You can quite easily pass your time at university with only the most minimal encounters with the USU’s many fantastic clubs and societies. It would be much harder, however, to spend even a couple of months on campus without at some point coming into contact with the Sydney University Evangelical Union. Even the most fresh-faced of first years will be used to the sight of chummy, blue-jumpered Christians spreading the good news from Parramatta Road to the Co-Op, and few are the famished students who haven’t at some point seen the free EU barbecue as akin to manna from the very heavens.
In an institution, society and age which is markedly secular, it can’t be easy to be as forthright and active as the EU’s members are, not least because of their commitment to the “infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given”: the very first tenet of their doctrinal basis. You’ve probably been approached by one of the EU’s members before but have you ever talked to them? If you have, you were most likely in the same position I was: slightly shocked to discover fellow students who sincerely believe that the Earth is roughly 6000 years old and that the job of archaeologists in the History department is to uncover fossils deposited by that bit of rain Noah managed to see off.
The EU’s 600 members make it easily one of the biggest societies on campus. Struggling to come to terms with the apparent conflict between fundamentalist belief and the modern academy, I went along to the Great Hall to talk to someone who seems to straddle both magisteria quite easily, the philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, a man who has made a name for himself by providing a rational counterpoint to the arguments of “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The hall was packed out and I suspected many there were non-members interested in hearing someone justify with reason what many consider unreasonable. But again, the conflict between Craig’s Christian apologetics and secular academia was manifest. There was something strange about someone with such obvious skill in logic and argumentation telling me that the bodies of everyone in the room would be fully resurrected on Judgment Day, and that Dr. Craig particularly looked forward to this because of a rare neurological condition he had always carried.
But what I saw as a tension between religious orthodoxy and the modern academy was for Craig a joyful reunion: “Over the last half century there has been a renaissance of Christian philosophy in the Anglo-American world and a reversal of scholarship in New Testament studies with regard to the historical Jesus and the credibility of the Gospels. In the academy, the momentum is with Theism and Christianity but it takes a generation or so for this to filter down to popular culture”.
Just last week, an ornate cartoon appeared in the Graffiti Tunnel depicting a literally dick-headed pastor next to the words “Fuck the EU”. The envoys of Christ hit back almost immediately with a passage from Corinthians: “Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, for when I am weak, then I am strong”. If Craig is right about a Christian renaissance, I wondered if he thought these small-scale antipathies between the EU and secular elements on campus might take on a wider scope.
His answer had a similar ring to that passage from Corinthians, providing a historic image of Christian persecution: “They take very politically incorrect stands, particularly on things like homosexuality, and this is going to make these groups extremely politically unpopular, so I do think it’s going to become increasingly polarised.”
They may attract the ire of some, but the EU is certainly not weak, particularly when considered in the context of a steady decline of institutionalised churches like the Anglicans and the Presbyterians. Craig accounts for this by putting it down to these churches aligning themselves too much with the general zeitgeist: “The old mainline denominations that were so influential in the 1950s, having abandoned biblical orthodoxy, have gone into freefall … there is kind of an offset between the catastrophic decline of the mainline denominations and the rise of the new evangelicals.” Rejecting the cautious ecumenicism of established churches, it seems a new, Americanised Christianity is on the rise, stressing a more personal and spiritual relationship with the living figure of Jesus. If so, don’t be surprised if the conflict between the New Atheists and Craig’s “New Evangelicals” comes to more than just slander in the Graffiti Tunnel.