Julian Reese, GFM staff at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has developed a unique ministry among graduate students and faculty. Where many try to attract grads and faculty to Christian community, Julian and those he work with go to where grads and faculty are, their departments. In this post, the first of a series, Julian introduces us to this way of ministry, which he calls “Incarnational Presence”
“But if you can become some kind of renewing presence, we’ll almost have to take that seriously. That, I think, is part of what Graduate/Faculty Ministries has done here at UT.”
– John Hardwig, Head Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, University of Tennessee
When I began my ministry with GFM, I struggled to understand how I was supposed to serve graduate students and faculty at the University of Tennessee. I spent a lot of time looking at the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, asking questions about how the things I observed there would contextualize in the University academic community I was becoming acquainted with.
Near the end of the Gospel of John I found a “Great Commission” given by Jesus the night after his Resurrection:
“As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21-22).
Reflecting further on the question “how DID the Father send the Son in the Gospel of John?” I observed that the Way that the Father sent the Son was through Incarnation:
“The Word (the Logos) became flesh, and dwelled among us” (John 1:18).
He is sent as the “image of the invisible God” to make the invisible God known to them. The Father sends the Son as an Incarnational Presence.
Our work is comparable.
As I met people on campus and tried to understand their culture, it was soon apparent that I was an outsider, coming from a church world where I had been a pastor. I was entering another world. This world spoke a different language. They had values and norms of behavior which were unfamiliar to me. They were alien to my familiar culture where I had lived for so long.
In the Incarnation, Jesus went out from his familiar “world” of heaven, and entered into a new world, a culture that was alien to that of his divinity. It was a world in which no one had ever seen God.
As I met academics who had experienced toxic relationships in their church background and had chosen to leave their religious community, it began to occur to me that they had not, in fact, rejected Jesus. They had rejected, a caricature of Jesus. They had never seen the Jesus of the Bible.
And for that reason, many had never truly seen God.
The Prologue of John continues:
“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
Incarnational Presence makes Jesus known to them.
Several years ago, we were invited to develop a workshop describing how we were reaching into the secular academic community at the University of Tennessee with our theological vision of Incarnational Presence. I invited my philosophy faculty friend, John Hardwig, an atheist, to participate with me. I wanted him to explain how a non-believing faculty person wants to be approached by a Christian ministry like ours.
One evening, we talked about the meaningful relationships with non-believing faculty occurring in the Graduate/Faculty ministry at the University of Tennessee. We had a very productive and engaging session, and the next morning I found an email from John in my inbox which opened like this:
WHAT I LEARNED LAST NIGHT AT THE INTERVARSITY CAMPUS MINISTERS’ TRAINING
6/6/18, 4 AM
“I found myself wide awake at 3 AM this morning thinking about what had been said last night. So, something happened for me and that’s a good thing….”
John went on to describe his experience as a “very good night” for him, in which he had “learned a lot.”
For many years he has observed and participated in our Incarnational Presence in his Philosophy Department. His awareness of the way the Father sends his son is reflected in his early morning ruminations:
“Think in my language about “renewal of the ideas, institutions and people” in a university. An incarnational presence would be one by which all/most/many people would feel renewed. As I said last night, we can all admit the need for renewal; we live such shallow lives in so many ways. Certainly we university profs and graduate students in moments of honesty realize that a lot of what we do is pretty trivial, irrelevant, even silly. We might not admit that to an Intervarsity minister, of course. Especially not if we’re expecting you to preach to us if we admit it to you.
“But if you can become some kind of renewing presence, we’ll almost have to take that seriously. That, I think, is part of what Graduate/Faculty Ministries has done here at UT. We find ourselves saying, “You know, our conversations are often deeper and richer when they contribute. Even when they are just around. And they try to bring in visiting speakers who will also do that.” And when they do, we have no objection at all to their presence on our campus. They’re bringing renewal; they’re helping us with a deeper aspect of our own mission. And how could we object to that?”
In the next four Emerging Scholar’s Network Blog Posts, we look forward to walking through this theological Vision of Incarnational Presence, and pointing toward the cultivation of the Habits and the fruit of renewal we see springing forth from them. We invite you to join this dynamic conversation.