UHI Principal James Fraser: The Church & Universities- Faith in a University Community

(Our next Old High Summer Evening Service will feature poet Kenneth Steven. Click here for more details.)

James M Fraser is Principal & Vice Chancellor of the University of the Highlands & Islands. He gave this talk as part of the summer evening series at the Old High Church on 9 June 2013.

The Church & Universities– Faith in a University Community

Thank you for inviting me to talk here tonight.

What I am going to say might be titled The Church & Universities –Faith in a University Community. Like the good Presbyterian I am, my talk will have three heads:

1 A few Introductory Remarks about the University
2. Churches engaging with the academic world
3. Churches engaging with students.

Introductory Remarks.

The University of the Highlands and Islands came into existence in 2011. It replaced the UHI Millennium Institute, which had been in existence in one form or another since the 1990’s. We are an unusual university in having 13 Academic Partners, spread over the larger part of Scotland, the Highlands and Islands including Orkney and Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland, the Western Isles, Highland, Argyll and Bute, Perthshire and Kinross and Moray.

We have 13 Partners, 13 main campuses but a variable number of satellite campuses and learner centres. Our range of activities covers sciences and technology, arts and humanities, social sciences including health, business and CIT (Computing and IT). We have 7,500 students and this will expand probably to 11,000 over the next 3-5 years. Some 800 staff are engaged in this business of teaching, training and research. We teach at undergraduate level, BA, BSc, HNC/D at postgraduate level, Masters and PhD’s.

Our distinctives are our research, covering areas such as the environment, health including diabetes, renewable energy, mountain and land-based studies, our cultural heritage, history, Gaelic, archaeology and many others too numerous to mention this evening. Our principal distinctive however is that we are one of the UK’s foremost practitioners of blended learning – this is using IT and video-conferencing to transmit knowledge to people where they are rather than taking them out of their communities to get a university education, as used to be the case.

In Inverness our major activities are and will be focussed around the Beechwood Campus. Inverness College-UHI will teach UHI students on the campus in September 2015; we are already located in Raigmore at the Centre for Health Sciences researching into diabetes and the delivery of health services in a rural community. This research will spread over into the campus, across the golden bridge, and I expect that in addition to everything that Inverness College will do on the campus, helping to cover the range of subjects which I have outlined, the University will also pursue more health research and training, oil and gas training and the opening of what we call a Learning and Teaching Academy. The role of the LTA will be to research into our blended learning and to apply it in taking degrees to other markets, England, Europe and the rest of the world.

Our student population is still markedly more mature (maturity is defined as over 25 years) and is markedly more part-time than other Scottish universities. This is, however, rapidly changing, as we are now recruiting more school leavers within and from outwith the Highlands and Islands, and therefore more full-time students. From the perspective of Inverness the major change is that Beechwood will give the city a campus comparable to other UK University campuses, with a resident student population and a campus life built around study and leisure. It will be a magnet for growth in terms of UK students, European and overseas students and I expect a major part of the University’s growth over the next few years will occur in this location. It will also be a magnet for staff growth not just in the university but also in the ancillary businesses which will cluster around the university growth min areas like Life sciences, Health and CIT.

Now that I have given you a quick picture of the University of the Highlands and Islands (1) I want you to note three things about us.

  1. In the range of knowledge we are like every other university. This is relevant to the next part of my talk, the Churches Engaging with the Academic World
  2. In the way we are distributed and seek to connect our communities together we are very unlike other universities and this is relevant the last part: Churches engaging with students.
  3. Beechwood campus will grow into a major location for students and staff both university and non-university staff as both the university and the facilities, which it will attract, grow on that location.

Christianity engaging with the academic world

Universities are places where people acquire knowledge. The Bible makes many knowledge claims. We have read indeed in the Gospel of John that Jesus described himself as the Word; and John describes God as the Father as Light.

The Bible claims to be a word that “ is alive and active; sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. (Hebrews 4.12)

The religion of the Old Testament centred on the ten words of Sinai, the Ten Commandments. In the creation narrative in Genesis each section of creation is prefaced by “And God said, let there be etc…” Both Light and Word are metaphors for our access to reality, -Light enables us to see and seeing is often used as a metaphor for understanding, for gaining an appreciation of reality and truth. – and of course Word, the Logos is the very medium through which truth is expressed and communicated.

