Note: All quotations taken from the essay “Staying Faithful” by Howard Louthan, unless otherwise noted.
Howard Louthan’s chapter in Faithful Is Successful: Notes To The Driven Pilgrim explores what it means to stay faithful to God in an academic calling. It is an honest reflection on the challenges he has encountered as both an academic historian and as a Christian.
A scholar of Reformation thought, Louthan expresses early on a deep affinity with Erasmus’ writings, and especially their articulation of a paradox which cuts to the heart of Christian faith: ‘in such humility, what grandeur! In such poverty, what riches!’ The seemingly contradictory reality that Jesus Christ, our great God who richly provides, came as humble and poor, informs his Christian outlook on what it means to be successful in an academic calling. We cannot be drawn into thinking by the world’s estimation, that success in our respective academic callings will determine our success or failure in the service of Christ. The Christ we worship entered ordinary life, with its drudgery and broken dreams, and included it in his redeeming and sanctifying work. Through His Spirit in us today—bringing Christ into every aspect of our lives—we take part in His work of sanctifying the world.
Louthan’s own account shows us a Christian scholar firmly committed to living in the light of this revelation. He first remembers rethinking models of success when he and his wife, also a professional historian, discovered they were having twins near the end of their respective PhD programs. The future was very promising then, with various competitive research grants won and a publishing contract obtained together, for a historical project they had been working on alongside their dissertations. Certainly a rare and exciting feat for two young married historians! At first the oncoming twins seemed the ‘first major speed bump’ towards this ‘fast track to success,’ but naturally, children are much more than that!
Their foremost need for a supportive and present husband & father was a constant ‘gravitational pull of reality’ for Louthan, and left him feeling ‘viscerally torn’ at some organized Christian programs for American graduate students. Of course, many students around the world lack organized student ministry that recognizes, as these programs do, that God’s mission has no secular or sacred divide. But despite their laudable aim of implanting in young and upcoming American evangelicals a revolutionary impulse to transform their chosen fields and social structures for Christ, it was unclear how compromising for the sake of your calling as a parent fit into this strategic vision. An emphasis on influencing culture by striving to be the best in your field, and infiltrating the ‘corridors of power’ with the aim of leading these fields or sectors in a redeemed way, can mirror society’s measure of success more than God’s. Tragically, there is the fact that ‘Christians both individually and as a group can end up developing those negative characteristics they had so idealistically set out to reform.’ Also, as an historian, Louthan could discern a ‘dubious assumption that history can be “controlled and managed,’ quoting James Davison Hunter.
There are many unspoken assumptions embedded within tertiary education systems that are ‘antithetical to Christian values,’ complicating the picture of ascending to the top in service of Christ. The Academy’s competitive nature wants more a narrow & unbalanced pursuit for excellence rather than a happy personal life. It can be disadvantageous for Christians called to excel in a whole sense—mind, body, spirit—and especially for those called to sacrificial love of their spouses and children. These are practical realities that sit alongside the truth that an academic vocation is a thoroughly Christian endeavor, pursued with God’s help at hand (and the system itself, historically inspired by Christian assumptions).
In view of this, Louthan gives aspiring scholars a different way of thinking about faithful success in a hostile environment, inspired by his time researching in Communist Prague. It is no less revolutionary in essence, but sits better with Erasmus’ paradox and Christ’s approach to ministry on the earth: less striving strategically for structural positions of influence, and more taking on the often self-sacrificial role of dissident for the sake of truth. This model recognizes the revolutionary impact of a lowly greengrocer, who silently refuses to comply with the orders of a local party official to display a political slogan amongst his vegetables. As Louthan explains—drawing on Vaclav Havel’s essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’—he has the choice to either ‘dutifully place the sign between his onions and carrots’ and in doing so add ‘one small voice of assent to a larger system that is built on lies,’ or he could begin ‘living within the truth,’ just in the little things. As Havel envisioned, if all the smaller assenting voices—voiced when casting votes in farcical elections, or conducting surveillance of one another—were silenced, the system’s power over hearts and minds would fall mute.
The Christian academic is likewise living in ‘a world and workplace deeply corrupted by sin,’ notes Louthan. And so did Christ. But despite his poverty and humility as a carpenter from Nazareth, he changed the world. In order to follow in his footsteps, we must recognize, as Louthan continues, that ‘how we live in this alien system where the rules are derived from lies and bolstered by illusions is at the very heart of our calling.’ Our environments are apportioned by God’s providence, and while success and greater opportunities should lead us to thank the Provider, they should not distract us from why we are anywhere: not to succeed, but to be faithful to Him. Seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness will yield the fruit He purposed for us.
Louthan gives two personal examples of this. He made the hard decision of leaving a tenure-track position at a top-20 university, for which his wife had previously sacrificed a different opportunity, for an offer of two positions at a large state university. Despite the measurable loss to his academic career, the move was for Louthan a ‘no-brainer.’ His main reason was gender equality. In a statement that could be part of the UN campaign #HeForShe, he encourages more evangelical Christians to ‘make a difference by our willingness to sacrifice personal ambition for a broader good.’ Swimming against against the tide, as seemingly alone dissidents, has done and will continue to remove convicted Christians from the centres of the professional world, social groups, even church communities, and place them on the peripheries instead.
Such decisions ‘illustrate our allegiance to a higher calling,’ and can allow God to open up new opportunities of His making while transforming our perspective on how he uses us. As a dual-career Christian couple settled locally, Louthan and his wife have been able to be co-workers in serving Christian graduate students, establishing a dinner and discussion group. They are together equipped to extend hospitality, friendship, and spiritual encouragement to students; provide an environment for other Christian faculty to build up the church in this way; and, help local church pastors understand the challenges of academic life. Responding to local opportunities has even seen a local Christian Study Center collaborate with ‘secular’ university departments to produce book projects and seminar series on church history and the relationship between religion and professional history. As Christian scholars, they have been successful in facilitating genuine dialogue between secular tertiary institutions and church-based ones.
Like Howard Louthan and his wife, George Herbert was inspired in the seventeenth century by the Christian call to set our minds ‘on things that are above’, because our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3. 2, 3). He compares our daily activity on earth to that of the Sun when it was still thought to spin in orbit around the earth, or have a ‘double motion.’ We also live earthly, fleshly lives and academic careers that falter and ‘obliquely bend,’ being tossed and shaken off course by unpredictable events and hard decisions. At the same time, however, we are experiencing a ‘straight’ trajectory in Christ. We should ‘aim and shoot’ at that which is on high within our professional lives, acknowledging this hidden life in Christ. To do so is revolutionary, regardless of the measures of strategic prowess or influence, because dissenting acts witness to higher truths. Always keeping ‘one eye’ on Christ will speak the greater testimony: ‘My Life Is Hid In Him That Is My Treasure’.
MY words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That LIFE hath with the sun a double motion.
The first IS straight, and our diurnal friend:
The other HID, and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt IN flesh, and tends to earth;
The other winds t’wards HIM whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so THAT still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which IS on high—
Quitting with daily labour all MY pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal TREASURE.
‘Colossians iii. 3: Our life is hid with Christ in God’, in George Herbert’s The Temple (1633).
Louthan, Howard. “Staying Faithful: Reflections on an Academic Journey.” Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 78-94.
HeForShe website. Sponsored by UNWomen, 2014. http://www.heforshe.org
Herbert, George. ‘Colossians iii. 3: Our life is hid with Christ in God.’ The Temple (1633).
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