This is the third in a series on incarnational presence in our academic departments. In the first, InterVarsity staff minister Julian Reese introduced and defined the idea of incarnational presence. The second post explores how we establish that presence, applying the incarnational principle. This week, Reese discusses how that presence led to opportunities to use his voice.
In our last post, we considered what kind of presence we wished to have on a University campus. In this post and the next, we will think about earning an incarnational voice in the academic conversation. This week, we consider how to earn a voice in the academic culture. Next week, we will consider what makes that voice incarnational.
Curiosity shows we care.
If we want others to listen to us, we must listen to others. Love what they love. Care about the things that concern them. The way to the heart of a faculty member is to ask about their research, and to be honestly curious. An example of academic love language is “I read this and thought of you.”
I think that I first heard of the Friday afternoon philosophy department gatherings from Andrew, one of the Ph.D. Students I had met in the philosophy department. They called this meeting a klatch, and usually it was a time for different students or faculty to present a “work-in-progress,” a paper they were preparing for presentation or publication.
When I learned that the whole department was usually present, I asked Andrew if could attend. I entered quietly and sat in the back. The small classroom was almost full, and I recognized most of the faculty from the departmental website and a few of the graduate students.
The lectures started out simply enough, but I soon was lost, even though I was taking notes. These philosophers were not using words the way I used words. And their concepts and illustration were alien to me, impossible to understand.
But I kept coming back each week. Taking notes. Writing in my margins the words that I did not understand. And after each lecture asking Andrew questions about the meaning.
I began to learn names. Discover interests. Build relationships. Overcome my fears.
They wondered who I was, and why I was there. But they allowed me to come into this part of their world. And they appreciated my curiosity about their interests and expertise.
Several years later, the Head of the department was asked why he didn’t throw me out of his office when I first met him and asked him to partner in an event we wanted to sponsor. “I decided that I could trust this guy. He not only showed up at our lectures, he took notes! I decided that he was taking a genuine interest in our work as philosophers. And I was willing to take a chance on him.”
“He took notes.”
Curiosity shows we care. We earn a voice when we love the conversation.
Learn the language.
Our next habit as we earn a voice, is to learn the language.
Early in my ministry at the University of Tennessee, my imagination was captivated by the quotation on a poster for NEXUS, an academic conference sponsored by the English Department.
“With the death of Jacques Derrida at the end of 2004, theorists and literary critics alike asked themselves if they were witnessing the death of theory, and if not, what theoretical trend might develop to usher theory into the twenty-first century. Recently Stanley Fish wrote, ‘When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion.”
“Really?!,” I thought to myself, “Religion as the center of intellectual energy in the academy!”
So, I blocked off the time on my calendar, paid my registration fee, and made my way to the first seminar, thinking I might have something to contribute to this.
I was in for quite a shock. Just like in those Friday afternoon philosophy klatches, the speakers all were speaking in my native English, but the vocabulary and even syntax were unlike anything with which I was familiar. They were not using words like I used words.
I was literally afraid to open my mouth, because I felt that anything I had to say would be completely unintelligible to those around me, and that I would look foolish and ignorant.
I needed to learn their language.
This was not my world. These were not my people. I knew very little about Stanley Fish or Jacques Derrida, and had never heard of John Caputo, the well-known keynote speaker.
But this WAS the world of graduate students and faculty among whom I wanted to have a ministry. They were conversant with the ideas of Derrida. They were thrilled to have opportunity to hear John Caputo. And this was a world where I wanted the Christian Voice to have a seat at the intellectual table, from which it had been excluded and marginalized for so long.
In THE SOUL OF THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY REVISITED (2021), the revision of his 1994 classic, George Marsden writes “American higher education has changed in some striking ways since the publication of The Soul of the American University more than a quarter century ago.” Marsden titles his epilogue “An Unexpected Sequel: A Renaissance of Christian Academia” (p. 365 ff), writing “in recent decades traditional Protestants have developed a substantial community of accomplished scholars who can hold their own in mainstream academic settings and also provide alternatives to forms of anti-intellectualism that continue to persist in many of their own communities.”
Faith-informed thinking is earning a voice. Christians are learning the language. There is a new opportunity in the university culture across North America. If we learn the language, Christian thinking finds welcome to participate in this “new center of intellectual energy” with creative perspectives and something significant to contribute to the conversation.
Participate in the Conversation.
Several weeks after meeting Dr. D on the floor of the Religious Studies department , she invited me to a departmental Hebrew reading group. I looked at her in astonishment, “Dr. D, I haven’t looked at Hebrew in almost 30 years. How could I participate in a Hebrew reading group with a room full of scholars?” “Come on” she said. “All of the group are not scholars; people are at all different levels. You can just listen. And it will be fun.”
Immediately, it dawned on me that she had just invited me into a weekly meeting with some of the academics of her department. And a Bible study of the Hebrew Scriptures, no less.
I had to say yes.
Certainly it would be worth a little embarrassment and humiliation to build relationships with this group of people I wanted to reach with the Gospel. What an opportunity to follow Jesus with an Incarnational Presence in the Religious Studies Department.
So I began to show up on Friday mornings to the conference room in the Religious Studies Department. The group was led by one of the feisty Jewish Hebrew lecturers, who delighted in teasing an evangelical Christian and his “seminary Hebrew.“ There were several faculty and Ph. D. Students along with a few undergrads from the beginning Biblical Hebrew classes. A member of the local synagogue participated as well.
I took Dr. D at her word, and just came and listened while I scrambled to remember the basics of my 30-year-old Hebrew classes. After a few weeks, the leader of the group, Dr. L, began asking me to join in. First, to read, then to talk about the texts from my evangelical Christian perspective. I was hesitant, at first, until I thought about having one of my own Bible studies with a new person in it. It dawned on me that I would want this person to speak up and contribute to the group. A person who just sits there and never says anything can actually be an impediment to a healthy group.
So, I left behind the role of visitor became a member. I gave up the identity of tourist and became a resident. What was initially “your group” became “our” group. I began to speak up and participate. And the group welcomed my contribution.
They will welcome yours, as well.
Julian Reese serves Faculty and Graduate students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxvillle, Tn with InterVarsity’s GFM ministry. He is a graduate of Wheaton College (IL) with a B.A. in Bibilical Studies, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.Div.). He is married to Melanie, who serves with him on GFM staff. The Reeses have three grown children on two continents.
The GFM ministry in Knoxville has coordinated the Veritas Forum at the University of Tennessee since 2005, partnering with academic departments in the University. They also sponsor an Apprentice Cohort in Incarnational Presence ministry.