A Mission to the University: Part 1 of Engaging the University

Dr Vinoth Ramachandra serves on the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement.

Dr. Ramachandra is a theologian and an activist whose work engages with the context of his native Sri Lanka, a country whose long conflict has often been drawn along ethnic and religious lines, and his familiarity with student networks in Asia and across the globe. He gained a bachelors degree and a doctorate from Imperial College, London, in nuclear engineering. For many years he has worked for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students [IFES], presently as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement. He is involved with civil rights movements in Sri Lanka and a number of groups which seek to empower the poor and bring reconciliation to the country . . .” — Introduction to Lecture 1: Engaging the University (Part 1).

Does such a resume automatically make Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra an apt speaker to address Engaging the University? Although Ramachandra is a excellent writer and speaker, I have come to find that degrees, experience, and advancement do not necessarily lead to the ability to articulate what we do and why we do it. Sometimes we may become so immersed in the specifics that we miss the “big picture,” hence the importance not only for such a series as the Mission as Prophetic Engagement to call us to embrace the foundations of our vocation as Christ followers, but also to dialogue with such presentations as part of communities which offer accountability. Let’s turn to Part 1 of Lecture 1: Engaging the University.

Ramachandra begins by highlighting the value of the theme of engaging the university in relationship to Henry Martyn:

Martyn is justly celebrated as a man who gave up much for Christ: an academic future as a brilliant mathematician, the possibility of marriage, and eventually his very life. Yet in turning aside from an academic career he did not abandon his intellect, but he redirected it towards what he took to be a more noble pursuit, namely the communication of the Gospel to the non-Christian peoples of India and Persia. While a country curate his formidable linguistic abilities were already being devoted to the Hindustani language and the work of Orientalist scholars of India. In his journal of the 16th of October of 1804, Martyn bemoaned both the vanity and the ignorance of Christianity that prevailed among the best of scholars. . . .

[W]e who stand on the shoulders of such missionary giants and perhaps have developed a fuller theology of missions than their’s need to ask ourselves the question, “Are not the secular universities, especially of Europe and North America worth devoting the same passionate study, missionary engagement, and zeal in the name of Christ that characterized Martyn’s short life?”

Amen! In an earlier post, I responded to Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra call to the campus mission by declaring:

As part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA’s vision To see students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed, and world changers developed, the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) is called to identify, encourage, and equip the next generation of Christian scholars who will be a redeeming influence within higher education. We rejoice in your interaction with this call and ask for your continued prayer/recommendations as we explore/take next steps with you as part of the larger community of Christian scholars, crossing the boundaries of time, geography, disciplines, gender, ethnicity, etc. . . . To God be the glory!

Along these lines, in Part 1 I am particularly struck by Ramachandra‘s

  • contrast of the missionary “conduits of information between two civilizations” and Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Idea of the University focused upon the parochial diffusion of classical European/Mediterranean knowledge through core subjects for rising in the academic ladder — what I have at times termed “the academic chain of being.”
  • affirmation of Christianity’s confession “that Jesus is no mere religious sage, but the one in whom all created reality holds together, Colossians 1:17, and through whom all created reality came into being and will finally be redeemed.” As such Jesus has primacy over all of reality.
  • suggestion “that a missionary engagement with the university must begin, as does all cross-cultural missionary engagement, with a patient and observant study of the changing culture and ethos of the modern university, its dominant worldviews and ideologies, and how these shape the characters, the values, the priorities and lifestyles of students and teachers, including Christians. To be incarnational in this situation implies that we are fully part of the life of the university and committed to the flourishing of the university. We don’t just drop in from the outside to conduct so called missions on the university. . . .”
  • highlighting of student sacrifice for social transformation.

As you listen to Part 1, do you agree with Ramachandra‘s critique of Cardinal John Henry Newman and offering of a contrasting missionary model of education? Do you embrace the reality of Jesus’ primacy over all of creation and the call to become a missionary engaged in the very fabric of the university? Are students with whom you are connected passionate for social transformation? If so, how have you seen this passion worked out?

More from the 2012 Henry Martyn Lectures coming. If you have not already done such, I encourage you to download, listen to and discuss with Christian colleagues/friends the presentations by Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra.

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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