Faithful Is Successful Interview: David E. Lewis and Joshua Swamidass

Faithful Is Successful CoverESN is partnering with the team that wrote Faithful Is Successful to foster conversation among our Scholar’s Compass writers and the community of Christian scholars and professionals who authored the book. We caught up with a few of the book’s editors to talk about what they’ve learned from putting the book together, and how they hope it can support emerging scholars. Enjoy these reflections by David E. Lewis and S. Joshua Swamidass. The book’s other editor, Nathan Grills, was unable to participate this time, but you can find his essay “Success: Whose Will Is Being Done?” in the collection. 

1. ESN: Can you tell us a bit of the story of how this book came to be?

David: I was helping organize a week-long summer institute for Christians in graduate school heading into fields where there were few Christians. The week was spent hearing from speakers from different backgrounds talk about how to integrate their Christian faith and vocation. We had artists, researchers, and people working on environmental issues come and talk about their experiences and give their advice. It was lovely and their talks sparked great conversations about how to understand vocation in the context of God’s work in the world.

At the end of the week, we were approached by Justin Denholm, one of the eventual chapter authors. He asked us to put a volume together that would reflect the experience of the week. Why couldn’t what was said in the talks be written down as a way of widening the experience and inviting a larger group of people into the conversation?

Josh: I attended this same conference a long time ago, back in 2001. At the time, I was a young graduate student, aiming towards an academic career. And I was a Christian. However, the Christian communities I was a part of did not know how to help me work though many of the challenges and questions with which I was struggling. What does Christian humility look like in a competitive field that requires absurd amounts of ambition and confidence? How do the apparent conflicts between evangelicals and science resolve? Does the urgency of serving God now square with spending my entire twenties preparing in graduate school?

This conference was the first place I encountered a group of Christians who were walking down a similar path and asking the same questions as me. The experience was deeply formative for me in my questions, fears, and aspirations.

The idea behind this book, when David and Nathan initiated it, was to invite more people into this experience. They asked all previous attendees of this conference to explore how they have been working out their faith and vocation since we were all connected. I joined the editorial team after the project was off the ground, but I quickly realized the Emerging Scholars Network would be a great place to collaborate with as we look to extend our community. So thanks for continuing the conversation with us.

2. ESN: I’m struck that this book really emerged from an ongoing community. How would you describe the role of community in helping Christian scholars and professionals to be faithful?

David: The honest truth is that many of us in the church experience tremendous loneliness. This can particularly be the case for persons working in vocations where there are few Christians. Few people in the church understand our professions and few people in our professions understand what it means to follow Jesus. As such, there are few people that really know us well and can talk with us about some of the unique challenges we face.

Finding a community of fellow travelers has been tremendously important to me personally, from the time in graduate school when I found some other Christians doing political science, to today when I have a longer and sweeter history of walking with other Christian faculty who know me well. These friends have been willing to both share wisdom but also walk with me as I have tried to figure out what it means to do what I do faithfully. There are so few people to go to about how to do what we do in academia. That was a big motivator for the book, to let people know they are not alone and to give people access to the insights and experiences of people that have walked before them.

Josh: It really did emerge from an ongoing community. Many of us formed very strong relationships over the years, even though we are spread out across the globe. Deep bonds can form when there is shared purpose and challenges.

Most of us are really driven people in demanding professions. We are type-A personalities that really want to excel in all we do. So how do we reconcile that with following Jesus, who calls us to be humble and not pursue selfish ambition and to be devoted to greater things than our demanding professions alone? I have found that questions are best answered in community.

One of the reasons we approached ESN about an ongoing conversation is that you guys are a community as well. This is about our personal interaction of faith and vocation, but that’s always been worked out in a community for all of us, and ESN just seemed like the perfect fit for that.

3. ESN: How has working on the book deepened your own understanding of what it means to be faithful in your vocation as a Christian and a scholar?

David: Wow. The editors have discussed on several occasions how much the book “wrote” us more than we wrote the book. I think we started on a book that would more properly be characterized as “how to be successful without losing your soul.” Then, as we engaged with the chapters and got into this more deeply ourselves, we began to question what success means. What does God consider to be successful? This has been the most challenging aspect of the book, wrestling with a passionate desire to have “success” by some professional definition and reconciling that passion with what God is passionate about and what God considers success. Our resting place at the end of this struggle is reflected in the book’s title, “Faithful is Successful.”

