Dancing with the Devil

We were having a discussion in class Wednesday about how universities in America have become incredibly intolerant of Christianity. The following link is to an Op-Ed in the New York Times last month, acknowledging this fact. It’s a great read.

The whole discussion got me thinking about a philosophy class I took back in the 80’s. I was a relatively new Christian at the University at Buffalo and wanted to take classes where I could debate the existence of God.  Unfortunately, there was not a single Christian philosophy professor on staff. It was rare to hear the Christian perspective in a classroom discussion. That’s not entirely uncommon in a philosophy department.

I was part of a small group of Christian students who requested that the department offer a philosophy of religion class. We were told that such a course had not been offered in over a decade, and that there wasn’t a single professor interested in teaching it. Since I worked in the department office on a work study program, I had ample opportunities to continue to bring the issue up whenever I got a chance. After several months, the department chair told me that Dr. Paul Kurtz was interested in teaching the class. Knowing I was a Christian, Dr. Barber asked me if I still wanted the class offered. I appreciated how considerate he was being. You see, Paul Kurtz just happened to be the most famous atheist on the planet at that time. He was back then, what Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are today. He was one of the primary authors of the Humanist Manifesto, wrote numerous books against Christian Faith, and had famously debated Christian Philosopher Norm Geisler. Did I really want to take a philosophy of religion course from a professor I knew would use the class as a platform for promoting his atheistic beliefs? You bet I did. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was a little concerned. I remember a friend of mine saying that Kurtz was the devil incarnate.

As it turned out, I was the only Christian philosophy student who actually took the class. On the very first day Kurtz stood in front of the room of about twenty students and asked, “Who here believes in God?” Several hands went up. One by one, Kurtz asked the students why they believed in God. One by one, he completely dismantled their reasons and made the case for atheism. Yeah, it was at that point I realized I was probably in over my head.

When it came time to write my research paper for the course, I decided to write on the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. I knew I was taking a big chance. Would Kurtz give my paper a fair evaluation, or would he simply give me an F? It didn’t matter to me. All I needed to do was speak the truth and trust God with the results. On the day the papers were being handed back, Kurtz took the time to say a few words about each paper in front of the entire class. Very intimidating. Unbeknownst to me, there actually was another Christian in the class. Apparently this guy had also decided to use his paper to make the case for the Christian Faith.When Kurtz got to him, he openly criticized the student’s work, telling everyone it was the worst paper he had ever read. I really felt sorry for the guy. Of course, I didn’t spend too much time worrying about him; in just a few moments it would be my turn to dance with the devil.

Before I go any further, I want to say a few words in defense of Paul Kurtz. He comes across as pretty hostile to Christians in my description above. The reality is, that while he didn’t like Christianity, he was never hostile. He never got angry in his attacks of students’ comments. He might ridicule ideas that he felt were poorly grounded, but he never ridiculed students. And of course, he was always smiling. You see, Paul Kurtz was actually one of the best professors I ever had. He was friendly, quick to share a humerous story, and always willing to listen to everyone’s views and opinions. That’s a far cry from the kind of environment we see on college campuses today.

Toward the end of the course I got the feeling that Kurtz had run out of things to talk about. He believed he had sufficiently disproved the existence of God, made the case for secular humanism, and simply had nothing more to say about it. So one day, he asked the students if anyone wanted to take over a class and present on a topic related to the philosophy of religion. I really can’t remember if anyone else volunteered. After the class, I asked him if I could present a lesson on the authority and reliability of the Bible. He agreed. The following week I recruited John Mansfield, the campus director for Cru (and my Bible study leader), to give the presentation. John was simply amazing. To this day he remains one of my biggest heroes. The whole time Dr. Kurtz sat in the front row, listening intently to everything that was said. He never interrupted. He never made fun of what was being presented. But I can only imagine how intimidating he must of have come across, sitting directly in front of John. John never even broke a sweat. Every once in a while Kurtz would gently utter a brief comment. “Really?” “I’ve never heard that before.” “Is that so?” At the very end, John shared the Gospel and I handed out contact cards. Several people indicated that they were interested in learning how to have a personal relationship with Christ. Kurtz never filled out a card.

I honestly don’t remember what happened the following class. I’m pretty certain Kurtz never even mentioned it. But that one Christian student who Kurtz had so openly put down, ended up joining one of our Bible studies. To God be the glory! Even when it seems like you are going up against the devil incarnate, God is greater. “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world!” 1 John 4:4 (NASB)

Thanks John for your faithfulness to the Kingdom. Not only were you instrumental in leading me to Christ, but you showed me what it means to stand up for the truth.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. What about that paper I wrote on the resurrection? What grade do you think Kurtz gave me? I still have the original paper in my personal files. I will treasure it until the day I die. It serves as a reminder of my experience in that class and what God can do when his children are faithful to the truth. Kurtz wrote a single sentence on the cover page: “While I disagree with your conclusions, you gave a valiant defense of the resurrection.” The big red A underneath still surprises me to this day.

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