The Secular Academy as a Mission Field: Urbana Panel Discussion

How can Christians be faithful in secular universities, what challenges do they face, and how can we develop our sense of calling and purpose within academia?

The Secular Academy as a Mission Field: Urbana Panel Discussion

From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. Photos for this post were by Galina Pylypiv.

Here in St Louis, the Urbana 2015 conference is asking these questions with a panel of experienced academics and graduate/faculty ministers. Kelly Seaton is an HIV vaccine researcher at Duke university who blogs regularly for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholar’s Network. David Vosburg is an associate professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College who researches synthetic organic chemistry, and who also researches the relationship of science with Christianity. Khalilah Tyre, who works at the Center for Humanities at Tufts University, is currently taking a second master’s degree at Lesley University. Moderating is Tom Grosh, associate director of the Emerging Scholars Network. John Inazu is a law professor at Washington University in St Louis, and is author of the book Confident Pluralism, and has written about diversity and pluralism in Christianity Today. Tom starts out by summarizing the work of the Emerging Scholars Network, which sets out to connect early career scholars with each other, create conversations about the experience of academics, asking together, “how can we use our gifts and talents in higher education to advance God’s mission?” He asks each panelist how they connected with Intervarsity and what their greatest challenge is.

Connecting Christian Life with Academic Experience

Kelly tells us her academic story, starting from Messiah College in PA, to Penn State in Hershey, and now at Duke, where she looks at antibody responses to potential vaccines. She became first connected to InterVarsity graduate/faculty ministries while at Penn State, when she met a staff worker at a lunch. One of her greatest challenges is that in the academy, the most important value is your status: publication count, institution, etc. Establishing rest and sabbath has been a challenge. Dave first connected to InterVarsity as a freshman at Williams College, when he attended a barbecue with other undergrads, meeting his wife and developing a lifelong relationship with InterVarsity. It’s his seventh Urbana conference, Dave tells us. At Urbana in 2000, he was inspired to imagine a life as a faculty member serving Christ in a secular university. One of his challenges is to a) maintaining a sense of identity as God’s child and father, and b) maintaining an identity as a Chemistry professor as something that should not overtake that first priority. Khalilah is a graduate of Nyack college, has a Master’s in intercultural studies from Alliance Theological Seminary, and she’s now doing a Master’s degree at Lesley. She first connected to Intervarsity through a friend involved in black campus ministries, who was a student at MIT. Her friend asked her to become involved in Black Scholars and Professionals (BSAP), which meaningfully connected her to other Christians of color. This is her second Urbana; she’s been involved in missions in Australia with aboriginal churches through BSAP, and she now coordinates a women’s group in Boston. She often faces the challenge of other people not seeing how relevant Christianity and the Bible might be to them — many people are skeptical about how the Bible is relevant to this generation, and many believe that the Bible is antiquated. John first came to InterVarsity as a freshman at Duke University and first visited InterVarsity in 1996. Like others on the panel, John has faced befuddlement and puzzlement from colleagues who don’t really understand why he believes in God– he urges us to see academia as a cross-cultural mission as well.

What Is the Secular Academy, and What’s It Like to Be a Christian In That Context?

John says that the secular academy is struggling with purposelessness. The crisis in the humanities, problems with student loans, globalization, federal funding crunches, and other challenges are leaving big powerful institutions without much purpose beyond “being really good” at what they do. Khalilah points out that secular academia is very diverse; it’s a place where God, religion, or spirituality are not central to the curriculum or mission of the institution, where people are allowed to believe whatever they want, but there’s not religious affiliation. Dave points out that you’ll often see both non-religious alongside anti-religious parts of academia, and that whatever we encounter, we should look for values in academia that align with our faith. Kelly points out that it’s important to develop two kinds of rationales to your decision-making: you might have God as part of your thinking about your life, but you also need ways to talk about your work that can appeal to and be understood by non-Christians.

What is Unique about Being a Christian Living Missionally in a Secular Context, and How Do You Press On?

“I don’t know how I made it through without God,” says Kelly, citing key support from other Christians. “Firstly, I have God’s mission and calling on what I do framing my decisions. If I don’t get ahead quite as quickly, that’s okay. [I try not] To pursue my success over helping someone else.” She also notes that “taking a sabbath day has really helped.” You’ll reach points, she says, where you think you have to keep going and drop your spiritual practice, but “taking a sabbath has really been key.” I’m in biology, and cells never work on my schedule, but I still try to take some time off, she says. Dave agrees with Kelly on the idea of practicing sabbath. It’s been an important way for Dave to show that he trusts God in his life and work as a gradstudent, post-doc, and faculty member. Christian community (undergrads, grads, faculty) have also offered meaningful support across the years. Don’t think about gradschool as preparation for your future life, he tells us– ask what you’re doing now to serve the people around you as you’re in university, Dave suggests. Khalilah also underscores the importance of sabbath. While it’s important to honor commitments and deadlines, God has designed the sabbath for a reason. It’s important to recognize our limits, and not to see them as a bad thing — we’ve been designed for rest, community, and refreshing experiences of worship. Sabbath practices also offer a space for pouring efforts to support other people’s lives. Khalilah also urges us to think holistically. Rather than separating our Christian and scholarly identity, she urges others to integrate their scholarship and work with their faith. As a social scientist studying mental health, she’s been inspired to see the role that God plays in that work. John also suggests that we take a tech sabbath. The world can go on even if we stop answering email for a day, he says. John also urges us to think about what our ministry is today wherever we are, and not to see gradschool as a waiting period before we take on our life’s work. If your schedule is so fine-grained that you don’t have 30 minutes to carve up for a friend or a stranger, step back and re-prioritize. Kelly urges us to find friends who are outside of graduate school, not just ones at university. Be willing to ask for favors, Kelly encourages the audience. Several times when she was overwhelmed, she asked friends from church to help with rides or food.

