1910s, alongside other concerns over social melioration and liberal theology.  Though James Barr’s work in the 1970s and 80s on conservative Evangelicalism as an essentially propositional system of belief has been called into question more recently by scholars such as David Bebbington (and receives a further critique in this volume), the UCCF is still publicly committed to that mode of understanding Christianity.

The study suggested that the focus on evangelism is becoming embarrassing to a proportion of the members, either because they find it ineffective and dissonant with the rest of their lives, or because they are vaguely uneasy about its moral status (154).  The overall numbers bear this out, pointing towards low numbers of “conversions” to the Christian Unions, but a high rate of “retention” of members who arrived with compatible convictions.  Campus Christianity seems to overturn the stereotype of British Christian traditions which states that Evangelical churches bring in converts, who then find longer-term homes in denominations which lay more stress on spiritual discipleship.  CUs appear to maintain the faith of members, but not to fulfil their stated aim of conversion based on a doctrinal framework.

The book argues that their members have taken on the “subjective turn” in modern religious identity, stressing relational modes over propositional ones.  Anna Strhan’s recent paper “Practising the Space Between” provides an in-depth discussion of how this mode can be observed, even with within a group of students in a remarkably “dry” conservative Evangelical church.  The finding is also supported by the tenor of some of the literature produced for students likely to join a Christian Union over the last couple of decades.  To take a few examples, Craig Bird’s Destiny, Mike Pilavachi’s Live the Life and Matt Stuart’s Studentdom differ in emphasis (and would no doubt wish to contradict this study in many aspects) but share a relational and subjective tendency in their vision of Christian studenthood.

This also poses a challenge to the self-understanding of a particular section of student Christianity, which cannot be rephrased away in Christianese or cited as proof that “reformed Christianity” is in constant danger of becoming “deformed Christianity”.  This set of findings might prompt serious and helpful reflection about the congruence between stated principle and shaped practice which Christian Unions hold in high regard.

Indeed, the whole book poses a series of challenges to assumptions, to institutions and to paradigms which make up “student faith” from various scholarly and religious perspectives.  There are also fascinating portions on chaplaincy, on ecumenism and on the relationship between the secularism and pluralism which I do not have space to discuss.  Christianity and the University Experience will doubtless lead to furious thinking in Christian groups, in the scholarly study of Christianity, and in the spaces where those two overlap.