Rick Schenker is president of Ratio Christi, a campus-based, Christian apologetics organization, which he joined in February, 2011. Rick has a visionary leadership style, and has experience in business, government, public and media relations, fundraising, and non-profit management. He has a bachelor’s degree in Bible from Central Bible College, and has done graduate work in public policy at Regent University, along with additional postgraduate work in leadership and public administration. Rick has extensive experience in grass-roots political organization and campaigns in the state of Pennsylvania. As the chief elected official of the County government in Erie, Pennsylvania, he oversaw 1,100 employees and a $300 million budget.
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TheBestSchools: Thank you for allowing us to interview you for TheBestSchools.org. Please give our readers an overview of Ratio Christi? What is it? How did it get started? What are its goals?
Rick Schenker: Ratio Christi is a global movement that equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ. Ratio Christi (Latin for “The Reason of Christ”) is placing Christian apologetics clubs at universities both nationally and internationally. Bringing together faith and reason in order to establish the intellectual voice of Christ in the University, Ratio Christi is engaging in the battle for the mind of Christians and skeptics alike. We unashamedly defend the veracity of God, the Bible, and Christ’s resurrection. Ratio Christ started three and a half years ago as a ministry of Southern Evangelical Seminary and became an independent non-profit organization in early 2011. Since that time, Ratio Christi has developed strong partnerships with many other seminaries and organizations, focusing on Christian apologetics and worldview issues. By working together, we now have approximately 60 clubs in various stages of development in universities across the country and around the world.
TBS: Please give us a bit of background about yourself. What were some of the things you were doing before assuming the helm of Ratio Christi? How did the opportunity to head up Ratio Christi present itself?
RS: I am a grass-roots political organizer. I was an elected official, and decided to leave politics to pursue work within Christian ministry. Unfortunately, even though I had run a few nonprofits, and a government with a $300 million budget, I couldn’t find a job. Sometime in 2010, I was considering getting a master’s degree in apologetics, and ran into the Ratio Christi web site. It was a student-run ministry at Southern Evangelical Seminary. In politics, I had become used to spotting trends that could turn into mass movements. As soon as I saw Ratio Christi, I knew it was a mass movement waiting to happen. I called them up and asked them to let me run it. Based on our 500% growth in the last six months, it is apparent that this is something that was not only needed, but ready and waiting to happen in God’s timing.
TBS: It seems that Ratio Christi is in the business of apologetics for the Christian faith. How do you understand apologetics? And how important is it—to Christians, generally? . . . to Christian college students? How do you respond to the charge that apologetics is just a boutique subject, interesting only to a certain narrow set of believers who like to argue about religion, but with no wider appeal? What difference should apologetics make to the wider university culture?
RS: Apologetics is the branch of Christian theology that seeks to address the intellectual obstacles that keep people from taking faith seriously. I think it is so important that the church is heading into a new age—the age of the apologist. The modern church is under intellectual attack. For high school students, college students, and adults, the study of apologetics is becoming an imperative. However, the university is the breeding ground of skepticism, secularism, atheism, and neo-Darwinism. In the past, this was a relatively non-toxic situation. Intellectuals at the university used to simply dismiss Christianity as anti-intellectual, but all that has changed. Today they are on the attack, and they are aggressively recruiting students to their cause. Neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are now proselytizing with the zeal of evangelists. They have a coordinated effort, and use the same language and the same arguments from Oxford to Appalachia. What is happening at the university is a preview of what will happen to the culture at-large.
Perhaps there was a time when apologetics was perceived to be only for a narrow group of believers that liked to argue using terms the rest of us couldn’t understand. The last 200 years has seen a decline in the understanding of a reasoned faith, but the reality is that apologetics has been employed in the church for almost 2,000 years. Properly understood, Jesus, Paul, John, and the early Church fathers were all using apologetics—reasoned evidence for belief in the truth claims of Christianity. It is time to reclaim that lost understanding and vital practice. However, building on the work of pioneers in this area such as Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and many more, over the last decade we have seen the popularizing of apologetics. One of the proofs has been in the number of graduates with higher degrees in apologetics. These apologists now can use their skills with Ratio Christi to engage in civil discourse at the university with an appeal to the principles of academic freedom. It is being very well received.
