by Daniel Lowe, Contributor
Universities have witnessed a remarkable shift in the last few decades. In 1964 student protestors sang songs about their readiness to go to prison in defence of free speech. Today, we see the student-led no-platforming of non-conformist speakers, from Germaine Greer to Peter Tatchell. Open inquiry and autonomous thinking were once hailed as vibrant and essential aspects of university life. Now, it seems, the outposts have been surrendered, and the white flag raised, to an unlikely conqueror – mental fragility. It begins with talk of safe spaces and trigger warnings; before we know it we find ourselves in a dorm ‘breathing space’ at the University of Pennsylvania, availing of the opportunities to console ourselves at the result of the US Presidential Election by cuddling cats, eating chocolate and colouring in uplifting messages from a colouring book.
It’s all a far cry from the foundational concept of the university as a marketplace where ideologies can compete freely and publically. President Obama weighed in on the debate in September 2015 to say, “I don’t agree that (students) … have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” Why is it that we have always understood free speech to be so valuable? Is it because, when ideas are given free reign, the truth will rise to the top? C. S. Lewis suggested as much when he impishly remarked, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading”.
The marketplace of ideas concept is, apparently, dated back to 1644 when John Milton argued against censorship, stating that the truth would prevail in open debate. But the idea goes back further. In the First Century, as the Christian Church multiplied, the Apostles found themselves before a hostile Sanhedrin. Triggered by the Apostles’ message, the enraged Religious elite bayed for blood. The Apostles could have died that day, were it not for the intervention of a marketplace-minded individual named Gamaliel. His argument was simple: “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” The rest, as they say, is history.
From 27th February – 3 rd March, Queen’s Christian Union will be hosting a campus-wide events week entitled ‘STORY Belfast’. We’ll meet individuals who claim that their lives have been transformed by Jesus: from Peter Browne on the Ulster Rugby pitch, to students going about everyday life at Queen’s. With live music, interviews, question and answer sessions, dramas and the odd homemade traybake, there will be a lot on offer. And while the Café Grace free lunches are certainly nothing to be sniffed at, the core of the week will consist of talks considering what kind of story Christianity really tells. Is it true? Is it arrogant? Is it delusional, dark or tragic?
Ever since Jesus made the claim “No one comes to the Father except through Me” Christianity has been controversial. That isn’t likely to change. But where better than the university to reject shallow dismissals, and engage in the rigorous examination such claims require?