Students are engaged on a quest for knowledge. Sometimes it is for theoretical knowledge- knowing that; and sometimes for practical knowledge, skills and competences –knowing how. One of the marks that distinguishes university education from simply training is that an attempt is always made to set the practical or “knowing how” within a theoretical framework that explains why it is, as it is. Some of the subjects which students study may make statements that conflict with Christian knowledge claims; almost all subjects make presuppositions, some of which Christians might challenge.

There is well exemplified in the major contemporary debate about religion and science. On the one hand we have the new atheists who believe that reality is entirely bounded by what the domain of science can discover and that any statements outwith this domain are untrue or without testable meaning. This is the view presented by people like Richard Dawkins (2). This is challenged by Christian apologists such as John Lennox (3) and Alister McGrath (4). We are confronted with the need to grapple with these arguments. For Christian students these debates can be challenging and for non-Christians there is an opportunity for Christians to engage them in considering the validity of the Christian challenge.

Then there are the concepts of right and wrong – of moral knowledge. These concepts are also under challenge and students sometimes find when challenged in university that they have never really thought out the basis of their practices and beliefs. The march of bioscience poses significant challenges, as scientists are able to manipulate animate matter in the way in which they used to manipulate inanimate matter and in so doing raise huge ethical and moral issues.

Apart from the actual study and the knowledge and presuppositions which students encounter in their university education, they also meet and mix with others, both students and staff, who are different to them, who come with a varied set of beliefs, world views, religions, languages, ethnic backgrounds and so on. This is an important part of university education and challenges students to think about their basic beliefs, their views of the nature of reality and why their views are different to, or like the views of the others whom they meet.

Now you may be saying –all this is very fine, but where do the Churches come into the picture. Well I think in several places. We, who are the repositories of the Christian message, need to engage in the debates about truth; we can offer people and places for such debates and we can raise the profile of the Church in doing so. Christian Churches, and this will certainly be true of the Churches within Inverness, have within them people who are capable of taking part in these debates and helping students who are challenged by these controversies. At the same time if churches engage student attention they introduce a new, lively and important ingredient into their congregational life and can provide useful assistance to local congregations in reaching out to their communities and to other students.

Christians have a duty to engage in these debates, to give a good account of the claims of the Christian revelation and to challenge non-Christians to consider their validity. I have myself been a Christian for many years and a vital part of my journey to faith was the challenge posed to me as a university student as to whether the claims of the Bible were true – I do not mean minutiae – I mean rather the big claims that the world is created and did not come together by some accident; that God chose Jesus his Son as His means of revealing himself and his will to the world, and that Jesus died on the cross to save us from the penalty of sin and exclusion from God’s fellowship. University is a great place to grapple with these issues because it is a place of knowledge and enquiry and access to expertise of every kind. The students of today are often the political leaders, the business leaders and the opinion-makers of tomorrow and it is a great work for Churches to engage with their minds and through that work influence the life of the nation. I remember as a student being very influenced by Francis Schaeffer (5). Schaeffer spent his life writing, thinking and debating about Christianity’s knowledge claims. He encapsulated his philosophy well in the statement.

We must stress that the basis for our faith is neither experience nor emotion but the truth as God has given it in verbalized, prepositional form in the Scripture and which we first of all apprehend with our minds.

The exciting thing that Church can convey in this knowledge debate is that the subject of Christian knowledge is not a static dispassionate inanimate entity but God, a person, who is an active agent in revealing himself as people seek to find him. This form of knowledge is akin to getting to know another human being –as we explore our relationships with our fellow human beings the acquisition of knowledge is two-way; the subject of exploration is not a passive object but an active reciprocal explorer subject. This is why in the quotation which I gave earlier it said that the Word penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”. This is a very different kind of knowledge to academic learning in that it claims to effect an internal and moral transformation in the soul and not merely the mind of the student.

The great Christian apologist of the 20th Century CS Lewis (6) said:

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.

This is why Churches must engage with students.

