Ambition and Identity: Interview with Bruce Huber

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ESN continues its series of interviews with authors of Faithful Is Successful, with Mark Hansard interviewing Bruce Huber. You can read a post on Bruce’s chapter in Faithful Is Successful here and a follow up post here. Bruce Huber is an Associate Professor of Law at the Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Indiana, where he and his wife, Sarah, are raising their four children. He earned a B.A. in Political Science at Stanford University and a J.D. and Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Before his graduate work, he served for four years as the minister to college students at the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, an experience which continues to shape his ideas about faith and vocation. Before joining the faculty at Notre Dame in 2011, he taught for two years in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. His research explores environmental, property, natural resources, and energy law, and he attends the South Bend Christian Reformed Church. You can find him on Twitter at @Bruce_Huber. 

1. Mark: In your essay you say that “the fear of insignificance, of being average, is a strong motive force.” How have you seen this play out in the academy?

Bruce: Insecurity is rampant among academics! We can be a pretty sorry bunch. Maybe it’s because we were the geeks in high school. Maybe it’s because we’re always being asked to justify our professional existence: please state why you deserve ____ (a degree, a grant, tenure, promotion, etc.). Maybe it’s because academic success just seems less important than success in the real world. Maybe it’s because most academic research has a very small audience. But whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that many in the academy struggle very hard to avoid insignificance. It’s as though we can only convince ourselves that we really matter if we really, really excel at something. There are academics out there who are perfectly happy inside their own skin, of course, but I think fewer than you’d find in other professions.

With the struggle for significance comes showmanship, one-upmanship, self-aggrandizement, and a surprising degree of conflict. A nonacademic friend and I might disagree about ideas over a beer, and part ways with no hint of animosity. But if a colleague maligns my ideas, I may resent that quite a bit. It seems unlike the disagreements that typify the business environment: there are plenty, I’m sure, but ultimately, corporations have a job to do; they have to choose an answer and move ahead. In the academy, we’re all lone wolves and we bear grudges over perceived slights for a long, long time. One of my advisors used to joke about the fierce conflicts that divided his faculty: “we can only fight so much because the stakes are so small.”

2. Mark: You also mention that the problem of ambition is really an identity problem. How did you come to this conclusion, and what is its significance?

Bruce: I suppose it’s linked to the prevalence of insecurity. I think a good deal of ambition is borne of insecurity, and I think insecurity—though inevitable—is fundamentally at odds with a Christian view of self. I believe in original sin, and that’s at the core of my identify, but ultimately I must regard myself as someone who is a child of God, loved by Him, chosen, redeemed, and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. That’s classic theological language, but it has deep implications for how we see ourselves on a moment-by-moment basis. And it has implications for how we think about our aspirations and ambitions. Imagine being freed from any need to justify your existence on the basis of professional accomplishment. It would be remarkably freeing, would it not?

That freedom, in turn, can lead to a renewed ambition, an ambition like the Apostle Paul’s—an ambition premised on our identity in Christ, rather than opposed to it.

3. Mark: You mention that many Christian students feel that their Christian commitments and their ambition are at odds. What would you say to such a student who came to your office for advice?

Bruce: Work hard and do your best. But find a Christian community in which you are frequently and thoroughly reminded of the truth and totality of the Gospel. Ambition is perfectly consistent with obedience to God, gratitude for his gifts to us, and an aspiration to bring glory to him and to serve his people.

I seldom hear students worry that their chosen career is somehow unchristian. It’s much more common that they fret that God is calling them to something they don’t want to do. In those cases, there’s usually some bad theology somewhere back there—a mean God bent on inflicting discomfort. Don’t get me wrong; God is not The Great Ratifier of Bad Decisions. But he is The Redeemer, and if you really understand that, you’ll probably find some motivation there!

4. Mark: How has working on this essay deepened your own understanding of what it means to be faithful in your vocation as a Christian and a scholar?

Bruce: Writing the essay reminded me that I am unbelievably blessed to have a job that brings me so much joy and satisfaction. People grumble a lot, myself included, and grumbling is dumb. The Gospel is real. It’s profound. It has implications for everything and everyone. It inspires gratitude. It inspires expression. It inspires action. The manifestations of that inspiration will be different for everyone, of course, but I think faithfulness in vocation—as with faithfulness more generally—depends upon the immediacy of one’s appropriation of the Gospel.

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

Bruce: I hope that Christian scholars will be emboldened to excel in their work while wholly immersing themselves in the story of God. Integrating faith and scholarship is difficult in many fields. We haven’t always been very imaginative in how we’ve undertaken that. We should do all we can to nurture conversation and push the frontiers of thought in that connection. I hope this essay is one tiny piece of that.

Image courtesy of vzoest0 at

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

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Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 25 years, 14 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

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