What Upcoming Challenges Will Christians Face in the Future?

John thinks that it’s important to count the costs and match our gifts with our callings. Too many people go to gradschool who shouldn’t be there, and many people who have the gifts and calling don’t get in or even start. Becoming a law professor is a 16 year journey, and many people don’t ask if they can walk that path. And churches should be attentive to their needs and support them. Khalilah reminds us that there’s no single “secular academy.” Every school has different challenges and histories. It’s important for us to discern the landscape of our field and what role we could play in our campus. In addition to asking how we can serve in those contexts, Khalilah urges us to ask how being in that context will grow, develop, and shape us as people of faith. Sometimes, Christian academics have an opportunity to overcome negative stereotypes about Christians through our life and witness, Dave says. Kelly agrees. Often, people have pre-set beliefs about what Christians believe. For example, Kelly points out that many other HIV researchers think they know what Christians believe about transgender identities. As a Christian HIV researcher, she’s able to be in those conversations and talk through multiple views within Christianity.


The audience were invited to submit questions on index cards. Here are some of the answers. The Secular Academy as a Mission Field: Urbana Panel Discussion

How did you discern that it was God’s will to enter academia? If you don’t love the topic—if you’re not excited enough to think about it in the shower or at night, then you probably shouldn’t do it, Dave says. If you have Jesus by your side and love your subject, it’s much easier, he says. It’s important to pray, says Khalilah. And don’t just seek God by yourself. Khalilah has confirmed many things for her within her broader communities. It’s also important to keep our minds open to what the Lord wants to say; many programs look good, but God might lead us somewhere unexpected. Furthermore, not every program will offer exactly what you need. She talks about her two master’s degrees and how they’re interacting to help her serve better.

John notes that we need to be more honest with each other in love and kindness to name gifts and deficiencies. To be a good humanities scholar and lawyer, you need to be a good writer. If you’re not a good writer, it’s hard to do the work, so it’s important to have honest people in our lives who will help us grow and also to say, “have you considered plan B?”

How do you bring the gospel regularly and naturally in the secular academic setting? Dave has it easier since his wife is a campus minister. He also invites students to his home, and he prays at the dinner table. It’s a struggle for Kelly, who sometimes faces rules that prohibit proselytizing. When people ask what she did over the weekend, she will mention that she went to church. Kelly also prays for opportunities to share with specific people, and they do open up. John says it’s important to be good at what you do, make friends, and be a good colleague. His criminal law and religion/law classes sometimes go into contentious areas. When students try to plant questions to get him to talk about faith, he steers clear of those questions. But he will invite students to his home to talk about theology, and law + theology.

What do you see is the most important aspect of diversity in the secular academy? Khalilah: I promote diversity by walking into the room. I’ve been studying for four years at my school, and it’s been 3.5 years since she’s seen anyone who looks similar to her. The responsibility for diversity isn’t hers, but she thinks it’s important for her to discuss diversity and how it’s often lacking in the research. Unfortunately, by default, she has to bring things up about race or culture because no one else will.

What do you recommend that PhD students do in gradschool to prepare for a missional approach to academic life? Dave says: being missional in gradschool is the best way to prepare to be missional after gradschool. As a chemist in a lab, he worked to get to know people closely and to encourage gentle conversations about faith. Kelly invites others to participate in life together with her: inviting people for lunch and dinner and being together. During one freshman orientation, she asked if a student wanted a ride to an event, and three years later, the student said that it was a key moment in that student’s life. John encourages people to play the long game — the seeds we sow can take fruit twenty years later.

How do you handle time in such a way that you can fulfil your departmental responsibilities and also reserve time for ministry and relational outreach, not to mention caring for your physical health? Life comes in different seasons, says Kelly. You need to recognize when a busy time is becoming a pattern and not just a season. Protect your time, says Dave, and protect certain times for things like Bible study or other forms of service, and people will respect it. It’s also important to work hard, says John. If you really see your work as missional, as part of your vocation, then you’ll end up doing some long days. Many of John’s non-academic friends think that he gets holidays and summers off– but those seasons are also busy. If you do that work missionally, then you can do that with a purpose too. Allow time for unexpected interruption he says, citing the moment when Jesus takes a detour on his journey to heal Jairus’s daughter. Khalilah reminds us to be realistic about what we can achieve.

As a scientific researcher, do people respect your faith and how it clashes, in some senses, with what people to be scientific facts. What do you do when professors call you irrational and unscientific for your beliefs? Dave: you can respond in many ways, and colleagues will have all kinds of responses to your faith. It’s key to remember that there’s no rigorous mathematical proof for good, no cold formula for finding God. That’s why it’s important to be a person of integrity who does good work, and you will earn a right to be heard. And sometimes it’s possible to get grants to do work on science and faith, and his university, Harvey Mudd, has published press releases to celebrate that work. Faith and science wasn’t his major area, and it still isn’t, Dave says. He urges others to take on research that will genuinely be respected, and maybe do this other work on the side. John points people to Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship by Lesslie Newbigin, which takes on the argument of Christian ignorance.

How do Christians handle the issue of self-promotion as people called to be humble? In some sense, scholars are called to develop and spread ideas. At the same time, it’s important to be generous, praise other scholars, and celebrate your teams, urged John and Dave.

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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

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