Christianity engaging with Students

I want to turn now to Churches engaging with students. I have talked so far mainly about the big issues of knowledge. Student life is about a lot more than this. For many people, particularly young people, student life coincides with the challenges of living amongst peers, relating to them as work colleagues, as friends and companions and as people with whom relationships are formed. This can often be very challenging and can lead to puzzlement; unhappiness, loneliness and a sense of difficulty, sometimes even of despair. There is a huge role of Churches to be on hand to offer help, companionship and counselling and friendship without strings. This is the message we read in the parable of the Good Samaritan (7). The parable clearly teaches us that the students, who come to Inverness, are our neighbours and we are called to minister to their needs.

The usual way for Churches to do this is to set up Chaplaincies. Chaplaincies are often focused in a place and can be conducted either by full-time professional Chaplains appointed for this purpose or by working ministers doing this on a part-time basis as part of their normal work or some mixture of both. In the case of Beechwood, there will be a population of students, big enough, in my view, to justify a chaplaincy. I favour models where local Churches get stuck into Chaplaincy, as it is often good for students, especially if they are living on a campus, to connect with local Churches and form relationships with “ordinary” people. Given that the campus will have people of many Christian denominations and also of other faiths, chaplaincy is something that the Churches should collectively plan together.

Apart from the pastoral support, which Chaplaincy provides, it also can act as a focus for creating events, which allow some of the big issues to which I referred earlier to be discussed and dissected. It can also be a place for the Christian Union and the Chaplains are often in a good position to advise the Christian Unions on their programmes and activities. UHI has a theological faculty in Highland Theological College-UHI (HTC) and I am sure there could be useful links established between the Church and HTC to enrich the offering which the Chaplaincy can make.

Making connections with local Churches and people is important. This is particularly true of, although not confined to, overseas students. They often have significant difficulties adapting to a new culture and language and some of them are Christians who have difficulty adapting to a Scotland at variance with their preconceived notions of Scotland as a Christian country. For them it is particularly important that the Church can get alongside them. This can be done by involving them in the life of the Church and connecting them with the people of the Church. Many churches combine with Universities to offer host family schemes where they link overseas students with families and let a friendship develop around hospitality, showing the students the country and telling them about it. Sometimes friendships are made for life and sometimes people play a vital part in ensuring the success of such students.

Churches can also involve students in their voluntary and social work. Music is often a powerful connecting force. Students can get involves in the musical life of the Church and in this way get drawn into the Church’s social function.

To sum up.

Churches can play a part in the intellectual battle for the minds and the hearts of students and thus exert a great influence over the life of the nation.

Churches can involve students in the congregational life of the Church and with their students increase their own impact on their communities

Churches can offer pastoral support, friendship and minister to the needs of students.

Mother Theresa (8) said

We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

Churches are supremely able to tackle this kind of poverty.

James M Fraser
Principal & Vice Chancellor
University of the Highlands & Islands
9th June 2013

NOTES

(1)  For further information please look at http://www.uhi.ac.uk

(2) Clinton Richard Dawkins, FRS, FRSL (born 26 March 1941) is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, [and was the University of Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Dawkins is an atheist, a vice president of the British Humanist Association, and a supporter of the Brights movement. He is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design.

(3) John Carson Lennox is a British mathematician and philosopher of science who is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford University, an author and a Christian academic who has participated in a number of public debates against individuals including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Michael Shermer.

(4) Alister Edgar McGrath (born 23 January 1953) is a British Irish theologian, priest, intellectual historian and Christian apologist, currently Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at Kings College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture.[ He is known for his opposition to New Atheism and anti-religionism and his advocacy of critical and author of numerous books.

(5)  Francis August Schaeffer (30 January 1912 – 15 May 1984[1]) was an American Evangelical Christian theologian, philosopher, and Presbyterian pastor. He is most famous for his writings and his establishment of the L’Abri community in Switzerland. Opposed to theological modernism, Schaeffer promoted a more historic Protestant faith and a presuppositional approach to Christian apologetics which he believed would answer the questions of the age.

(6) Clive Staples Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963), commonly called C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as “Jack”, was a novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and Christian apologist born in Belfast, Ireland. He held academic positions at both Oxford University (Magdalen College), 1925–1954, and Cambridge University (Magdalene College), 1954–1963. He is best known both for his fictional work, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.

(7)  The Gospel of Luke. 10 v31-37 NIV

(8)  Mother Teresa (1910 –1997), Albanian, Indian Roman Catholic nun founded the Missionaries of Charity, and ran hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; children’s and family counseling programmes; ophanages; and schools.