It's hard to laugh about religion in Northern Ireland, but Oxford theologian Alister McGrath likes to tell the following joke that hints at the challenges he faced as a young skeptic in that troubled land.
While visiting Belfast, an Englishman was cornered by three thugs. The leader asked one question: "Are you a Protestant or are you a Catholic?"
After a diplomatic pause, the Englishman said: "I am an atheist."
Confused, his attacker asked: "Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"
The tough religion questions continued when McGrath entered Oxford University, where he became the rare student who traded his Marxist atheism for Christianity while studying science. He would eventually earn two doctorates -- in molecular biology and theology.
Today, McGrath teaches at his alma mater and is admired by academic leaders around the world who are tired of being cornered and asked: Are you a Christian or are you an intellectual?
This was a big question during the 1960s when most secular educators believed that "religion was evil" and "on the way out," said McGrath, speaking last week in Grapevine, Texas, at a global forum sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
According to the "received wisdom" of that era, a "new secular age was about to dawn," he said. "The future was all about a godless culture and the church would just have to adapt to it and that was that."
These days, even the most skeptical of scholars admit that traditional forms of religion are on the rise and that millions of spiritually hungry students are questioning the chilly, strictly rational creeds of secular modernity. Faith is making a comeback and the high priests of mainstream academia cannot understand why, said McGrath. Thus, many are getting angry and, on occasion, shrill.
These tensions are even beginning to affect the bottom line.
A small wave of mainstream news reports have noted that enrollments are up 70.6 percent during the past 14 years at the 102 schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the mostly evangelical Protestant network in which I teach journalism. Over the same period of time, enrollments rose 28 percent at secular private colleges and 12.8 percent at public colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute found that four in five students said they are interested in spiritual issues and 75 percent said they are searching for the meaning or purpose of life.
In this environment, said McGrath, it is crucial for leaders of religious colleges to know that they have two objectives instead of one. They must help students grow in their faith while also growing intellectually.
Failure on either side of this equation is failure in the whole process. This is tricky, because many educators believe that any affirmation of orthodoxy equals fundamentalism. Meanwhile, parents often question efforts to debate religious issues.
The goal, said McGrath, is to help young roots go deeper. Christian educators have a God-given responsibility to help the plants grow.
"We are not simply reassuring students that their faith is right, that it makes sense, ... that it connects up with reality," he told the forum. "One of the big distinctives between a more secular education and what you offer is the mirroring of this love of God for every individual, of helping them to dream dreams, to see visions of where they might be, of what God might do in them and through them."
This means that professors must accept that Christianity has, over the centuries, built up an unavoidable tradition of history, art, philosophy, ethics and theology that has implications all of life. Thus, McGrath stressed that education affects both the head and the heart and that it is unwise to create two zones on campus -- one spiritual and one academic.
In other words, the Christian faith has intellectual content that cannot be locked inside the chapel.
"We need a generation of economists, of lawyers, of politicians who intentionally set out to connect their faith and what they will be doing in the world, not doing it by accident or an afterthought, but rather seeing this as a God-given calling," said McGrath. Professors want their students to ask, "If I were to enter politics, how could my values and beliefs be reflected in what I say and do? And likewise with chemistry, biology, psychology, you name it."