TBS: One of the striking claims you make on your web site is that “you are not building an organization, you are building a movement”? Could you please expand on what you see as the difference between the two? What would a Ratio Christi movement look like?
RS: First, Ratio Christi is not the movement. We are simply a grass-roots organization for a greater movement. A movement is usually something that grows beyond the efforts or abilities of the leaders involved in starting it. Ratio Christi is involved in a movement in which apologetics is sweeping through the culture. Because of the rapid growth of neo-atheism in the university, Christian students are under attack. When confronted with intellectual challenges to Christianity, many Christian college students will abandon their faith. You can’t blame them. If the faith of their parents is irrational, then it should be abandoned. In many cases, Christian students are ridiculed and openly humiliated by fellow students and sometimes faculty, for believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. Then along comes some good apologetics training, and suddenly the students realize that their faith can stand up to intellectual scrutiny. They see that the scientific, historical, and philosophical evidence is on the side of Christianity. They get pumped up about that. The same is true for adults and high school students. Most people didn’t know there was so much evidence that supports the Christian worldview. Ratio Christi wants to help propogate the message that Christianity is not only good, it is true. We want to get the word out, organize cooperation with like-minded ministries, put people and resources in universities and communities, and generally help facilitate what we see as a broader work of God.
TBS: You also say on your web site that you are not in competition with other “full-service” campus ministries, because Ratio Christi is more narrowly focused on “the battle of ideas that permeates the university.” That seems like an admirable goal. But by placing so much emphasis on reasoned discourse, are you concerned at all that Ratio Christi may be raising the bar too high for a truly broad-based campus ministry? After all, you wouldn’t want it seem like undergraduates needed to be philosophy majors in order to participate effectively in their local Ratio Christi chapter, would you?
RS: We do exactly what we say. We go onto a campus to support other Christian ministries. A highly trained apologist is placed on a campus to meet weekly with a small group of students that want to go deeper into the study of the intellectual framework of the Christian faith. RC offers to do training for other student ministries and extends the offer to Christian faculty members. The bar is not too high; this is stuff high school students could and should be learning. Yes, it takes hard work, but loving God with all our mind is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. There is a full range of students involved, from those who have already studied these things deeply to those with no previous exposure. Atheists, agnostics, and those of other belief systems are encouraged to attend. This is a safe place where you can bring your questions. And we do encourage all students to get involved with other campus ministries that do more Bible studies, have worship services, and other fellowship opportunities. RC is simply there to help them deal with the tough questions. Does God exist? Doesn’t science disprove God? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering? These are the hard questions, and that is what an apologist is trained to handle. Students love it. They love learning the critical-thinking skills necessary to analyze competing worldviews through logical discourse.
TBS: What has been your experience, so far, with the reception of your local Ratio Christi chapters on mainstream secular campuses? Has it been hard to get them recognized? Have there been any noteworthy cases of backlash against students on secular campuses for getting involved with their local Ratio Christi chapter?
RS: Actually it has been surprisingly easy. Since most universities are theoretically all about academic freedom, we approach it from this angle. They should welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues as long as it is done in a civil format. It helps that current case law supports the right of free association on campus. We have been blessed to have the expertise of the Alliance Defense Fund helping guide us in understanding the legal obligations that the universities are under. Since secular thought dominates most educational institutions, the backlash against Christianity is already there. We just try to even the playing field by giving a sound intellectual defense of the faith. Our arguments are appealing to those that are intellectually honest, so there is no need to back down in the face of opposition.
TBS: Ratio Christi seems to be enjoying a phenomenal rate of growth right now. Is that perception accurate? Just how fast is this “movement” growing? Does the success you are experiencing come at all as a surprise to you? Or was this “pent-up demand” something that you realized must be there all along?
