Do you ever feel like you have two jobs, excelling in your field and figuring out how it all relates to your calling to follow Christ? At ESN, we work hard to support Christian academics in bringing the two together. ESN Director Bob Trube reflects on this key challenge/opportunity for Christian scholars in Director’s Corner, our occasional ESN blog series where Bob distills his observations and offers ideas and resources to encourage our readers.
Few of us like the idea of double work. Yet it has been suggested that engaging the ideas we encounter in the academic context in which we work requires double work—a depth of understanding of our discipline and the large ideas and cultural milieu within which your discipline operates, and a depth of understanding of the Christian faith.
There is some sense to this. Very few university research labs are equipped only with the equipment one would find in a high school science lab. Yet, do we think that a high school level grasp of our Christian faith is sufficient to engage the ideas of our disciplines and the broader ideas of the academy?
It is true that it is finally not by might or by power (or intellect) that we bear witness to Christ, but by his Spirit (cf. Zechariah 4:6). In Acts 4:13, the religious leaders marvel at the answers of the “unlearned” apostles, but then remarked that they had been with Jesus. Our trust is not in our intellect or how the world judges accomplishments, but in the presence of Christ and the empowering of God’s Spirit. God uses everyone he calls to work in the university to witness to Christ, including custodial staff, department secretaries, and senior faculty.
There are important questions being discussed in the institutions we are associated with, yet often there is no cogent Christian voice contributing to these discussions. There are important questions about:
- justice toward the economically disadvantaged, immigrants, people of color, women, and sexual minorities.
- educational philosophies that shape teaching approaches in our schools.
- the ethical application of big data, and technological innovations that either increase societal surveillance and control or foster human flourishing.
- critical approaches to how we understand history and literature.
- the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Sometimes Christians do have cogent things to say about these and other matters under discussion in the university, and the need is simply for courage, clarity, and humility in speaking forth. At other times we have little more to offer than the conventional ideas of our disciplines, or cliched Christian responses. In other words, “we got nothin’.”
In most cases, we can get along just fine in terms of our academic work. But in our silence, we permit the university to keep religion at the margins of the university, to keep it in a co-curricular space of student groups; and subtly, we make the case that there is nothing of relevance in Christian faith beyond private worship and devotion.
So how do we pursue this “double work” that may be necessary to have something of substance to say in the discussions of important issues in the university? Most of us do not have the luxury to take out another six years of academic preparation to obtain an equivalent theological degree.
Perhaps the most important thing is to understand deeply the story within which we live as Christ followers. It is a story that unfolds between the covers of the Bible, but many of us neither understand the narrative arc of scripture nor our own place in that story. There are resources that help one understand the story of scripture. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is an excellent help. A visual resource that offers similar help is The Bible Project. Developing a regular reading practice may not have an immediate impact, but may profoundly shape your thinking over several years.
An important complement to Bible reading would be a good overview of Christian theology. Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth does this in handbook form. It allows you to look up passages, read overviews of historical issues, and find numerous other resources in its references. You might try reading one classic theological work a year. I spent a summer working through Calvin’s Institutes and was surprised to find it far more comprehensible than much contemporary theological writing, and written both with logical precision and devotional warmth.
There are other Christians who have thought about the connection of Christian faith and a wide variety of academic disciplines. David Dockery has compiled one of the best bibliographies I’ve found both of theological works and works of integrative thinking about other academic disciplines. Christian Scholars Review offers a quarterly journal of articles integrating faith with specific questions of academic inquiry. Our ongoing online Scholar’s Compass devotional explores the integration of academic vocation and life as a follower of Christ, and our Scholar’s Call series dives into these questions in a longer format.
The final practice I would encourage here is to do some of your “double work” in community. Preparing talks about your faith and your field that could be given as public testimony might be a first step. These consist of answering two questions: 1). Describe what you do as an academic and why you love it. 2) What does your faith have to do with all of this? If you want to learn more you can view a video by Wendy Quay Honeycutt, who developed this idea, called Square Inch Seminars (previously called “Passion Talks”). Students and faculty on many campuses have worked up presentations like this and shared them with each other, often with supportive critique, or even in public events.
This won’t be something that happens all at once any more than your academic training, which often involved ten years of college training plus post-docs and ongoing research. But when you persist in these practices for five or ten years or more, imagine what difference that may make.
What practices have helped you develop a Christian mind in your discipline? How have you found the time to do this “double work”?
Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry and Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. He blogs on books regularly at bobonbooks.com. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.