David Naugle is professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University and the author, most recently, of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (website, Amazon link). I had a chance to meet David at Jubilee 2010 and ask him a few questions about the nature of happiness, his life as a faculty member, and advice for students considering academic vocations.
Mike Hickerson: I don’t want to give too much away from the book, but what would be your capsule definition of happiness?
David Naugle: I think it’s the genuine fulfillment of human nature rooted in a relationship with God, whose mercy and grace demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus Christ enables us to love God and the creation well, in a rightly-ordered manner. That’s the definition in short. It has to do with the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor, rightly-ordered.
MH: This morning, I was thinking about how that would apply with my work with emerging scholars and Christian faculty. Academics often complain about the stress, the low pay and long hours and the high entry requirements of their profession. Yet at the same time, they sacrifice quite a bit of time, energy, and money in order to become an academic. Academic professions are typically ranked near the top as one of the most fulfilling jobs. Maybe this is too big of a question, but what do you see as the state of happiness in the academy, among faculty?
DN: Well I think that is maybe an impossible question to answer, actually. Obviously it would depend on each individual faculty member and where they’re coming from. My guess is that the happiness quotient among university faculty, broadly speaking, is probably roughly about the same as the happiness quotient of American society generally, if we’re thinking in terms of North American society, the U.S. and Canada. I don’t know if there’s anything that’s uniquely happiness-giving to being a university professor.
As a matter of fact, depending on the discipline, there are some cases in which professors would probably be tempted toward cynicism, skepticism, and despair unless there is a foundation of faith underneath all that. It’s pretty easy to get lost in the labyrinth of knowledge and to see no way out. An,d more or less, you pursue your job as anyone would pursue their job, as a source of livelihood, perhaps as a way to make a name for oneself, to scale the career heights in the academy, that kind of thing. Faculty are looking for something that fulfills and brings meaning, but perhaps struggling to find it, just like anybody else would. So I don’t necessarily put faculty members in any kind of particular special happiness category, by any stretch of the imagination.
As far as the profession itself is concerned, I think it’s the best job on the planet. I think that for a number of reasons. [Number] one, especially as a Christian professor, that if you’ve learned through the grace of God to love God and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and to love all things in creation and culture, in a rightly or re-ordered way, in light of your love for God and love for neighbor, and that’s the framework or context within which you’re pursuing your academic discipline, then that is happiness giving.
Number two, it makes the academic enterprise seem to me profoundly meaningful. There’s a way of contributing to the academy, to the discipline, to the guild of your discipline, in a unique way, from a Christian perspective. And you get to have a ministry, which I think is really what the classroom actually is: a place of ministry in the lives of young, impressionable students. It’s a ministry that has a lasting impact. In that sense, if you put all of that together, I think that’s why it’s the greatest job on the planet.
Plus, you get to read, if you like to read, you get to read for a living; if you like to write, you get to write for a living; if you like to think, you could think for a living; if you like to teach, you can teach for a living; if you like to hang out with students or have good collegial relationships with other faculty members, then you are obviously finding a lot of fulfillment in all of those activities, all of those pursuits.
MH: At Urbana, I gave a seminar on serving Christ as a professor. Ken Elzinga, from the University of Virginia, was in the room. Someone asked if there were any Christian professors who could say a few words. I was praying he would stand up, and he did. He spoke about the deep joy he experiences as a faculty member.
DN: I would concur and certainly second that. I have found, in my own life personally, tremendous fulfillment. My wife and I together, actually. My wife is the associate provost at the university, so even though we don’t work in the same areas on campus, nonetheless we are at the same institution. Which has really helped me a lot, I don’t know how much I’ve helped her, but I know she’s really helped me a lot. Together, and also independently, I feel a tremendous reward from the teaching process, from entering into the lives of students as appropriate, as a professor, befriending them, having a kind of incarnational philosophy of teaching and working with students, where you walk alongside them in the education, where you have the opportunity to have some input in their lives. A lot of these students, even on Christian college campuses, have come from pretty rough and tumble backgrounds, some difficult family situations. I found myself, in other words, serving in the role of father figure for a fair number of students, not all, but for a fair number of students — or at least another father figure alongside a decent father figure, so there is that component to it as well.
My wife and I have frequently talked about how our best friends are really college kids. We do have adult friends that we do things with, but often times when we are thinking about who we would like to get together with on a Friday or Saturday night to do something, often times its our students who come to mind first. They are intellectually engaged, spiritually alive, and just in general fun, so we really thrive on hanging out with them and they are over at our house all the time.
We have a lot of events in our home for students as well as things we have organized on campus. This is all in addition to the regular day-in-day-out activities of teaching classes and so on. The Christian university, the academy from within the context of faith, provides opportunities like that, which are not impossible to pursue elsewhere, but are made a little bit easier by the ability to be open about faith and cultivating relationships with students that’s probably a little tougher on a state university campus.
MH: One of the issues we have been tracking for awhile in ESN is the state of the humanities, especially the job market and job prospects for students who get PhDs in humanities. We had some responses given. There have been articles in the Chronicle several, strongly advising students not to go into a PhD program. Alan Jacobs [professor of English at Wheaton College] has, also, written an essay about his default advice: “If you are thinking about a graduate school in humanities, don’t go.” [Editor's note: After this interview, I reviewed Jacobs' essay, and my summary is far from adequate. Be sure to read it straight from the source. ~ Mike] This advice is often tied to issues of job prospects and marketability —
MH: — yes, economics. Do you have any advice that you usually give to students who came to you thinking about grad school.
