Is it OK with God to devote myself to studying a secular discipline?

I have posted before on why I bother studying a “secular” subject, and I have mentioned Donald Hay’s reflections on the question (primarily in relation to Jeremiah 29).

Among the other purple passages in the bible for thinking about what it means for a Christian to undertake secular study is Daniel 1.

Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar precisely (at least as far as the court was concerned) to learn the knowledge of the Chaldeans:

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- four young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians.5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. (Daniel 1:3-5)

Daniel 1 surely teaches us that it is possible to be a believer in the one true God in a secular institution and culture, profiting from the knowledge of the day, while not compromising one’s integrity. After all, Daniel is prised in Scripture for his righteousness, not criticised for his compromise.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, it appears, with learning the ‘letters and language of the Chaldeans’, even though those letters would surely have included practices and beliefs that no Christian or Hebrew of Daniel’s time would practice and hold. Indeed, such learning, including understanding of the occult practices, superstitions and half-truths of the Babylonian society, was given to the four exiles by God:

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. (Daniel 1:17)

So: secular learning–even learning which, if held to be true and practiced, would merit God’s disapproval–is given by God. But can a Christian prosper such an academic atmosphere? Let’s read on:

 18 At the end of the time set by the king to bring them in, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. (Daniel 1:18-20)

The least we can say is that the Hebrews’ fervent and uncompromising faith was no handicap to their progress at the University of Central Babylon.

Now of course there will be certain subjects that some Christians should steer clear of, and there will be some intellectual atmospheres which make it almost impossible for Christians to study certain areas with integrity, but they are the rare exceptions. The very least that Daniel 1 proves is the principle that learning in a secular institution, and learning about practices some of which displease God, is not inherently evil in the state of exile in which we find ourselves (1 Peter 1:1).