Last week I mentioned an opportunity to hear from mathematician Francis Su on the topic The Integration of Faith and the Academic Calling (a webinar cohosted by ESN and the Society of Christian Scholars). I am not aware of any opportunities to view the presentation after the fact, so for those of you who were unable to participate, I will share a few highlights. He covers some similar territory in an interview with Quanta (text, video), his Mathematical Association of America presidential address, and this article on the value of struggle. Further writing, interviews and talks can be found at his homepage.
During the webinar, Su highlighted the opportunity followers of Jesus have to communicate to fellow academics and especially students that our ultimate worth as humans does not come from our academic achievements. He mentioned some points along his own career journey where he might have appeared to be on a path to failure by certain narrow academic standards. Yet in those moments and looking back, he was able to recognize the genuine challenges in those circumstances without accepting or applying a label like ‘failure.’ He described talking openly about these challenges in settings where it is typical to reflect on success (e.g. his Haimo Teaching Award talk) and how colleagues and students reacted to what he shared.
Connected to the discussion of personal worth was the concept of grace. While grace comes up regularly in Christian circles, Su indicated that some academic colleagues thanked him for giving them a word for something they had experienced but never had a name for. I’d say he was demonstrated what Jonathan Merritt spoke about at BioLogos as language transformation: (re)defining grace through concrete academic examples in a way that furthers conversation. We might all do well to consider what words we can offer as tools and perhaps even gifts to those around us.
Su also mentioned creating space for conversation by carpooling to work. I’ve generally thought about the merits of carpooling in environmental terms, but he made a real case for additional cultural benefits. Specifically, one can transform the culture of one’s workplace simply by providing an opportunity to chat informally. Carpooling I believe was also an example of what he called the levers of one’s profession–processes or structures or opportunities to provide input to the culture and affect the output.
Also on the webinar was chemist and ESN member Dave Vosburg. He and Su are both on the faculty of Harvey Mudd where they have been meeting together regularly with other Christian faculty for encouragement, fellowship, and discussion of how to positively shape their campus. Vosburg shared about how those conversations started and what they’ve done to keep them going. He also provided advice and encouragement for starting similar conversations on other campuses.
Finally, Su suggested the following questions to think about the culture of your own workplace. Perhaps these might be suitable to take up in a small group with other followers of Jesus where you work.
Questions for personal or corporate reflection:
- What does the gospel say to the values/culture of your profession? Can you articulate the HOPE?
- How can you take small steps?
- What ideas or structures need to be challenged in your profession? What are the currency and levers?
- How can you plant gospel signposts?