DN: Great question. My advice is if they feel called to be a Christian scholar, then that’s what they ought to pursue regardless of the economic forces that play in the process. I have found in my own life, and also in the life of a fair number of students who have come through the undergraduate system, gone onto graduate school, gotten PhDs and good jobs at, maybe not Ivy League schools, maybe not Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago, John’s Hopkins or Stanford, but at good schools, both Christian and non-Christian schools. God can open up opportunities for you, if you have a real sense of calling along those lines.
So I tend to shy away from discouraging advice. I have met Alan Jacobs. I don’t know him personally, but I would give probably diametrically opposite advice to students. Those are things to keep in mind in some sense at a certain level, but I don’t think they are the largest concerns for young, bright, very intelligent Christian college students who want to pursue a calling the academy as a Christian scholar. I am going to be the last person to discourage them from that option. So I would be very supportive if they were along those lines, and by the grace of God, we have a fair number of students who have done pretty well after they have left Dallas Baptist University and gone off to places like Princeton, Notre Dame, etc., and are excelling in their scholarship and are becoming the next generation of Christian scholars. I say thanks to God for that.
MH: And speaking of bright, young students at Christian colleges, could you tell us a little bit about the The Paideia College Society that you have at Dallas Baptist?
DN: It’s the heir of a component of the Pew Younger Scholars program which was called the Pew College Society. Back in 1996 or ’97, they had an iteration for applying for grants to get a small amount of money from the Pew younger scholars program which is headquartered at Notre Dame, the start of Pew College Society.
There were 29 applications for this iteration. There were 6 grants available and somehow my application was accepted, for a grant of $3,000. After three years, it was renewed for $4,000. By the end of that 6-year period, we had received a grand total of $7,000. And I sought funds from a couple of other sources to supplement some of the activities.
Once those funds dried up from the Pew Younger Scholars program, I just turned to our president of the university and asked him if we could continue the program through internal funding. He didn’t bat an eye: he said absolutely yes.
It’s an organization that has been devoted primarily to trying to discover Christian academic talent to set for the division of going to graduate school, earning PhDs at good universities and becoming a part of the next generation of Christian scholars and academics, so I am training essentially my replacements. Our program is pretty active. In the past when it was the Pew College Society, we had a Latin motto — Pietas et doctrine, piety and learning. We are trying to unite the life of the mind with the life of the spirit, or spirituality in scholarship or faith and reason, however you want to put it.
We had two graduate level seminars, in both of those areas, one on the Western and Christian spiritual tradition, and one on the Western and Christian intellectual tradition. Students who were involved in the Pew Younger Scholars program at our school had the opportunity to take a Fall study retreat. We had a thing called “Books and Coffee” where we went to used book stores. Everybody who went had to buy a book and then we went to a cafe afterwards and everybody introduced themselves and talked about the books that they bought. We had end of semester parties, and an annual Spring academic conference for students. Our thirteenth conference one is coming up. [We also had] a thing called “Cinematic Confabulations” which is a fancy phrase for movie night. At the Fall retreat, either we would have some special readings, or bring in a speaker, and it was devoted to discussion. We had some fun and games as well, but for the most part it was for a serious purpose, for a week away.
Out of that has come a remarkable group of young people who are trying to wed together their spiritual lives and the life of the mind, the love for God and the love of learning. Oftentimes, those are kept in separate compartments, but our goal was to bring those together into a unified, coherent, singular human personality of a student who could think like a Christian of all life and do well as an academician in a particular field. I am very grateful for that.
MH: Very good. This will be my last question. What are some of the spiritual practices that sustain you in your life as a faculty member?
DN: Well, a number of things. Certainly the involvement in the church, which I think is really critical. We feel like that that is very formative for us, especially as a married couple. For me, the scriptures obviously. I’ve changed over the years a little bit of my approach to scripture from intensive inductive Bible study to more of a lectio divina approach to reading the Bible — not so much an intensive exegetical work in scriptural text, but reading the scriptures, focusing on words, phrases, sentences and meditating on their content. That’s definitely been helpful.
[I also practice] daily prayer and a little bit of fasting, to have some connection with those around the world who aren’t as blessed as I am. My wife asked me the other day “Are you seeking something?” and I said, “No, not really, I just feel like this is a good spiritual discipline to practice.”
In my prayer life, there have been a number of things I have prayed for on a regular basis and still continue. The content of those prayers has shifted a little bit, especially from when I was a single man to being a married man, but I would pray that God would enable me to fulfill my purpose in life, which was to walk with God on a daily basis, to integrate my faith in Him in all areas of life; that I would be faithful and fruitful in my calling as an academician, as a scholar, as a professor, as a writer, teacher, and speaker. Now that I am married, I pray that I might love my wife, as Christ loves the church, and as I love my own body. Not that I do that with a whole lot of success.
DN: But I pray about it. I ask for protection from my enemies, which are Satan, flesh, and the devil, on the basis of the victory of the Kingdom of God over those enemies. I ask that God would help foster and nurture within me virtues, like faith, hope and love, courage, justice, temperance and prudence. Vis a vis the vices, especially the seven deadly sins that I talked about in the presentation today, of pride, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. I see those as always lurking around the corner ready to attack.
I ask God to help make me a better thinker, lover, and doer. I combine all three of those elements to have a desire, discipline, and diligence to be in God’s word regularly, and to be a man of prayer. I pray that he would give me courage, boldness and wisdom, and humility, and the capacity to serve, love and give. Those are my prayers, for myself, and I’ve taken that model and actually written about it in Reordered Love. I tell my own story about myself and the disciplines and how I’ve tried to maintain as best as possible a life of reordered love, because I know how influential that is going to be on everything else. So those are prayers that have served me well, and in the end I have discovered that that’s a pretty good way to pray for other people as well. It seems a little selfish at first to say, “Here’s how I pray for me,” when in fact I can take that model and pretty much apply it to almost anyone.
MH: Thank you! I really appreciate your time.