RS: Well, it is really no surprise to me. I saw what you called the “pent-up demand” prior to embarking on this venture. I do think, though, that it is a surprise to a lot of people that have been involved in the broader apologetics and worldview movement. They have been at this for years doing the difficult work of breaking up the hard ground and preparing people to take part. I imagine it could be discouraging to beat the drum for so long and not see a greater response in terms of numbers. But that was necessary preparation. Ratio Christi would like to figure out how to drive apologetics and worldview training down to the local level using the waiting troops (the “pent-up demand” as you called it). The ministries that provide scholarships, speakers, books, curricula, and other resources are vital, as are the seminaries that are training apologists. We simply want to put “boots on the ground.” Ratio Christi wants to maintain a permanent presence on campus and in communities while using and promoting the resources of these other ministries.
TBS: Your web site indicates that you are actively recruiting faculty at secular universities to serve as directors of local Ratio Christi chapters. What luck have you had so far with this initiative? What sort of faculty have you been able to recruit so far? What types of faculty have an interest in serving as chapter directors?
RS: Most of our initial interest comes from people who are trained apologists who want to do this work on campus, but we have had several faculty members also decide to serve as our initial chapter director to get things started. A few of the professors we have are PhDs with degrees in Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Business Administration, for example. The other capacity where they can serve with Ratio Christi is as the Faculty Advisor that is required for student clubs by most universities. We have a wide diversity of highly credentialed faculty participating as advisors, lecturers, and mentors. Ratio Christi is also in the process of working with faculty ministries like Faculty Commons to connect our apologists to faculty all over the country.
TBS: You emphasize “discipleship” as a key to accomplishing your goals. That word brings to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship. Do you recommend his books to the students in your chapters? As far as that goes, do you have anything in the nature of a curriculum or a recommended reading list that you make available for students? Could you please give us a few examples of authors whose work you view as especially in harmony with your own vision of Christian apologetics in the academy today?
RS: Each campus is different. Each group of students is different. We encourage our apologists to work with the students to see what they are most interested in studying. RC does not have our own curriculum—there is no need for it. The clubs use the resources from all the other apologetics and worldview ministries and organization that do that work. They are our partners in building this grassroots organization, and we are here to engage them as speakers and use their resources. We use a lot of resources from William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, Norm Geisler, Peter Kreeft, Hugh Ross, Frank Turek, Jay Richards, and so many others. Currently, we are encouraging our chapters to use a new product on ethics by Chuck Colson called Doing the Right Thing. In the end, however, it is really up to the student officers and chapter director to pick the material that best suits their students.
Regarding Bonhoeffer, I would recommend the recent book by Eric Metaxas called Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Bonhoeffer was a theologian, a deep thinker about God. He understood well the intersection of his faith and the times in which he lived. His deep convictions of truth led him to take concrete action in living out his worldview. Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a whole person—a person whose mind is not segmented from their faith and from their actions. Bonhoeffer exemplified this when his theology persuaded him to stand up to the Nazi regime. These are precisely the values we are trying to instill in Ratio Christi members. We work with students and faculty so that they themselves can become the apologist to their circle of influence.
TBS: We noticed you don’t seem to have any chapters yet at Catholic universities. Yet, one of the most striking developments in the revitalization of Christian apologetics in the academy over the past generation has been the rise of “analytical Thomism,” a term coined by the Scottish philosopher John Haldane. And with respect to Catholic thought more generally, one may cite professors (to name only the living) of the caliber of John Finnis, Peter Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Sokolowski, Robert Spaemann, Eleonore Stump, Charles Taylor, and many others, whose work would seem central to your enterprise. What is Ratio Christi’s attitude toward Christian doctrinal differences? In your campus ministry, do you follow the broadly ecumenical approach that has come to be known as “mere Christianity,” or is there more of an explicitly Protestant dimension to your enterprise?