On a more personal level, I had a sabbatical leave during the year when the book finally came together and I worked on my chapter and we worked on the introduction and conclusion. It was an incredibly challenging and moving experience. I was profoundly affected reading through a number of the chapters.

It was also very helpful to have to articulate to myself, perhaps for the first time, the ways being a Christian has made a difference in my work as a professor. I had to confront the image in my head of what that should look like compared to what it actually looks like in my experience and reconcile the two.

Josh: My biggest surprise was how thematically connected the chapters ended up. We gave very little direction to the authors: share how you have been working out your faith in your vocation. In answer to this broad prompt, we consistently saw the same themes arise again and again. For me, this was really encouraging. We often feel alone in our questions and struggles, but this is not really true. God often works out the same themes in all our lives.

4. ESN: One thing you talk about in the introduction is the relationship and possible tension between faith and ambition. How do you see that working out in the academic careers emerging scholars are pursuing?

David: That is the big question. At a fundamental level, while I strive for excellence, I have to recognize that professional recognition and accomplishment is like a drug that satisfies for a while but is not the ultimate satisfier of my soul. I find myself wanting another hit, and then another. All the while, I get less and less sensitive to what I am sacrificing to get that hit.

Scriptures refer to God as our portion and our reward, not our publications, keynote addresses, tenure, or fame. God wants us to hold those markers of professional success loosely. Some of us will receive these markers of professional accomplishment and some of us will not but God does not judge us by these things. He judges us by our faithfulness and what we do with the circumstances we are given.

Josh: This is the central question, not just of this book, but of our personal journeys. What does it mean to be successful? This is so important, because we all want to be successful, but our faith calls us to forsake any hint of selfish ambition.

I think the answer to this faith and ambition paradox lies in our definition of success. When we strive for the version of success expected of us in our professions, we find it is not terribly compatible with our faith. It is often selfish. It is often imbalanced. It often leaves us insecure and stressed. If we choose to define success as being faithful to the Lord in the communities, vocations, and family in which He has placed us, we find a resolution to the paradox. Success is now placed in the context of pleasing another over ourselves. It leads us to a balanced place. It gives us a way to derive meaning out of the process and journey with less concern about ultimately achieving a goal or arriving at a specific destination.

5. ESN: How do you hope the book will encourage our readers as they live out their callings to follow Christ in the academy?

David: I hope your readers will get a few things out of the book. First, I hope your readers are reminded not to lose the plot. As someone who has lost the plot in embarrassing ways at various points, let me tell you that you do not want to end up being that person. Second, I hope readers will be challenged to think purposefully and creatively about how their vocation fits into God’s larger plans and common grace for the world. Finally, there is a ton of really good and grace-filled material in the chapters to push and challenge and encourage. It has been a real blessing to me. I hope your readers find the same things.

Josh: all the chapters are honest reflections about real struggles along the journey to integrate our faith into our work. There is a real person behind each of these chapters. Most of them are in academics. As isolated we can all be in our journeys, many of the questions and challenges are common to us all. We are not alone in these questions and there are other people on the same journey as us.

6. ESN: Is there anything else you’d like to say to emerging Christian academics?

David: Yes. This is a great, great job. None of us have promises about what we will be able to do tomorrow or next year. Few of us have control over pathways to professional success. But, if you get an opportunity to do this for a living, thank God for it. It is a blessing to be able to do what you love to do for a living.

Josh: There are two contradictory things that are both true at play in these issue. One is that there’s something very unique about our path: unique challenges, unique paths that are not always well understood by the many of our churches. There is real value in communities that know how to speak to us, and are concerned with our questions, as Christian academics.

At the same time, while our questions are unique, the answer is not unique, and it isn’t innovative. The answer is the same call to faithfulness that Jesus gives everyone. This is the answer to ambition that is so pronounced in the driven pilgrim’s life: come and be faithful.

Note: An interview part of the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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