This weekend, I will be returning to Wheaton College, a Christian college in Wheaton, Illinois, where 50 years ago I received my bachelor’s degree, and I will be celebrating that fact with a number of my classmates for our 50th reunion. It will obviously be a time of fun and nostalgia. It will be a time of shock to see how old everyone else has gotten (of course, not me). It will be a time to remember where I was when I made the decisions that have shaped my life ever since. (I took a number of midnight walks around that campus, thinking and praying, and trying to figure things out. There’s one place I want to go for sure and stand where I first felt the Holy Spirit alive in my life — the time I cried out for help because I thought I was losing my mind.)
But most of all, I want to remember the contribution a Wheaton College education made to me. To be sure, I wasn’t even that good of a student. Nor was I 100% engaged in everything that was going on then, academically or socially. We complained about school like everybody does while you’re there, and then years later you realize how important it was, and how you really did get something out of it. I do think what I got was more caught than taught.
Mostly, I think, it was the environment of learning I appreciated, and especially the fact that the professors there taught me more about how to think than about what to think. Now that I think of it, for a school operated by evangelicals, they were willing to take a lot of risks in order to foster among students a freedom to think for themselves and not be cookie-cutter Christians.
Proof of that were the number of students who “lost their faith” at Wheaton. That was because for many of them, this was the first time they were encouraged to voice their questions and their doubts openly and try to work them out. Such a thing was not allowed in their homes or their home churches. As a result, there were atheists at Wheaton because in the process of taking apart their faith, they found out they didn’t really have one to begin with. And that was a good thing. Some of them ended up putting it back together again; some didn’t. Intellectual honesty was what was required, not a certain belief you had to fake even if you didn’t believe it.
Add to this the fact that this was the 1960s we’re talking about. These were the years of student unrest — anti-war protests in Berkeley, civil rights marches in Alabama, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and just one year after I graduated, four students were shot dead and nine wounded by National Guard soldiers at Kent State University in Ohio.
There were no riots at Wheaton, but there was a lot of questioning and there were four “underground” rock groups on campus, and the administration wisely decided to give us all a platform to hold a “Battle of the Bands” at Pierce Chapel auditorium in 1969. And we’re not talking Christian music here — there was no Christian rock music at the time — so this would have been the music of Bob Dylan, the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead and others. I’ll never forget somebody doing “Whiter Shade of Pale” on the Pierce Chapel organ. I honestly don’t know of many Christian colleges today who would allow such a thing.
My point is that we need to, at all times and for all generations, foster an open mind and an engagement with culture, and a faith that is intellectually honest and that is won on the personal playing field of each heart and mind through honest questioning, doubting and struggling so that it is the sole possession of the bearer, not the parroting of group belief. If Wheaton College didn’t consciously do this, it did it anyway, at least for me, and for that I am grateful.