RS: Mere Christianity pretty well describes our approach. Our chapter growth has been driven mostly by the apologists, students, and professors who have contacted us and we do not yet have a chapter established at a Catholic University. However, just recently we had an apologist contact us about working at two Catholic universities. We are thrilled, but we realize there are hurdles since Ratio Christi is also broadly evangelical. RC has directors and participants from many different evangelical denominations; there is no desire to focus on narrower denominational issues. While recognizing real differences with Catholics, we also take the approach of wanting to work together wherever there is common cause. As you indicated, this includes many areas of apologetics where Protestantism is heavily indebted to Catholic thinkers—both historically and in the present day. That is why we have been open to collaborating with Catholic apologetics organizations and we hope to have a better reach into Catholic universities. Recently, we began communicating with a Catholic organization focused on the issue of intelligent design that seems like a good fit for working together. Some of Ratio Christi’s best apologists have been very influenced by Thomism as they were trained at Southern Evangelical Seminary, which has a unique blend of evangelicalism and Thomistic philosophy. We would love nothing more than to have Eleonore Stump do a lecture series at various Ratio Christi chapters. Her recent book Wandering in Darkness on the “problem of suffering” can’t be ignored. Ratio Christi is evangelical Protestant, but we do not take lightly the task of finding unity in all areas possible with those who are in other branches of historic Christianity. On the majority of the questions we deal with on campus concerning the existence of God, the creation of the universe, the origin of life, the resurrection of Christ, and the problem of evil—these are areas that we can work on together . . . and because of the neo-atheists’ aggressive approach on campuses, that is what we need to work on together.
Many philosophical viewpoints are represented within Ratio Christi’s staff and our modus operandi on campus is to open the floor for the difficult questions and great debates instead of choosing to isolate ourselves. We want our students to understand the best arguments for and against any particular position. Having said that, however, we believe someone is fighting against the tide of the best evidence available if they reject Christianity.
TBS: One of the most striking things you say on your web site is that you want to make your local Ratio Christi campus chapters welcoming to agnostics and atheists. We certainly see the point of trying to provide a structure for believers and nonbelievers to meet with each other and get to know each other as people, in a nonthreatening environment. But we wonder, given the tensions that exist on college campuses and in American culture generally today, how much success you’ve had so far in this endeavor. Have the chapters had much luck in really engaging with agnostic and atheist students in a constructive way? If not, do you have any thoughts about how you might achieve a better result with this distinctive and important dimension of your work?
RS: Actually, it is fairly normal for our chapters to engage with agnostic and atheist individuals, both in the meetings and around the campus. There has also been a lot of interaction with skeptic/atheist groups, such as co-sponsoring events or setting up discussion forums. Clubs representing other world religions have also been interested in engaging in discussion with our clubs. These interactions are very civil discussions, and our apologists teach Christian students to follow the advice of I Peter 3:15–16, to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” It is easier to do this with gentleness and respect when you are confident in your answers. We have found the reception to a reasoned approach to faith to be quite positive. On the other hand, there are many students among the neo-atheists that have picked up on the tactics of Dawkins and others by practicing a lot of ad hominem arguments against Christians. This is usually some kind of generalized attack like “All Christians are stupid because of X,” but the majority of the discourse on campus is usually quite civil.
TBS: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? If we were to interview you two years from now, what accomplishments of Ratio Christi do you think, realistically, you could report? What about five years from now? Ten years from now?
RS: Two years from now we want to have between 200 and 300 Ratio Christi chapters at universities around the world. In five years, we want to have 500 chapters, and in 10 years 1000 chapters. In addition, we would like to have at least one of the apologists on the team at each campus become a full-time missionary to that campus, and have them also working with a few local churches to help bring in some good apologetics and Christian worldview training. That is our strategic plan in a nutshell.
My final thought that I would like to share is the main reason I am doing all this. My personal belief is that Christianity offers the best overall consistently logical explanation for all the issues we deal with in life. The scientific, historical, and philosophical evidence is on our side, and we have a better rationale for a Christian worldview than any other worldview. But no matter how logical and rational our arguments, it all comes down to the simple matter of trusting that Jesus Christ paid the death penalty for us so we don’t have to.