What makes a Christian academic ‘different’ (or distinct)?

C.S. Lewis' desk and chair

Anything uniquely Christian offered by the Christ follower who sat on this chair, at this desk? How about at your desk and chair (or lab bench)? How does following Christ shape your daily life, vocation? “C.S. Lewis’ desk and chair.” Taken at the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter.

A friend in InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry (GFM) forwarded to me the “discussion starter” he used for this week’s gathering of doctoral students. In addition to reading how you address the question posed, we’d love to “get our creative juices flowing” for future topics by learning what doctoral students discuss (or desire to discuss) on your campus. Please share in the comments section below. Thank-you! ~ Tom


Dear Friends,

Tomorrow when we meet our topic will be the following.

As you do your reading, studying, writing and researching as a Christian graduate student, in what ways do you find your Christian faith making some distinction in your academic work, and in what sense do you find it makes no distinction?

On the one hand, most of us would probably agree that there are many things about our academic work that don’t (and shouldn’t) reflect our faith in any direct way. If you wrote a paper that was affirmed by colleagues and adviser as being “good,” and then when they were told by someone else, “Oh and by the way, did you know that he/she is a committed Christian?” they responded, “I had no idea — what a surprise.” This might be considered by you to be a compliment. That is, you were glad that they recognized the quality of scholarship as the tip-off for their accolades, rather than your own personal faith ingredient. In this sense, “good scholarship” is a more generic thing, applying equally to Christians and atheists alike. The goal is to do “good scholarship, as a Christian,” rather than to do “good Christian scholarship.”

On the other hand, perhaps there are some things where we find, either day-to-day or over a long period of time, that our Christian faith really does come to play. Perhaps some aspects of our lives as Christian scholars where what we do, or how we do what we do, would be different if we weren’t followers of Christ. Or maybe not?

So, getting at this in a different way: On the one hand, we know we shouldn’t feel guilty for simply doing “good work” as academics when nothing apparent about what we are doing is in any sense particularly “Christian”. A Christian plumber fixes pipes exactly the same way that a Hindu plumber fixes pipes. The atheist and Christian mathematicians do their differential equations exactly the same way — and that’s all very fine and good. On the other hand, we believe that Christ’s two Great Commandments — loving God and loving others — should affect all we do. They aren’t to be compartmentalized into spiritual commandments that affect only our Sunday church attendance, prayer lives, personal devotions, and quality of our relationships, but which have nothing to do with what we do Monday through Friday in our academic work. We are whole people and are called to love God and love our neighbor 24/7. So the Christian academic who seeks to keep these two Commandments, and the atheist academic who doesn’t — something (?) will/should be different about each of them. Where does this “different-ness” manifest itself?

Please give the above a little bit of thought, and join us for conversation.


Note:For a glimpse of the Emerging Scholars Network’s (ESN) vision click here.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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  • davidxramos@gmail.com'
    David Ramos commented on November 16, 2012 Reply

    I’ve had a chance to think about this topic. I am beginning my M.Div and planning on doing doctoral work afterward. I worked alongside predominantly non-Christian academics before this time, in the field of history. Obviously there are moral standards, integrity and excellence to consider – but, and perhaps this is an unfortunate conclusion, I do not see a Christian’s academic behavior as being all that different from secular scholars.
    On the other hand I know that what distinguishes a Christian academic from others in his field should be much more than the topics he chooses to pursue.

    I think the question might be wrong. Can you tell a Christian plumber from an Atheist plumber? Their skill, what they charge – these are all very small things to consider and do not help shed light on their belief. Rather it is their behavior outside of their job which testifies to their conviction.

    This is what I would like to see from Christian scholars – a strong life of faith outside the classroom and certainly on campus as well. Then what they teach in the classroom, although it might have nothing to do with Christianity, will be seasoned by Godly character. And we learn much more from lives than words, don’t we?

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on November 16, 2012 Reply

    Excellent point David.

    Some initial musings:

    Recently at a dinner in Chicago, Renee Lick, Nurses Christian Fellowship (NCF) Student Ministries Director, http://www.ncf-jcn.org/staff/rlick/main.php, shared a story about a nurse who also served as a chaplain. As a nurse she found the patients were more receptive to receiving prayer after she had delivered care than in her chaplain role when they didn’t know her. In working with the Penn State Hershey Christian Medical Society/CMDA, I’ve heard many health care professionals share how they’ve extended the love of Christ in deed and then later in word. A significant aspect of the labors of NCF and CMDA is enabling followers of Christ to wrestle with suffering and journey with those who are suffering in their vocation. They encounter ‘real life’ and receive the opportunity to embrace ‘The Call to Care’ sooner than many in our society, http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=2765. This is vital to be woven into their ‘vocational’ preparation.

    In the same dinner conversation, N.T. Wright shared the importance of faculty paying attention to their students in the midst of full lives. He seeks to be very much aware of “the psychological need” to review material which has been submitted to him by graduate students and let them know whether they’re on track sooner rather than later. This includes extending general tips on writing well being extended sooner rather than later. Note: Faculty and students are to document their appointments with one-another.

    Despite being busy and some living further away from campus, a number of the School of Divinity faculty at U. of St. Andrews try to address personal needs when they are pressing, e.g., visit and pray with students and/or spouses when they are sick. To God be the glory! What a testimony to be shared.

    Let’s continue the conversation.

    Some pieces which immediately come to mind as relevant to the conversation . . .

    1. Jennifer WIseman’s BioLogos series “Science as an Instrument of Worship,” http://biologos.org/blog/series/science-as-an-instrument-of-worship

    2. Tom Trevethan’s review of Mark Noll’s “Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind” (Eerdmans, 2011), https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2011/12/jesus-christ-and-the-life-of-the-mind/

    3. A series I wrote on Dennis Hollinger’s “Head, Heart & Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action” (InterVarsity Press, 2005), https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2011/06/head-heart-hands-fragmented-faith-fragmented-people/.

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